Likely Stories: Gunpowder Percy by Grace Tiffany

Jun 30, 2016

Suspenseful story of a Catholic plot to blow up Parliament and kill King James I.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies. 

Gunpowder Percy is the latest of six novels by Grace Tiffany.  She is a professor of Renaissance Literature at Western Michigan University.  All her novels are set in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance.  Grace lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Her previous novels were interesting and required not much more than a passing interest in the time period. 

The novel begins in the last years of the life of Queen Elizabeth I.  Even though nearly sixty years have passed since the break with the Roman Catholic Church, numerous members of the lower to middle nobility still rankle at the repression of Catholicism.  Many of the families hid Jesuit priests in their homes.  The men they hid had to be moved frequently because of gossip and rumors, which could quickly lead to a raid by a “pursuant.”  The consequences of hiding a priest could be arrest, torture, seizure of land and titles and even death.  As the queen’s health began to falter, and her death seemed imminent, the succession to the throne became of vital importance.  The next in line was the son of Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic great-niece of Henry VIII.  She had been executed by Elizabeth.  Mary’s son, King James VI of Scotland, became James I of England.  He was a Protestant, and while he promised to relax prohibitions against the Catholics, after he was crowned, he did not keep his word.

Thomas Percy was related to the powerful Percy family, and achieved status in the minor nobility.  Essentially, he was a debt collector for his patron, and his imposing figure and large sword – forbidden at the time – made him a powerful leader of a plot to kill James I and his family.  The aim of the plotters was to restore Catholicism in England. 

The novel starts off a bit slow, and the English spoken has a distinctly Elizabethan flavor.  Thomas has an intense interest in the plays at The Globe Theater, and he makes several passing comments about a particularly talented poet.  After visiting a “play that man had written, wherein a vengeful son spoke to his father’s kingly ghost” (33), Tiffany writes, “Thomas’s mind turned its slow wheels, and finally the thought came clear.  It all fit together.  A play about Purgatory.  Essex, a playgoer, a friend to the Irish in Ireland so green, and to Catholics at home.  Fiery Hotspur, bold challenger of monarchs, whom the fat Falstaff pleased to call Gunpowder Percy, a corpse that might rise.  Did these strands not combine in a tapestry depicting one truth?  And that truth was that this playwright was one of the secret faithful, holding to the old religion of Hotspur’s time, two hundred years before!  Now, like the rest of them [Thomas] was biding his time” (33).

These seeds of the plot, and the passing reference to Hamlet and Henry IV, along with Thomas’s belief that Shakespeare was a Catholic, all added to the mystery, suspense, and intrigue.  In his 2004 work, the Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt intimated that Shakespeare was a Catholic and his family may have hidden the Jesuit, Father Campion.  I have long been fascinated by the Tudor period, and Grace Tiffany’s excellent novel, Gunpowder Percy, will interest anyone with even a slight knowledge of English history.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!