On 5 November 1605, a small group of disgruntled Catholic fanatics under the leadership of the dashing and charismatic Robert Catesby sought to annihilate the entire English Political Establishment in a single blow with enough high explosives to destroy Parliament many times over buried in the cellars beneath it, primed and ready to be detonated.
Robert Catesby, known to his friends as Robin, was born in 1573 to a notoriously Recusant family or those who may have taken the Oath of Supremacy recognising the incumbent Monarch as the Supreme Head of the Church of England but remained steadfastly Catholic and refused to attend Anglican Services. Not to take the Oath was considered an act of treason and those who refused to do so would be subject to financial penalty, were unable to be Members of Parliament, were excluded from all Government posts, and often banned from attending University. As a result many took the Oath in direct contravention of personal belief and conviction.
This lukewarm Protestantism was well known to the Authorities and both Recusants and Catholics in general were neither believed nor trusted. They were deemed be of a traitorous hue because their allegiances were seen to lie elsewhere, namely with the Pope, who had been known since 1534 as the Bishop of Rome. As such the penalties for recusancy were harsh with those who refused to attend Anglican Services liable to fines, confiscation of property and imprisonment. Indeed, Catesby's own father had spent a considerable amount of time in prison for harbouring the noted Jesuit Father Edmund Campion, and many a family fortune had been squandered in paying innumerable fines.
Despite their straitened circumstances it was still possible for the family to send the young Robert to Oxford University where he was not permitted to graduate for refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy and so was to complete his studies in Catholic France. He was to return to England some years later as a committed Catholic activist, though his marriage in 1593 to Catherine Leigh, a Protestant from a good family, went some way to deflecting his religious allegiance and restoring the family's fortunes.
The charismatic Catesby, a man who induced intense loyalty in his friends was described as being:
"Six feet tall and well-proportioned, grave in manner but attractively so and handsome of countenance."
During the 1590's he took great risk in sheltering a number of high-profile Jesuit Priests including Father John Gerrard and Father Henry Garnet. The Jesuits at the time were banned from preaching, holding services, or taking Holy Communion. If they were caught doing so they could expect to be executed as also could those who had afforded them shelter.
On 6 February 1601, Catesby joined Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, in his rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I.
Fighting with sword in hand through the streets of London he was captured in what turned out to be a disorganised, rout. Deemed a foot soldier and not a major conspirator he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment but spared execution.
The episode may have been a fiasco but it had brought into sharp focus for Catesby the fact that regimes could be opposed, by force if necessary.
Catholics in England breathed a huge sigh of relief when on 24 March 1603, Queen Elizabeth I died. The new King was to be James VI of Scotland, the son of the much-revered Catholic martyr, Mary Queen of Scots, and at the very least they expected to be spared the punitive measures imposed on them by the old regime. After all James was married to a Catholic and had often spoken of greater religious tolerance.
Just prior to his accession to the throne of England, Thomas Percy, a prominent Catholic recusant, had travelled to Scotland for an audience with James. At their meeting the future King was emollient and conciliatory and Percy returned to England confident that a new dawn had risen in the affairs of Catholics in the country and he told those in his inner-circle that the right to worship openly and freely was at hand, even suggesting that the King himself might convert to the old faith.
When James initially remitted the recusancy fines this did indeed seem as if it might be so, but under pressure from Parliament they were soon re-imposed. Nevertheless, they optimistically expected the announcement of liberty of conscience for Catholics. They were to be bitterly disappointed.
James was no religious zealot but he was an unequivocal Protestant and was to come down hard on all forms of religious dissent and particularly so on Catholic recusancy. Rather than ease the burden of the Recusants James increased the fines, expelled their priests, and introduced a Bill in Parliament that would make them all excommunicates, and as excommunicates they would no longer be able to make their Wills and dispose of their goods, no one would any longer be obliged to repay a debt to them, and they would no longer have the protection of the law.
They had been effectively ostracised from society as enemies of the State.
Catesby, the Catholic man of action decided enough was enough. He had devised the plan that he believed would re-establish Catholicism in England and which was to become known to history as the Gunpowder Plot. He told his cousin Thomas Wintour of his plan and others he believed wished to see the old religion restored - they would gather loyal fellows together, they would seek the blessing of the Jesuits, and they would do God's work.
The plan was first outlined by Catesby on 20 May 1604, at the Duck and Drake Inn near The Strand in London. Those present were Catesby, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Guido Fawkes. All of them took a vow of secrecy on the Bible before attending a Mass being given by Father John Gerrard in an adjacent room.
Catesby's plan was a simple one: he intended to blow up King James, Queen Anne, Henry, the Prince of Wales, the four year old Charles, the Peers of the Realm, the Bishops, the Judges and everyone else who would be present at the State opening of Parliament. To facilitate his act of mass-murder he had rented lodgings beside the Parliament building which over time would be packed with barrels of gunpowder, more than enough to utterly destroy the Parliament and all those within.
The responsibility for minding the basement and eventually lighting the fuse that would plunge the country into chaos had fallen to the rugged, heavily-built soldier-of-fortune and Catholic fanatic Guido (Guy) Fawkes. He had been introduced to Catesby by Thomas Wintour and had been recruited for precisely his expertise in explosives.
Catesby and his fellow conspirators would exploit the power vacuum that would follow the destruction of Parliament by riding back to their Midlands base and rallying their fellow Catholics in rebellion. In the meantime, a Hunting Party that had been formed would proceed to kidnap the young Princess Elizabeth (whom they wrongly believed had been raised as a Catholic by her mother and would therefore be more sympathetic to their cause) and place her upon the Throne of England.
Why the conspirators thought for a moment that a girl who had just learned that her entire family had been wiped out would be a willing accomplice to their plot remains a mystery. It provides the entire plan with that veneer of desperation that has been the lot of fanatics down the ages but Catesby remained convinced of its ultimate success. The English people he believed remained Catholic at heart and were just waiting for the opportunity to again embrace the old religion. He would provide that opportunity, and he never doubted for a moment that he had God on his side.
Catesby did however have doubts about whether his great undertaking could be justified morally and he sought reassurance for his actions from Father John Garnet but unwilling to reveal details of the plot none could be forthcoming.
Over the next few months Catesby busied himself recruiting others to the plot. They were mostly people known to him personally and only those he knew he could trust. They were - Robert Wintour, Robert Keyes, Christopher "Kit" Wright, John Grant, Thomas Bates, Sir Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby, and Francis Tresham.
Thomas Wintour was Catesby's oldest friend and was married to his sister, Elizabeth. He shared Catesby's fanaticism and was as determined as he that the plot should go ahead and would not countenance the argument that the plan should be modified to spare the Queen and the young Princes. He was to recruit his brother Robert as one of the plotters, something he was later to deeply regret.
Thomas Percy was an impoverished member of the powerful Percy clan and his uncle was the loyal Duke of Northumberland. He was a crass and vulgar man much given to brawling and drinking and though he was unquestionably loyal his loose-tongued and reckless behaviour was always going to pose a problem.
John Wright, who had taken part in the Essex Rebellion along with his brother Christopher, had known Catesby for many years though they had never been close friends, and he had attended the same school in York as Guido Fawkes. He was taciturn in manner and could often appear rude and dismissive of those around him. His brother Christopher, known affectionately as Kit, was always more popular and he was not just unlike his brother in personality but also in appearance: "Not like him in face being fatter and a lighter coloured hair, and taller of person" Both were considered to be expert swordsmen and were recruited on that basis.
Robert Keyes, whose father had been a Protestant Rector had only converted to Catholicism in 1604 and was fired up with all the enthusiasm of the recently enlightened. Heavily in debt he was described as a sober and grave man. Tall with striking red hair he was an imposing figure. Some of the other plotters thought him embittered and unreliable, but Catesby trusted him.
John Grant, who was married to Thomas Wintour's sister, had been recruited on the advice of his brother-in-law. He was a quiet and unassertive man who had been given the task of rallying support for the rebellion in the Midlands. It seemed a strange choice of role for a man who appeared to impress few who met him.
Thomas Bates was Catesby's manservant and had become aware of the plot by accident. Invited to join as a result he may have thought that he had little choice. It was his subsequent testimony that was to implicate the Jesuits in the plot. Though he was later to withdraw his testimony once he realised he was to be executed regardless.
Sir Ambrose Rookwood had been recruited in September 1604. He was considered handsome despite being rather short but compensated for his lack of stature by dressing extravagantly. Charming, elegant and unflappable he was popular with the ladies. Similar to Catesby and many of the other plotters he had been imprisoned after the failed Essex Rebellion and his loyalty was thought to be without question.
The handsome and glamorous Sir Everard Digby had only been knighted by King James I as recently as 24 April 1603, after the King’s always lascivious eye had noticed his fine turn of ankle. He had only met Catesby for the first time in the autumn of 1604 during a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Winifride's Well in Wales. He had been raised in a devoutly Protestant household but had since been converted to Catholicism by Father John Gerrard. He only became aware of the plot two weeks before it was due to take place.
Guido Fawkes was a dour, humourless Yorkshireman who Catesby had only known of by reputation before they met that night in the Duck and Drake Inn. His many years spent fighting abroad for the Catholic King of Spain meant that he became essential to the success of the plot. He was the only one of the conspirators who had any real knowledge of explosives and munitions. He was also little known in London and could move freely around the city. He was put in charge of purchasing and stockpiling the gunpowder. He was helped in his task by Robert Keyes and Thomas Bates.
There was at the time a surplus of gunpowder in London that was easily available to purchase and over many months they were able to gather 36 barrels of the stuff or around 10,000 pounds worth. It was stored, initially at least, in Thomas Percy's London residence and placed under the charge of the heartily disliked Robert Keyes, but it was soon to be moved to a large empty storeroom adjacent to Parliament.
Not long after the conspirators had a stroke of good fortune when they were able to rent a cellar beneath the Parliament Building itself which would increase considerably the power and effectiveness of the explosion.
Guido Fawkes, going by the name of John Johnson the manservant of Thomas Percy, now busied himself moving the barrels of gunpowder into the cellar. With great care he hid the barrels along with their fuses behind stacks of wood intended to be used as fuel.
But the fuses would never be lit for unknown to the conspirators they had been betrayed.
Late in the evening of 26 October 1605 a mysterious man, heavily cloaked and hooded, delivered a letter to the London home of the Catholic William Parker, Lord Monteagle. Unusually rather than read the letter himself Monteagle had a servant read it out to him. It contained a warning for him not to attend the State Opening of Parliament:
"My Lord, out of the love I bear for some of your friends I have care for your preservation. Therefore, I would advise you tender some excuse to shift your attendance of this Parliament for God and man have concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, Sir, yet I say they will receive a terrible blow this Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm, for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you."
Despite the lateness of the hour Lord Monteagle rode immediately to the home of Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, James I's Secretary of State.
Salisbury thanked Monteagle for his prompt action but appeared little flustered by the turn of events and he did not react as Monteagle might have expected.
Rather than call for guards or issue instructions the two men were to spend several hours enjoying fine claret and quietly discussing the possible meaning of the letter.
Salisbury chose not to inform James who was away hunting in Royston of its contents. Indeed it wasn't until 1 November and the King's return that he presented the letter to James saying that he was uncertain as to its true meaning. This was disingenuous to say the least for he was well-versed in the world of conspiracy. He wanted the King in person to see the Catholic viper in his midst and unravel the plot for himself, should he ever feel inclined to relent upon the harsh measures taken against Catholics. James, an astute and intelligent man, did just that. Stressing the phrase "a terrible blow" he informed Salisbury that there was a plot to blow up the Parliament and ordered that a search be made of all its corridors and cellars.
To all intents-and purposes the plot had been discovered but who was it who had warned Monteagle? Who had betrayed Catesby and his co-conspirators? Who had been responsible for "this dark and doubtful letter?"
Catesby had been informed of the Monteagle letter by agents within the Royal Court who had been told of it by Lord Monteagle's manservant, the Catholic Thomas Ward, but he refused to countenance the postponement of the Powder Treason. Instead the well-connected Thomas Percy contacted those prominent Catholics known to be loyal to the King and not involved in the plot to see if he could elicit any information regarding the letter, and what exactly may have been revealed. They told him that they had heard nothing regarding it and he returned to London and reassured the other plotters that they had nothing to fear.
There have been many candidates suggested as to the person responsible for writing the letter but at the time the most obvious appeared to be Sir Francis Tresham.
He had been a latecomer to the plot, not recruited until 14 October 1605, and had been approached by Catesby not because he truly thought he would commit to such a dangerous act but merely because he needed his money, though he was never as wealthy as he liked to make out.
Tresham was a reluctant conspirator at best, he not only believed that should they succeed in destroying Parliament it would be the ruin of the Catholic community in England but felt morally compromised by the whole thing. He had expressed his doubts to Catesby in person and had requested a postponement and greater time for them all to reflect upon the consequences of such a drastic act.
Catesby who had earlier asked him for £2,000 to finance the plot which despite promises had never been received had been further angered by his refusal to see God’s work in the plot. Already considered untrustworthy and unreliable he was also Monteagle's cousin and brother-in-law.
Catesby believed him to be responsible for the betrayal and questioned him in the presence of Thomas Wintour. Tresham pleaded his innocence. Catesby was all for doing him great harm but was dissuaded from doing so by Wintour who declared that they had only suspicion and no real proof.
Tresham had begged for his life and he succeeded in saving it, but only just.
It is possible that the author of the letter was Monteagle himself. No doubt aware of the plot through his Catholic connections no one benefited more from its revelation. He had previously been imprisoned for his role in the Essex Rebellion and had since suffered as a former Recusant. Now he would be lauded as the saviour of the nation and be rewarded with an annual pension of £2,000 and a further £500 from rents.
If he was indeed the culprit then he had in quick order turned the hunters into the prey.
Just after midnight on 5 November, a search party found Guido Fawkes hiding in the cellar. The iconic image we have now of the large man with a pointed beard, wearing a tall hat and cloak and carrying a lantern is exactly how he was found. Unable to explain his presence a thorough search of the cellar took place and the barrels of gunpowder discovered, as was the fuse that Fawkes had already set to light in just eight hours time. The delay intended to provide time for those conspirators still in London to flee the city and rally the countryside.
Despite denying all knowledge of the gunpowder he was bound and placed under arrest.
Guido Fawkes was to be interrogated by the King himself who not only wanting to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity desired to know the nature of a man who could commit to carry out such a monstrous act.
Fawkes told James that he was John Johnson, a humble servant, and had no knowledge of the gunpowder that had been found in the cellar or of any plot. It was an unconvincing denial and one spoken without conviction for Fawkes was proud of what he had been accused of and wanted the King to know it. When a clearly appalled James asked him how he could countenance the murder of the four year old Charles, Fawkes replied, echoing words that had been spoken earlier by Catesby in the Duck and Drake Inn that "the nature of the disease requires so sharp a remedy."
Under English Law torture could not be used to elicit a confession from a suspect unless guilt had already been established but since his initial denials Fawkes had made it plain that he was part of a plot to blow up Parliament and as a consequence James ordered that he be put to the rack.
Guido Fawkes signature before and after torture
Upon hearing of Guido Fawkes capture those plotters still in London fled the city as fast as their horses would carry them.
Sir Ambrose Rookwood, who had just taken delivery of a sword engraved with the words 'The Passion of the Christ' overtook Catesby in Bedfordshire and informed him that Fawkes had been taken.
It was possible that they still had time to ride for the coast and take ship to Catholic Ireland but despite the fact that the plot had failed Catesby remained adamant that the uprising should go ahead, even though he had only around 40 men at his command.
The conspirators met up again in the Midlands as had been planned but the scheme to seize the Princess Elizabeth was now abandoned and the Hunting Party under the command of Sir Everard Digby dispersed with most of them abandoning the plot altogether.
Catesby at first considered riding to his mother’s house so that he could explain to her his actions but decided that he could not in all true honesty look her in the face.
Still, he remained convinced that the people would rally to their cause once they were made aware of it but travelling through the countryside they were met with at best indifference and at worst open hostility. To the cry of "For God and Country", the people replied that they were for "God and King James."
At the home of Sir John Talbot who they believed to be a supporter they were turned away with the words:
"This is worth more than my life. I pray get thee hence."
Exhausted and having failed to rally any significant support the conspirators in a state of great despondency descended upon the home of a friend and known supporter Stephen Lytleton, Holbeche House in Staffordshire.
Catesby tried to raise the others spirits by continuing to insist that the people would come to their assistance once their aims had been made clear. In the meantime, he suggested that they fortify Holbeche House to resist a siege. But he applied no pressure on his fellow conspirators to remain. Sir Francis Tresham and Robert Keyes had already departed, Sir Robert Wintour was in hiding, and Sir Everard Digby was still roaming the countryside uncertain what to do.
Only a personal loyalty to Catesby himself and a certain resignation as to their fate convinced the others to remain.
Late on 6 November, an unfortunate accident ended any chance of being able to defend Holbeche House.
During their flight the conspirators had accrued as many munitions and gunpowder as they could but much of this however had been soaked in a downpour. Perhaps as a result of their exhaustion or just out of ignorance in an attempt to dry it out as quickly as possible they had placed in front of an open fire and it wasn’t long before a stray spark ignited a terrific explosion. Catesby, Sir Ambrose Rookwood, and John Morgan, one of the few who had rallied behind the conspirators, were all injured and John Grant was so badly mutilated it was said that his eyes had been burned out. More significantly perhaps, much of the building had been destroyed making it indefensible.
At 11.00 am on the morning of 7 November, Holbeche House was surrounded by Sir John Walsh, the High Sheriff of Worcester, with 200 men.
It was evident to the conspirators that all was lost and when Thomas Wintour cried out in despair
"Why are we here," Catesby responded - "We are here to die."
In the ferocious but brief fire-fight that followed Jack and Kit Wright were shot and killed in the courtyard as Catesby, Wintour, Rokewood, and Sir Thomas Percy returned fire from the house but were unable to prevent the troops from advancing on the building where they were soon battering down the door. As they did so Sir Thomas Percy took his own life.
Thomas Wintour, who had been wounded and lost the use of his right arm was pulled aside by Catesby and told:
"Stand by me, Mr Tom, and we will die together."
When the troops eventually broke in Rokewood and Wintour were both wounded and taken, Catesby, who had also been wounded managed to crawl to another room where in a last theatrical flourish he died clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary.
Sir Everard Digby who had been wandering the countryside uncertain whether to fight or flee, was finally cornered hiding in a trench. Upon hearing the jubilant cries of "Here he is!" "Here he is!" from his pursuers he mounted his horse and replied: "Here I am indeed. What then?"
He then rode his horse towards them cavetting and trotting and displaying other forms of advanced equestrianism as he did so before giving himself up to the grandest looking person he could find.
Robert Wintour who had been seeking a ship to take him to safety abroad wasn't eventually captured until some two months later.
The surviving conspirators (Sir Francis Tresham had died of illness in the Tower of London on 23 December) were tried at Westminster Hall on 24 January, 1606.
There was no question as to their guilt though most were to claim some kind of mitigating circumstance or other. Only Sir Everard Digby was to openly admit his guilt stating that their actions had been justified on the grounds that the King had reneged on his promise of religious toleration.
Thomas Wintour only wished that he could be hanged twice so his brother might be spared.
Some of the conspirators including Robert Wintour begged for mercy whilst others expressed regret at what they had done. None of their pleas or words however sincerely intended made any difference to the sentence passed and none of the conspirators were to escape the fate that was put aside for traitors- found guilty the Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham declared that they were to be hung, drawn and quartered.
The Attorney-General Sir Edward Coke then took great delight in detailing exactly what this meant:
They would be taken to their places of execution tied to hurdles their heads close to the ground as being worthy neither of heaven or earth. They would then be hanged until choked near death, cut down, and then suffer live disembowelment their intestines being displayed before their eyes before being decapitated. Their four quarters would then be severed and placed on poles to be picked at by birds and serve as a warning to others.
When Robert Keyes was told that this was the fate that awaited him he replied:
“Death is as good now as at any other time.”
The intention of the trial had never really been to pass judgement on the conspirators whose guilt was already well documented but to implicate the Jesuits in the plot. It was the confession of Catesby’s servant Thomas Bates extracted under torture that provided the evidence required and it was Father Henry Garnet that was to pay the price.
To avoid the prolonged agony of their execution the conspirators leapt from the scaffold in the hope that the drop would break their necks. Despite the fact that he was physically impaired and unable to walk without assistance the only one who succeeded was Guido Fawkes.