Would ‘penny for the Robert’ have quite the same ring to it? Probably not, but as Nicola Cornick demonstrates, it was Robert Catesby who was the driving force behind the terrorist plot to kill King James I, along with hundreds of others in the Gunpowder Plot.
As a public historian I am very interested in the aspects of history that we remember – and those which are largely forgotten. When I was a child, Bonfire Night was the big festival of the autumn, replete with a guy on top of the bonfire, fireworks, toffee apples and oven baked potatoes. These days it has been eclipsed by the festival of Halloween, but long before that, Robert Catesby, the ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot, was eclipsed by Guy Fawkes.
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed attempt to blow up the English parliament and assassinate King James I. It involved a group of Catholic conspirators whose aim was to re-establish Catholic rule in England. At the same time as King James and his son and heir Prince Henry and all the peerage were blown up, Robert Catesby and a number of other prominent Catholics in the Midlands intended to kidnap Princess Elizabeth, the only daughter of James I and Anne of Denmark, and put her on the throne as a puppet Catholic Queen.
It had been James’ refusal to grant religious tolerance to Catholics that spurred the plot on but it is important to see the Gunpowder Plot in the context of the politics and religious climate of the Tudor as well as the early Stuart era. Like those Catholic plots during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, it didn’t spring from nowhere; it was a direct consequence of the laws that denied people the right to worship freely.
Robert Catesby, ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot, was born around 1572 during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. He was the third and only surviving son of Sir William Catesby and Anne Throckmorton. The family had risen to prominence in the fifteenth century when an earlier William Catesby was one of King Richard III’s royal counsellors. He had a spectacular fall from grace – he was captured at the Battle of Bosworth and executed 3 days later, and his lands confiscated by Henry VII. However, in 1496 some of the Catesby lands were restored to his son and actually for a while under the earlier members of the Tudor dynasty the Catesby family flourished. However Sir William, Robert’s father, was a recusant, remaining loyal to the Catholic church and refusing to attend Church of England services. This was illegal and Sir William was fined repeatedly, imprisoned on occasion and excluded from holding offices such as sheriff.
Robert Catesby therefore grew up in an atmosphere of intense attachment to a religious faith and resistance to the established law of the land, which was very significant. It’s also important that his wider family, a number of whom were also involved in the Gunpowder Plot, were part of the prominent network of recusant Catholic families in England at the time. Sir Thomas Tresham, for example, was one of the leaders of this group of prominent Catholic gentlemen and he was Anne Catesby’s brother-in-law and Robert’s godfather.
Robert attended Gloucester Hall, Oxford University, which was a popular college for Catholic sympathisers. He left without graduating as this would have required taking an oath of allegiance to the Queen. He also visited Douai college, a Catholic seminary based in France which supplied missionary priests to enter England covertly, minister to existing Catholics and attempt re-conversion of the population. So at this stage in his life he was following a trajectory that might be expected of a young man steeped in the Catholic faith.
However, Robert’s future might have been dramatically different. In 1793 at the age of about twenty, he married Catherine Leigh, daughter of Sir William Leigh of Stoneleigh. Catherine was an heiress but most importantly she came from a prominent Protestant family.
It’s possible that this was a love match; Catherine was said to be very beautiful, sweet natured and loving and Robert was handsome and charismatic. They went to live at Chastleton House in Oxfordshire which Robert had inherited from his grandmother. They had two sons, William and Robert, and although William died as a baby, Robert the younger flourished. So at this point Robert Catesby was rich, with a family and a fine estate. He seemed content. Most importantly, he had become what is known as a church papist – someone who was known to have Catholic sympathies but who attended the Protestant Church and conformed with the law. Had this situation continued, it’s plausible to suggest that the Catesby family might have flourished much as it had done under Henry VIII and Edward VI.
With the benefit of hindsight, Robert Catesby’s marriage and his adoption of Protestantism have been seen as a cloak for his true faith and intentions. However there is no proof of this in his actions during that period of his life. It was only after Catherine Catesby died in 1598, the same year that Robert lost his father, that he actively re-engaged with his Catholic faith but with extra zeal. He was involved with the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601 and he was imprisoned and fined £3000.
The authorities, on the lookout for trouble makers, had already marked him out. On the death of Queen Elizabeth, he was arrested and imprisoned in case he tried to stir up rebellion against the new King, James VI and I. James had initially promised religious tolerance and many of the Catholic network gave him the benefit of the doubt until it became plain that this wasn’t going to happen. After that, these disillusioned men began in earnest to plot treason; in 1602 and again in 1604 Thomas Winter, a cousin of Catesby’s, went to Spain to negotiate an invasion of England to restore the Catholic faith. Winter later implicated Robert Catesby in this plan and when it became apparent that Philip III of Spain wasn’t going to invade, Catesby began to plot to destroy the King and parliament with gunpowder. This was probably early in 1604.
Catesby brought together a large group of conspirators dedicated to the same cause including Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes and Francis Tresham. Catesby was always the driving force and the plotters were all connected by ties of family as well as religious belief. In fact there is ample evidence that within the Catholic network the plot was an open secret. One of the clearest indications of this comes from September 1605 when a number of prominent Catholics made a pilgrimage to the holy well of St Winifred in Wales. One of the plotters wives spoke to Anne Vaux, who was a well known recusant and related to the Tresham family. She asked where Anne and Father Garnet, a catholic priest, would “bestow themselves until the brunt was past in the beginning of the Parliament.” Anne herself was aware that something was afoot and said she “feared these wild heads had something in hand.” She begged Father Garnet “for God’s sake to talk with Mr Catesby and to hinder anything that possibly he might.” These “Gunpowder plot families” were related to the peerage themselves so they knew some of their own relatives would probably be killed. Some of the conspirators themselves expressed concern, especially Tresham, at the wholesale nature of the killing of innocent men, but Robert Catesby was completely set on his course. Whilst he promised to warn those who were catholic sympathisers, he declared that most of the peerage were: “atheists, fools and cowards.” And extraordinarily, such was the charisma and persuasive powers of Catesby that even when the plot was exposed via the Monteagle Letter, he was determined to press on and carried the other with him.
Of course we all know that the plot ended very badly. It was betrayed, either by one of the plotters themselves or possibly it was a set up by James I’s minister Robert Cecil who may have known about it far earlier than he let on. Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament with eighteen hundredweight of gunpowder which would have been sufficient to devastate the whole of Westminster at the time.
After his arrest, Fawkes refused to implicate any of the plotters except for Thomas Percy whose servant he had been masquerading as. Despite a barrage of questions from his interrogators he gave nothing away and they even grudgingly admired his fortitude under torture. However they did break him eventually and he made three confessions, explaining the plan to put Princess Elizabeth on the throne and implicating five of the plotters including Francis Tresham.
The trial of eight of the surviving plotters began on 27 January 1606. It was a show trial. No one was going to be pardoned. Fawkes was condemned to be hung, drawn and quartered. However, he was the last to stand on the scaffold and when it was his turn to put his head in the noose, he either jumped or the noose was incorrectly set in some way. Either way, he broke his neck and died which meant he was spared the fate of the drawing and quartering whilst he was still alive.
Robert Catesby was already dead. When word went around that Fawkes had been arrested, Catesby fled London with Thomas Percy, John Wright and a number of the other plotters. Catesby still hoped that rebellion would follow but it didn’t happen – no one was prepared to join the rebels and fight. They spent 6th and 7th November wandering from one Catholic house to another across Warwickshire and Worcestershire, finally arriving at Holbeach in Staffordshire. Here, as they rested on the evening of the 7th, the accidental explosion of gunpowder which they were drying in front of a fire injured some of the plotters, including Catesby himself.
This accident, with its suggestion of divine condemnation, seems to have marked the moment that Robert Catesby acknowledged that he offended God with his plans and that the plot – and the plotters – were doomed. Catesby informed them that they would fight to the death, as did a number of the others. About eleven o’clock on the morning of 8th November the remaining rebels advanced out into the courtyard of the house, brandishing swords in a final gesture of defiance, to meet the men commanded by the Sheriff of Worcestershire who had been sent to apprehend them. Robert Catesby was shot. It is said that he crawled back inside the house, and that he died clasping an image of the Virgin Mary in his arms.
Four hundred years later it is Guy Fawkes whose name has become inextricably linked with the “gunpowder treason” as it was first known. In the immediate aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination and an Act of Parliament decreed 5th November should be a day of thanksgiving for “the joyful day of deliverance.” This act remained on the statute books until 1859. Fireworks were introduced to the celebration in the 1650s and the idea of burning an effigy on the bonfire started in the 1670s when there was another uprising of anti-Catholic feeling in England. Throughout the centuries Bonfire Night has carried on and been reinvented, as many traditions do, becoming increasingly secular in our modern, more religiously-tolerant age.
What is particularly interesting to see now is the adoption of the Guy Fawkes mask internationally by protesters against politics, financial institutions and other examples of authority. This feels like a fitting reincarnation for him. Meanwhile Robert Catesby, described by his contemporaries as being of “countenance… exceedingly noble and expressive … his conversation and manners… peculiarly attractive and imposing,” who “ by the dignity of his character exercised an irresistible influence over the minds of those who associated with him.” is all but forgotten.