Everyone’s heard of Guy Fawkes. Let’s face it, we’ve all chanted, “Penny for the Guy…” and watched fireworks popping in the sky because of him. However, what many people forget is that he wasn’t the only person involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Far from it! In fact, the real mastermind behind the conspiracy was a fellow called Robert Catesby. And we thought it worth sharing a little more of his story…
The Catesbys… committed Catholics
Robert is believed to have been born in 1572 into a staunchly Catholic household. His father’s family had endured arrest, execution, and persecution for many years because of it, and they’d earned their badges whilst plotting to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots. So, unsurprisingly, Robert was not brought up to buck this trend.
In 1586, he attended Gloucester Hall, which was then an Oxford college renowned for its Catholic residents. However, he never actually took his degree, and it’s assumed by many that this is because it would involve swearing the Oath of Supremacy which would conflict with this faith. That’s how dedicated he was.
However, he wasn’t a committed fool. These were times that required ingenuity, contacts, and… subterfuge. In 1593, what could be deemed an interesting early twist to his tale took its turn, for he married Catherine Leigh, a Protestant. But if you’re thinking this was perhaps simply the rebellious act of a renegade son, think again. A cynic would say that Catherine’s religious background was one that could potentially offer him protection from the laws of the time, which were particularly persecutory against practising Catholics.
This ‘cloak’ of respectability served his purpose well for a few years, for his son, Robert, was born (his first son, William, sadly died in infancy). During this time, he also inherited Chastleton Estate in Oxfordshire from his grandmother. So it would seem as though things were ticking over gently for Catesby. However in 1598 disaster then struck, for Catherine died, and the lid on his Catholicism was lifted; and it resurged with a vengeance.
Catesby soon found himself embroiled in shady dealings. First off was the Essex Rebellion. An effort pulled together by Robert Devereux that attempted to seize control of Elizabeth I’s court, probably with the aim of instating a Catholic replacement as monarch.
The plot failed, and Catesby soon found himself at the wrong end of a very hefty fine for his involvement, which resulted in him having to sell Chastleton to settle it.
Adding fuel to his fire
However, Catholic expectations must have lifted when Queen Elizabeth died, for the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, became king of England. Catesby won’t have been the only one to have had high hopes for James I (James VI of Scotland). Being the offspring of a devoutly Catholic mother, many will have crossed their fingers as he had come to the throne. So it will have been to their bitter disappointment that James then swiftly exiled all Jesuits and Catholic priests and reinstated the issuing of fines for recusancy. In such turbulent times, it’s no surprise, then, that likeminded thinkers came together in support… to consider treason.
Charming charisma = Easy recruitment
When one’s fellow comrades are suffering similar indignities and oppressive practices, the right dose of magnetism can bind a group together. That character was Catesby. He had charm and charisma in bucket loads. And in 1604… he used it to his utmost.
At the time, his partners in arms included Jack Wright, Thomas Percy, and his cousin, Thomas Wintour. As they gathered and met on dark evenings, supping on ale and chatting, an outline plan swiftly developed to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
Further recruits were then found, of course one very famous one being Guy Fawkes. And the plot began to take shape in earnest.
Believe it or not… Catesby and his crew were able to buy the tenancy to the space under the House of Lords. Their intention, as we already know, was to blow the place to smithereens whilst the King was present. The bit that not everyone is privy to, though, is that their aim was to do so during the state opening of Parliament, which they’d initially thought would be 20th July, 1605. So, with this in mind, they’d channelled all their efforts into storing tens of barrels of gunpowder by that date, hiding it under firewood. An issue arose, however, when the state opening was delayed because of fears of the Plague. The delay dragged on to 5th November.
The plot is planned
Guy Fawkes was to sit and wait, hidden in the cellar. An uprising was to kick off in the Midlands, during which Princess Elizabeth would be abducted. Guy Fawkes was to light the fuse, make his escape from the building, and disappear off in a boat on the Thames. He would then head to the continent to personally explain to those with Catholic interests what had happened. Nothing like a bit of momentum for arranging a change in monarch.
The plan is undermined
As an aside, there had been mounting concern within the group of plotters, however, about the killing of innocents as collateral damage. Even Catesby had taken advice from the principle Jesuit priest, Father Henry Garnet, regarding the morality of his plans. Initially Garnet had advised that it was acceptable in the circumstances, but later a letter from the Pope banned all rebellion.
What Catesby and his buddies hadn’t reckoned on, though, was family concern. One of the plotters felt it necessary to write to a family member to advise them to avoid the House of Lords on 5th. Sent from Francis Tresham to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, it arrived somewhat mysteriously as Monteagle was hosting a dinner. The letter was read aloud to the group – its contents not initially known – and being vaguely worded as a simple warning to avoid parliament that day, Monteagle decided to pass it to the spymaster, Sir Robert Cecil.
Monteagle’s servant, Thomas Ward, had connections with the plotters and sent a message to Catesby about the betrayal.
In the meantime, Cecil had discussed matters in depth with the king, and they decided that there should be a full search of the Houses of Parliament. This duly took place, and a large stash of firewood was discovered in the undercroft, accompanied by Fawkes. Fawkes explained that it was firewood owned by his master, Thomas Percy, and Cecil and co left to report their findings.
A second search was then instigated, however, for Thomas Percy was a name under suspicion. And this time, the searchers found Fawkes, plus the barrels of gunpowder, some matches, and touchwood. He was arrested.
News spread fast, and Catesby and his co-conspirators rushed to meet in the Midlands.
Torture and terror
Guy Fawkes was tortured to find out the names of those involved and their plans. And though he did eventually break down and confess on the rack, he withheld for some while.
As time ticked by elsewhere, Catesby and co had begun to find less and less support. To be associated with treason was too much for many of those who had provided backing up to that point. But the renegades weren’t about to give up quite yet. Keen to rouse a rebellion, Catesby turned to Father Garnet for help. But Garnet begged him to give up on his plans and then fled.
By this point, word had also begun to seep through that Guy Fawkes was spilling the beans, and by 7th November Catesby was a wanted man. On the run, riding in pouring rain, he and some of his colleagues made it to Holbeche House in Staffordshire that evening. Drying out in front of the fire, and accompanied by some of the gunpowder they’d stashed earlier in their plan-making, a spark landed and the ensuing explosion engulfed several of them in flames. Catesby survived, scorched, though others fared worse, and suddenly running seemed futile. They decided to stay put and go down fighting.
11am, 8th November, they were besieged. Shooting began and Catesby was hit by a musket shot whilst standing near a door. He crawled inside, but then died, clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary. He and those who died there with him were buried near Holbeche. But to add insult to injury, the Earl of Northampton ordered that his body be exhumed along with Thomas Percy, and they were both decapitated and their heads placed on spikes outside Parliament.
The King and Parliament were obviously aware of ‘spin’ even back in those days, for in January 1606 the Thanksgiving Act was passed, which made services and sermons on 5th November each year a regular feature. And the tradition of ringing church bells and lighting bonfires started very soon after. The custom of burning effigies of the Pope, or the devil, began in the reign of Charles I (1625-49), and shifted to effigies of Guy Fawkes once persecution of Catholics had simmered down.
So when you stand round a bonfire on 5th November each year now, and marvel at the beautiful colours exploding in the sky, spare a thought for those who triggered the annual event in the first place. For you could so easily also be hearing, “Penny for the Robert…”!