The Hatching of a Plot

Tom Wintour was the first of the conspirators to learn of Robert Catesby’s intention to mount a rebellion against the Protestant establishment. It is likely that he was made aware of the scheme sometime during the early months of 1604. He could have been in no doubt as to his cousin’s objectives when he travelled to Flanders in April to recruit Fawkes on Catesby’s behalf. Unsurprisingly, Wintour initially baulked at the very suggestion of such a dangerous and destructive scheme. He argued, quite sensibly, that if the uprising failed in its objective, it would result in an exacerbation of an already fraught situation, and quite possibly set the Catholic cause back by many years. His logic was quickly discounted by Catesby, who declared that ‘the nature of the disease requires so sharp a remedy’. In a bid to dispel Wintour’s doubts, Catesby launched into an impassioned defence of his deadly scheme, declaring Parliament to be a legitimate target in the fight to end Catholic persecution. ‘In that place’, he said, ‘they have done us all the mischief’.

Wintour’s line of reasoning was soon swayed by his cousin’s convincing oratory. He would later recall his response to Catesby’s heartfelt pleas for his cousin’s co-operation: ‘I told him yes, in this or what else so ever, if he resolved upon it, I would venture my life.’ Catesby had succeeded in recruiting his first co-conspirator, and more were to follow in quick succession.

On Sunday 20 May 1604, Catesby convened a meeting in the Duck and Drake Inn, a popular tavern on London’s Strand which doubled as a Catholic safe house. In attendance were Jack Wright, Thomas Percy, Tom Wintour, and the newly arrived Guido Fawkes. It was at this meeting that Catesby unveiled the full extent of his plan ‘to strike at the root’ of the Catholic oppressors. The plot was remarkable in its simplicity. Catesby proposed to use gunpowder to blow up the Palace of Westminster during the official opening of Parliament. In doing so, he hoped to bring about the destruction of both the new King and the sitting Government in one fell swoop. In the inevitable chaos that would follow, Catesby hoped to rally the subjugated Catholic nobility to rise up and seize the reins of power from the Protestant establishment.

At first, Catesby’s plan was met with incredulity. But, as had been the case with Tom Wintour, they were eventually persuaded to disregard their misgivings. Wright and Percy were notoriously impulsive men, and their response to Catesby’s call to arms rang with revolutionary zeal. ‘Shall we always, gentlemen, talk and never do anything?’ asked Percy. Either unwilling or unable to defy the wishes of their charismatic leader, all four confederates declared their willingness to partake in the Plot. Together they swore an oath of secrecy on a prayer book, and confirmed their allegiance to each other and the Catholic cause by taking Communion from a Jesuit priest who secretly celebrated Mass on the premises.

With his co-conspirators enlisted, Catesby now set about executing his scheme. With the official opening of Parliament postponed until 5 November of the following year due to an outbreak of plague, there was plenty of time. Originally, he thought the only way to achieve his objective was to dig a tunnel under the Houses of Parliament, but this rather improbable – and risky – scheme was soon abandoned in favour of a much safer option. If the conspirators could lease a storeroom in the precincts of Westminster, they could easily build up a stockpile of gunpowder sufficient to carry out their plan.

In March 1605, a dwelling within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster became available for rent. The house had an adjacent cellar, which was usually used to store firewood. Located directly underneath the House of Lords, the conspirators quickly realized that an explosion from this cellar would almost certainly raze the Parliament buildings to the ground. They seized the opportunity – the lease was be taken up by Thomas Percy who, having legitimate business in Westminster, would attract little attention. Guido Fawkes, masquerading as Percy’s servant, was then installed in the premises under the alias of John Johnson, and preparations began in earnest.

Robert Catesby was in possession of a house directly across the Thames from Westminster. From this base in Lambeth, supplies of gunpowder and other necessities were slowly ferried across the river and smuggled into Percy’s rented dwelling. This process was greatly aided by the fact that, at the time, the locality of Westminster was not thoroughly policed. A few months earlier, around October 1604, Robert Keyes and Ambrose Rookwood had been drafted into the conspiracy. Keyes now directed operations from the Lambeth house, while Rookwood was responsible for sourcing the gunpowder. Rookwood was initially kept ignorant of the true nature of the Plot. He laboured under the misapprehension that the gunpowder was destined for the Catholic troops in Flanders and was not told of the real target until much later. In December, Catesby’s servant Thomas Bates joined their ranks. This was most likely born of necessity – Bates’ closeness to Catesby made it unlikely that he would remain unaware of the preparations. In any case, Bates’ loyalty to his master guaranteed his silence.

With the plans for the revolution finalized, the confederates directed their energies towards planning for the aftermath of the scheme – which had, so far, been given little attention. If all went well, the explosion would eliminate King James and the senior members of his family, along with the upper echelons of the Protestant establishment. Thus the path to power would be cleared, and Catesby saw no reason why the Catholic gentry could not capitalize on this.

To this end, Catesby decided that James’s third child, Princess Elizabeth, was central to their success. Keen to add a degree of legitimacy to their uprising, he was adamant that the line of succession should remain intact. With her older brothers, Henry and Charles, due to attend the opening of Parliament with their father, and therefore likely to be killed in the explosion, it was decided that the eight-year-old princess should be installed as a figurehead monarch. Catesby argued that, at such an impressionable age, the princess could be re-educated in the Catholic faith, thereby ending the line of Protestant rulers. It was also proposed that Elizabeth’s Catholic guardians would fill the power vacuum left following the demise of her father and brothers until she came of age. This plan became all the more appealing when they discovered that the young princess lived far from London, in Coombe Abbey near Coventry, a place from which she could easily be captured.

The extra time afforded to the planning process by the postponement of the opening of Parliament also presented a drawback. As the months went on, it became ever more difficult to keep the Plot concealed, and the conspirators were forced to admit a growing number of confederates to their close-knit group. By March 1605, Christopher Wright (brother of Jack) and Robert Wintour (brother of Tom) had joined their number, as had the Wintour’s brother-in-law, John Grant. By September, Francis Tresham had also got wind of the scheme; in October, Sir Everard Digby became the last confederate to join the Plot.

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