An Attempt to Escape

The safety of his fellow plotters now depended on Fawkes. Could he hold out against an inevitably brutal interrogation long enough for them to escape, or would he buckle under pressure and reveal their identities? During the initial round of questioning, Guido Fawkes displayed a courage so remarkable it would become the stuff of legend.

When ‘John Johnson’ was hauled before the King he showed no signs of fear, remaining calm and almost relaxed as he was questioned, in spite of his awareness of what lay ahead of him. So convinced was he of the righteousness of the Plot, he seemed intent on becoming a martyr to the Catholic cause. To the King, he declared that it was ‘the devil, not God, who was the discoverer [of the Plot]’. When the King demanded to know why he was prepared to murder so many innocent people, Fawkes – echoing Catesby’s earlier sentiments – replied that ‘so dangerous a disease required a desperate remedy.’ By all accounts, King James was impressed by the fortitude of the accused in the face of so hopeless a situation. This admiration, however, did not inspire him to leniency. As ‘Johnson’ was taken from the King’s presence, James authorized the use of torture should the accused be less than forthcoming.

While Fawkes faced his accusers, the King’s men had discovered the identity of one more plotter. An examination of the documents pertaining to the lease of the dwelling revealed Thomas Percy’s involvement. The authorities immediately issued a warrant for his arrest. After this early success, however, the investigation struggled to make progress. Thus, the Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham, was drafted in. Popham had an extensive network of informants among London’s Catholic recusant population, and very soon his contacts furnished him with a list of possible conspirators. This list was to prove remarkably accurate. Based on Popham’s information, the Government issued a proclamation a few days later, declaring Catesby, Percy, Rookwood, John Grant (erroneously listed as Edward), Tom Wintour, Jack Wright, Christopher Wright, and Robert Ashfield (an alias used by Thomas Bates) to be traitors and wanted men. As yet Tresham, Keyes, Digby and Robert Wintour had escaped suspicion.

Meanwhile, in the hours after Fawkes’ arrest, news of the Plot’s discovery spread around Westminster. Christopher Wright was the first to hear of the calamity that had befallen his colleague, and in panic, he hurried to the Duck and Drake Inn, in which Tom Wintour was ensconced. With many of their co-conspirators, including Catesby, already having left London for Dunchurch – their pre-arranged rendezvous point in the Midlands – Wintour was forced to take charge of the situation. His first priority was to warn those remaining in London, namely Percy, Keyes and Rookwood. Perhaps surprisingly, he didn’t deem it necessary to contact Francis Tresham. Having earlier distanced himself from the scheme after his failure to convince Catesby to abandon his plans, Tresham was left to fend for himself.

Wintour immediately despatched Christopher Wright to inform Percy of the warrant that had been issued for his arrest. Terrified, Percy mounted his horse without delay and fled to the Midlands, accompanied by Wright. Robert Keyes followed hot on their heels at daybreak. Rookwood was the next to leave, followed finally by Tom Wintour. Being an exceptionally skilled horseman, the task of warning those who were still oblivious to the disaster fell to Rookwood. Having easily managed to overtake Percy, Wright and Keyes, he galloped on in the hope of catching up with Catesby and the others. After covering thirty miles in just two hours, Rookwood came upon his astonished comrades, and breathlessly relayed the solemn news to Catesby of the Plot’s foiling, and Fawkes’ arrest.

Although bitterly disappointed, Catesby did not yet believe that all was lost. After a quick appraisal of the situation, he became convinced that he could still gather enough support to mount a defence against the army of Government forces that would undoubtedly be on their trail. This conviction was based on the fact that most of the plotters originated from this region and had many connections to the recusant gentry. Still clinging to his dreams of a Catholic insurrection, the influential Catesby insisted the men ride on to their rendezvous point.

It is unclear why the plotters did not decide at this point to flee England altogether – they still had time to slip away on one of the many ships setting sail from the Thames. If they had chosen this option, they might very well have escaped with their lives. Perhaps because of their misplaced loyalty to Catesby, or perhaps fearful of retribution on their wives and families, the men failed to take advantage of this small window of opportunity. Instead, they continued on to the Midlands.

By the time all the conspirators, apart from Tresham, had reconvened, the hopelessness of Catesby’s solution had become apparent. The assistance they had envisaged from their Catholic countrymen failed to materialize. Perhaps Catesby’s esteem had waned. Increasingly desperate, Catesby dispatched Digby on a mission to garner support from a number of noblemen from prominent recusant clans. The men were lured to the rendezvous under the misapprehension that they were attending a hunting party. When they realized that they had been hoodwinked, and learned that the real purpose of the meeting was to drum up support for Catesby, they abandoned him.

The remaining few soon realized the folly of their decision and defected. Only two of those called on for help, Stephen Littleton and Henry Morgan, were foolish enough to remain. Even the underground network of Catholic Jesuit priests, who could normally be counted upon to support any effort to improve the Catholic situation, failed to rally to the cause. Everyone, it seemed, was clamouring to condemn the plotters – even for the most die-hard Catholics, Catesby’s deadly plan was apparently too radical.

Robert Keyes was the first to recognize this, and believing that he had a better chance of escape alone, decided to abandon his comrades. His fellow conspirators, galloped on, forced into pillaging their necessary supplies. Horses were stolen from the stables of Warwick Castle, while the country home of the young Lord Windsor was raided for weapons and gunpowder. Eventually, the men reached Holbeach House in Staffordshire, the home of Stephen Littleton, at about ten o’clock on the night of 7 November. They were, by this stage, exhausted and desperate.

Perhaps this is why, a little later, after the gunpowder had become soaked in a deluge, they had spread it out beside the fire in an attempt to dry it out. Soon, a spark from the fire ignited the gunpowder, and caused an explosion. John Grant was blinded instantly, while Henry Morgan and Ambrose Rookwood were injured.

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