Guy Fawkes 1570–1606
Guy Fawkes was born in York in April 1570. Although there is some uncertainty surrounding the exact date of his birth, church archives confirm that he was baptized on 16 April 1570 at the church of St Michael le Belfrey. His parents, Edward and Edith Fawkes, were Protestant and it is believed that Guy was raised in the Protestant faith.
When he was eight years old, the young Fawkes attended St Peter’s School in York. It was here that he first made the acquaintance of two brothers, Jack and Christopher Wright, who would become his comrades in the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament thirty years later.
Guy’s father died in 1579 when Guy was just nine years old, and within two years his mother had remarried a Catholic man called Denis Bainbridge. Many believe that Guy’s conversion to the Catholic faith was due to his stepfather’s influence. It is unclear exactly when Fawkes adopted Catholicism, but it is widely accepted that he was a confirmed and devoted Catholic by the time he turned twenty-one.
In 1591, as soon as he came of age, he sold the property he had inherited from his father and made preparations to leave England for the Continent. An active, passionate man of striking appearance, Fawkes wasted no time in signing up to the Spanish Army of Flanders. He was to spend the next twelve years as a mercenary soldier in the Low Countries, fighting with Catholic forces against Protestant resistance. It was during this time that Fawkes, who had earned the reputation of a good-living, loyal and brave soldier, gained a knowledge of gunpowder.
Contrary to much common perception, Guy Fawkes, despite his name being synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot, was not the main architect of the conspiracy. The scheme was propounded by a group of Catholic cousins in England, two of whom were Guy’s old school-friends, the Wright brothers. The leader of this tight-knit group of conspirators set about recruiting Fawkes (who had by then adopted the name Guido) on the strength of his reputation. Fawkes landed in England in April 1604, ready to take up the Catholic cause.
When the scheme was foiled, Guido was caught red-handed on the night of 4 November, in a vault under the Palace of Westminster. This vault contained thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, enough to demolish the Houses of Parliament. He was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London and tortured. He succumbed on the night of 7 November and confessed all.
Fawkes’ trial took place on 27 January 1606. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. However, Fawkes’ execution, which took place on 31 January, was mercifully swift: the hangman’s noose broke his neck and he was thus spared the agony of a traitor’s death.
Every year on the 5 November as bonfires blazed throughout the Kingdom to commemorate the King’s deliverance from the terrorist plot, the legend of Guy Fawkes became inextricably linked with the story of the Gunpowder Plot, to the extent that 5 November has become known as ‘Guy Fawkes Night’.
Robert Catesby 1573–1605
The name Robert Catesby is not familiar to most of us, but it was Catesby, not Guy Fawkes, who was the principal architect of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Born in 1573 into a wealthy and established Catholic landowning family from Warwickshire, Robert Catesby (also known as Robin) was the only surviving son of Sir William Catesby and Anne Throckmorton. The Catesby’s Catholic faith brought them into constant conflict with England’s Protestant establishment. Robert’s father was subjected to crippling fines and frequent imprisonment for his recusant ways. It is not surprising, then, that the young Catesby adopted an anti-Protestant stance from a relatively young age.
It is believed that he studied for a time at a Jesuit seminary in Douai, where he was taught theology and classical languages. He also attended Oxford University but his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy – which declared Elizabeth I to be Supreme Head of the Church in England – meant that he left without gaining a degree.
Catesby’s marriage to Catherine Leigh in 1593 was a significant departure from his vehemently Catholic stance. Catherine was a Protestant from a well-connected family. The marriage was a happy one, producing two sons, one of whom died in infancy. Although Robert continued the Catholic traditions of his family, his wife’s Protestantism shielded him from the full force of the severe recusancy laws which had so damaged his father.
Catesby’s father died in 1598, leaving a considerable fortune to his son. The same year also saw the death of Catesby’s beloved wife, a loss which profoundly affected him. Grief-stricken, Catesby once more wholeheartedly embraced his faith, and devoted his life to the Catholic cause.
When James I of England succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, Catholics were hopeful that he would be more sympathetic to their plight. When this hope proved to be futile, Robert Catesby decided it was time for action. On 20 May 1604, he gathered together a group of cousins and close friends for a meeting in London. It was at this meeting that Catesby unveiled his plan to use gunpowder to blow up the Palace of Westminster. The attack would mean certain death for the new King, members of the Royal Family, and the sitting Government. In the chaos which would inevitably follow, Catesby hoped that the oppressed Catholic nobility would stage an uprising and seize the reigns of power from the Protestant establishment.
The date was set for 5 November 1605 – the official opening of Parliament. Despite careful planning, the Plot was uncovered by the King’s men late in the night of 4 November. Over the next couple of days, Catesby and his men rode into the Midlands, relentlessly pursued by the authorities. On the night of 7 November, the group reached Holbeach House in Staffordshire, but were discovered by government forces. A brief gunfight left all conspirators injured, and Catesby with fatal wounds. Robert Catesby died with a picture of the Virgin Mary in his arms, devoted to the bitter end.
James I 1566–1625
Charles James Stuart was born on 19 June 1566 at Edinburgh Castle. He was born to Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband Lord Darnley at a time of extreme religious and political unrest in Scotland. His mother’s Catholic faith had brought her into conflict with the powerful Protestant Presbyterians. After James’s birth, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, who became James VI of Scotland at the age of one. A succession of regents acted as caretaker rulers until 1581 when, at the age of fifteen, James took control in his own right.
After the enforced abdication of his Catholic mother, James’s guardians ensured that he was educated in a strict Calvinist tradition. This move was calculated to further alienate the young King from his mother’s religious beliefs, while at the same time securing the success of the Scottish Reformation.
From early on, James set his sights on the English throne; as the grandson of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, he had a legitimate claim to it. If Elizabeth I of England were to die childless, James was the most likely successor. With a view to gaining favour with the ageing queen, James signed the Treaty of Berwick with her in 1586. The Treaty agreed that, should either country be invaded by the King of Spain’s Catholic forces, the other would come to its aid. The fact that the Treaty survived intact even after Elizabeth executed James’s mother the following year was indicative of the extent of James’s ambitions for the English Crown. James married Anne of Denmark in 1589. The union produced seven children, of whom only three (Henry, Charles and Elizabeth) survived into adulthood.
When Elizabeth I died in 1603, James finally realized his ambition to ascend to the throne of England. Despite the age-old rivalries which existed between the two nations, James’s succession was one of the smoothest transitions to power in English history, perhaps due to his reputation for being a tolerant and fair-minded king, or an English fatigue of religious strife. In any case, James VI of Scotland became James I of England largely unopposed. England and Scotland were now united, symbolically, under a common monarch. After this, James appeared to lose all interest in his native land, returning to Scotland only once, in 1617.
The Gunpowder Plot aside, James’s reign was notable for its political and religious stability. He also left the legacy of the King James Bible, a literary masterpiece, which had an enormous impact on the development of the English language. James also presided over the first tentative steps of British imperial expansion – he sanctioned the beginnings of the colonization of America, with the first British settlement named Jamestown in his honour. He died on 27 March 1625.
Robert 1568–1606 and Tom Wintour 1571–1606
The Wintour brothers (known also as Winter) were born in Worcestershire. Through their parents, George Wintour and Jane Ingleby, they had strong connections to the recusant nobility in the Midlands.
Robert was born in 1568, Tom in 1571. Being the eldest, Robert inherited the family estate when their father died. A devout, dependable character, he put his wealth to good use and earned a reputation for generosity. Tom, without the responsibility of running a large estate, was the more frivolous of the two, and exerted considerable influence over his calmer brother.
A close friend of Catesby, Tom had been involved in the failed Essex Rebellion of 1605. He was the first of the conspirators to learn of Catesby’s daring gunpowder scheme. Robert joined the conspiracy in March 1605. Tom was arrested at Holbeach House on 8 November 1605 while Robert eluded capture for two months before finally being arrested in January 1606.
The brothers were found guilty of treason on 27 January 1606. Robert was executed on 30 January in St Paul’s Churchyard. Tom died the next day in Old Palace Yard at Westminster.
John Grant c.1570–1606
Grant was a Catholic nobleman from Warwickshire, and owner of the impressive Norbrook, near Stratford-upon-Avon. He was brother-in-law to the Wintour brothers, having married their sister Dorothea. He had one child with Dorothea, a son named Wintour Grant.
He joined the Plot at the same time as Robert Wintour in March 1605. Catesby had big plans for Grant – had the conspirators been successful in blowing up their target, Grant was to be charged with kidnapping the Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey. Upon the Plot’s discovery, he fled to the Midlands with Catesby and his fellow plotters. Grant was blinded by the gunpowder explosion at Holbeach House on the night of 7 November, just a few hours before their arrest.
John Grant was found guilty of treason on 27 January 1606, and was executed on 30 January 1606 in St Paul’s Churchyard.
Jack 1568–1606 and Christopher Wright 1570–1606
The brothers Jack and Christopher (known as John and Kit) Wright were of similar age to the Wintours; Jack was born in 1568 and Christopher in 1570. They originated from Yorkshire, and attended St Peter’s Free School alongside Guy Fawkes and Oswald Tesimond; the latter was to be an influential Jesuit priest. Like many of the fellow plotters, the brothers had greatly suffered as a result of Elizabeth’s harsh recusancy laws – both their parents were imprisoned for lengthy periods for refusing to abandon their Catholic faith.
When Elizabeth fell ill in 1601, both brothers, along with Catesby and Francis Tresham, were imprisoned for a short time. Jack had also been involved in the ill-fated Essex Rebellion. Jack became aware of the conspiracy at the meeting at the Duck and Drake in May 1604, while Christopher joined the plotters in March 1605. Both brothers died during the shoot-out at Holbeach House on 8 November 1605.
Thomas Percy c.1560–1605
Thomas Percy, the eldest of all the conspirators and one of the five original members, was born around 1560. He had an impressive pedigree – it is believed that he was the great-grandson of the 4th Earl of Northumberland. He married Martha Wright (sister of Jack and Christopher) in 1591, with whom he had a daughter. The marriage, however, was unhappy, and they were separated by the time he became embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot.
Despite his Catholic proclivities, he was made a Gentleman Pensioner – one of 50 special bodyguards to the King – by his relative, the Earl of Northumberland. After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Northumberland paid a heavy price for this display of nepotism – he was falsely accused of complicity in the Treason and was jailed for fifteen years.
Thomas Percy was another who died in the battle at Holbeach House on 8 November 1605. He was felled by the same bullet that killed Robert Catesby.
Francis Tresham 1568–1605
Francis’s father was Sir Thomas Tresham, a leading Catholic recusant nobleman, who had seen a considerable decline in his fortune as a result of the fines levied on him during Elizabeth’s reign. Older cousin to Robert Catesby, they grew close during their formative years. Although not as militant as other recusants, Tresham did become embroiled in the failed Essex Rebellion of 1601. He was fined heavily for his involvement.
Tresham joined the conspiracy in September 1605. He was not as committed to the Plot as the others, and on at least one occasion tried to convince Catesby to abandon his plans. It is suspected that Tresham was the author of the letter to Lord Monteagle, which led to the Plot’s discovery. Francis Tresham was arrested in London on 12 November 1605. He died in prison on 23 December.
Ambrose Rookwood 1578–1606
Ambrose Rookwood’s parents were fined and imprisoned for their adherence to Catholicism, giving Rookwood first-hand experience of the negative impacts of the recusancy laws.
As a boy, he left England in secrecy to be educated by the Jesuits abroad, first in St Omer’s in France and then in Flanders. Rookwood and his wife Elizabeth Tyrwhitt had two sons, Robert and Henry. Rookwood inherited the family estate at Coldham Hall in Suffolk in 1600, which was often used as a refuge for Catholic priests. Rookwood was renowned for his skilled horsemanship and his enviable stable of exceptional horses.
In October 1604, Rookwood began supplying the plotters with gunpowder in the mistaken belief that it was destined for Catholic soldiers in Flanders. He was not enlightened as to the real target until September 1605. He was found guilty of treason on 27 January 1606, and was executed on 31 January in Old Palace Yard at Westminster.
Robert Keyes c.1565–1606
Born around 1565 in North Derbyshire, Robert Keyes was the son of a Protestant rector. His Catholic connections came from his mother, who was a member of the recusant clan, the Tyrwhitts. By 1604, he had converted to his mother’s religion. Unlike many of his co-conspirators, Keyes was not a wealthy man, but he enjoyed connections with Henry Mordaunt, the 4th Baron Mordaunt. Keyes’ wife, Christina, was governess to the Mordaunt children.
Keyes joined the Gunpowder Plot in October 1604. After the Plot’s discovery, he was the first to abandon Catesby and his co-conspirators to flee into the countryside, but was soon rounded up by the authorities. Robert Keyes was found guilty of treason on 27 January 1606, and executed on 31 January 1606 in Old Palace Yard, Westminster.
Thomas Bates c.1570–1606
Thomas Bates was born at Lapworth in Warwickshire. He was employed as a servant in the Catesby household, and lived with his wife Martha in a cottage on the Catesby estate. Bates was utterly devoted to Robert Catesby, and soon became Catesby’s most trusted servant.
Bates was let in on the Gunpowder Conspiracy in December 1605. No revolutionary, he went along with Catesby’s plans out of a misguided loyalty to his master.
After the Plot’s discovery, Bates escaped with Catesby and the others to Holbeach House. Panicked by the gunpowder explosion which had blinded John Grant, Bates fled on horseback. He did not elude capture for long; he was soon arrested by the Sheriff of Staffordshire and taken to the Tower of London. Bates was found guilty of treason on 27 January 1606, and was executed on 30 January 1606 in St Paul’s Churchyard.
Sir Everard Digby c.1578–1606
Although there is some debate as to the exact date, it is thought that Everard Digby was born in May 1578. Like Fawkes, he was born a Protestant and when his father died, he was brought up as the ward of another Protestant family. When Digby married Mary Mulshaw in 1596 her dowry – which included the Gayhurst estate in Buckinghamshire – greatly increased his material wealth.
Both Digby and his wife converted to Catholicism under the direction of the Jesuit priest, Father John Gerard. They practised their new faith in secret and provided shelter to many priests who were on the run from the authorities. Digby was knighted by James I on 23 April 1603.
He was the last to join the Gunpowder Conspiracy, learning of the Plot just a month before the planned attack. Sir Everard Digby was found guilty of treason on 27 January 1606, and was executed on 30 January 1606 in St Paul’s Churchyard.