That Dark and Doubtful Letter (Robert Catesby; and the Gunpowder Plot) Robert Catesby, known to his friends as Robin, was born in 1573, into a notoriously recusant family (Catholics who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy recognising the incumbent Monarch as the supreme head of the Church in England). Recusants were considered to be of a traitorous hue because their allegiances lay elsewhere; namely, with the Pope, or as he had been known in England since the reign of Henry VIII, the Bishop of Rome. Catesby's father had spent a considerable time in prison for harbouring the famous Jesuit, Father Edmund Campion. As a result the family fortune had been squandered paying innumerable fines. Despite their straitened circumstances it had still been possible to send the young Robert to Oxford University. However, he failed to graduate because of his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy, and he completed his education in Catholic France. He returned to England some years later as a committed and militant Catholic activist. In 1593, he married Catherine Leigh, a Protestant, which went some way to restoring the family fortune. Dashing and charismatic, Robert Catesby induced an intense loyalty in his friends. He was described at the time as being 6 ft tall and well proportioned, grave in manner but attractively so, and handsome of countenance. During the 1590's, he took great risks in sheltering a number of high-profile Jesuit Priests including Father's John Gerrard and Henry Garnet. Jesuits were banned from preaching, holding services, or providing Holy Communion in England. If caught they could expect to be executed, as could those sheltering them. On 6 February, 1601, he marched with the Earl of Essex in his rising against Queen Elizabeth. Fighting valiantly with sword in hand through the streets of London, he was captured in what turned out to be a disorganised rout. Deemed a foot soldier and not a major conspirator he escaped execution. But the episode taught him that regimes could be opposed by force if necessary. Catholics in England breathed a huge sigh of relief when Queen Elizabeth died in early 1603. The new King, after all, was the Scottish James VI, the son of the much-revered Catholic martyr, Mary Queen of Scots. They hoped, at the very least, for relief from the punitive measures imposed on them by the old regime. And was not James married to a Catholic, and had he not spoken of greater religious tolerance? They were to be sorely disappointed. James was an unequivocal Protestant and came down on hard on all forms of religious dissent, particularly Catholic requsancy. He increased their fines, expelled Catholic priests, and in what seemed the final straw, introduced a Bill to Parliament that would make all Catholics excommunicates. As excommunicates they would no longer be able to make their wills or dispose of their goods, no one would be obliged to repay debts to them, and they would no longer have the protection of the law. They had become effectively enemies of the State.
The Conspirators Catesby decided to act. He sent for his cousin, Thomas Wintour, and told him of the Gunpowder Plot. The people he believed wished to see the old religion restored. They would gather together loyal fellow Catholics, they would seek the blessing of the Jesuits, and they would do God's work. The Gunpowder Plot Catesby's plan was a simple one: He would blow up King James, Queen Ann, Henry, the Prince of Wales, and 4 year old Charles (the future Charles I) and everyone else present at the State opening of Parliament on 5 November, 1605. To facilitate this act of mass-genocide he Parliament and over time filled it with 36 barrels of gunpowder, more than enough to destroy the Parliament building twice over. Responsibility for its care and ultimately the lighting of its fuse fell to a heavily built soldier of fortune and Catholic fanatic, Guido (Guy) Fawkes. In the ensuing chaos following the explosion, Catesby and his fellow conspirators would return to their midlands base and rouse their fellow Catholics to rebellion. In the meantime a flying squad was to be sent to kidnap the young Princess Elizabeth (raised by her mother she was believed wrongly as it turned out, to be more sympathetic to their cause) and place her on the throne. The entire plan had a feeling of desperation about it, but Catesby was convinced of its ultimate success. After all, he had God on his side. The plotters now managed to rent a cellar immediately beneath the Parliament Building this would greatly increase the effectiveness of the explosion. Guy Fawkes, posing as John Jackson, a servant of Catesby's, busied himself moving the gunpowder into the cellar. Carefully he hid the barrels behind stacks of wood used for fuel. But the gunpowder would never be used the fuse would never be lit, for they had been betrayed. That Dark and Doubtful Letter
A tortured Guy Fawkes puts pen to paper Late in the evening of 26 October, 1605, a mysterious man delivered a letter to the London home of the Catholic Lord Monteagle. Strangely, rather than read it himself, Monteagle had the letter read out to him. It contained a warning not to attend the State opening of Parliament. It read: "My Lord, out of the love I bear for some of your friends I have care for your preservation. Therefore, I would advise you tender some excuse to shift your attendance of this Parliament for God and man have concurred to punish the wickedness of this time". Monteagle immediately took the letter to Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, James I's Secretary of State. The plot was discovered, or at least, revealed. Who had sent the letter? Who had betrayed Catesby and his friends? There are, any number of candidates. The most likely, or so it seemed at the time, was Sir Francis Tresham, a latecomer to the plot, and a cousin of Monteagle. He had previously shown himself lukewarm in his support, and later claimed at his trial that he had tried to get the plot postponed. Catesby certainly believed him responsible. Questioned by Catesby and Thomas Wintour, Tresham pleaded his innocence. Catesby was all for doing him great harm. Tresham was begging for his life, and he succeeded, but only just. It now seems likely that Tresham was indeed innocent. It now seems possible that the letter may well have been concocted by Monteagle himself. Assuredly aware of the plot through his Catholic connections no one benefited more from its revelation. Previously imprisoned for his role in the Essex rebellion
and a former recusant he was now lauded as the saviour of the Nation, and rewarded with a £2000 a year pension and a further £500 from rents. Whoever was to blame, the plotters had ceased to be the hunters and were now the prey. The Gunpowder Discovered Guy Fawkes was captured just after midnight on 5 November. A thorough search of the cellar revealed all the hidden barrels of gunpowder. Unable to explain his presence in the cellar and denying all knowledge of the gunpowder, Fawkes was placed under arrest. Interviewed personally by the King, Guy Fawkes stuck to his story, that he was John Jackson, a servant of Robert Catesby. But after being brutally tortured he eventually revealed all. When later an appalled King asked him how they could countenance killing the four year old Charles, Fawkes replied, "the nature of the disease requires so sharp a remedy". The Flight from London Those plotters still in London fled as fast as their horses would carry them. As planned they met up in the Midlands. The second phase of the plot had been to seize the Princess Elizabeth. This was now abandoned. Despite Catesby's assurances that the people would still rise up it soon became apparent that the plot was unravelling. Riding through the countryside they tried to rally support. They were met at best with indifference, but more often with open hostility. To the cry of "For God and Country", came the reply "around here we are for God, Country, and King James". At the home of Sir John Talbot, whom they believed to be a supporter, they were turned away with the words, "This is more than my life is worth. I pray get thee hence". Having failed to rally any significant support the plotters descended upon the home of a friend and supporter, Stephen Lytleton, Holbeche House in Staffordshire. Meanwhile Catesby continued to insist that the people would rally in their support once their aims became clear. In the meantime, he suggested they fortify Holbeche House to resist a siege. But no pressure was applied for the plotters to remain together. Sir Francis Tresham and Robert Keys had already departed, Robert Winter was in hiding, and Sir Everard Digby was roaming the countryside uncertain what to do. Only personal loyalty to the charismatic Catesby and a resignation to their fate kept the other plotters together. On 6 November, an unfortunate accident scuppered any chance they may have had of fortifying Holbeche to resist a siege. During their flight they had accrued munitions which had then been soaked in a downpour. In an effort to dry it as quickly as possible it had been placed in front of the fire, where a stray spark ignited it. In the explosion, Catesby, Sir Ambrose Rokewood, and Henry Morgan were injured. Lord John Grant was horribly mutilated, it being said his eyes had been burned out. At 11.00 am on 7 November, Holbeche House was surrounded by Sir John Walsh, the High Sheriff of Worcester, and 200 men. It was evident all was lost. When Tom Wintour asked "Why are we here?" he was answered with the words, "We are here to die". In the ferocious fire fight that followed, Jack and Kit Wright were shot and killed in the courtyard. Catesby, Wintour, Rokewood, and Sir Thomas Percy returned fire from the house. As the troops broke down the door, Tom Wintour remained at his friend Catesby's side. He had already lost the use of his right arm and feared he would be taken. Catesby said to him, "Stand by me, Mr Tom, and we will die together". Sir Thomas Percy now took his own life. As the troops broke in, Rokewood and Wintour were wounded and taken. Catesby had also been wounded, fatally. The house was by now ablaze. As he crawled away into another room, Catesby found a picture of the Virgin Mary, and clutching it to his breast he died. Sir Everard Digby, who had been wandering aimlessly around the countryside, was finally cornered hiding in a trench. On hearing the shouts of his jubilant pursuers "Here he is! Here he is!” He mounted his horse and replied, "Here I am. What then?" He then rode his horse Cavetting,
an advanced form of equestrianism; to the grandest person he could find and gave himself up. Robert Winter wasn't captured until two months later. None of the plotters were to escape. All were to suffer the fate put aside for traitors - to be hanged until choked, suffer live disembowelment, and to be decapitated. Their four quarters then to be put on public display as a warning and deterrence to others.