‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot… ‘
In the early hours of Tuesday, 5 November, 1605, a small group of men headed by Sir Thomas Knevett were busy scouring the nooks and crannies of the Palace of Westminster in London. They approached a cellar and outside the door saw a tall figure with a dark cloak and hat and dressed for riding. He was immediately arrested. The man was Guy Fawkes.
Inside the vault, Knevett’s men uncovered thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, which during the opening of parliament that day Fawkes was to ignite, blowing the lords, king, and royal family to kingdom come.
But because of a tip-off ten days earlier, the plot failed.
Guy Fawkes has become one of English history’s most famous ill-doers. Though he wasn’t the leader of the conspiracy, he was far from just an ordinary guy (ahem) charged with guarding an undercroft, but rather one of the 13 main plotters led by the charismatic Robert Catesby.
With the plan scuppered, what happened to Guy and his co-conspirators?
Born in Warwickshire in 1567, Bates was a trusted family servant to Robert Catesby.
Hearing of the failure of the Westminster plot on 5 November, Bates, Catesby, and several others fled into Staffordshire via Warwick Castle. It was near Holbeach House, near Dudley, that Bates was captured.
Bates was charged with high treason and on the morning of Thursday 30 January 1606, he was taken from his cell in the Gatehouse Prison to the site of execution in St. Paul’s churchyard. He was tied to a wooden sledge and drawn through the streets. Bates’s wife Martha managed to push through the crowds and the armed guards to intercept her husband and embrace him on his panel of pain. Despite suffering, no doubt, pain, humiliation, and dread, he seized the opportunity to tell his wife of a secret stash of money.
Bates was the last of the four plotters to be executed that day. After Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, and John Grant had been dispatched, Bates was hanged and quartered.
Born in Warwickshire around 1572 into a prominent Catholic family, Robert Catesby was the ringleader and mastermind of the whole plot. Said to be a charismatic and capable leader, Catesby clearly had a magnetic personality, as many of his confederates said at their trials that they had joined the conspiracy out of love, friendship, and admiration for Catesby.
After news of Fawkes’s arrest broke, Catesby and several other conspirators such as the Wright brothers headed north both to evade capture and to drum up support among Catholics in the Midlands.
Evidently when push came to shove these notional allies thought better of challenging the king, so the much hoped for Midlands rebellion quickly evaporated to nothing. Catesby and his company arrived at Holbeach at about 10 in the evening of Thursday, 7 November.
About 11 the next morning, Sir Richard Walsh, High Sheriff of Worcestershire, who had been following the renegades, arrived at Holbeach with a force of 200 men.
Catesby and the other plotters there with him resigned to take a last stand and fight to the death.
Catesby and Thomas Percy stood together outside the door of the house, swords in hand, like a Stuart version of Butch and Sundance, and were then shot by a sniper hiding behind a tree.
The wounded Catesby crawled into the house, grabbed a picture of the Virgin Mary, kissed it, and died.
Catesby’s head was later mounted on an iron spike on London Bridge.
Sir Everard Digby
Born in around 1578, Catholic convert Digby was a tall, dashing gentleman accomplished in music and sport and a skilled man at arms.
Digby initially fled to Holbeach with the others but left soon after the 7 November arrival.
At around nine in the morning on 8 November, Digby was tracked to a hiding spot in a wood. ‘Here he is!’ bellowed the pursuer who’d located the knight. ‘Here he is indeed!’ shouted Digby as he broke cover and galloped towards his approaching enemies. But he knew he was done for, and he surrendered.
Digby was imprisoned in the Tower of London and then tried and found guilty.
On 30 January Digby, along with Bates, Grant, and Robert Wintour, was attached to a wooden hurdle and dragged by a horse through the crowd-lined streets to St. Paul’s churchyard, where he was the first to be hanged and quartered.
According to one contemporary account, clearly improbable, as the executioner cut out Digby’s heart and declared, ‘Here is the heart of a traitor!’, Digby was heard to exclaim, ‘Thou liest!’.
Guy Fawkes was born in York in 1570 to English Protestant parents, converted to Catholicism around the age of ten.
The idea to kill the king was first made known to Fawkes via Thomas Wintour, and Fawkes and Wintour left the Low Countries, where Fawkes was a soldier of fortune known as Guido, to meet with Catesby, Thomas Percy, and John Wright.
After his capture (which some accounts say happened in the cellar, others outside it, another in the street, and one in a house), he was immediately taken away for questioning. His calm resolve in his initial interrogation impressed even the king, who ordered that Fawkes be first subjected to the ‘gentler tortures’ before moving on to more severe methods. Torture was technically illegal in England at this time, but Fawkes was subjected to the ‘rack’, a device that stretched the victim’s limbs causing severe pain.
Probably the only powder plotter who was mistreated in the Tower, Fawkes suffered two days on the rack before he gave his real name, he confessed to the plot after four days, and after ten days he named his confederates, though by that point his fellow traitors had all either been killed or arrested.
After being tried and convicted, on 31 January 1606 Fawkes was taken to his place of execution at the yard of the Palace of Westminster and climbed the platform to endure the hangman’s noose, the ripping knife, the embowelling fork, and the butcher’s cleaver.
But Guy avoided these agonies by jumping from the top of the gallows with the noose around his throat, ruining the executioner’s fun by breaking his own neck.
His corpse went through the rest of the process, though, and his four sliced up quarters were displayed in different parts of the country.
Born in Warwickshire around 1570, John Grant was to play a key role in the Midlands leg of the conspiracy, which involved capturing the king’s daughter Princess Elizabeth and exciting a rebellion in and around his home turf.
Grant was one of the conspirators who ended up taking a stand at Holbeach House.
On arrival at the house on 7 November, the men laid out some wet gunpowder in front of the fire to dry. Smart move. A spark from the fire hit the powder and in the resulting explosion, Grant was blinded.
He was shot and wounded at Holbeach, captured by the sheriff, and later taken to London. He was executed along with Digby, Bates, and Robert Wintour, in St. Paul’s churchyard on 30 January 1606.
Keyes was born around 1565 in Derbyshire.
After fleeing London, he was captured in Warwickshire, tried, and sent to the scaffold on 31 January 1606.
Co-conspirator Keyes suffered perhaps one of the most excruciating and grizzly executions. At the scaffold, on climbing the ladder with the noose around his neck, he suddenly leapt off the gallows in the hope of creating enough force to snap his neck. This had the opposite effect, and the rope broke, sending him crashing to the floor but conscious. Thus, he was taken straight to the quartering block fully awake.
Born in about 1560, Percy attended Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and at one time was constable of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.
Wild and short-tempered, Percy killed a man in 1596.
After the plot’s discovery, Percy and John Wright, in riding furiously away from the capital, famously threw off their cloaks into a hedge to gain speed.
Percy was side by side with Catesby outside the front door of Holbeach House on that fateful Friday morning, 8 November 1605, when the sheriff came-a-knockin’ with a large posse of 200 men.
A sharpshooter, John Streete, shot and mortally wounded Percy, as well as Catesby.
Percy was severely wounded by the gunshots but took ‘three or four days’ to die.
Near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk is the grand Tudor manor house of Coldham Hall, currently owned by Claudia Schiffer and Matthew Vaughan. The old priest holes at the house are testament to the faith of the family that built and owned the estate for three centuries: the Rookwoods.
Ambrose Rookwood was born in 1578, son of Robert Rookwood, the builder of the grand ancestral seat.
Rookwood had many roles in the 5 November plan including setting up a route of relay horses for the plotters’ getaway. Rookwood ‘was beloved by all who knew him’ according to a contemporary.
During the attack at Holbeach Rookwood was wounded in four or five places but was captured. Tried and found guilty, on 31 January 1606 he was hauled through the streets of London on a wooden hurdle to his place of execution where, at the age of 27, he was strangled and butchered on the scaffold to a large crowd.
Francis Tresham was born about 1567 into a leading Northamptonshire family of recusant Catholics.
Despite Tresham’s track record of keen involvement in Catholic plots against the state, it was almost certainly he who was responsible for the famous Monteagle letter, the cryptic correspondence that warned his brother-in-law William Parker, Lord Monteagle, who, probably to Tresham’s great surprise and dismay, went to the king’s agents with the dispatch.
Tresham was already suspected of being involved by investigators but on 9 November Guy Fawkes, suffering on the rack, named Tresham as a confederate in the ‘powder treason’. However, it was three days after Fawkes’s fingering that Tresham was taken to the Tower of London. His tactic became apparent shortly after when he attempted to bamboozle the authorities with tales of how he was trying to thwart Catesby’s coup.
He was not believed.
Tresham was, like the other plotters except for Fawkes, well-treated in the Tower but after a time there his long-standing dickie bladder began to give him serious problems and he died there on 23 December. Labelled a traitor, he was attainted (family titles removed and lands forfeited, which happened to all the schemers) and his head was displayed at Northampton.
Robert and Thomas Wintour
Worcestershire brothers Robert and Thomas were educated, soldierly members of the landed gentry.
Once the game was up on 5 November, the Wintour brothers fled north with many of the others and found themselves at that famous, fateful place, Holbeach House.
On Friday 8 November Sir Richard Walsh and his forces descended on the Staffordshire abode of Stephen Littleton and in the ensuing affray Thomas Winter was shot and wounded by a crossbow.
His brother Robert had scarpered from Holbeach the night before with Littleton and did a decent job of evading capture, hiding in barns and small houses across Worcestershire before being captured in January.
Robert Wintour was found guilty at his trial at Westminster Hall and on 30 January 1606, he was taken to the churchyard of St. Paul’s and hanged and quartered on the scaffold. Thomas suffered the same fate the next day, spilling his guts and being chopped up alongside Keyes, Rookwood, and Fawkes at the yard of the old Palace of Westminster.
Christopher and John Wright
Yorkshire brothers John and Christopher were involved in the failed Essex’s Rebellion of 1601 against Elizabeth I, and in 1596 and 1603 the brothers were detained when the queen was ill, for supposed reasons of state security.
Christopher was born in about 1570 and John in 1568.
Thomas Percy was their brother-in-law, and the siblings were both close friends with Catesby, plunging headlong into the conspiracy from 1604.
Both brothers were present at Holbeach House with Catesby when Walsh and his men besieged the country pile on 8 November.
John Wright was shot and died on the spot, while Christopher Wright succumbed to his gunshot wound a day or two later.