History explorer: The gunpowder plot

Dr Clare Jackson visits Coughton Court in Warwickshire, which played a key role in the conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605...

This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Despite its obvious size and grandeur, there is a certain intimacy to Coughton Court, home to the Throckmorton family since 1409. Walking up the main staircase, generations of Throckmortons stare down from their gilded frames – a deliberate celebration of what is said to be the oldest Catholic family in England.

In the drawing room – a light, airy space situated on the first floor of the central gatehouse – roundels and shields of heraldic glass commemorate dynastic marriages with other notable Catholic families. Next door, in what is known as the little drawing room, a 17th-century veneered cabinet opens to reveal a secret, mirrored recess, which was used during the celebration of Mass in a period where openly practising Catholicism was forbidden.

Indeed, above the drawing room, at the top of a winding set of stairs, the Tower Room with its wide windows from where unwelcome visitors could be spotted, was often employed for Catholic ceremonies. The double priest-hole in the room’s north-east turret (consisting of two hidden compartments, one above the other) would have been used as a hiding place for priests in times of trouble.

Keeping evidence of their faith from public eyes was of paramount importance when England was under Protestant rule, but the Throckmortons were thrust into the religious and political limelight when, in 1605, they became embroiled in one of the most famous assassination attempts in history.

The Tower Room at Coughton Court was used to celebrate Mass in secret. Its large windows meant that uninvited visitors could be seen before they reached the house. © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

“When we think of the gunpowder plot, it’s easy to imagine all the action taking place in Westminster, at the heart of government,” says author, historian and broadcaster Clare Jackson. “But the Midlands was where it all began, and it was here, at Coughton Court, that much of the planning took place, and where one of the conspirators, Sir Everard Digby, and his family were living, having rented the property from Thomas Throckmorton the previous year. Indeed, it was at Coughton that Digby sought to orchestrate a full-scale Catholic uprising across the Midlands – should the conspiracy prove successful.”

9 places associated with the Gunpowder Plot

The plot itself had its roots in the change of regime from Tudor to Stuart, in 1603, when James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England as James I following the death of Elizabeth I. Despite his strong Protestant faith, James – at first – appeared to be keen on promoting freedom of worship in his new combined kingdom. But legal toleration of the Catholic faith was not forthcoming and, says Jackson, horizons began to shrink for a lot of Catholics. While some were prepared to risk fines or even imprisonment by practising their faith – albeit in secret – a small group of aristocrats took decisive action.

“Historians still debate what the precise aims of the conspirators were,” says Jackson, “and a great deal of the evidence we do have has been reconstructed from some of the plotters’ testimonies and evidence given at later trials.

“As far as we can tell, the plot’s aim was to assassinate James and the royal family, but also to blow up parliament – the institution that had passed a series of anti-Catholic penal laws. It was hoped that in the chaos that would have followed the destruction of the country’s established system of government, a new Catholic state could emerge. What is less well known, perhaps, is that the plotters also planned to abduct James’s nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, from her residence at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, and set her up as a puppet ruler.”

Coughton’s painted canvas, known as the Tabula Eliensis (1596), gives details of Catholics imprisoned for their faith. © National Trust Images/John Hammond 

The plotters themselves were a small group of men, most of whom were in their mid-30s and from well-established Catholic families whose parents and grandparents had suffered greatly under the laws directed at Catholics who refused to attend Anglican services. Robert Catesby was the group’s leader – the charismatic son of Sir William Catesby of Lapworth and Anne Throckmorton of Coughton. At some point in 1604, he set about recruiting a group of co-conspirators who possessed the skills needed to pull off an operation on the scale of the gunpowder plot. Catesby’s cousins, Thomas and Robert Wintour, joined the conspiracy, as did Francis Tresham whose considerable wealth helped to finance the ambitious plan as it reached its later stages. Crucially, all of those involved were recruited for their connections, skills or experience.

In profile: Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes, the man who is synonymous with the gunpowder plot, had a different background to Catesby and his fellow conspirators. Fawkes had spent much of the 1590s and early 1600s on the continent and was, therefore, virtually unknown in England. His considerable experience in ballistics and his anonymity made Fawkes the perfect man to smuggle gunpowder into London.

The logistics of blowing up the Houses of Parliament without detection were considerable, and a number of plans were proposed and dismissed before the final strategy was decided upon. One of these involved the renting of a house on one side of the House of Lords, from which attempts to dig a tunnel for the gunpowder were made. Ultimately this proved too difficult and in March 1605, with the help of Thomas Percy, a kinsman of Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, the conspirators managed to rent a basement storeroom beneath the House of Lords. Slowly and stealthily over the following months, Guy Fawkes transferred gunpowder into the storeroom: by the time parliament opened on 5 November, 36 barrels were in place.

Henry Garnet was at Coughton Court when the plot was discovered and was executed for his part in it. © Bridgeman

 

Losing his nerve

“The weak link in the plotters’ circle was probably Francis Tresham”, says Clare Jackson. “He was evidently nervous about the plans from the start, and, according to his written confession, tried on a number of occasions to dissuade Catesby from carrying out his plans, even offering him money to go abroad.

“What happened next is still debated, but we do know that on 26 October 1605, Tresham’s brother-in-law, the Catholic nobleman Lord Monteagle, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend parliament’s opening on 5 November. Given his relationship to Monteagle, and his initial reluctance, it may well have been Tresham who supplied the tip-off and, in doing so, brought down the entire plot.”

The letter, which advised the earl to “shift your attendance at this parliament for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time” and warns that “they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them”, was immediately shown to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and one of the king’s most important ministers.

Although many members of parliament were initially sceptical of the alleged threat against them, King James, whose father Henry Stuart had been killed in a suspicious explosion in 1567, took the menace of gunpowder seriously, and ordered a search of the Commons. On the evening of 4 November, Fawkes was found with his stash of gunpowder, which had been concealed beneath iron bars and wood.

“Guy Fawkes remained amazingly resolute under questioning,” says Jackson, “giving away no information other than stating that his name was ‘John Johnson’, and declaring to an astonished king that ‘a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy’, and that his intentions had been ‘to blow the Scotsmen present back into Scotland’.”

What if Guy Fawkes had succeeded?

The other conspirators, meanwhile, had learned of the letter and had immediately suspected Tresham as its author, despite his denials. Unaware of the severity with which James was taking the threat, the decision was made to continue with the planned explosion. But on 5 November, the group was horrified to learn of Fawkes’s arrest and the plot’s discovery: the majority of them – including Catesby – fled to the Midlands.

The discovery of Coughton’s double priest - hole in 1858 revealed a folding leather altar, a palliasse (straw bed) and a rope ladder. © National Trust

Anxiously awaiting news of the plot’s success or failure were the families of the conspirators. “Among them,” says Jackson, “was Lady Mary Digby, husband of the plotter Sir Everard.

“In the early hours of 6 November, Catesby’s servant, Thomas Bates, clattered his horse over the moat bridge here at Coughton Court with news the awaiting families had been dreading. Among the small group who received Bates in the drawing room here was Lady Mary and Father Henry Garnet, the Catholic priest who had performed a secret mass for the Feast of All Saints in the house just a few days before.”

It was only a matter of time before the conspirators were caught. Some of them fled to Holbeche House (now a nursing home), just over 26 miles from Coughton. Here, ironically, Catesby and several others were injured in an explosion while trying to dry out their gunpowder in front of a fire in preparation for a showdown with the authorities. That showdown duly followed on 8 November when Catesby, Percy and two others were killed in a shoot-out with their pursuers.

Digby, Tresham and Bates were among those who were rounded up by the authorities over the following days while others, including Father Garnet, were arrested on suspicion of involvement. Lady Mary never saw her husband again: he, like most of the other conspirators, was publicly hanged, drawn and quartered. But although the plot to take out king and parliament had failed, we still ‘remember, remember, the fifth of November’ centuries after.

 

Five more places to explore

1) Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire

Where persecuted Catholics once hid

Baddesley Clinton was known as a haven for persecuted Catholics during the 1590s, and was home to Father Henry Garnet for nearly 14 years. The house boasts three priest-holes: one of these is a lath and plaster hutch in the roof above a closet. It measures 6ft 3ins by 4ft and is just 3ft 9ins high.

Visit nationaltrust.org.uk/baddesley-clinton

 

2) Syon House, London

Where a plotter dined

Built in the 16th century on the site of a medieval abbey, Syon House was purchased by Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland in 1594. Henry’s kinsman Thomas Percy dined here on 4 November, and later reported to his co-conspirators that all seemed well, and that the authorities were seemingly unaware of the plot. The house and grounds are open to the public.

Visit syonpark.co.uk

 

3) Guy Fawkes Inn, York

Where a failed regicide may have lived

Little is known of Guy Fawkes but he is believed to have been born in a house on the site of York’s Guy Fawkes Inn, in 1570. Fawkes was baptised at St Michael le Belfrey church in the city and went to fight in the Low Countries for Spain against Dutch Protestants as a young man.

Visit gfyork.com

 

4) Palace of Westminster, London

Where a massacre was averted

It was here, in a basement storeroom, that Guy Fawkes and 36 barrels of gunpowder were discovered on 4 November 1605. The room was destroyed during a fire in 1834, but the Houses of Parliament are still searched before the annual state opening of parliament. The lantern carried by Fawkes is held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Tours of parliament can be booked via the website.

Visit parliament.uk

 

5) Coombe Abbey Hotel, Warwickshire

Where a king’s daughter once lived

Princess Elizabeth, James VI and I’s second daughter, was living at Coombe Abbey when the plot was uncovered. She would have become a ‘puppet queen’ if plans to kill her family had been successful.

Visit coombeabbey.com

Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: Dr Clare Jackson, historian, author and broadcaster

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