Today is a largely forgotten day in the saga of the Gunpowder Plot because it is not as dramatic an anniversary as the 5th of November. It was on this date in 1605 that Robert Catesby, the actual leader of the Plot, died in a last ditch effort against 200 armed loyalists at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. A few years back I posted this about the Gunpowder Plot: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/the-gunpowder-plot/ If you are English you probably don’t need reminding about Guy Fawkes and whatnot. The day set to blow up Parliament was, of course, the 5th of November, but the Plot was uncovered on the night before, and Guy Fawkes was not exactly central. He was the fall guy (literally !!). The real instigator and leader of the Plot was Robert Catesby who tends to be forgotten because, although he set the wheels in motion, he was nowhere to be seen when the main events unfolded – nor were the other conspirators. In consequence their names are not household words, and their fate gets overlooked.
Robert Catesby was born around 1572, probably in Warwickshire, and educated at Oxford. Details are sketchy at best. His family were prominent recusant Catholics, and presumably to avoid swearing the Oath of Supremacy he left college before taking his degree. He married a Protestant in 1593 and fathered two children, one of whom survived birth and was baptized in a Protestant church. But in 1598, following the deaths of his father and his wife, he reverted to Catholicism. In 1601 he took part in the Essex Rebellion but was captured and fined, after which he sold his estate at Chastleton.
The Protestant James I and VI, who became King of England in 1603, was less tolerant of Catholicism than his followers had hoped. Catesby therefore planned to kill him by blowing up the House of Lords with gunpowder during the State Opening of Parliament, the prelude to a popular revolt during which a Catholic monarch would be restored to the English throne. Early in 1604 he began to recruit other Catholics to his cause, including Thomas Wintour, John Wright, Thomas Percy, and Guy Fawkes.
Catesby was described as a charismatic and influential man, as well as a religious zealot. Over several months he helped to bring a further eight conspirators into the plot: Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham. The precise date on which Catesby set events in motion is unknown, but it is likely that he first had the idea early in 1604. Around June of the previous year he was visited by his friend Thomas Percy. A great-grandson of the 4th Earl of Northumberland, Percy was reported to have had a “wild youth” before he became a Catholic, and during Elizabeth’s final years had been entrusted by the 9th Earl with a secret mission to James’s court in Scotland, to plead with the king on behalf of England’s Catholics. He now complained bitterly about what he considered to be James’s treachery, and threatened to kill him. Catesby replied “No, no, Tom, thou shalt not venture to small purpose, but if thou wilt be a traitor thou shalt be to some great advantage.” Percy listened while Catesby added “I am thinking of a most sure way and I will soon let thee know what it is.” On 31st October he sent for his cousin Thomas Wintour, who was at Huddington Court in Worcestershire with his brother Robert. Thomas was educated as a lawyer and had fought for England in the Low Countries, but in 1600 had converted to Catholicism. Following the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion, he had traveled to Spain to raise support for English Catholics, a mission which the authorities would later describe as comprising part of a ‘Spanish Treason.’ Although Thomas declined his invitation, Catesby again invited him in February the next year.
Although the State Opening of Parliament was planned for February 1605, concern over the plague meant that it would instead occur on 3 October. A contemporaneous government account says the plotters engaged in digging a tunnel beneath Parliament by December 1604, but no other evidence exists to prove this, and no trace of a tunnel has since been found. If the story is true, the plotters ceased their efforts when the tenancy to the undercroft beneath the House of Lords became available. Several months later, early in June 1605, Catesby met the principal Jesuit in England, Father Henry Garnet, on Thames Street in London. While discussing the war in Flanders, Catesby asked about the morality of “killing innocents.” Garnet said that such actions could often be excused, but according to his own account during a second meeting in July he showed Catesby a letter from the pope which forbade rebellion. Catesby replied, “Whatever I mean to do, if the Pope knew, he would not hinder for the general good of our country.” Father Garnet’s protestations prompted Catesby’s next reply, “I am not bound to take knowledge by you of the Pope’s will.” Soon after, Father Tesimond told Father Garnet that while taking Catesby’s confession he had learned of the plot. Father Garnet met with Catesby a third time on 24th July at White Webbs in Enfield Chase, the home of Catesby’s wealthy relative Anne Vaux, and a house long suspected by the government of harboring Jesuit priests. Without acknowledging that he was aware of the precise nature of the plot, the priest tried in vain to dissuade Catesby from his course.
A letter sent anonymously to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, alerted the authorities, and on the eve of the planned explosion, during a search of Parliament, Fawkes was found guarding the barrels of gunpowder. Late on Monday 4 November, before Fawkes’s arrest, Catesby had left for the Midlands to prepare for an uprising. When news of Fawkes’s arrest spread the next day, most of the conspirators still in London fled. Catesby’s party, ignorant of what was happening in London, paused at Dunstable when his horse lost a shoe. When Rookwood caught them up and broke to them the news of Fawkes’s arrest, the group, which now included Rookwood, Catesby, Bates, the Wright brothers and Percy, rode toward Dunchurch. At about 6:00 pm that evening they reached Catesby’s family home at Ashby St Ledgers, where his mother and Robert Wintour were staying. To keep his mother ignorant of their situation, Catesby sent a message asking Wintour to meet him at the edge of the town. The group continued to Dunchurch, where they met Digby with a hunting party and told them that the king was dead, thus persuading them to help with the planned uprising.
On 6 November they raided Warwick Castle for supplies, before continuing to Norbrook to collect stored weapons. From there they continued their journey to Huddington. Catesby gave Bates a letter to deliver to Father Garnet and the other priests at Coughton Court, informing them of what had transpired, and asking for their help in raising an army in Wales, where Catholic support was believed to be strong. The priest begged Catesby and his followers to stop their “wicked actions,” and to listen to the pope’s advice. Father Garnet fled, and managed to evade capture for several weeks. Catesby and the others arrived at Huddington at about 2:00 pm, and were met by Thomas Wintour. Terrified of being associated with the fugitives, family members and former friends showed them no sympathy.
Back in London, under torture, Fawkes had started to reveal what he knew, and on 7 November the government named Catesby as a wanted man. Early that morning at Huddington, the remaining outlaws went to confession, before taking the sacrament — perhaps a sign that none of them thought they had long to live. The party of fugitives, which included those at the center of the plot, their supporters and Digby’s hunting party, by now had dwindled to only 36. They continued through pouring rain to Hewell Grange, home of the young Lord Windsor. He was absent however, so they helped themselves to further arms, ammunition, and money. The locals were unsupportive; on hearing that Catesby’s party stood for “God and Country,” they replied that they were for “King James as well as God and Country.” The party reached Holbeche House, on the border of Staffordshire, at about 10:00 pm. Tired and desperate, they spread in front of the fire some of the now-soaked gunpowder taken from Hewell Grange, to dry out. Although gunpowder does not explode (unless physically contained), a spark from the fire landed on the powder and the resultant flames engulfed Catesby, Rookwood, Grant, and another man.
Catesby survived, although he was scorched. Digby left, ostensibly to give himself up, as did John Wintour. Thomas Bates fled, along with Robert Wintour. Remaining were Catesby (described as “reasonably well”), Rookwood, the Wright brothers, Percy and John Grant, who had been so badly injured that he lost his sight. They resolved to stay in the house and wait for the arrival of the king’s men. Catesby, believing his death to be near, kissed the gold crucifix he wore around his neck and said he had given everything for “the honour of the Cross.”
Richard Walsh, Sheriff of Worcester, and his company of 200 men besieged Holbeche House at about 11:00 am on 8 November. While crossing the courtyard Thomas Wintour was hit in the shoulder. John Wright was shot, followed by his brother, and then Rookwood. Catesby and Percy were reportedly both dropped by a single lucky shot, while standing near the door. Catesby managed to crawl inside the house, where his body was later found, clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary. This and his gold crucifix were sent to London, to demonstrate what “superstitious and Popish idols” had inspired the plotters. The survivors were taken into custody and the dead buried near Holbeche. On the orders of the Earl of Northampton however, the bodies of Catesby and Percy were exhumed and decapitated, the heads being taken to London and impaled on the side of the Parliament House.
I don’t think that in general one should celebrate conspiracy and death, but I have celebrated Bonfire Night for decades. Robert Catesby perhaps should get a tip of the hat alongside Guy Fawkes. I could give you a 17th century Stuart recipe but I think this would be a bit anachronistic. In 1605 cooking habits would still have followed Elizabethan customs. Here’s a recipe for Fartes of Portingale from The Good Huswives Handmaid, originally published in 1588 with editions printed also in 1594 and 1597. So the dish would have been current in Catesby’s time. “Fartes” sounds a bit strange for meatballs. I can find no reference to the word in old word lists except meaning, “break wind.” Curious, but maybe fitting for a traitor. I also give the next recipe for fystes which helps expand the first.
How to make Fartes of Portingale.
TAke a peece of a leg of Mutton, mince it smal and season it with cloues, Mace pepper and salt, and Dates minced with currans: then roll it into round rolles, and so into little balles, and so boyle them in a little beefe broth and so serue them foorth.
How to make Fystes of Portingale.
TAke some sweet suet minced small, the yolks of two egs, with grated bread and currans: temper al these together with a litle saffron, sinamon, ginger, and a litle salt: then seeth them in a litle Bastard or sack a little while: and when they haue boiled a litle take it vp, and cast some sugar to it, & so make bals of it as big as tennis balles, & lay foure or fiue in a dish, and powre on some of the broth that they were sodden in, and so serue them.
Portingale is Portugal, so apparently this was an Elizabethan cook’s idea of cooking in Portugal (a good Catholic country). The recipes are pretty easy to understand and are normal for Tudor cooking – lots of meat and fat with sweet spices and dried fruits. Our Christmas pudding and mincemeat are the last remnants of this style of cooking, though we now consider them as desserts whereas for the Tudors they would have been main dishes. Note that Tudor tennis balls were smaller than modern ones, but you are still looking to make big meatballs. They should be served in broth.