Great Lives - The Gunpowder Plotters

Before we go any further, it is perhaps important to clarify what we mean by Great Lives for this week's edition.

The death of Robert Catesby after the Gunpowder Plot conspirators' last stand against the royal authorities. A wood engraving from an 1832 American edition of John Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs.'
The death of Robert Catesby after the Gunpowder Plot conspirators' last stand against the royal authorities. A wood engraving from an 1832 American edition of John Foxe's 'Book of Martyrs.'

The word 'great' has many meanings. By strict definition, it means large, significant or important. Colloquially, it is commonly used as an expression of approval, for something or someone that we consider to be good. That is definitely not the case here.

Robert Catesby, Stephen Littleton, Thomas Percy and their friends are "great" in the sense that they played a significant role in the history of the nation, and this region in particular. But they were certainly not good. However appealing it may sound at times, blowing up the Houses of Parliament is definitely something that is rightly frowned upon by right-thinking members of society.

We are, of course, talking about the Gunpowder Plotters, who made their final stand in the heart of the West Midlands.

While Guy Fawkes is the one whose effigy will be burned on Friday night, in reality he was nothing more than a hired hand, a hit man if you like. It was Catesby, a wealthy aristocrat from Warwickshire, who was the ringleader. And it was at Littleton's house, in the heart of the Black Country, where the plot came to an inglorious end.

Born in Henley-in-Arden, Catesby had already come to the attention of the authorities in 1601 when he was jailed for his part in a previous rebellion led by the Earl of Essex. And it was later suspected he had been funding acts of terror for some years following his release from prison, but somehow managed to avoid the attention of the authorities.

The precise details – and indeed the spellings of their names – vary. But it appears that Stephen Littleton inherited Holbeche House, an imposing mansion in Wall Heath, near Dudley, after his grandfather Sir John Lyttelton decided to make it his home. Sir John was a constable of Dudley Castle and a prominent landowner who owned much of north Worcestershire and south Staffordshire. But his strict adherence to the Catholic faith saw him engaged in several brushes with the authorities.

Holbeche House at Wall Heath, near Dudley

Stephen was also related to another John Littleton, an MP who died in jail following the Essex rebellion, and his uncle Humphrey Lyttelton – a son of Sir John – was also embroiled in the plot.

England's Catholics were initially relieved following the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, with her successor King James initially seeming more tolerant towards Catholics. But growing terrorist activity, and a fear of his own assassination, led to the King adopting more repressive measures.

Catesby quickly lost patience with the new monarch, and it wasn't long before he was plotting again.

Described by British historian Antonia Fraser as having the mentality "of the crusader who does not hesitate to employ the sword in the cause of values which he considers are spiritual", Catesby was soon drawing his sword again. Or at least his gunpowder.

Fellow historian Mark Nicholls suggested that the failure of the Essex plot had sharpened his already well-honed antipathy towards the authorities.

Some time around June 1603, he met with his old friend Thomas Percy, grandson of the Fourth Earl of Northumberland. Percy reputedly converted to Catholicism after a wild youth, and in the last days of Elizabeth's reign had been dispatched to Scotland to plead the Catholic's case with the heir to the throne. James had appeared sympathetic, and Percy was said to be incandescent with rage at the betrayal, telling Catesby of his plan to kill the king.

But Catesby dissuaded him from carrying out his threat, advising him that he had something bigger in mind.

The following year, Catesby recruited brothers Robert and Thomas Wintour – also spelled Winter – of Huddington, near Droitwich, and it was at their house that he was introduced to Stephen Littleton and his uncle Humphrey. But while Catesby reckoned that the Littletons could be useful to his cause, he was thought not to trust them entirely. According to the Gunpowder Plot Society, they were not considered to be suitable for the principal engineering of the plot.

Instead, Catesby told the Littletons – or should that be the Lytteltons? – that he planned to raise a regiment to fight in Flanders, and offered Stephen a command post. "It is likely that until the events which followed, and the siege at Holbeche House, this was the extent of Stephen Littleton's knowledge of the plot," says the society.

Holbeche House, where the plotters made their last stand
Stephen Littleton and Robert Wintour were arrested at Hagley Hall
Stephen Littleton and Robert Wintour were arrested at Hagley Hall

Another early plotter was Yorkshireman John Wright, who moved his family to Lapworth, and the following year he was joined by his youngster brother Christopher, known as "Kit".

Sometime in early 1604, Catesby had outlined his plans to Thomas Wintour and John Wright to kill the King and his government by blowing up "the Parliament House with gunpowder". Wintour initially objected to the plan, but Catesby persuaded him to travel to mainland Europe to seek help. While in the Netherlands he met Guy Fawkes, who had been at school with the Wrights in York. Fawkes, a mercenary who had been fighting for the Spanish, had been away from England for many years, and had the advantage of being largely unknown at home.

In June 1604, Thomas Percy was promoted to a more prominent role, renting a house in London that belonged to John Whynniard, Keeper of the King's Wardrobe. Fawkes was installed as a caretaker and began using the pseudonym John Johnson, servant to Percy.

In his confession, Thomas Wintour said the conspirators initially attempted to dig a tunnel from beneath Whynniard's house to Parliament, although this story may have been a government fabrication. No evidence for the existence of a tunnel was presented by the prosecution, and no trace of one has ever been found.

What is known is that in December 1604 they chanced upon a widow who was clearing out an undercroft storage room immediately beneath the House of Lords. This was too good an opportunity for the plotters to turn down, and they bought the lease on the room which also belonged to John Whynniard.

Unused and filthy, it was considered an ideal hiding place for the gunpowder the plotters planned to store. According to Fawkes, 20 barrels of gunpowder were brought in at first, followed by 16 more on July 20. Their plans were delayed, however by the threat of plague, which meant the state opening of Parliament was postponed until November 5.

By this time, some of the conspirators had become concerned about fellow Catholics who would be present during the opening of Parliament. On the evening of October 26, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him to stay away, and to "retyre youre self into yowre contee whence yow maye expect the event in safti for ... they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament".

While the plotters soon became aware of the letter after being tipped off by one of Monteagle's servants, they decided to proceed, believing it was assumed to be a hoax. Fawkes checked the undercroft on October 30, and found nothing had been disturbed.

However Monteagle had shown the letter to the King, who ordered Sir Thomas Knyvet to conduct a search of the cellars beneath Parliament during the early hours of November 5. Fawkes was spotted leaving the cellar shortly after midnight, and arrested on the spot. Inside, the barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden under piles of firewood and coal.

Having heard of Fawkes's arrest, the remaining plotters beat a hasty retreat to Holbeche House, arriving on November 7.

Despite being tortured, Fawkes held out for two days before telling the authorities about his accomplices.

"Percy and Catesby slain in attempting their escape from Holbeach", by an unknown artist. Image courtesy of William Salt library in Stafford
The explosion at Holbeche - and engraving
The BBC series Gunpowder starred Kit Harrington as Robert Catesby and Edward Holcroft as Thomas Wintour

Wall Heath historian John Sparry, a leading expert on the plot, says he would almost certainly have been placed on the rack, something which has been denied by the British Government ever since.

En route to Holbeche, the plotters raided Warwick Castle for weapons. This would prove to be the conspirators' downfall, attracting the attention of the Sheriff of Warwick who sent 200 men in pursuit of them.

On their arrival at Holbeche House, the plotters prepared arms while Stephen Littleton and Robert Winter kept watch.

Unfortunately for them, their knowledge of handling explosives left a little to be desired. Having got their gunpowder wet while crossing the River Stour, they decided to dry it off in front of the fire. They might have got away with it had a spark not flown out of the fire, starting a huge explosion said to have blown the roof off the house.

Robert Wintour, and another of their followers called Thomas Bates, managed to flee the burning building. Catesby, who was badly burned, was not so lucky. He along with Thomas Percy, were killed in a shoot-out with the Sheriff's men – it is said they were both killed with the same shot. Another man, called John Grant, had his eyes "burnt out" in the blaze. The Wright brothers and some of their other supporters remained, but the game was up. It is said that the musket holes are still visible in the walls of Holbeche House, which is now a care home for the elderly.

Thomas Wintour and Stephen Littleton avoided the explosion, having left the house to seek the help of Robert Wintour's father-in-law Sir John Talbot, who lived at Pepperhill in Boningale, near Albrighton. On discovering what had happened, they fled to Humphrey Lyttelton's house at nearby Hagley Hall.

A warrant issued for the arrest of the fugitives on November 8 described the Littleton as being a very tall man, of "swarthy complexion, brown coloured hair, no beard or little, about 30".

They did not remain at large for long. They were arrested on January 9, 1606, after a cook who worked at Hagley Hall tipped off the authorities. Stephen Littleton was hanged in Stafford shortly after.

Humphrey Lyttelton, the owner of Hagley Hall, managed to escape, but was arrested a short distance away in Prestwood, between Kingswinford and Stourbridge.

He was hanged, drawn and quartered together with John Wintour, and two other men at Red Hill, near Worcester. John Perkes, the Hagley tenant farmer, and his servant Thomas Burford, were also executed for aiding the fugitives. It was a similar fate for farmers Thomas Smart and John Holyhead, both from Rowley Regis, who were hanged at Wolverhampton's High Green – now Queen Square – for shielding Wintour and Littleton.

Mr Sparry, who has spent decades giving talks about the plot, believes that Guy Fawkes probably suffered greater notoriety partly because he came from a more modest background than the others.

He says while the plot is a hugely important part of West Midland history, reports of what happened have to be treated with a degree of scepticism because history is recorded by the victors.

“We will never really know exactly what happened because we only have the Government’s side of the story due to the instigators being killed or tortured in awful ways," he says.

“In my opinion, Fawkes became the figurehead because he was the one found at Parliament and was taken to be tortured in the Tower of London.

"These times were awful so it wouldn’t have been very pleasant for him. They had terrible ways of torturing people for information.

“He wasn’t considered a gentlemen like some of the other men so it was easier to blame him.

“The Government encouraged it because they wanted the public to have an enemy and it took the pressure off."

George Cruikshank's illustration of Guy Fawkes, published in William Harrison Ainsworth's 1840 novel Guy Fawkes

Gunpowder Plot facts

  • The plot was to blow-up the Houses of Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder which had been stashed below the House of Lords on November 5, 2006, the day King James I was due to have performed the state opening.

  • Robert Catesby, the ringleader, was born circa circa March 3,1572 at Bushwood Hall in Henley-in-Arden. He died from gunshot wounds at Holbeche House, near Dudley, on November 8, 1605.

  • Guy Fawkes, born April 13, 1570 in York, was a mercenary who had been recruited by Thomas Wintour in the Netherlands, while fighting for the Spanish. He was caught red-handed next to the undercroft where the explosives were hidden during the early hours of November 5.

  • Thomas Wintour (b. 1571/2) and Stephen Littleton (born circa 1575) escaped before the firefight to seek the help of Robert Wintour's (b.1568) father-in-law Sir John Talbot (1545-1611) at Boningale in Shropshire. Talbot angrily turned them away, and they took refuge with Littleton's uncle Humphrey (b. 1576) at Hagley Hall, near Stourbridge. They were captured on January 9, 1606, after being betrayed by cook John Fynwood. Humphrey Lyttelton told the authorities that Edward Oldcorne was hiding at Hindlip Hall after he had given him mass. All four were executed.

  • The roads of the Charterfields estate in Kingswinford – one mile away from Holbeche – are named after those who were involved with the plot, with Catesby Drive as its centrepiece. Which, some may argue, is a bit like having a Bin Laden Avenue.

  • Thomas Smart and John Holyhead, tenant farmers at Hagley Hall who both lived in Rowley Regis, were hanged at Wolverhampton's High Green – now Queen Square – for shielding Wintour and Littleton.

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