Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Whisper of Scandal bookmark 1 Nicola here! Actually I’m not here, I’m on holiday in Wales, out of internet range, so the other Wenches have generously offered to cover for me and take any comments and discussion on the blog today. I did however make a case of special pleading to write this blog because today is Guy Fawkes' Night in the UK, the night on which we celebrate with fireworks and bonfires the thwarting of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. It’s a very special day in the UK!

The Plot

It was the intention of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators to kill King James I and his eldest son and heir, Prince Henry, plus all the nobility sitting in the House of Lords and all the members of parliament sitting in the House of Commons. They wanted to put a Catholic monarch on the throne. The plot was thwarted when Henry Parker, 4th Lord Monteagle, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend parliament:

“My lord out of the love i beare to some of youere frends i have a caer of youer preseruacion therfor i would advyse yowe as yowe tender youer lyf to devys some excuse to shift of youer attendance at this parleament for god and man hath concurred to punishe the wickednes of this tyme… for thowghe theare be no appearance of anni stir yet i saye they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament and yet they shall not seie who hurts them…”

Monteagle was married to the sister of one of the Gunpowder Plotters, Thomas Tresham, so although the author of the letter was never identified it’s tempting to think Tresham was warning his family. Monteagle took the letter to Robert Cecil, who informed the King. The king ordered a search of the cellars at the Palace of Westminster. The plot was discovered and Monteagle became the hero who saved Parliament. He was rewarded to the sum of £700 a year – £500 in cash and £200 in the value of land donated to him. He invested the money in business ventures in Virginia.

The Figurehead

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Gunpowder Plot is what the plotters intended to happen if they Elizabeth of Bohenia had actually succeeded. Their aim was to put James I’s daughter Elizabeth on the throne as a Catholic figurehead. In 1605 the nine-year-old Elizabeth was living at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire.  Lord and Lady Harington, staunch Protestants, had been charged with "the keeping and education" of the young Princess, as was the wont with royal children in those days. At Coombe, Elizabeth was taught amongst other things, French and Italian, music and dancing. King James did not approve of the education of women, stating that: "to make women learned and foxes tame had the same effect – to make them more cunning." However I think we may assume that by most people's standards Elizabeth was very well educated.

In late October 1605 strange rumours of a plot to overthrow the monarchy were circulating in Warwickshire, which was a stronghold of Catholicism. Lord Harington was warned of a threat to the princess and Elizabeth was taken for her own safety to the city of Coventry, for it was suspected that she might be seized should a rebellion take place. She was lodged in the city with an armed guard. Later, after the gunpowder plotters had been arrested and tortured, it emerged that it had been their intention to kidnap "the person of the Lady Elizabeth, the king's daughter, in Warwickshire, and presently proclaim her queen." The plan had been to seize her from Coombe Abbey and carry her off to Ashby St Legers, a Catholic safe house and the home of Lady Catesby, mother of one of the conspirators.

It is said that when Elizabeth heard of the plot she declared that she would rather have died with her father and brother than become queen under such circumstances. What the plotters had intended to do with her brother Prince (later king) Charles is not clear. He would not have been in the parliament nor was there apparently any plan to seize him. Perhaps they simply had not thought that part of the plot through.

 The Conspirators

Gunpowder plotters The Catholic gentry who hatched the gunpowder plot were known as "the gentlemen of the sword." Robert Catesby, the ringleader, was considered very personable, a man of action and talented swordsman, but headstrong and sadly lacking in judgement. He was a man "afire" for the Catholic cause and constantly chose to wear red clothes to symbolise this.

Catesby drew his friend Thomas Percy into the plot, along with the Wright brothers, Christopher and John, who were notoriously "ready to draw sword at any opportunity." Catesby's cousins Thomas and Robert Winter were less eager to become involved in the plot, mainly because Thomas Winter had been a soldier and was accustomed to calculating risk. Blowing up the Houses of Parliament, Winter thought, would never succeed. As it turned out, he was right. The Winters, the Wrights, Catesby and Thomas Tresham were all related by marriage. Guy Fawkes was the outsider, a soldier and siege master who was experienced with explosives.

The Houses

As part of a "Guy Fawkes Tour" last year I visited as many of the gunpowder plotters' houses as I could, Coombe Abbey 1 to see the places where the conspiracy was hatched. Here is a selection of the houses. Some are open to the public, some privately owned.

Coombe Abbey, the childhood home of Princess Elizabeth, was my first port of call. It's now a luxury hotel and we were fortunate enough to be given the rooms that were originally Elizabeth's in the 17th century. Here I am at her bedroom window!

Coughton_Court This is Coughton Court. In 1605 it was occupied by the family of Sir Everard Digby, who was the man deputed to abduct the Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey. It was in the drawing-room of the Coughton Gatehouse that the news was broken to Lady Digby and other Catholic supporters that the plot had failed and the conspirators, including her husband, were on the run. The gatehouse still stands as it was in the seventeenth century and you can enter the drawing-room where Thomas Bates, Catesby's servant, broke the bad news.

Ashby St Ledgers was the principal residence of the Catesby family. It was at Ashby that the Ashby St Legers conspirators met to discuss the details of the Gunpowder Plot. They assembled in a room above the gatehouse that was private from the main house and also commanded a view of the surrounding area so that they were safe from the danger of sudden attack. Ashby St. Ledgers was also the place where Catesby amassed the armaments and gunpowder for use in the plot. The Gunpowder Plot Society relates that the "Gunpowder Plot Room" in the gatehouse "has its original panelling, and its atmosphere is such that it doesn't take much imagination to picture the plotters, sitting around, amid flickering candles, making their plans in here." I haven't managed to visit Ashby yet.

Lyveden One property far removed geographically from the focus of the Gunpowder Plot and yet devastatingly affected by the involvement of its wonder is Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire. Lyveden belonged to the Tresham family.  Sir Francis Tresham died in the Tower of London for his part in the Gunpowder Plot. The heavy recusant taxes paid by the family coupled with the disaster of Sir Francis's death meant that the Treshams were ruined and the house at Lyveden never completed. Today it stands as a 400 year old ruin to the memory of a plot that was foiled and the complicated tangle of family relationships and catholic loyalties that were destroyed as a result. It one of the most haunting places I have ever seen. Here is a picture of Lyveden and the free range chickens that we met there.

In the UK different places celebrate Bonfire Night in different ways, such as the famous spectacle of Fireworks rolling the flaming tar barrels down the streets of Ottery St Mary in Devon and the torchlit processions in Lewes. Do you have a favourite local or national celebration, with or without fireworks?