Robert Catesby – the real brains behind the Gunpowder Plot

Unlike the notorious Guy Fawkes, the name Robert Catesby is not one familiar to many. This is rather surprising when one considers that it was in fact he, and not Fawkes, who was the principal architect of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Born in 1573 to a wealthy Catholic landowning family from Warwickshire, Robert Catesby (also known as Robin) was the only surviving son of Sir William Catesby and Anne Throckmorton. The Catesby family were highly respected and well-established. However, their Catholic faith meant that they were in constant conflict with England’s Protestant establishment. Robert’s father was subjected to crippling fines and frequent imprisonments for his recusant ways. It is not surprising, then, that the young Catesby adopted an anti-Protestant stance from a relatively young age.

It is believed that Robert studied for a time at a Jesuit seminary in Douai, where he was taught theology and classical languages. He also attended Oxford University but his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy (which declared Elizabeth I to be Supreme Head of the Church in England) meant that he left without gaining a degree.

Mrs Catesby

His marriage to Catherine Leigh in 1593 was a significant departure from Catesby’s vehemently Catholic stance. Catherine was a Protestant from a well-connected family.  The marriage was a happy one, with Catherine bearing Catesby two sons, one of whom died in infancy. Although Robert continued the recusant traditions of his family, his wife’s Protestantism shielded him from the full force of the severe recusancy laws which had so beset his father.

The year 1598 was a momentous one for Catesby. His father died, leaving his considerable fortune to his son.  The same year also saw the death of his beloved wife, a loss which was to profoundly affect Catesby and influence his future direction.  Grief-stricken, Catesby once more wholeheartedly embraced his faith, and from that point on, devoted his life to the Catholic cause.

The New King

When James I of England succeeded Elizabeth I in 1603, Catholics were hopeful that the new king would be more sympathetic to their plight. When this hope proved to be futile, Robert Catesby decided it was time for action. On 20 May 1604, he gathered together a group of cousins and close friends for a meeting in London. It was at this meeting that Catesby unveiled his plan to use copious amounts of gunpowder to blow up the Palace of Westminster. The attack would mean certain death for the new King, members of the Royal Family and the sitting Government. In the chaos which would inevitably follow, Catesby hoped that the oppressed Catholic nobility would stage an uprising and seize the reigns of power from the Protestant establishment.

The date was set for 5 November 1605 – the official opening of Parliament. Over the course of the next year, Catesby’s attack was meticulously planned. But it wasn’t to be. Late in the night of 4 November, the Plot was uncovered by the King’s men.  When news of the plot’s failure reached Catesby, he fled to the country with some of his fellow conspirators.

Over the next couple of days, Catesby and his men rode into the Midlands, relentlessly pursued by the authorities. On the night of 7 November, the group reached Holbeach House in Staffordshire, where their luck finally ran out. A group of around 200 government forces descended on their hiding place, and a brief gunfight ensued. All of the conspirators were injured, and Catesby was no exception. His wounds, however, proved fatal. Before he died, Robert Catesby managed to escape the fracas into the house, where he found a picture of the Virgin Mary. He died on 8 November with it in his arms, utterly devoted to his faith to the bitter end.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

The Gunpowder Plot: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press, is available in various digital formats

See also Sinead’s articles on Guy Fawkes and James I.

See also Sinead’s blog.

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