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.
Guy Fawkes was executed on 31 January 1606. Sinead Fitzgibbon offers a brief summary of his life, the Gunpowder Plot and his death.
Guy Fawkes was born in York around 13 April 1570. Although there is some uncertainty surrounding the exact date of his birth, church archives confirm that he was baptised on 16 April 1570 at the church of St Michael le Belfrey. His parents Edward and Edith Fawkes were Protestant, and as such, it is believed that Guy was raised in the Protestant faith.
When he was eight years old, the young Fawkes attended St Peter’s School in York. It was here that he first made the acquaintance of two brothers, Jack and Christopher Wright, who would become his comrades in the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament some thirty years later.
Like all good conspiracy stories, the tale of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is one that combines elements of mystery, intrigue, suspense and of course, deception. It is the story of a small band of disaffected Catholics who, unhappy with the constraints placed on their religion by Protestant monarchs, undertake to challenge the religious status quo by committing the ultimate act of terrorism – the destruction of both King and Parliament.
The Break From Rome
The malcontent felt by this group of would-be terrorists did not spring up overnight. In fact, the seeds had been sown some seventy years earlier during the reign of Henry VIII. During the 1530s Henry, in his desperation to divorce Catherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn, incurred the wrath of Rome by declaring that he, and not the Pope, was the Supreme Head of the Church in England. This act of defiance on Henry’s part culminated in England’s break from Rome and gave the new Protestant religion, which had been sweeping the Continent, a foothold in England.
Thanks to the legitimacy afforded to it by Henry VIII and subsequent Tudor monarchs (apart from a brief interlude during the reign of the staunchly Catholic Mary I), Protestantism became England’s official religion. Catholics were forced to abandon their allegiance to the Pope and instead accept the reigning monarch as leader of the Church. Anyone who refused to do this was viewed as a potential traitor to the Crown and was subjected to heavy fines, imprisonment or even death. In the face of such persecution, many Catholics were forced to practice their faith in secret. Tensions simmered and an insidious atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion and fear prevailed. It was against this sinister backdrop that the Gunpowder Plot was hatched.