By FREDA REES
WHAT was the Gunpowder Plot? Perhaps we shall never be quite certain whether it was the last bid of Catholics reduced to despair by their daily lot of fines and imprisonment, torture and death, or a scheme carefully planned by the Government, like other "plots" before it, as art excuse for crushing the faith for ever. From the Protestant point of view, its Success was complete. Henceforth there could he no doubt that Catholics "kill princes, sow sedition, blind the simple, abuse the honest, bereave the innocent, swear and foreswear."
EVEN today one goes in search of the Gunpowder Plotters with thoughts of dark and desperate criminals, inspired and egged on by the real villians of the piece, the Jesuits, who flit through the papers of the time like elusive black devils — and indeed (I speak as a convert) through the Protestant consciousness down to the present day, for the word "Jesuit" still has a slightly sinister ring.
But time has dealt kindly with the houses associated with the Plot. Today they dream quietly in the peace of the English countryside, each embodying the beauty of its own district, and only stirring in their sleep when another enquirer comes to awaken their memories, or an apparently solid wall swings open — as has happened at Huddington and Coughton in recent times — to reveal yet another hiding hole that no-one knew existed.
pERHAPS we should begin at Ashby St. Leger. a village of deep thatch and gold Northamptonshire stone. where the manor house stands at the far end of a great courtyard, with a gateway at the right leading to the church.
Here lived the Catesbys, servants of king and country for many generations. At the Reformation, like so many of the great families of the Midlands. they held to the old faith, and paid the price in crippling fines and the continual mental stress of knowing that at any moment it might mean imprisonment or death for themselves, their loved ones. or the heroic priests who came and went secretly by night to minister to them.
Sir William Catesby compounded for his fines by making over a fifth of his incometo the Queen, and his house at Bushwood in Warwickshire, which will figure later in the story, was probably sold on this account. But the Government vengeance was still unappeased; and together with his friends. Sir Thomas Tresham and Lord Vaux of Harrowelen, he was tried on suspicion of harbouring Blessed Edmund Campion, and committed to Ely Gaol for years, till his health broke down under the strain.
Oxford at 13
WILLIAM'S son Robert was not of a nature to suffer his wrongs as patiently as his father. He went to Oxford at 13, but was unable to take his degree because he could not swear the Oath of Supremacy. Strikingly brave and handsome, even for a Catesby. he "kept company with the best noblemen in the land and spent much above his rate."
But the successive deaths of his young wife, his father and one of his children wrought a profound change in him. He became deeply religious. had the Passion engraved on his sword. and devoted the rest of his life to the service of his faith.
But he never learnt the virtues of patience or obedience, and was always ready for any scheme. however wild. that he thought would improve the lot of Catholics. He was imprisoned and fined for his part in the Essex rebellion, and was put under precautionary arrest on the death of Elizabeth,
Whether the Gunpowder Plot originated with him we may never know, but he soon became fired with the idea of getting rid of all their persecutors in one dreadful explosion; and by his fatal charm and his quite false assertion that the Jesuits approved of the scheme he managed to persuade a small group of friends to join him.
PROMINENT among these were Thomas and Robert Winter of Huddington Hall, a Worcestershire house whose uneven timbering and twisted chimneys now rise above bright clumps of flowers and feathery pampas grass. The Winters too were caught in the struggle between Church and crown, and in the end decided for the faith. and maintained a priest, Father Hart. at Huddington, to the great comfort of their neighbours.
Thomas Winter was a fine scholar and linguist. and was engaged by the Catholics on missions to Spain and to Brussels to see if anything could be effected by diplomatic means before they
finally resorted to violence. We shall come back to Huddington too before the drama ends.
It would take too long to give an account of all the Plotters; but they included Francis Tresham. whose father had suffered with Catesby's, and Thomas Percy, cousin to the great Percys of Northumberland, who had special cause for bitterness against James since he had personally received the new king's promise of toleration at his accession.
Then there were the Yorkshiremen, John and Christopher Wright. whose mother had been imprisoned for the faith for 14 years. They were esteemed by Cateshy for their "valour and secrecy", arid now they rented the old Caresby home of Bushwood in order to be near the centre of operations, for the plan included a great rising of Catholics in the Midlands to replace the government that was to he destroyed. An attractive seventeenthcentury farmhouse, which may embody remains of the earlier building. now stands on the site of the rnoated hall that once gave shelter to Campion.
ANOTHER conspirator, Ambrose Rockwood, rented Clopton Hall, whose demure seventeenth century pediments conceal an interior that is far older.
Clopton has fascinating Shakesperian and recusant associations, but perhaps it is haunted most by the tragic figure of Rookwood, a devout and gentle young Catholic. He was drawn into the Plot by his love for Catesby, who needed his wealth and his fine horses, and overcame his initial horror by assuring him that the Catholic peers would be saved, and that the Jesuits knew all about. it.
A pathetic little list of his goods, left at Clopton and forfeit to the Crown at his death, still hangs in the Great Hall, It begins, typically, with a fine white horse, but then consists almost entirely of vestments, altar Plate and other "massing stuff", and ends with his own rosary.
Near to Clopton was Norbrook Manor, of which nothing now remains. This was the home of John Grant, brother-in-law of the Winters (most of the peat Catholic
families of the time were interrelated), whose courage made the pursuivants, for a change, go in fear of him, so that his house was regarded as the safest for the storing of arms and ammunition by the Plotters.
Into the low-beamed rooms of the old Lion Inn at Dunchurch (now a private house) there still seems to stride the handsome figure of another Plotter, Sir Everard Digby, who "dined alone" there on the evening of November 1rd before being joined by the "hunting party" of Catholic gentlemen who, it was hoped, would lead the rebellion in the Midlands, and seize the Princess Elizabeth from her guardian at nearby Cnombc Abbey. Here was another young life tragically squandered like R oakwood's. for Digby was brave and accomplished and beloved by all, and Father Gerard gives an enchanting account of how he brought back first his wife and then the husband to the old faith, and then watched with amusement while each tried to convert the other. Lady Digby had now been installed, with the Jesuit Superior Father Garnet and Father Tesi mond, at Coughton Court, from which the great Catholic family of Throckmortonhad prudently withdrawn tin the trouble died down.
BUT the Plot failed. The Government pamphleteers did their work so well that. even today, every schoolchild knows (in Cecil's version) how Guy Fawkes, a young Yorkshireman, enlisted for his dauntless courage, was discovered with the gunpowder in the cellar under the House of Lords. While Fawkes was being questioned by King and Council the others slipped out or London by ones and twos and made for Dunchurch, where they still hoped that the Midlands rising might he successful; and it is noteworthy that Catesby thought it necessary to lie to Digby again, and tell him that the London venture had succeeded and the King and Council had all been killed.
But they had misjudged their fellow-Catholics. One and all refused to have any part in so bloody a bosiness. The Plotters were shunned even by their friends; and it was a weary, desperate tittle hand of them who set off through the night for Huddington, stopping on the way for the arms that had been stored at Norbrook.
At dawn they passed near to Coughton, and Catesby sent his faithful old servant Bates (who later suffered with the rest) to give the news to the Fathers and Lady Digby. We can still look out of the mullioned windows of the great gatehouse along the drive up which he rode; and this might be a good point at which to consider what part the Jesuits, the "arch-conspirators", really had in the Plot Powerless FATHER GERARD, whose name was at the head of the Government proclamation, tells us solemnly that he had never heard of it at all until the news reached him in the same way as everybody else — "I had not the vaguest notion that any such scheme was afoot." Only his coolness and the devotion of his friends saved him from capture, and he went abroad while the first fury against the priests died down. Much more distressing was the position of Father 'Fesimond. Catesby revealed the Plot to him under the seal of confession, but Tesimond refused even to listen till Cateshy gave him leave to pass the information on, also under the seal, to Father Garnet, on whomui now fell the full burden of watching the unfolding of a tragedy which, because of the way he had heard it, he was powerless to prevent. III with anxiety, he did all he could in generalterms to point out the wickedeness of rebellion, and wrote begging the Pope to forbid all such schemes out of hand. But it was not till Bates arrived with the fateful news that he could say aloud "that I marvelled they would enter into such wicked actions, and not be ruled by the advice of friends and the order of His Holiness given to all."
At Iluddingtor that night the candlelight flickered on the tragic circle of faces as Robert Winter presided at their last meal together. All must have known that they had not long to live, and perhaps the Winters summed up the feelings of the rest when they scratched their names on a window with the words "Past eark, past care".
Before dawn all went to confession to Father Hart and received Communion, and then set out for Holheach, over the Staffordshire mn border. Here the Sheriff's e caught up with them, and Holbeach saw the end of the drama for many of them, for the attackers, shooting into the courtyard, killed first the Wrights and then Catesby and Percy. who stood back to back in a doorway. Catesby managed to crawl into the house and clasp a picture of Our Lady. and died "embracing and kissing the same".
pERHAPS their end was the more merciful, All the longdrawn agony of imprisonment and torture and the hideous death of traitors awaited the rest, and the dreadful story is only relieved by the faith and courage with which one and all met their end. Thomas Winter, urged by the mob round the scaffold to make a speech worthy of a scholar, replied that "This was no time to discourse, he had come to die, wherein he desired the prayers of all good Catholics".
Rookwood was encouraged in his tact painful journey on the hurdle by his heroic young wife, who urged him to offer himself wholly to the God who had given him to her. and to Whom she now restored him. Digby wrote verses in the Tower enshrining the radiant eagerness of his faith — "0 stay, my Lord, I come , • ."
But the innocent suffered with the guilty. and the Plot did irreparable damage to the Catholic cause that it had hoped to serve. The headquarters of Fathers Tesimond and Oldcorne at Hindlip Hall was betrayed to the Government; Father Tesimond escaped. but after a dramatic search of eleven days not only Father Oldconic was taken but also the superior, Father Garnet, and two lay brothers including "Little John". Father Oldcorne was tortured many times before being put to death at Worcester; and "Little John" was hung by his thumbs from a beam for hours, till he died under the torture without revealing the secret of one of the hides he had made.
But it was Father Garnetwho o But it was Father Garnetwho o
had the last word. Solemnly protesting 'his innocence on the scaffold, he begged all Catholics "to be quiet and not to be moved by any difficulties to the raising of tumults,
es so ac
es so ac
touts i hut to possess their n pee. not And God," he said, "will n be forgetful of them or of His promise, but will send them help and comfort when it is most to their good and His glory."