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THE death of Queen Elizabeth was hailed with joy by the English Roman Catholics, nearly all of whom looked forward to obtaining thereafter prompt relief from their persecution at the accession of the King of Scots. Over and over again, exasperated beyond measure by the fines and restrictions to which they were subjected under Walsingham and Burghley, they congratulated themselves that the 'Virgin Queen' could not live for ever, and with her death, no matter who might be her successor, would come the dawn of a brighter day.

It was, therefore, with mingled feelings of intense surprise, anger, and dejection that the Roman Catholics gradually found that the heir of Mary Stuart was not prepared to help them, and that under the tyranny of Burghley's son, Robert Cecil, their burdens, instead of being lightened, were to be made heavier. Goaded into fury by the cruelty of the new Government, many of the Romanists were prepared to have recourse to arms rather than submit to an increase of the taxation laid upon them. But the English Roman Catholics, as a body, strong as they were numerically, were divided among themselves. The majority were not inclined to adopt forcible measures until the last extremity, and looked with suspicion upon that section of their co-religionists who permitted themselves to be guided by the Jesuits, whose coming into England had already wrought such terrible harm to the Roman cause during the last twenty years of Elizabeth's reign.

It was from the Jesuitical party that the Gunpowder Plotters sprung. All of these conspirators were acquainted with Father Henry Garnet, the Superior of the Jesuits in England, and with the Jesuit Fathers Oldcorne, Greenway, Baldwin, and Gerard. To these Jesuits the conspirators, before the inception of their plot, were wont to betake themselves for counsel and direction in matters political and religious; and they became identified in due course with the schemes concocted by Father Robert Parsons for obtaining aid from Spain. Such schemes were heartily disliked by the great mass of the Roman Catholic laity, and by the secular priests, who cordially detested the Jesuits and their pupils. The power of the Jesuits was, as the loyal Romanists but too well perceived, a source of weakness to their cause and a source of strength to the King's Protestant advisers, who cleverly made the methods of the Jesuits an excuse for tarring the whole Roman Catholic body with the same brush, and for bringing all its members into disfavour with the Protestant public, insufficiently well-informed to know how to discriminate between the patriotic priests and the Spanish faction.

Most of the plotters had for a long time prior to the year 1605 been 'marked men' in the eyes of the Government.[1] They had been mixed up in more than one doubtful affair under Elizabeth, and had suffered for their temerity. In the rebellion of Lord Essex, Catesby had been wounded, and both he and his friend Tresham were heavily fined. Percy was also actively engaged in this absurd outbreak, as were Thomas Winter and the Wrights. Guy Faukes and Winter had gone to Spain to solicit military aid on behalf of the restoration of their religion in England. Of Grant, Father John Gerard, in his Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, bears witness that he was in the habit of 'paying pursuivants so well for their labour, not with crowns of gold, but with cracked crowns sometimes, and with dry bones instead of drink and other good cheer, that they durst not visit him any more unless they brought store of help with them.' Even Sir Everard Digby, too, had the courage to tell Lord Salisbury in writing that 'If you think fit to deal severely with the Catholics, within brief space there will be massacres, rebellions, and desperate attempts against the King and the State.'

It is extraordinary, therefore, that men, who must have well known with what dire suspicion they were regarded by the British Government, should have ventured to concoct one of the most audacious conspiracies ever known to the ancient or the modern world.[2]

Another extraordinary circumstance inviting comment is the social position of the conspirators. It would be imagined that men engaged in so desperate a business must have been drawn from the lower and poorer grades of society. Not so with the gunpowder conspirators, who were (with one exception) gentlemen by birth, whilst many of their number were possessed of ample fortunes. It was, indeed, pre-eminently an aristocratic company forming that little band of traitors which aimed at the destruction of the three estates of the Realm. Catesby, Tresham, Percy, Rookewood, Digby, and the Winters, were gentlemen Conspiratorspg19.jpgTHE CHIEF CONSPIRATORS. of illustrious lineage; whilst the elder Winter, Rookewood, Tresham, and Digby, were landed proprietors of large fortune. Several of them, moreover, were bound by domestic ties of so pleasant a nature as to render life and liberty especially dear to them; and the wives, for instance, of Digby and Rookewood were both young and handsome. How these men, therefore, should risk so much by taking part in such a hare-brained scheme, can only be explained by our knowledge of the terrible persecutions which they underwent at the hands of the Government. Otherwise the notion that courtly country gentlemen, of ancient race and ample fortune, could be induced to play the part of common cut-throats would seem incredible.

That King James himself had incurred personally the hatred of the conspirators is an important factor. They accused him of treachery, of having promised, in Scotland, to grant a measure of relief to the Romanists, and of having deliberately broken his solemn word on succeeding to the English throne, notwithstanding that his wife, Anne of Denmark, greatly favoured their oppressed religion.[3] That they had been grossly deceived, is patent from an examination of the list of names of the county families who hurried to the support of the Scottish King as soon as the breath was out of Elizabeth's body. Among these names we note members of the Romanist families of Tichborne, Throgmorton, Arundell, Stourton, Tresham, Townley, Talbot, and Howard. Bitter in the extreme was their vexation when they found that the fines for recusancy attained a higher figure early in 1605 than they had ever reached before.

Before entering into a discussion concerning the details connected with the construction of the plot, it will be advisable to furnish some account of the characters and careers of the plotters, whose lives are well worth the attention of the biographer. Of the thirteen men who arranged the plot, Robert Catesby was its founder, and I mention the others in chronological order, i.e. in accordance with their probable priority in becoming members of the conspiracy. Thus, after Catesby, I shall deal with them in the following sequence, viz.: Thomas Winter, John Wright, Guy Faukes, Thomas Percy, Christopher Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Robert Winter, Ambrose Rookewood, Sir Everard Digby, and Francis Tresham. In narrowing down this list to thirteen,[4] I am referring only to those who are known to have actually joined the plot, and to have taken the necessary oath, and not to other persons who were cognisant of its existence and its plans, such as Lord Mounteagle, Father Greenway, and Father Garnet.

As to the actual oath used by the conspirators, the ensuing is the official and generally received version of the text, but whether it is a strictly accurate version I rather venture to question—

'You shall swear by the Blessed Trinity, and by the Sacrament you now propose to receive, never to disclose directly or indirectly, by word or circumstance, the matter that shall be proposed to you to keep secret, nor desist from the execution thereof until the rest shall give you leave.'

From the terms of this oath it is plain, as additional evidence reveals, that it was the custom of the plotters to hear Mass and receive the Host on joining the conspiracy. The officiating priests seem always to have been Jesuits, but the best of them, Father John Gerard,[5] was ignorant of the actual existence of the plot. A man of rather more scrupulous character than his colleagues—Garnet, Hart, Baldwin, Oldcorne, or Greenway—it would not (as Sir Everard Digby confessed) have been prudent to inform him of this diabolical measure's being. In common with others of his Order employed on the English Mission, Father Gerard was a man of many pseudonyms, it not being safe for a Jesuit priest to travel in England under his own name. He was known under the various aliases of 'Brooke,' 'Lee' and 'Staunton.' Father Edward Oldcorne was generally called 'Mr. Hall,' but he also answered to the names of 'Vincent,' and 'Parker' when occasion served. Father Garnet was often known as 'Mr. Farmer' under which name he is mentioned in the correspondence of Sir Everard Digby, but he also made use of 'Darcey' 'Roberts' 'Meaze' 'Phillips' and 'Walley.' His adoption of the name of 'Farmer' has become famous owing to Shakespeare's reference to him in Macbeth (act ii., scene 2).

Porter. 'Here's a knocking, indeed! If a man were porter of Hell-Gate, he should have old turning the key. Knock, knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of Beelzebub?—Here's a "farmer," that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty.—Come in time; have napkins enow about you; here you'll sweat for it. Knock, knock! Who's there, i' the other devil's name? Faith, here's an "equivocator," that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to Heaven.—O, come in, Equivocator. Knock, knock, knock! Who's there? Faith, here's an English tailor come hither, for stealing out of a French hose.'

These references to the 'farmer' and the 'equivocator' are so pointed as to direct the reader's attention to Garnet, who in his notorious use of the Jesuit doctrine of 'mental reservation'—or, in plainer language, deliberate lying—reduced equivocation to a fine art. Moreover, Shakspeare seems to have been at work on Macbeth at about the time of Garnet's trial and execution. His colleague, Father Oswald Greenway, was principally known to his friends as 'Tesmond,' or 'Tesimond' although we find him often called 'Greenwell,' and sometimes 'Beaumont.'

From a review, therefore, of the circumstances as to how the plot was laid, it will be seen that the chief conspirators[6] engaged in the Powder Treason were gentlemen by birth and education, were bigoted and maltreated members of the Roman Catholic faith, were nearly all men of wealth,[7] were on terms of close acquaintance with the English priests of the Society of Jesus, and had been (for the most part) engaged in the Essex rebellion. They do not seem to have consorted, so far as we know, with the secular priests, the Jesuit's rivals, but associated constantly with Father Garnet and his colleagues. In the confessions of both Faukes and Winter, no name of any secular priest is mentioned, but the statement is recorded that (after the associates had taken 'a solemne oathe and vowe) they did receave the Sacrament of Gerrard the Jesuit . . . but he (Faukes) saith that Gerrard was not acquainted with their purpose.'[8] But, although no secular priest is found to have been concerned in the Gunpowder Treason, only two years before (1603), an English secular priest, named William Watson, was one of the principal leaders in the conspiracy known as the 'Bye Plot.' This William Watson was greatly disliked by the Jesuits,[9] who hastened (on hearing of Watson's part in it) to give information to the Government, with the result that the plotter's plans were frustrated, and Watson, with others, executed. Information of Watson's proceedings was given to Cecil by both Garnet and Gerard, who sought thereby to gain for their own society a better reputation in the eyes of the Government, and, at the same time, to deal a deadly blow at a strong party of their coreligionists that supported those of the secular clergy,[10] who resisted the assumption of ecclesiastical authority in England by the Society of Jesus.[11] The two plots, the 'Bye' and the 'Gunpowder' are worth comparing with regard to the positions of the Romanists involved in them, for in the first we find none of the pro-Jesuit faction implicated, whilst in the second we find none but pro-Jesuits represented.

  1. All of them were probably well known by sight to Cecil's spies, with the exception of Faukes. Bates was, perhaps, too insignificant a person to be suspected.
  2. 'And yet I am assured notwithstandinge, that the best sort of Catholics will bear all their losses with patience. But how these tyrannicall proceedings of such base officers may drive particuler men to desperate attempts, that I can not answer for'
    (Father Garnet to Father Parsons, Oct. 4, 1605).
  3. There seems to be no truth in the Jesuit tradition that she was actually received into the Church of Rome by Father Abercromby, S.J. A Carmelite monk, who knew her well, states that 'she died outside the true Church, although in heart a Catholic.'
  4. A significant number, especially as the thirteenth conspirator, the last to join, is generally considered to have been the traitor!
  5. This Father Gerard, S.J., must not be confused with the Father John Gerard, S.J., author of What was the Gunpowder Plot? (published in 1897).
  6. With the exception of the unfortunate Bates, Catesby's devoted servant.
  7. Even Catesby, who had spent his own fortune, was heir to property reversionary on the death of his mother, Lady Catesby.
  8. It is possible, but not probable, that Gerard was not the officiating priest, and that Faukes mistook another person for him.
  9. Watson was a man of very unprepossessing appearance. He squinted, and (according to a Jesuit) to such an extent that 'he looked nine ways at once.'
  10. There were two secular priests leaders in the 'Bye,' viz. : Watson and Clarke. Of these, Watson had been completely deceived by James's false promises to help the Romanists on his accession to the English throne. He was strongly opposed to the Jesuits' schemes for demanding the intervention of Spain
  11. 'Poor William Watson was betrayed by the man (Garnet) who, two years after, would not betray his friend Catesby; and the virulent opponent (Watson) of the Jesuits expiated his treason on the scaffold. To put this matter of Watson's fate in its true light, we must remember that almost at the very time Garnet informed against Watson, the Jesuits were participating in Wright's and Faukes's attempt to induce Philip to invade England' (Father Taunton's History of the Jesuits in England).