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THE name of Guy Faukes has, by reason of the all-important part assigned to him in the conspiracy, become so closely identified with its formation and its direction, that we are apt nowadays to look upon him as the principal plotter, whereas he was really subordinate to another, whose name is not quite so familiar to the man in the street. This, the principal plotter, was Robert Catesby. It was, ab initio, Catesby's Conspiracy. It was from his restless brain that the idea of blowing up the House of Peers with gunpowder first emanated.[1]

Having laid his plans, Catesby looked round for confederates, upon whom he could implicitly rely, to help him; and, on his solicitation, they one after another promised to assist and obey him. He was from beginning to end the captain of the band. He hesitated at nothing to gain his own ends. Promises that he could not fulfil, statements about others that could not be true, he made from time to time with the utmost assurance. A lie was not a lie, if told in the interests of the plot. 'Master Catesby' complained Garnet, 'did me much wrong, and hath confessed that he told them he asked me a question in Queen Elizabeth's time of the powder action, and that I said it was lawful. All which is most untrue. He did it to draw in others.' A man of great courage and resolution, he possessed a wonderful power of making his friends both like and serve him. Utterly unscrupulous, he never repented. He never lost heart, and was always sanguine of success. Even when all was up, and his atrocious plans had utterly failed, he died game, falling in a desperate fight with the officers of the Crown, being determined that he should never be taken alive. He expired from his severe wounds, with his arms clasped round the feet of an image of the Virgin, to whose protection he had commended his sinful soul.

Robert Catesby was, as we have just shown, well fitted to be the promoter of so desperate an enterprise; and, indeed, he actually laid his plans with consummate skill; but his chances of success, nevertheless, were handicapped by one serious drawback, for the dangerous importance of which he did not make sufficient allowance, and on which I have already commented, namely, that in the ever open eyes of the Government he was a 'marked man.' His movements, as a fact, were watched constantly by spies, and a careful note was made of his associates. Such a man, therefore, was placed in a position of the greatest difficulty when called upon to move about London and the country on errands (in company with notorious recusants) requiring the utmost secrecy.

Born at Lapworth, Warwickshire, in the year 1573, Catesby was the only surviving son of Sir William Catesby by his wife Anne, a daughter of Sir Robert Throckmorton. He was lineally descended from the famous councillor (William Catesby) of King Richard III., whose name lives in the popular couplet

'The catte,[2] the ratte,[3] and Lovell [4] our dogge,
Ruleth all England under a hogge.'[5]

'Mr. Catesby,' says Father Gerard in his Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, 'was a gentleman of an ancient and great family in England, whose chief estate and dwelling was in Warwickshire, though his ancestors had much living in other shires also. Some of his ancestors had borne great sway in England. But commonly the greatest men are not the best. Some others hath been of great esteem for virtue, as, namely, one knight of his house was commonly known and called in all the country "good Sir William," of whom this memorable thing is recorded: that "when he had lived so long in the fear of God and works of charity, one time as he was walking in the fields, his good Angel appeared and showed him the anatomy of a dead man and willed him to prepare him, for he should die by such a time. The good knight, presently accepting of the message willingly, recommended himself with a fervent prayer unto our Blessed Lady in that place, and then went home and settled all his business both towards God and the world, and died at his time appointed."

'Mr. Catesby's estate in his father's time was great, above three thousand pounds[6] a year, which now were worth much more; but Sir William Catesby, his father, being a Catholic, and often in prison for his faith, suffered many losses, and much impaired his estate. This son of his, when he came to the living, was very wild, and as he kept company with the best noblemen of the land, so he spent much above his rate and so wasted also good part of his living. Some four or five years before Queen Elizabeth died, he was reclaimed from his wild courses.'

After his failure in the Essex rebellion,[7] Robert Catesby seems to have become a bigoted Romanist, and 'grew to be very much respected by the graver sort of Catholics, and of Priests, and of Religious also.' In personal appearance he was, according to Father Gerard, 'above two yards high, and though slender, yet so well-proportioned to his height as any man one should see. He married, in 1592, Catherine Leigh, of Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, but she died soon after the birth of their second son.[8]

From the date of his release from prison (after being fined three thousand pounds), in 1601, and after his recovery from his wounds incurred when fighting on behalf of Lord Essex, Catesby, compelled to sell his beautiful estate of Castleton to satisfy the fine, lived chiefly with his mother, at Ashby St. Legers.[9] Northamptonshire, till the year 1604, when he and Thomas Winter set about their preparations for the manufacture of the Gunpowder Plot. In asking others to help him, Catesby avowed that he was actuated only by the holiest and noblest motives in the cause of the Catholic religion; and, at his death, he 'protested solemnly it was only for the honour of the Cross, and the exaltation of that Faith which honoured the Cross, and for the saving of their souls in the same Faith, that had moved him to undertake the business; and sith he saw it was not God's will it should succeed in that manner they intended, or at that time, he was willing and ready to give his life for the same cause' (Gerard).

Such was the resolute Robert Catesby, the captain of the conspirators, a man of supreme courage, of winning manners and address, of great presence of mind in the hour of peril, of blind devotion to his religion, and of remarkable personal strength; but cruel and vindictive at heart, and one who was too sanguine of success to make sufficient allowance for the serious nature and number of the impediments which stood in his way.[10] He was, as became a chief of such a company, both an excellent swordsman and a good rider. By all the conspirators he seems to have been regarded with feelings of real affection, as he was by several of their intimates who were not actually engaged in the plot. Sir Everard Digby, at his trial, testified that no other man but Catesby could have obtained sufficient influence over him to have induced him to join such a conspiracy. Thomas Winter, Grant, Rookewood, and the Wrights, were all warmly attached to Catesby, and Rookewood, during his captivity, spoke of him in much the same terms as did Digby. Bates was his servant. Lord Mounteagle was an old friend. The ruffianly Sir Edmund Baynham, who was directed to inform the Pope of the plot (if it succeeded), acted under Catesby's orders. Guy Faukes he summoned 'out of Flanders.' That Catesby, villain though he was, must still have been a person of a peculiarly fascinating disposition to have wielded so subtle an influence over his fellows cannot be doubted. In point of energy and administrative ability, he stood out head and shoulders above all his confederates, and he alone amongst them was competent to put the conspiracy into working order, and to keep it so long strictly secret from the Government of King James I. Cruel and clever as he was, he ruled those under him with a hand of iron, and never hesitated to commit an act of violence, or concoct a lie, in order to place his subordinates more completely under his sway. He was, in truth, the most unscrupulous and reckless member of all the wicked men who had joined together to attempt a crime that ranks in the annals of history as the most atrocious ever devised by human brains.

  1. I cannot agree with the theory that it was Thomas Winter who put the idea into Catesby's head. All the original evidence tends to prove that Catesby was the founder of the plot.
  2. Catesby. He was captured at Bosworth, and beheaded.
  3. Sir Richard Ratcliffe, killed at Bosworth.
  4. Lord Lovel.
  5. Richard III.
  6. Equivalent to nearly thirty thousand pounds of our present money.
  7. Catesby was for a short time up at Oxford, at Gloucester Hall (Worcester College).
  8. The memoir of Catesby in Gillow's Bibliographical Dictionary of English Catholics is very inadequate. It ignores his marriage altogether, and the date of his birth.
  9. The house still stands, with an oak-panelled chamber over a gateway called 'the Plot Room.'
  10. One great mistake of his was the low estimate he formed of the craft and ability of Cecil.