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OF all the mysterious incidents enveloped in the traditional story of the Gunpowder Plot, none has taken so strong a hold upon the popular imagination as has the famous warning letter, undated and unsigned, written to Lord Mounteagle. The receipt of this letter by Mounteagle is generally understood to have formed the sole means whereby the plot was discovered, and the lives of King, Lords, and Commons were saved; but, as I hope to show later, the Government evidently had some knowledge of what was going on prior to the delivery of the letter to Mounteagle at Hoxton, on Saturday, October 26, 1605. At the same time, it is perhaps rather two wide a definition to refer to all the members of the Government as being possessors of this information. It would be more correct to name instead only Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, who seems to have known of the existence of the plot quite six weeks before the receipt of the letter. It may even be argued that he was aware of it as much as three months earlier.

But its authorship is not the only puzzle that awaits solution in connection with this letter, for the personal character of Lord Mounteagle himself is almost as much a puzzle.

William Parker, Lord Mounteagle, inherited his title in right of his mother, Elizabeth Stanley, heiress of the third Lord Mounteagle, or Monteagle. He was the eldest son of Henry Parker, Lord Morley, who died in 1618. Mounteagle did not succeed to his father's title until thirteen years after the plot, and he is always known to historians by his earlier title. It would, however, be more correct to call him Lord Morley, for he was summoned to Parliament before he died as Baron Morley and Mounteagle, of which the first-named was by far the oldest dignity. He was, at the date of the receipt of the mysterious letter, about thirty-one or thirty-two years of age, and had married a sister of Francis Tresham, the conspirator, in company with whom he had joined in the Essex rebellion, and had been very heavily fined for his pains. A personal friend of both Father Henry Garnet and Robert Catesby,[1] it is clear that he sanctioned the Jesuit missions to the King of Spain, and until the accession of James I., remained a staunch Roman Catholic of the faction directed by Garnet and his colleagues.

Why he should have suddenly changed his politics, and, ostensibly, at any rate, his religion on the accession of the King of Scots it is difficult to tell; but he undoubtedly proffered the most fervent protestations of loyalty to the new monarch, to whom he pretended that he wished to become a Protestant. But that he ever was anything but a Roman Catholic at heart need not be disputed. He merely conformed outwardly to the dominant faith for political reasons, and for the protection of his purse. In this position he did not stand alone, for there were then in England hundreds of prominent Roman Catholics who pursued the same course. On his death-bed he received the last rites of the Roman Church.

Notwithstanding his altered life, Mounteagle did not cease to keep up his friendship with Catesby, Tresham, and the Winters. In fact, he frequently met Catesby from the time of the construction of the plot down till the autumn of 1605.[2] This is a circumstance that has been conveniently ignored by those writers who maintain that he was not in any way privy to what was going on among his old allies. That he may, all the time, have been acting, as has been suggested, as a spy on the part of Cecil is probable; but it would, indeed, be strange if a person connected as he was by ties of blood and friendship with the chief conspirators, a friend of the Jesuits, and a participator with the chief of these conspirators in not one, but two or three former plots, should have been utterly unaware of this new design, invented and directed by a man to whom he was in the habit of writing in terms of the warmest admiration.

Late on Friday, October 25, Mounteagle gave orders that he would sup the following day at his house at Hoxton. This sudden notice seems to have surprised his servants. To Hoxton he and his household repaired, and when 'ready to go to supper at seven of the clock at night, one of his footmen, whom he had sent of an errand over the street, was met by an unknown man, of a reasonable tall personage, who delivered him a letter,' which letter was immediately brought to Mounteagle, who handed it to a gentleman in his household, named Warde, and told him to read it aloud. Its contents ran as follows[3]: 'my lord out of the love i beare to some of youer frends[4] i have a caer of youer preservacion therfor i would advyse yowe as yowe tender youer lyf to devyse some excuse to shift of youer attendance at this parleament for god and man hathe concurred to punishe the wickedness of this tyme and thinke not slightlye of this advertisment but retyere youre self into youre countri wheare yowe maye expect the event in safti for thowghe theare be no apparence of ani stir yet I say they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament and yet they shall not seie who hurrts them this councel is not to be contemned because it maye do yowe good and can do yowe no harme for the dangere is passed as soon as yowe have burnt the letter and i hope god will give yowe the grace to mak good use of it to whose holy proteccion I commend you.'

The ostentatious manner in which Mounteagle directed Warde—who was, it should be noted, an intimate friend of Thomas Winter—to read the letter, is in keeping with all his other actions in connection with this enigmatic epistle's arrival. By handing it to Warde to read aloud, he affected to pretend that such a letter was beneath his notice, and that he merely regarded the message as the production of a lunatic or a practical joker. Notwithstanding this apparent indifference, he hastily set out, after supper, for London, and gave the letter to Lord Salisbury, whom he found entertaining some of the principal Ministers of State, such as Suffolk, Northampton, Worcester, and Nottingham. The fact that all these statesmen were to be found late on a Saturday night with Cecil in London, clearly suggests that they had been brought together by Cecil for the special purpose of receiving this letter, the arrival of which was expected.

On October 27, Thomas Warde went secretly to his friend Winter, and informed him of the letter's delivery at Hoxton, and of its contents. Winter immediately communicated with Catesby. By letting Warde have the letter to read, Mounteagle evidently intended to allow the conspirators to know of their danger, for he naturally conjectured that Warde[5] would lose little time in putting himself into communication with his friend Winter. Thus, the eventual development of the situation came about precisely as Mounteagle had desired. By means of the letter, he was enabled to excuse himself from incurring deadly peril; he was enabled to enter into confidential relations with the all-powerful Salisbury; he was enabled, through the medium of Warde, to give warning to the conspirators at the very moment that he was bringing their treason to light, yet without in any way appearing to them in the guise of a traitor; and he was enabled to pose as the saviour of the nation.

So far, so good! Mounteagle, however, calculated that, after Warde had communicated with Winter, the conspirators would seek refuge in flight, and no blood, in consequence, would be shed of either Protestants or Roman Catholics. Such also were the calculations of Tresham. But both men, reasonable as were their anticipations of this result, were completely deceived. The conspirators, with almost incredible temerity, refused to budge, and awaited the completion of their plot.[6]

The authorship of the letter, strange to say, has never been discovered. Of the various claims made on behalf of certain persons, no convincing proof has ever been adduced in support of any one of them. That Percy was the author is not in the least likely. That the letter was not written by the person (or persons) who dictated, or inspired it, is almost certain. Neither Tresham, nor Mounteagle, would have been so foolish as to put pen to paper; yet either, or both, might have practically dictated it. According to one tradition, it was written by Anne Vaux, daughter of Lord Vaux, the faithful friend of Father Garnet; according to another, it was written by Mrs. Abington, another devout Roman Catholic lady friendly with the Jesuits, and sister to Lord Mounteagle.

That the letter was actually written by Father Oldcorne, S.J., is an unsupported theory, and it is not in his handwriting. I conclude that the letter was written very shortly after Tresham's futile visit to White Webbs; [7] for Tresham was not in London at the exact time of its delivery, and had evidently just gone into the country to establish an alibi should he, as indeed fell out, be taxed, later on, by Catesby or Winter with being concerned in its delivery.

After consulting with Mounteagle, the latter probably went to Lord Salisbury, and all arrangements were made accordingly. It may be argued that if Salisbury knew of the existence of the plot, why should he have exacted the performance of such a farce as the production of this letter? But all the evidence tends to show that the letter was designed for Mounteagle's own protection, and that he could see no other way of clearing himself from being considered a traitor to his friends than by obtaining an anonymous warning of the kind actually received. Whoever drew up the letter, or was responsible for its contents, did his work with consummate skill. It was quite a model of what such a letter should have been.[8] It mentioned, no names, no dates, no facts. Whether Lord Salisbury knew that Warde was to be made a party to knowing its contents is doubtful; and if Mounteagle wished to save his friends, as he probably did, without Salisbury's knowledge, his object was only defeated by the insane folly of the chief conspirators.

It is quite possible that some third person, whose name has never been revealed, was accessory to its construction. This third party may have been a priest. Rigid Roman Catholic as were all the persons involved in the conspiracy, such men, like all Jesuit-ridden individuals, would hardly have moved in any specially important undertaking without seeking the advice of their confessor. Tresham, therefore, probably consulted one of the Jesuits, either in or out of the confessional. Tresham's denial that he (Tresham) wrote the letter is, of course, valueless; for he naturally would never have confessed to an act which conduced to the capture of his friends. He was, moreover, an adept in the art of equivocation, in which he had been instructed by so proficient a tutor as Father Garnet himself. On his death-bed he astonished even Cecil by the recklessness of his perjury.

Meanwhile, to the ordinary reader of the traditional story, it must seem incredible that if on October 27 the leading conspirators realized that they had been betrayed, and if Cecil knew of the existence of their treason,—the conspirators should have proceeded with their scheme, with the Government making no attempt to arrest them. The reasons for both these extraordinary courses are easily forthcoming. Catesby, finding that no names had been mentioned in the letter, thought that Salisbury would never 'guess' the secret. He sent Faukes, apparently without telling him of the terrible risk he ran, to examine the premises beneath the Parliament House. Faukes reported he could tell, by means of certain secret marks invented by himself to discover whether the vault was visited in his absence, that nobody had approached the whereabouts of the gunpowder.

With this assurance Catesby was sufficiently satisfied as to abandon all idea of flight, little suspecting that Salisbury had completely outwitted him by postponing all action against the plotters until the eve of the very 'fifth' itself, in order to give his dupes time still further to incriminate themselves. The King, too, was out of town, and Lord Salisbury awaited his return from Royston[9] before taking the initiative. Salisbury, who was by this time, irrespective of the mysterious letter, cognisant of the whole scheme, still wished to conceal by what means he had become aware of the plot; and determined to flatter the King's vanity by giving him some broad hints whereby he might display his sagacity to the Court, and suggest that the vaults underneath the Parliament House should be searched.

That Lord Mounteagle must have been very deeply in Lord Salisbury's confidence before the receipt of the famous letter is not to be disputed. The rewards that were heaped upon him were extraordinary, and the money grants given to him would, according to our present value, work out to reach something like six thousand pounds per annum. But, if the Government had merely rewarded him for disclosing the letter, there would have existed little cause for comment. Yet the Government not merely rewarded him, but employed the most peculiar and coercive methods to prevent all knowledge of his former treasons being brought to light.[10] All knowledge of these former treasons were carefully concealed from the ordinary public, and in a signed statement by Thomas Winter, and a similar statement by Francis Tresham, both made during their captivity about four weeks after the letter had been given to Salisbury, Mounteagle's name (mentioned unfavourably by both conspirators) was carefully erased from the original documents; whilst,[11] to strengthen his position, Tresham, who must have been well aware of the true nature of Mounteagle's intimacy with Salisbury, died very suddenly whilst a captive in the Tower. His death was a lucky circumstance for Mounteagle, for that Tresham intended, unless his life were spared, to denounce his brother-in-law, is evident [12] Even so submissive a tool in Salisbury's service as Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower, has left on record the fact that 'Tresham's friends were marvellous confident, if he had escaped this sickness, and have given out words in this place that they feared not the course of justice.'

On November 1, Catesby (having sent for Tresham) interviewed him, in the presence of Thomas Winter, at Barnet. By both conspirators he was charged with having written the letter to Lord Mounteagle. He denied the accusation with many oaths, and they either were half persuaded to believe him, or from lack of evidence were unable to proceed further, and reluctantly let him go free. On November 3, however, another urgent message came from Warde; and this time to the effect that, so far from the contents of the letter having been ridiculed at head-quarters, as the plotters had vainly imagined, it had actually been taken to the King. Now thoroughly frightened, Catesby and Winter sent again for Tresham, who had endeavoured to avoid them, and met him after dusk near Lincoln's Inn. Tresham, at this interview,[13] threw off the mask which he had worn so long, and, denouncing the plot, implored all his confederates to leave England at once. From the substance of Tresham's words, Catesby and Winter were at last convinced that he had lied to them on both the previous interviews at White Webbs, and that he had betrayed them.

Even now, however, they refused to escape to the Continent, and determined, whatever happened to prevent the success of the Westminster part of the plot, to continue their preparations for heading a revolt in the Midlands.[14] The time was too short, moreover, to warn all their fellow-conspirators, some of whom were, of course, ignorant of the affair of the letter. It was finally settled that Faukes and Percy should remain in London, that Catesby should go into the country on the morrow, and that Winter should make ready to follow him, if necessary, a few hours after his departure. Keyes, Rookewood, and the Wrights were apparently to remain in London so long as they should think fit.

On November 4, early in the afternoon, Faukes whilst in his cellar was surprised by a sudden visit from Mounteagle[15] and the Lord Chamberlain,[16] who asked him to whom belonged this large store of fuel. Faukes, in the character of Percy's servant, replied that his master had need of so large a store. No attempt was made to look beneath the fuel, so that Faukes concluded that they had not suspected the presence of the powder, contained in thirty-six casks. Common sense, one would imagine, should have taught him that all, nevertheless, was discovered; but, faithful to the last, he stuck to his post, with the exception of a brief expedition undertaken to tell Percy of what had happened. Catesby and John Wright fled, thereupon, to join Digby, but the other conspirators remained.

At a little before midnight, Faukes was captured just outside the house, by a body of men under Sir Thomas Knyvet, and the gun-powder was discovered beneath the fuel. Thus were dissipated, before the Abbey clock boomed forth the hour which ushered in the morn of the eventful Fifth of November, 1605, all the vain and foolish hopes, which a handful of desperate fanatics had for so long cherished,[17] of destroying by one diabolical stroke, the power of Protestantism in Great Britain, for the purpose of restoring to its old and supreme position the fallen faith of Rome.

  1. In a letter to Catesby, he says, 'In what languishment have we led our life, since we departed from the dear Robin (Catesby), whose conversation gave us such warmth as we needed no other heat to maintain our health.' After further expressions of flattery, he signs himself 'Ever fast tied to your friendship, W. Mounteagle.'
  2. In July, 1605, he had a meeting with Garnet, Catesby, and Tresham, in Essex, and had that same September met Catesby at Bath.
  3. From the original at the Record Office. There is also a copy in Dom. S.P. James I., November, 1605, vol. xvi.
  4. The writer originally wrote 'you,' instead of 'some of your friends,' but erased the word.
  5. The exact state of the relations existing between Warde and some of the plotters is a mystery yet to be solved. Warde may have been entirely in his master's confidence, and may have expected the letter's arrival.
  6. They had a ship, hired for their use, then lying in the Thames, intended probably for Faukes to use after the explosion.
  7. It is possible that this meeting took place earlier in the month than I have recorded. Tresham was in London, or its vicinity, within twenty-four hours of the letter's delivery.
  8. 'As a plan concocted by Mounteagle and Tresham to stop the plot, and at the same time secure the escape of their guilty friends, the little comedy at Hoxton was admirably concocted' (Gardiner).
  9. The king did not return till October 31. When Salisbury took him the letter two days after his return, no third party was present at their first meeting.
  10. Especially at the trial of the conspirators, and at the trial of Garnet.
  11. In the originals at the Record Office, a slip of paper is pasted over Mounteagle's name.
  12. 'It is so lewdly given out that he (Mounteagle) was once of this plot of powder, and afterwards betrayed it all to me' (Salisbury's instructions to Coke).
  13. Winter also saw Tresham again on the following day.
  14. Some of the plotters, whose names are unknown, are said to have favoured flight, but were overruled by Percy and Catesby, both, as ever, confident of success.
  15. Both of these visitors, Mounteagle and the Lord Chamberlain, were intimate friends of Tresham.
  16. Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk; Knyvet, who captured Faukes, was his brother-in-law.
  17. 'When Faukes saw his Treason discovered, he instantly confessed his own guiltyness saying, if he had beene within the house when they first layed hands uppon him, hee would have blown up them, himselfe and all' (Stow).