Saturday, May 6, 2017

Who was Robert Catesby? A look at the real Man Behind the Mask

by Linda Root

Why May and not November?

One would expect a post about the mastermind behind the Gunpowder Treason to appear on November 5 rather than in May, but like so much else about the plot, it had not been planned for November. The original plot was to be sprung in February and designed to reach fruition by the end of spring.

Had the conspiracy gone forward as originally projected, by the end of May  James I would be dead, the crown would be tottering on the head of his nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth, the Earl of Northumberland or some other peer sympathetic to the Catholic cause would be Protector of the Realm, and the man who is widely blamed for it all--Guy Fawkes-- would have been in the Spanish Netherlands explaining the necessity for the regicide to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella.

Then the king went and ruined it all by delaying the opening of parliament until autumn because he feared the lingering plague, unaware of greater dangers lurking.

In the months between the Spring of 1605 and infamous November 5, the original plan was refined and in a sense, improved, but it was also weakened as the circle of conspirators expanded. Then, on October 26, 1605, William Parker, Lord Monteagle, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament. According to traditional histories, he passed the letter on to Robert Cecil, then known as Salisbury,  and consequently saved the day.

National Archives -{{US-Public domain - expired copyright.}}
Or did he?
There is an alternative history that propounds a different theory --one in which Cecil had been watching Guido (aka Guy) Fawkes for months based on warnings from English spies in the Netherlands who had documented his visits there. Fawkes had been placed on Cecil's watch list, and thus, Cecil had been aware of the plot all along. He simply had not acted  until he had  conceived of a way to net all of the culprits and designed a way to implicate the Jesuits in the evil deed.

According to that version, the Monteagle letter was a hoax concocted by Cecil and Lord Monteagle, taking advantage of one of the plotters who was Monteagle's relative, a cousin who had spilled the beans to Parker. The authorship of the letter was pinned on him and he mysteriously died of poison while languishing in the Tower, a very convenient act of damage control if Cecil actually was behind the ruse.

Lord Monteagle benefited from grants of interests in England's overseas enterprises at the cost of the life of a mere cousin. In the aftermath, Cecil got his vengeance against England's leading Jesuits, Catholics were again persecuted by a less tolerant King James than the one who had arrived from Holyrood two years earlier, and the false hero Monteagle got to keep the change.

So, how did Guy Fawkes figure in all of this?

The statement that Guy Fawkes almost blew up Parliament is about as accurate as when those of us who are Americans call George Washington the father of our country or claim that Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War to free the slaves. There is much more to the Gun Powder Treason than a conspiracy to bring down the government, and it involves issues that plague us today. To put the caper at the feet of Guy Fawkes is about as complete an analysis as blaming 9/11 on Abdulaziz-a-Omari. How many readers recognize the name well enough to identify what part Omari played in it? Likewise, Fawkes was not the instigator of the Gunpowder Plot--he was the bloke who got caught.

Public Domain -Anonymous, from work already in the public domain.

Fawkes had two specific roles to play, both of them suited to his talents. His experience as a soldier made him the ideal choice when it came to spreading the explosives and lighting the fuse. But he also was a veteran of the wars waged against the rebellious Dutch, and in the Spanish Netherlands he was regarded as a loyal Catholic soldier whose interests aligned with those of Spain.

His projected duties went well beyond the event planned at Westminster. In modern terms, he was the conspirators' public relations man. His role was to plant the seed before the explosion and after the deed was done, market it to the crowned heads of Europe in the least offensive terms imaginable.

He was suited to the task because during the time he had spent in Flanders he had established many friendships among the Catholic English exiles and had performed well in services of the Spanish in their war against the Dutch. He had comported himself with honor and bravery exceptional in a mercenary,  and thus would be a persuasive apologist  in defense of what would otherwise appear a heartless regicide.

His was an important mission, designed to combat two features of the Gunpowder Plot that made it particularly odious.

 First, it threatened the concept of Divine Right of Monarchy, a fact certain to offend Philip III and Henry IV as well as the Archdukes Albert and Isabella Clara Eugenia, co-rulers of the Spanish Netherlands. Killing kings was the job of other kings and to be done with honor, not by knaves hunkering in dark basements stockpiled with explosives.

The other troublesome feature of the Gunpowder Treason is what we call collateral damage, and collateral damage of the worst kind, because among the intended victims would be women and children and many souls sympathetic to the conspirators. It was the aspect of the plot that even the most radical among the group found difficult to accept and for which they sought counsel from representatives of the Pope.  It was Fawkes' assigned duty to minimize the stigma by spreading the doctrine that had evolved as the plot progressed--the concept of necessary evil.

In spreading the propaganda, Fawkes was not the orchestrator but the messenger. Blaming him is like blaming a guy named Bernard Barker for Watergate.

Exclusive image: ID 16858073 © Steve Allen | 

Who was Robert Catesby?

Fawkes was a principal in the commission of the crime, but he was not the mastermind. That dishonor falls on the head of a man named Robert Catesby. He doesn't have a day named for him. No one goes running about on November 5 in a Robert Catesby Mask. No one stages public protests in his name, and to my knowledge, no one burns him in effigy. He was never tried of convicted or racked or disemboweled. He was fortunate to get himself killed while trying to escape arrest.

He was the ringleader, a member of the landed gentry, as were most of the others. And while he was firm in his Catholic faith, there was nothing that pointed him out as a man who would kill a king. He was known to be one of many recusants but he was not considered instrumental in any current Papist plot.

Catesby was an Oxford man who left before graduation, apparently to avoid having to take the Oath of Supremacy that would have forced him to betray his faith. He had taken part in the Essex Rebellion of 1601, and escaped Elizabeth's wrath by paying a substantial fine  that caused him to divest himself of his estate. By the time of Elizabeth Tudor's death, he had become radicalized. When hopes that James would lift restrictions on the mass when he ascended to the English throne in 1603 were dashed, Catesby decided it was time to act.

Ashby-Saint -Ledgers, home of Anne Catesby - Wikimedia Commons, P.D.

Parts of his early planning occurred at the family estate at Ashby-Saint Ledgers, Catesby's mother's home. It was centrally located to the residences of  the others he had drawn into the plot.

Among his earliest recruits were men he knew from the Essex Rebellion. Clearly it was Catesby and never Fawkes who was the principal in the evolving plot. And as other men were brought into it, it was Catesby who had the final word as to their suitability to join. Fawkes was accepted into the group  by virtue of his devout Catholicism, his contacts in Europe and his military expertise. When the Parliament set for February 1605 was cancelled due to the king's fear of plague in London, the plot had expanded from the original five--Catesby, Thomas Wintour, John Wright, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes-- into one involving a group of thirteen men, many of whom were aristocrats.

The thirteen Gunpowder Plot conspirators- Wikimedia Commons-P.D.

The plan called for most of the participants to be far away in the Midlands when the Houses of Parliament exploded,which of course resulted in Fawkes being caught with the power keg. Part of the gang was posing as a hunting party near the manor house where the Princess Elisabeth resided. Their objective was to take possession of the princess and make her titular queen, possibly under a regency with the Earl of Northumberland as Protector.

News of Fawkes' arrest sent them into flight. When news of Fawkes's capture and the discovery of the explosives reached Catesby, he lied about it to his followers and those he hoped to recruit to his cause, declaring that the king was dead. When that deception failed, he changed his tactics and sought to build his own revolt. When he declared that his rebel group stood for God and Country, a resident of the village he tried to bring into his ranks replied, "We stand for King, God and Country." That indeed was the prevalent sentiment.

 It was not the first time that radical Catholic dissidents misjudged the sentiments of England's moderate Catholics. From the time when Catholic dissidents colluded with the King of Spain to place imprisoned Marie Stuart on the English throne, the loyalty of most English to their sovereign was underestimated.

Sadly, it was not the first time that moderates became the scapegoat of the royal wrath. After all, many English peers, protestant and Catholic, some with their wives and families in attendance,  were scheduled to attend the opening day of Parliament, including not just the king, but Queen Anne, the formidable and much admired Prince of Wales Henry Frederick and possibly the frail five year old Charles, Duke of York, who at last had learned to walk.  It is the strike against their own coreligionists and the entire royal household that so inflamed not just James but the common English.

In judging the heat of their passion, one recalls that the concept of a royal family was a new thing in the life experience of English men and women of the time. Elizabeth had been an independent childless woman. Her closest relatives were cousins, nephews and nieces. The Stuarts were still a romantic phenomena to the average English man and woman.  The plotters had attacked a popular new institution - that of the Royal Family.

While James opened the following year's Parliament with conciliatory words and assured the Catholic kings of Europe that he bore no ill will to his common Catholics, his policy of looking through his fingers at the activities of recusants ended. Thus, the plotters were defeated  in principal as well as in design.

One died and another was blinded in an accidental fire when gunpowder moved from other locations to Holbeche House in Staffordshire caught fire. Others, including Catesby, died the following day when the Sheriff of Worchester arrived with 200 armed men with no intention of extending leniency. Many depictions show Catesby being injured in close combat, but most historians report that he was shot.

Public Doman Art ((US)) -
Anonymous drawing of the death of Robert Catesby,
Wikimedea Commons 
Some say he died clutching a small statue of the virgin or at a larger statute of the virgin's feet. The men who died at Holbeche House were luckier than the survivors who suffered the indignities and horrors of a traitor's death. 

Fawkes did not give up his comrades until he was tortured by increasingly gruesome means. Others who were only peripheral to the plot also suffered. The mighty Earl of Northumberland was imprisoned in the Latham Tower for his association with his cousin Thomas Percy, one of the original five, with whom he had lunched on November 4th. Thomas Percy had died along with Catesby, some say from the same bullet, leaving no one to condemn or exonerate the earl, who eventually was released upon levy of a substantial fine but who never  regained his former prominence.

A second version shows Caesby in close combat over the death of his comrade Percy. Public Domain from Wikimedia Commons {{US-Art}}Add caption

The Death of Guy Fawkes:

King James personally participated at the initial interrogations of Fawkes,who was arrested under an alias he commonly used--John Johnston. James approved the use of what was called 'the gentle tortures' at first, and eventually allowed the more severe. Fawkes held out until he had been racked repeatedly, and when he did confess, his former proud signature was barely legible.

He met his death as he had lived his life, in the manner of a soldier. When Guy Fawkes and the others who suffered with him were taken to their place of execution at a site within view of the Houses of Parliament, unlike the others, Fawkes died from a broken back during his hanging and was dead before they cut him down. Thus the man whose likeness is a symbol of anti-establishment protest met his end.

Just as it so often happens today,  as it happened then, few remember the man who had set the conspiracy in motion,. It is Fawkes who is burned in effigy. Even the art of the day, as shown below, misrepresents the truth. When Fawkes met his death, there is no way he would have been able to climb the ladder on his own.

 John Cruikshank,Wikimedea Public Domain Art

Was Robert Catesby a Terrorist?
Much has been written about the relationship of the Gunpowder conspirators to modern terrorists. Certainly the act meets most definitions, all but one. It has been said in different words and in different contexts that the goal of terrorism is terror, and that terrorist acts target civilian non-combatants.

That was not the objective of Robert Catesby and the others involved in the Gunpowder Treason. In modern terms, what they sought was regime change.Their ultimate goal was to affect a revival of Catholicism. Their target was the king. The result of their failed conspiracy was to make his personal agenda as a Peacemaker difficult to implement.

To that extent, I disagree with Antonia Fraser and others who have called the Gunpowder plotters terrorists. Perhaps fanatics is the better term.  Nevertheless, even this thumbnail analysis begs the question of whether they deserve to be remembered by some as patriots who dared to strike out against a despotic regime. New information about the goals of James VI and I counter most arguments as to  the proprietary  of their cause.


Faith and Treason ~the Story of the Gunpowder Plot, by Antonia Fraser, is a remarkable work that should be in the library of any scholar of English history and anyone who loves historical mystery. It is written with the same vitality and style as her seminal biography of the Queen of Scots, and is often lauded as a well crafted detective story. It is the foundation of this thumbnail sketch and the basis of research in my current work in progress In the Shadow of the Gallows, the fourth installment in my series The Legacy of the Queen of Scots.

This Editor's Choice was originally published May 23, 2014

Linda Fetterly Root is a retired major crimes prosecutor and a historical novelist writing of events in 16th and 17th century Scotland, France and England. She lives in the Morongo Basin area of the California desert with two wooly malamutes, a flock of chickens and assorted wild things. Her books are on Amazon.

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