The events of November 1605 and the failed assassination attempt of James I are common knowledge throughout Britain, with our annual Bonfire festivities helping to cement them into our memory. However the name synonymous with the event- Guy Fawkes- was only one part of a group of conspirators who organised the plot to blow up Parliament. Originally consisting of 5 members ( Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright, Thomas Percy and Fawkes himself) the group grew in size to 10. The additional members Robert Keyes, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Kit Wright were all related by blood or marriage to members of the core, initial group; this no doubtly helped to ensure loyalty. The faithfulness of the final member of the group-Thomas Bates- was also confirmed as he was Catesby’s servant and hence someone he could trust. Background information about the conspirators is relatively scant, with most of the recorded information about them relating to their involvement in the plot itself. Nevertheless, there are a few details that we can learn about each member and that is what this blog will be focusing on in relation to the core group of conspirators (with the exception of Fawkes.)
Perhaps the best person to start with is Robert Catesby who was the leader of the plot. His family were Catholics however in 1593 he married a Protestant, Catherine Leigh, and had his child baptised. Nevertheless, after his wife’s death he reverted back to a more radical form of Catholicism- suggesting that any form of earlier conversion was merely for show. Catesby began a degree at Oxford but he left before its completion in order to avoid taking the Protestant Oath of Supremacy. This oath, in effect, denounced the Catholic religion by acknowledging the monarch as the head of the church rather than the papacy. Catesby was already seen as a potential threat by the authorities prior to the Gunpowder Plot as in 1596 he was arrested as a precautionary message due to his known Catholic sympathies. Furthermore, he was involved in the 1601 Essex Rebellion. This was an attempt, led by Robert Devereux the 2nd Earl of Essex, to overthrow Elizabeth I (who was a Protestant) and her government. Devereux’s plan was unsuccessful and he was beheaded for treason, however Catesby was only fined due to his minor role. Four years later though Catesby was killed in a raid connected to his own plot to remove the government.
Thomas Wintour-whose brother Robert was also a conspirator- married Catesby’s sister Elizabeth. He had some military experience having fought in several wars, including in Flanders for the United Provinces. In 1603 he travelled to Spain in an attempt to get support from Philip III however this was not successful.
Written information about Jack Wright (also known as John) is somewhat hard to come by as it often refers to his brother (Kit, another conspirator) at the same time. This means that it can be hard to establish which information relates to which brother. Nevertheless, we are able to discover some details about his background. He came from a Catholic family; both his parents were devoted Catholics who were imprisoned in Hull Prison in York for a period due to their beliefs. Wright attended the same school school as Guy Fawkes- St. Peter’s School in York- and this is probably where these two conspirators first met. Like Catesby he was arrested as a precautionary manner when Elizabeth I was suffering from ill health for a period during her reign. Furthermore, again like Catesby, he had a minor role in the Essex Rebellion, although Wright suffered a harsher punishment- imprisonment rather than a fine.
Thomas Percy became involved in the conspiracy in part through his marriage to Martha Wright (the sister of Jack and Kit) in 1591. This marriage was also a factor in Percy’s conversion to Catholicism. He was a relative of the Earl of Northumberland who employed Percy as an agent, entrusting him with the management of the Earl’s estates. Later Percy was employed as the Constable of Anwick Castle. Percy was also a friend of Catesby, hence he had two links to other conspirators in the group. Percy’s rental of a house next to the House of Lords was also a useful asset during the formation of the infamous plot.
The information in this piece merely gives a brief glimpse into the backgrounds of a few of the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, however, sadly there seems to be relatively little more information out there. What would perhaps be interesting is to see if there were any contemporary sources available that could give us more of an insight into the mindsets of the men behind one of the most famous assassination attempts in Britain, however this seems unlikely. All one as a historian can do is try to educate people about the facts behind the conspiracy and remind them that there is more to the Gunpowder Plot than just Guy Fawkes.