Ambrose Rookwood

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Ambrose Rookwood
by Jennifer O'Brien

Born: 1578?
Died: 31 January 1606, Old Palace Yard, Westminster

Ambrose Rookwood was the eldest son of Robert Rookwood of Stanningfield, Suffolk by his second wife Dorothea. The family was an old and influential one in the area, having held the manor of Stanningfield since Edward I, and had many members who represented Suffolk in parliament. However, the family remained staunchly catholic and many of them, Ambrose's parents included, were fined and imprisoned for their faith.

With the assistance of Father John Gerard, young Rookwood, along with two brothers and a sister, were smuggled to Flanders for their education. The boys were amongst the first pupils at St. Omers, a seminary school founded by Robert Persons (later to become Stonyhurst); the sister, Dorothea entering St. Ursula's, at the Louvain. In keeping with the family tradition, she became a nun, while the younger brother became a priest and returned to England. The elder brother died in Spain soon after leaving school. Another sister, Susanna, also became a nun.

In 1600 on the death of his father, Rookwood inherited his father's considerable estates, all four brothers by his father's first marriage having predeceased him. Along with his beautiful wife Elizabeth, daughter of William Tyrwhitt, he made Coldham Hall a 'common refuge of priests'. He was related by marriage to the Wrights, the Wintours and Robert Keyes.

An easy and cheerful man, "handsome, if somewhat short" and extravagant in clothes, he was one of the youngest and wealthiest of the conspirators, much loved in the catholic community and is described by John Gerard:

"But that which moved them specially to make choice of Mr Rookwood was, I suppose, not so much to have his help by his living as by his person, and some provision of horses, of which he had divers of the best: but for himself, he was known to be of great virtue and no less valour and very secret. He was also of very good parts otherwise as for wit and learning, having spent much of his youth in study. He was at this time, as I take it, not past twenty-six or twenty-seven years old and had married a gentlewoman of a great family, a virtuous catholic also, by whom he had divers young children".

In February of 1605, Rookwood himself was convicted of recusancy at the Middlesex county sessions, and joined the Gunpowder Plotconspiracy soon after. The exact date of his joining is in dispute, some claiming Easter-time (March 31), some claiming Michaelmas (September 29) 1605. Rookwood's task was to take the news of the firing of the gunpowder to Catesbyat Dunchurch, using his celebrated stable of horses in relay.

Close friends with Catesby, he had earlier provided him with gunpowder believing it to be for the new English regiment of catholics, which James I had reluctantly allowed to be formed to fight with Spain's forces after the conclusion of their peace treaty, and of which Catesby had some hope of being a lieutenant.

Rookwood later claimed to be initially shocked when the plot was revealed, but was persuaded by Catesby that although he had it from an impeachable source that the killing of innocents under such conditions was not sinful, deserving persons would be prevented from attending Parliament by a 'trick', and he became an enthusiastic member.

In order to be closer to the center of operations, he rented Clopton Hall, near Stratford-upon-Avon, and moved his household there. Between 29 October and 1 November he moved to London and took up lodging with his relative Robert Keyes at the house of an Elizabeth More. It was here he had delivered at 11 pm on November 4 a sword hilt engraved with the Passion of Christ.

In the small hours of the morning of the fifth, the conspirators learned of Guy Fawkes' capture. Rookwood was one of the last of the conspirators to flee London. He remained behind to gather information until approximately 11 am. Despite his late start, his posting of fast mounts enabled him to make an epic ride, quickly catching up to the other conspirators and continue with them onto Holbeche.

At Holbeche he was slightly injured by the accidental firing of the gunpowder, and during the raid was further injured by a John Street, who tried later to claim a reward for his services.

At his trial, Rookwood said that he had been induced into the plot for the catholic cause alone, and that he believed that it would help restore catholicism to England, although his friendship with Catesby, whom he 'loved above any worldly man', had made him much more open to the idea. He admitted his offenses were so terrible that he could not expect any mercy, but because he had been neither 'author nor actor', he asked for mercy so as not to leave a 'blemish and blot unto all ages'.

He was executed on January 31, 1606 in Old Palace Yard at Westminster along with Thomas Wintour, Guy Fawkes and Robert Keyes.

While being dragged to his execution, he asked to be told when they were passing his house in the Strand so he could have one last look at his beloved wife. He cried to Elizabeth 'pray for me, pray for me'. She replied "I will, and be of good courage. Offer thyself wholly to God. I, for my part, do as freely restore thee to God as He gave thee unto me."

At the scaffold, he made a speech where he freely confessed his sin, and asked God to bless the King and his family, that they might 'live long to reign in peace and happiness over this Kingdom', and beseeched God to make the King a catholic. "The onlookers could scarcely restrain their tears since he had been well known and loved for his exemplary behaviour while he lived". This speech earned him his mercy, as he was hanged until he was almost dead.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Gunpowder Plot Society


Confession of Thomas Wintour
Dictionary of National Biography, 1895
Durst, Paul, Intended Treason
Edwards, Francis, S.J., The Gunpowder Plot: the narrative of Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway, trans. from the Italian of the Stonyhurst Manuscript, edited and annotated, 1973
Fraser, Antonia, Faith & Treason - The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, 1996
Gerard, John, SJ, The Autobiography of an Elizabethan, tr. Philip Caraman
Historical Manuscripts Commission, Salisbury (Cecil) Manuscripts Volume XXIV: Addenda 1605-1668
Morris, John, S.J., ed., The Condition of Catholics under James I: Father Gerard's Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot

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