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Robert Catesby
by Jennifer O'Brien

Born: 1573
Died: 8 November 1605, Holbeche House, Staffordshire

Robert Catesby was the only surviving son of Sir William Catesby of Lapworth and Anne Throckmorton of Coughton, his elder brother William having died in infancy. He had an ancient and illustrious lineage, including being sixth in descent from William Catesby, the influential councillor of Richard III, immortalised not only by Shakespeare, but in the famous satirical rhyme of Colyngbourne:

"The Cat, the Rat and Lovel our Dog,
Rule all England under a Hog"

Robert's father, Sir William Catesby, was a conscientious adherent to the Catholic faith, a prime supporter of the Jesuit mission and one of the leaders of the catholic cause, for which he suffered greatly. In 1581, when Robert was only eight years old, he saw his father arrested for the first time and tried in Star Chamber, along with William, Lord Vaux and his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Tresham, for the harbouring of Father Edmund Campion, and spent most of the rest of his life in and out of prison for various offences connected with his recusancy. At one time, his recusancy fines amounted to one fifth of his considerable estate. The effect of these events on young Robert can only be guessed at.

Sir William Catesby was later assigned a project, which met with the approval of Queen Elizabeth, of founding a catholic colony in America, but this plan was later abandoned in the face of Spanish hostility.

Through his mother, Robert was related to the major recusant families of Throckmorton, Tresham, Vaux, Monteagle and Habington, and was raised in the atmosphere of secrecy and devotion that surrounded this close-knit, staunchly catholic community.

Robert entered Gloucester Hall, Oxford in 1586 but left before taking his degree in order to avoid taking the Oath of Supremacy. He probably went on to attend the seminary college of Douai, then located at Rheims. This school, founded by Cardinal William Allen for the training of clergy for the English mission but extended to education of the laity, provided an austere and rigorous course of education in scholastic and moral theology, classical languages and the history of the English church. At the time the college used a textbook by the Jesuit Martin de Azpilcueta that dealt with the subject of casuistry, the employment of moral theology to particular cases, and with the circumstances that might excuse a normally forbidden course of action. This may have laid the foundation for Catesby's later theological questions and resolutions regarding the morality of the Plot.

In 1593 Robert married Catherine Leigh, the daughter of the protestant Sir Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. She brought a considerable dowry of 2000 pounds per year and connected him with the fast-rising family of the Spencers. The following year upon the death of his grandmother, he came into the large estate of Chastleton, Oxon, making him a man of considerable means in his own right. By Catherine he had two sons, William, who died in infancy, and Robert.

Much has been made of this marriage by writers to claim that Robert Catesby fell away from the church in his youth (and indeed his son Robert was baptised in the Anglican church at Chastleton in November 1595), and that he returned to the church in grief at his father's and wife's death in 1598, following shortly on the death of his eldest son.

However, although this shows that he may have compromised at certain times, it is indisputable that he always remained active in the Catholic cause. As early as 1594, the year after his marriage, he was sheltering Father Henry Garnet and other priests at his house, Morecrofts in Uxbridge at considerable risk. It was to here that Father John Gerard fled for sanctuary after his dramatic escape from the Tower of London in 1597, and where Father Persons' mother was living in 1598, which indicates that Catesby was at all times a highly trusted member of the Catholic community.

As a man, Robert Catesby, in spite of his religious inclinations, was rich in friends and patrimony, loved and esteemed not only by catholics but by the very protestants for his many unusual qualities both physical and mental, and was part of the glamorous circle that surrounded the court, although in his youth he "was very wild, and ...he spent much above his rate ". Father Oswald Tesimond, who knew him well, describes him thus:

"Physically, Catesby was more than ordinarily well-proportioned, some six feet tall, of good carriage and handsome countenance. He was grave in manner, but attractively so. He was considered one of the most dashing and courageous horsemen in the country. Generous and affable, he was for that reason much loved by everyone. Catesby was much devoted to his religion, as one would expect of a man who made his communion every Sunday. Indeed his zeal was so great that in his own opinion he was wasting his time when he was not doing something to bring about the conversion of the country. In this way, partly by example and partly by persuasion, he had won over to the Catholic faith quite a number of gentlemen, and those among the most important, who moved in London and court circles. This in spite of the fact that because he was known to be a catholic, he did not have much to do with the palace. In fact it became almost a proverb that Robert Catesby could be seen nowhere without his priest. He seemed to have much more success in converting protestants than many of the priests now to be found in England. This was due as much to his effective way of speaking and reasoning as to his not inconsiderable knowledge of the controversies between catholics and protestants. In the presence of priests, however, he used so much reticence that he would never allow himself to discuss matters of religion unless they urged him to it. The Almighty would have been better pleased if he moderated his zeal."

The fact that he was a rich, influential and popular member of the gentry went a long way in protecting him from the rigours of recusancy, but not completely. In 1596 he was arrested because of his known Catholic sympathies as a precautionary measure by the government during an illness of Queen Elizabeth, and held in the Tower along with the Wright brothers John and Christopher and Francis Tresham, and only released on her recovery.

With his popularity and reputation amidst the fashionable gallants of the time as an excellent swordsman, Robert soon came under the sphere of influence of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, whose household his cousin Francis Tresham had entered a few years before, and with whom his friend and cousin by marriage, William Parker, Lord Monteagle, served in Ireland.

When Essex, returning from a commission in Ireland without permission, fell from royal favour he blamed the influence of Robert Cecil. Although Essex himself was a protestant, perhaps even puritan, he bore no malice towards catholics, and many of his closest friends were of the catholic persuasion. To counteract the support of Cecil, he actively drew catholics and puritans alike to his cause with the promise of religious toleration if he was returned to favour and Cecil removed from the council.

The details and intentions of the Essex Rebellion, and how much Robert Catesby knew of any plans to take over the council are open to debate, however Sunday, 8 February 1601 found Catesby, along with several of the other later conspirators, and many influential peers involved in the disorganised march in the City, which turned to violence when their way was blocked attempting to return to Essex house, having found no support.

Catesby apparently fought valiantly in spite of an injury. "Mr. Catesby did show such valour and fought so long and stoutly as divers afterwards of those swordsmen did exceedingly esteem him and follow him in regard thereof", but the entire attempt failed and after a siege at Essex House, they surrendered to authorities. Catesby, due to his minor role in the affair, escaped a treason conviction and possible execution, but was fined the large sum of 4,000 marks. In order to pay this fine, he sold his manor at Chastleton, but was still left with a considerable income from his other estates, enough to continue to fund the Jesuits, and later the majority of the costs of the Plot. Afterwards, he seemed to have spent most of his time between his houses at Morecrofts and Lambeth, as well as with his mother at Ashby St. Ledgers.

With this way to religious freedom blocked, Catesby quickly turned to other options. He became involved in what was later known as the Spanish Treason, along with Monteagle, Francis Tresham and Father Henry Garnet, in the sending of Thomas Wintour and Christopher Wright into Spain to see what assistance could be obtained for their cause either militarily and/or financially. Their attempts here met with many promises, but no action.

Catesby had initially held hope of improvement under James I, due to the promises earlier made by James to Thomas Percy of such, James' support of the Earl of Essex against Cecil, and the subsequent favour shown to both Essex's supporters and prominent catholics at the beginning of the reign.

These final hopes were dashed when it became clear that James I was not going to honour his promises, in fact denied ever making them, and that in fact the persecution under him was going to worse than under Elizabeth. James I now claimed his utter detestation of papists, that "the bishops must see to the severe and exact punishment of every catholic", made a new proclamation on February 22, 1604 ordering all priests out of the realm, and the reversed his repeal of recusancy fines payable immediately with arrears. But the final straw seems to have been the introduction of a bill on James' request into the House of Commons on April 24 to classify all catholics as excommunicates, an idea which had been presented to and rejected by Elizabeth I as too severe. The effect of this bill, is described by Tesimond:

"In consequence, they were no longer able to make their wills or dispose of their goods. The effect of this law was to make them outlaws and exiles; and like such they were treated. There was no longer any obligation to pay them their debts or rents for land held from them. They could not now go to law or have the laws protection. They could seek no remedy for ills and injuries received. In a word, they were considered and treated as professed enemies of the state."

This would have been seen as a disaster by the catholics, and would no doubt lead to their utter ruin. Almost immediately after this event, Catesby sent for his cousin Thomas Wintour and revealed the Gunpowder Plot to him at a meeting with Jack Wright at his house in Lambeth.

Catesby felt that "the nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy", and that the Plot was a morally justifiable act of self-defence against the oppressive rule of a tyrant. But he saw the Plot as an act of last resort, and was determined to leave no way untried of remedying our ills by peaceful means and without bloodshed. To this end, he sent Thomas Wintour to Flanders to meet with the Constable of Spain, who was on his way to England to conclude the peace negotiations between Spain and England.

He was to "inform the Constable of the condition of the catholics here in England, entreating him to solicit his Majesty at his coming hither that the penal laws may be recalled, and we admitted into the ranks of his other subjects. Withal, you may bring over some confident gentleman such as you shall understand as you shall understand best able for this business, and named unto me Mr. Fawkes."

Wintour was not impressed by his interview with the Constable, and also having been discouraged by his discussions there with Hugh Owen and William Stanley, unofficial heads of the English catholics in exile, who told him that Spain was too financially strapped and too eager to conclude a peace to be of any assistance. Thomas Wintour returned with Guy Fawkes to Catesby in Lambeth to tell him the disappointing news. They decided to proceed with the Plot. Their scepticism was warranted, for the treaty between Spain and England was pronounced on August 19th, with no provisions for the English catholics.

Catesby's exact role and actions in the proceedings of Gunpowder Plot, and the theories and arguments surrounding him are too voluminous to go into here, and the basic story is well known.

Robert Catesby died at the raid on Holbeche House on November 8th, 1605; he and Thomas Percy both being shot apparently with a single bullet. According to Gerard, "Catesby protested at his death in the field..., that not for themselves, but for the cause of Christ, not for their wives and children, but for the Church, the spouse of Christ, and saving so many thousand souls, the children of God, from eternal flames, they attempted with fire to cut off the chiefest heads and only causes of that greater ruin."

For whatever can be said and argued about Robert Catesby, given his willingness to risk all, at least his absolute sincerity, dedication and firm belief that what he was doing was right cannot be questioned.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Gunpowder Plot Society

Sources
.............

Akrigg, G.P.V., Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton
Caraman, Philip, Henry Garnet 1555-1605
Dictionary of National Biography, 1895
du Maurier, Daphne, Golden Lads: A Study of Anthony Bacon Francis and their friends
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 and Treason - The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, 1996
Gerard, John, S.J., What Was the Gunpowder Plot?
Gunpowder Plot Book, 'Confession of Thomas Wintour'
Haynes, Alan, The Gunpowder Plot, 1994
Heal, Felicity and Holmes, Clive, The Gentry in England and Wales 1500-1700
Knox, Dr., ed., Diary of the English College, Douay
Meyer, Arnold Oskar, England and the Catholic Church under Queen Elizabeth
Morey, Adrian, The Catholic Subjects of Elizabeth I
Morris, John, Condition of Catholics Under James I: Narrative of John Gerard
Sidney, Philip, A History of the Gunpowder Plot
Spink, Henry Hawkes, The Gunpowder Plot and Lord Mounteagle's Letter, 1902


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