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Robert Wintour

by Douglas Burbury

Born: 1565 or 1567
Died: 30 January 1606, St. Paul's Churchyard, London

Robert Wintour was the eldest son of George Wintour of Huddington Court and his first wife, Jane Ingleby. When George Wintour died in 1594, Robert inherited the bulk of the estate as the eldest son. This estate included the manor house of Huddington Court, near Droitwich in Worcestershire, which was the main seat of the Wintour family, hop yards and 25 salt-evaporating pans at Droitwich. The salt produced from these pans was said to be the best in England, and thus the pans were very profitable and formed a major source of revenue for the Wintour family.

Robert married Gertrude Talbot, daughter of Sir John Talbot of Grafton in Worcestershire. Talbot was heir to the earldom of Shrewsbury and was one of the wealthiest landowners in the region, owning, among other estates, much property in Shropshire near Albrighton. He was also a firm Catholic, and had spent 20 years in prison for recusancy. Robert had thus allied himself with one of the strongest catholic families in the region, and Huddington Court under his care became a known refuge for priests. Two priest holes, which were probably constructed by Nicholas Owen, can be seen there to this day.

John Gerard described Robert as "esteemed in his life to be one of the wisest and most resolute and sufficient gentlemen in Worcestershire". In the proclamation issued for his capture, he was described as "a man of meane stature, rather low than otherwise, square made, somewhat stooping, neere fortie yeares of age, his hair and beard browne, his beard not much and his hair short". Perhaps because he was the eldest son and heir, he seems to have been more settled than his younger brother Thomas. Robert "tended to follow where Thomas, younger but more clever, wittier and more restless, tended to lead, ...".

Robert was introduced to the circle of Gunpowder Plot conspirators because he was an "esquire and a man of substance". Besides contributing financially, he and his brother-in-law John Grant were to collect weapons and prepare horses for use in the uprising which was expected to occur in the Midlands once the act of blowing up the Houses of Parliament had succeeded.

Initially Robert refused to join the plot. He eventually agreed to be sworn in, together with John Grant, at a meeting with Robert Catesby at the Catherine Wheel inn in Oxford in February 1605. Throughout the course of the campaign, however, he often showed what appears to be a lack of commitment to the cause.

For example, he was not enthusiastic about the theft of horses from Warwick Castle during the flight from Dunchurch to Holbeche House, and hoped that he might be able to turn back. Catesby's answer to this was, "Some of us may not look back." Robert replied, "Others of us, I hope, may, and therefore I pray you, let this alone."

At Huddington Court, Robert's residence, it was decided to approach Sir John Talbot at Grafton to ask his assistance. Robert was asked to write a letter of introduction but he declined, saying "My masters, you know not my father Talbot so well as I ... I verily think all the world cannot draw him from his allegiance. Besides, what friends hath my poor wife and children but he? And therefore satisfy yourselves, I will not." Eventually he agreed to write a letter to one of Talbot's servants, a Mr Smallpiece, and it was left up to his brother Thomas and Stephen Littleton to visit Sir John after the arrival at Holbeche House, an embassy which was to prove fruitless, as Sir John would have nothing to do with the conspirators.

While at Holbeche House, an accident occurred in which some gunpowder that had been laid out to dry in front of the fire caught alight and exploded, badly burning some of those present. Robert claimed to have had a premonition of this accident in a dream the previous night, and he declared that as in the accident he "clearly recognised the finger of Almighty God".

On 7 November Robert and Stephen Littleton slipped away from Holbeche House and met up with each other an hour or so later at a point half a mile distant. From there they decided to make for Hagley Park, which was the home of a relative of Littleton's.

Although the other principal plotters had been killed at Holbeche House or captured soon after, Wintour and Littleton managed to stay on the run for two months. At one place they stayed, they were discovered by a drunken poacher whom they themselves had to imprison in order to make their escape.

Eventually they reached Hagley Park, which was occupied at the time by Humphrey Littleton, an uncle of Stephen. Humphrey had sworn his servants to secrecy, but the cook, one John Fynwood, betrayed the fugitives to the authorities. When the authorities arrived to arrest the fugitives, Humphrey Littleton denied that Robert and Stephen were present, but a servant called David Bate led the authorities to the courtyard behind the house where the two fugitives were found attempting to flee into the woods.

Robert and Stephen were sent to the Tower, and Humphrey was arrested along with some of his tenants who had assisted in sheltering the fugitives. The date of Robert and Stephen's capture was 9 January, two months after their flight from Holbeach House.

Fraser mentions a tradition that Robert and his wife Gertrude had a number of secret rendezvous while Robert was on the run, but questions whether the couple would have dared to take such risks.

During his imprisonment Robert admitted that while staying at Huddington Court en route to Holbeach House, the party had made their confessions to Father Hammond, the alias of Father Hart, a Jesuit priest who was the chaplain at Huddington Court. This part of Robert's confession was later cited as evidence of the Jesuits' complicity in the Gunpowder Plot.

Robert Wintour was executed on 30 January 1606 at St. Paul's Churchyard, together with Sir Everard Digby, John Grant and Thomas Bates. On the scaffold, he was quiet and withdrawn, and did not speak much. Although he appeared to be praying to himself, he did not publicly ask mercy of either God or the King for his offence.

Despite Robert's conviction for his role in the Gunpowder Plot, it appears that the Wintour family were not immediately deprived of Huddington Court and their other estates. They remained in the hands of Robert's widow Gertrude, who forfeited them for recusancy in 1607, although they were later regained by Robert's son John who died in 1622.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Gunpowder Plot Society

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

Dictionary of National Biography, 1895
Edwards, Francis, S.J., Guy Fawkes: the real story of the Gunpowder Plot?, 1969
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
Haynes, Alan, The Gunpowder Plot, 1994
Morris, John, Condition of Catholics Under James I: Narrative of John Gerard
Parkinson, C. Northcote, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, 1977
Sidney, Philip, A History of the Gunpowder Plot
Stonyhurst Magazine No. 96, March 1898


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