Memorials of the Tower of London

De Ros, William Lennox






THE Gunpowder Plot is a subject on which so much has been written, and of which such various versions have been given by historians, that most readers will be acquainted with the principal actors and events of that extraordinary conspiracy; but the arrest and examinations of Guy Fawkes and his associates are matters so connected with Tower History, that it will not be proper to pass the subject, without entering into the question of the origin of the plot, and giving a general account of it, gleaned from the sources which appear the most interesting, as well as the most authentic.

Among the most bigoted of the great Roman Catholic party in England, great disappointment had been felt on discovering that James I. had no intention, after his accession, of changing the Protestant character of the late Queen's government.

Meetings and consultations of a treasonable kind had been privately held in London. Catesby, a gentleman of good family (descended from Richard III.'s faithful follower), took a leading part in these meetings, and in truth was much more the leader of the conspiracy than


Guy Fawkes himself. Catesby had been a profligate in his youth, but later in life had turned his mind to religious questions, and had changed from the Roman Catholic to the Protestant religion; but after reverting to his old courses, and spending the remainder of his estate, had again returned to Romanism in its most bigoted form.

Catesby had taken so leading a part in Essex's insurrection that he narrowly escaped with life, and had been fined 3000L. on his release from arrest. It was he who first conceived the scheme of blowing up the King and Parliament. Thomas Winter, a gallant soldier who had served the Dutch against the Spaniards, but gave up his commission from religious scruples, and John Wright, a gentleman of family, were his earliest confidants, the former of whom went over to Flanders, with the object of enlisting into the conspiracy some officers of spirit and daring, who might lead the outbreak. Guido or Guy Fawkes, a Yorkshire gentleman, who had squandered a small estate in Yorkshire and entered the Spanish service, appears to have been the only one of the English officers, serving in the Low Countries, who acceded to Winter's proposals, and returned with him to London, in April, 1604, ready for some desperate undertaking for the overthrow of the government, and assassination of the King.

Being a bold daring man, possessed of some military skill and experience, and deeply imbued with attachment to the Romish faith, Fawkes infused fresh spirit and resolution into the conspiracy. Thomas Percy, a kinsman of the Earl of Northumberland, who had given him a


halbert in the Yeomen of the Guard, was another leading character in the conspiracy. He like Fawkes had been a profligate in his youth, and, suddenly changing his habits, was now become a fanatic of the most violent opinions. It was Percy who had been employed by the Catholic party, shortly before Elizabeth's decease, on a mission to James, while yet in Scotland, to ascertain that monarch's views as to the Reformed doctrines; and the wary King having from policy led him to believe he would support the Catholic party, his indignation and fury against James, for the manner in which he had been deceived, knew no bounds.

So active was the part taken by the Roman Catholics to insure the peaceable succession of James, that, immediately on Elizabeth's death, Sir Thomas Tresham, father of Francis, the conspirator, proclaimed the King at Northampton, with some danger to himself, from the excitement of the Protestant population; while his sons Lewis and Francis, and his son-in-law Lord Monteagle, were energetic assistants to the Earl of Southampton, on the occasion of his prompt occupation of the Tower, in the new King's name.

This Francis, like many other of the conspirators, had been a leading man in Essex's insurrection, and was one of those who had been placed on guard in Essex House, over the Lord Keeper, Lord Chief Justice, and other noblemen, during the short time Essex held them in durance.

After binding themselves to secrecy and action, by terrible oaths, which they confirmed by taking the Sacrament


together, the conspirators proceeded to examine the localities of the Houses of Parliament, with a view to lay their plan. By a remarkable chance, the house adjoining the Parliament House was untenanted. Percy at once hired it of one Ferris, and, Fawkes's military knowledge being brought into play, a mine was commenced, by which it was expected to effect a passage through the foundation wall, under the House of Parliament. But this undertaking proved more arduous than it at first appeared, for the wall was no less than nine feet in thickness, and built of the hardest materials.

Not to excite suspicion, Winter, John Wright, and Percy, with a few others (seven gentlemen of name and blood as Fawkes emphatically called them in his examinations), were charged with this part of the work. They daily carried down into the vault hard eggs, baked meat, and other durable provision, on which to support themselves, instead of going out to make daily purchases in the market, which might have drawn attention to Ferris's house.

It is almost incredible with what energy these infatuated men persevered in the severe labour of their underground operations, often working by turns through the whole of the night. So extreme was their superstition, that, when some strange sounds were heard in the direction in which they were slowly, but steadily, advancing, they were in the habit, as was afterwards confessed by one of the party, of obtaining from a priest some holy water, with which to sprinkle the sides and bottom of the mine, and persuaded themselves that this


caused the strange sounds to cease. The stones and rubbish which they excavated, were carefully spread from day to day, in small quantities, over the surface of a garden in rear of the house.

Contrary to their expectations, the Parliament, instead of meeting this winter (1604), was prorogued to October of next year, upon learning which, they agreed to separate for a month, and to look out for fresh adherents. In February, 1605, they reassembled, and were proceeding with their underground labour, when a noise was heard over their heads, which they discovered, on investigation, was caused by the removal of a quantity of coal, by the tenant of a cellar several feet above the level of their mine, and therefore immediately below the floor of the Parliament House. This discovery greatly facilitated their plans, and made further labour in the mine unnecessary. They at once hired the coal-cellar in Percy's name, and began transferring into it a quantity of gunpowder which they had accumulated in a lone house at Lambeth, to be brought across the river when occasion offered. Upon the barrels of powder, they heaped pieces of iron, crowbars, and all the tools they had used in mining, and then covered the whole with billets and faggots, to avoid any suspicious appearance.

As it was from the first intended, that the blowing up of Parliament was to be the prelude of a general insurrection, it now became necessary to provide a store of arms, and ammunition; with a view to which, Catesby gave out that he had a commission to raise a troop of horse in


London, for the Spanish service; and as he had the full confidence of the other conspirators, he now intrusted the project to several Catholic gentlemen of substance, in order to obtain funds for carrying on the plot. Sir Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, and Francis Tresham, were accordingly admitted into the secret. Meantime the meeting of Parliament was further put off to the 5th November, against which day all the plans of the conspirators were now nearly matured. The great risk was the actual firing of the powder, and this was undertaken by Fawkes, who was familiar with such operations in the wars of the Low Countries, and conversant with the preparations for exploding mines. He prepared a slow match, which he calculated to last exactly a quarter of an hour, thus affording him time to run to the river-side, and embark in a small vessel ready to sail down the Thames with the ebb tide, and convey him to Flanders. Now this part of the plan is somewhat difficult to explain, because, if the conspirators believed that the people would readily join them immediately after the explosion, the natural thing would have been for Fawkes to have appeared at once at the head of the conspirators as their military leader, and to have directed the seizure and occupation of the Tower, and other important points of the city, by the mob and such partisans as they were confident would assemble and join them. This too would have been in combination with the arrangements for the outbreak in the midland counties, where Digby, on the day of the opening of Parliament, was to collect a large party of Catholic partisans and adherents (many of


whom were to be kept ignorant of his intentions till the last moment), on the pretext of a great hunting meet at Dunchurch, in Warwickshire.

As soon as they should get the news of the destruction of the King and Parliament, by expresses from London laid along the road, these persons were to detach some men of resolution to seize the person of the Princess Elizabeth (afterwards Queen of Bohemia), then residing at Lord Harrington's house, near Coventry, and proclaim her Queen. Perhaps there is no part of this wild and desperate scheme so unaccountable, or so at variance with the general views and objects of the conspiracy, as this plan for placing the young Elizabeth upon the throne. The tender age of the princess would of course render her a mere puppet in their hands; but what reasonable expectation could they entertain of the country submitting to the nominal government of a child, under the direction of the destroyers of every other member of the Royal Family ? Although up to this period the conspirators seem to have acted with great unanimity, a discussion arose, as the time drew near, on the question of warning the Catholic Peers and Members of the House of Commons to absent themselves from Parliament, and thus save their lives, in some way which would not make them acquainted with the conspiracy.

Catesby, and the more violent of the party, had no scruples on this subject, compared with the risk of the secret transpiring; but the greater number, who had friends and connections among the Peers and Members, were strongly in favour of some attempt to warn and


save them. The Lords Stourton and Monteagle were married to sisters of Francis Tresham, who recoiled with horror from sacrificing such near relatives, when a word might preserve their lives. But a deaf ear was turned to his entreaties and remonstrances, and there can be little doubt that he then resolved on the anonymous warning, which eventually led to the discovery of the plot.

The other person to whom the information has been attributed was Mrs. Habington, a sister of Lord Monteagle, whose husband was the owner of Hendlip House, where Garnet was eventually arrested after many days' concealment; but certainly Francis Tresham was the person to whom the conspirators themselves attributed the warning. It was about ten days before the day appointed for Parliament to assemble, when Lord Monteagle, son of the Earl of Morley (a Catholic nobleman, and a Peer in right of his mother, the daughter and heiress of Stanley Lord Monteagle), received an anonymous letter delivered by a stranger to one of his servants, who brought it to him while at supper, with some guests, at his house near London. This house was either at Hoxton, or near Barking (where a ruinous mansion still exists, converted into a farmhouse, and said to have belonged to him). The letter ran thus :-

" My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care for your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse, to shift off your attendance at this Parliament, for God and man have concurred, to punish the wickedness


of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they will receive a terrible blow this Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be contemned; because it may do you good, and can do you no harm, for the danger is past, as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, into whose holy protection I commend you."

Monteagle was much puzzled by this mysterious letter, especially at the expression " the danger is past as soon as you have burnt the letter." Though he was not actually alarmed, he knew himself to be somewhat under a cloud, from the part he had taken in Essex's insurrection, and thought best to take the letter at once to the Secretary of State (Lord Salisbury). His house, either at Barking or Hoxton, was not above seven miles from Whitehall, yet it took him four hours to ride there, in such a state were the roads, or rather tracks, in the vicinity of London at that period.

Lord Salisbury, though he did not attach much consequence to the letter, yet deemed it his duty to take the first opportunity of laying it before the King, who was then on a hunting party at Royston, but returned to Whitehall about a week before Parliament was to meet, and being shown the letter, immediately summoned a council to consider its extraordinary contents.

James was just the man to interest himself in a


mystery, and he set to work over Monteagle's letter, weighing and pondering the strange ambiguous terms in which it was worded, with his usual inquisitive diligence. The terrible blow to be struck by unseen hands, the greatness and suddenness of the threatened danger, struck the King as applicable only to gunpowder. It appears indeed very natural that the dreadful death of Darnley, his own father, by the blowing up of the house at the Kirk of Field, may have directed his thoughts immediately to that suspicion. Orders were privately issued for the Earl of Suffolk (Lord Chamberlain) to cause a careful search to be made under the Houses of Parliament, delaying this, however, till the last day before the opening of the session, in order to avoid giving any alarm.

Accordingly on the afternoon of the 4th November, Lord Suffolk, accompanied by Lord Monteagle and a few friends, and attended by a guard, went to the Parliament House, and made a general inspection of all the premises, but especially the cellars below. They saw Fawkes in the coal-cellar, but, as there were many other persons standing about in the passages and other cellars, they took no notice of him at the moment.

But after night had closed in, and all seemed quiet, Sir Thomas Knyvett, an active magistrate, with several armed constables, proceeded, quietly and silently (under the pretence of searching for some furniture which had been abstracted from the King's wardrobe), to the cellar, where Fawkes had been seen in the morning. They met him just as he was quitting his charge for the


night, and closing the door. He was instantly seized and searched, as well as every part of the cellar, when, on removal of the billets and faggots, no less than thirty-six barrels of powder appeared, with the tools, iron bars, &c., before mentioned, carefully piled upon them. On Fawkes himself, some slow-match was found, but no weapon or papers.

He was at once taken before the Council, which had already been summoned, though it was near midnight. He did not attempt to deny his guilt; but when urged to name his accomplices, he preserved an obstinate silence, and was committed that same night to the Tower.

Next morning, as soon as the seizure of Fawkes became known, most of the conspirators fled from London in all haste. Some sought the first concealment which offered, but the more determined bent their course for Dunchurch, the rendezvous, before mentioned, of those who were appointed to follow and second Sir E. Digby in the proposed attempt to obtain possession of the person of the Princess. Great consternation prevailed among them, when the news was brought of Fawkes's arrest to Dunchurch; but Catesby, nothing daunted by the danger, collected a number of the boldest, who mounted their horses, and made for Holbeach, a strong mansion of Mr. Stephen Littleton's, about four miles from Stourbridge, in Staffordshire, where he hoped to collect some malcontents from the Welsh border. On mustering at Holbeach, they found their number reduced to less than sixty men,


several having deserted them on the road; but as all hope of escape was now gone, they commenced fortifying the house, and prepared to perish rather than surrender.

Their first steps were to put in order what arms they had collected, to block up the lower windows, barricade the outer doors, and take precautions against the danger of their assailants forcing them out, by setting the outhouses and stables on fire. Many of these desperate men had seen enough of foreign war to guide them in adopting the best means for defence; but so reckless were some of the party, that, as was afterwards elicited on their trials, " having spread out two or three lbs. of powder to dry in a platter, before a large fire, and underset the said platter with a great linen bag full of more powder fifteen or sixteen lbs., it so fell out that one coming to put more wood on the fire, and casting it on, there fell a coal into the platter, whereat the powder, taking fire, blew up, scorching Catesby, Grant, and Rookwood, and blowing off part of the roof. The linen bag which was set under the platter, being suddenly carried up through the breach, fell down in the courtyard, whole and unfired, which, had it taken fire in the room, would have slain them all outright."

Not discouraged by this mischance, they continued to make active preparations for defence, and when, on the 8th, the sheriff presented himself with the " posse comitatus" of the county, and a number of well-armed followers, they rejected his summons to surrender, flew to their posts, and opposed a gallant resistance to the assault which instantly took place. But the assailants soon


forced their way into the courtyard, where Catesby and Percy, who fought back to back, were struck down by the same shot, which passed through both their bodies, killing Catesby outright, Percy surviving till next day. Thomas Winter, the two Wrights, and Rookwood, being wounded and struck down, were taken prisoners, to undergo the terrible fate they had so desperately striven to avoid.

Tresham, who had ventured to stay in London, and, affecting entire innocence, to appear as usual in public, soon became an object of suspicion to the Government. On the 12th he was arrested and sent to the Tower, but did not live to be brought to trial, being attacked by an illness, during which his unfortunate wife was allowed to attend and nurse him, but which carried him off a fortnight after his committal.

It has been asserted that Fawkes, after three days of sullen silence, made on the 8th November, of his own free will, a full confession of the whole scheme of the conspiracy (saving only the names of his comrades). There is a room in the Governor's house at the Tower, generally known as the Council Chamber, where a large marble tablet, let into the wall, commemorates the names of the Council, and of the leaders of the plot, with other details. The tradition has always existed, that in this chamber Fawkes was examined by the Council, and underwent the application of the rack in its severest form; indeed, so generally was this tradition received in the Tower, that not many years ago the servants of the Major of the Tower, the occupant of this house, were extremely


reluctant to enter this apartment after dark, and more than one sentry has declared he had heard terrible groans proceeding from the window of this ominous chamber.

From the determined courage of Fawkes, it might be reasonably inferred that he would endure any torture rather than confess; but experience has shown the fearful power of pain to extort even false declarations from persons exposed to the barbarous extremities of torture. A few days after the seizure of Fawkes, the wretched men taken at Holbeach, some of them badly wounded, were brought to London, and examined separately for several days. In consequence of supposed admissions from them, Garnet, the principal of the English Jesuits, with Gerard and Greenway, two others of the fraternity, were proclaimed, and rewards were offered for their capture.

The trials of the conspirators proceeded, and, the usual sentence of treason being passed, Digby, R. Winter, Grant, and Bates were executed on the 27th, in St. Paul's Churchyard, and the following day, Fawkes, Rookwood, Keyes, and Thomas Winter were executed in Palace Yard, with all the horrible details which followed on the sentence for high treason.

As the awful procession passed along the Strand, Rookwood perceived his wife, a lady of beauty and merit, at a window, and called to her, as he lay on the hurdle, to pray for him. She replied, in a clear voice, "I will, I will; and do you offer yourself with a good heart to your Creator. I yield you to Him, with as full


an assurance that you will be accepted of Him, as when He gave you to me!"

Gerard, being found impenetrably silent under verbal examination, was barbarously tortured by suspension from a hook in the wall, by the wrists, till he fainted. Vinegar was poured down his throat to revive him, and the same cruel torment was again applied to him; but on his again swooning with the agony, Sir W. Waad, the Lieutenant of the Tower (" that villain Waad," as Raleigh called him), hard and brutal as he was, refused to allow the torture to be repeated. Gerard being afterwards negligently guarded, on the supposition of his weakness from the torture he had endured, escaped with Greenway, and got safe to Holland.

Garnet had fled for concealment to Hendlip, the country house of Mr. Habington, a Roman Catholic gentleman, near Worcester. Sir H. Bromley, the sheriff of the county, having received positive information that he was there, surrounded the house with a number of armed men, and commenced a strict search through the building; but Habington's house, like many others in those precarious times, was provided with such ingeniously contrived retreats, that the task proved extremely difficult, and walls, wainscot, and partitions without number, were broken through in the search, without success, till, on the fourth day of the search, two wretched creatures, Owen and Chambers, emerged from a secret door in the wainscot of the long gallery, and gave themselves up; having had but a single apple for their sustenance, during


the whole time of their concealment. Owen, after committal to the Tower, escaped a dreadful death on the scaffold, by suicide. Indeed, it appears that a certain torture, applied to him for a very short time on his first examination, drove him to this act, from sheer terror of its repetition in a severer form.

Encouraged by the capture of these men, the sheriff and his followers continued breaking down partitions, and searching the large open chimneys of the mansion at Hendlip, till, on the 8th day, a recess concealed in a chimney by a plank covered with mortar and soot, was discovered, from which Garnet the Jesuit, and Oldcorn his companion, were dragged out. They had had time to lay in some store of provision when they first betook themselves to their hiding-place, besides which broth and caudle had been ingeniously conveyed to them by a reed passed through a very small aperture higher up in the chimney, from the sleeping-room of a lady of the family, which scanty supply had enabled them thus to sustain life for so many days.

They were brought to the Tower, where, by James's order, they were tolerably well treated; but subjected to endless separate examinations, the King taking great interest in framing subtle questions himself, by which he expected to entrap and entangle them in their answers.

Among other devices, Garnet and Oldcorn were placed in adjoining cells, with persons concealed behind the walls, to listen and take notes of the conversation which might pass between them.

When their trial came on, although Garnet's line of


defence was to deny everything, till actually proved against him, yet sufficient was elicited by cross-examination, and by the device above-mentioned of listening informants, to satisfy the Council that Catesby had made Garnet privy to the plot, several months before the meeting of Parliament; chiefly, as it seemed, to obtain from him certain religious sedatives for his conscience, especially as to the question, so long disputed among the conspirators, of how far it would be lawful to sacrifice some Catholic Peers and innocent persons in the general destruction of the Parliament.

The trial of Garnet was conducted with the most scandalous disregard of reason and justice, the Crown prosecutor appearing to consider invective and abuse of the prisoner better arguments against him, than any which could be drawn from the evidence, though that evidence was, in itself, sufficient to satisfy any jury of the guilt of the prisoner.

In the report of Garnet's trial (State Trials), the speech of Lord Northampton, one of the Royal Commissioners, occupies some sixteen pages of close-printed folio ; and though the editor admits, in a note, that " My Lord had corrected and somewhat enlarged its spoken dimensions," it can hardly have occupied much less than four hours in delivery. Yet it is very little to the purpose, for the chief object of the speaker appears to have been to exhibit his own pedantic learning, by illustrations from the " works of all authors who ever were extant."

Besides quotations from Tertullian, Democritus, Heliodorus, Menenius Agrippa, and Thomas Aquinas,


he cited Mahomet, Rahab, Nero, David, Telemachus, Joseph, Valentinian, Pericles, Zedekiah, Trajan, and King John, as instances, in support of the absurd paradoxes of which his oration was composed.

The Attorney-General indulged in the vituperation of the prisoner, usual in state trials of that time, interspersed with sneers at the Roman Catholic religion and abuse of the Pope, but otherwise conducted the prosecution with ability, and placed the guilt of the prisoner on grounds which he did not attempt to controvert, the sacredness of confession being almost his only plea for extenuation of his share in the plot. As there could be no doubt that he was guilty of misprision or concealment of the treason, he was sentenced accordingly, and executed on the 3rd May in St. Paul's Churchyard.

He made a pious and moderate speech on the scaffold, which, together with his meek and patient deportment, so favourably affected the spectators, that when, in pursuance of the horrible ceremony of execution for high treason, the executioner was proceeding to cut him down from the gibbet while yet alive, to perform the frightful barbarities of embowelling and quartering, the people uttered such furious outcries and threats, that the man slunk back in terror of their violence, and allowed him to hang till life was extinct. The King took credit for this afterwards, by declaring, that the executioner had delayed cutting Garnet down by his express order, but the other version is the most probable.

Oldcorn, the unfortunate companion of Garnet in the Priests' Hole at Hendlip, was placed on the rack


several times in the Tower, to draw from him further explanations of the conversations between him and Garnet in their adjoining prisons, which had been overheard and reported; but he either knew little of the detail of the plot and those engaged in it, or his courage defeated the cruelty of his tormentors, for he confessed nothing; and after a mock trial was sent to Worcester, and there executed, with the usual barbarities of the punishment for high treason.

On reviewing the circumstances of the Gunpowder Plot, we shall find that in one respect it differs from any other of the wild and desperate attempts of this kind recorded in history. The men who are commonly found to engage in such enterprises are persons who have lost all, or have never had anything to lose, and who venture their worthless lives, for the chance of gaining plunder or power.

But Catesby and his comrades, though they had many of them been licentious in early life, and had taken part in Essex's insurrection and other treasonable schemes, arising out of the great religious and political changes in the government of England, were men of a higher class than those who usually plunge into schemes of violence and murder. Most of them were men who in peaceable times, and free from the strong influence of religious enthusiasm, might have passed through life as respectable country gentlemen, living quietly with their families and friends, and performing with credit the duties and avocations belonging to their position. The Attorney-General, in his speech for the prosecution, did not fail to notice


this fact, though in aggravation of their offence; for he described them as "gentlemen of good houses, of excellent parts, and of very competent fortunes and estates."

Although several of them expressed, after their trials, a certain degree of contrition for having entered into the wicked scheme of wholesale murder of the Royal Family and Parliament, yet it cannot be doubted that their consciences were lulled into a false repose, by the strong conviction, that the terrible responsibility they had taken on themselves, was a duty they were discharging to their country and to their Maker. Grant, among others, declared on the scaffold, " I am convinced that our project was so far from being sinful, that I rely on the part I have taken in it, for an expiation of all the sins I have ever committed." Finally, it must be observed that,


oppressed and insulted as the Roman Catholics had been by laws and penalties disgraceful to any civilized nation, yet the large majority of them showed abhorrence of the massacre proposed by the conspirators, and expressed but little sympathy for the fate of the leaders of the Gunpowder Plot. On the other hand, so violent was the feeling in the House of Commons, that it was actually question of petitioning the King that some " yet sharper pains might be devised than customary in executions for high treason," to mark the public horror of the contrivers of so bloody and atrocious a crime.