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Remember, remember... local links to the Gunpowder Plot

PUBLISHED: 14:49 29 October 2017 | UPDATED: 14:49 29 October 2017

A 19th-century portrait of Suffolk's Gunpowder Plotter Ambrose Rookwood.

A 19th-century portrait of Suffolk's Gunpowder Plotter Ambrose Rookwood.

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The BBC is currently screening a major three-part drama exploring one of the most famous episodes in British history: the Gunpowder Plot. Trevor Heaton explores the local connections with the events of November 1605.

The tomb of Sir Edward Coke inside the church at Tittleshall. Picture: Ian Burt The tomb of Sir Edward Coke inside the church at Tittleshall. Picture: Ian Burt

It was a desperate gamble by desperate men. Alarmed by the king’s anti-Roman Catholic rhetoric, a group of powerful supporters of the ‘Old Faith’ resolved on a bold, startling and brutal plan: they would blow up that king and his ministers, and spark a country-wide rebellion to turn back the tide of Protestantism.

They failed, of course, and we mark that failure every year with Bonfire Night, a tradition which began in 1606 and has carried on ever since.

The name of Guy Fawkes is synonymous with the plot, but as the new BBC drama Gunpowder is making clear, the driving force behind it was actually Robert Catesby.

And we don’t have to look far to discover two prominent local links to one of the most famous episodes in British history. One player was from Suffolk, an enthusiastic supporter of the plot; the other was from Norfolk, an equally implacable opponent of everything the plotters stood for.

When James I had assumed the throne on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the country’s Catholics had dared to hope that the persecution they had suffered might finally be coming to an end. After all, hadn’t James’ own mother – the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots – been an ardent Catholic? Some even wrote to the king expressing that hope.

They were to be cruelly disappointed when early the next year, the king presided over an ecclesiastical conference at Hampton Court.

It was called to heal divisions within the Protestant faith but also served to tighten sanctions on Catholics. On February 22 the king issued an edict banning Catholic clergy and brought in other punitive measures. The hopes of its adherents that James could be persuaded to convert to Catholicism lay in ruins.

Robert Catesby had already incurred the wrath of the authorities by supporting the ill-fated Essex Rebellion in 1601. That cost him the then enormous sum of £3,000 in fines. In the spring of 1604 he came up with the idea for the Gunpowder Plot.

At first there were only five people in the plot – including the ex-soldier Fawkes – but this was gradually added to over the months. But with every extension of those in the know, the risk of the conspiracy being leaked to the authorities grew exponentially.

Catesby’s plan was to blow up the king, the queen and the Prince of Wales at the opening of Parliament, together with his ministers – in effect, the whole of the country’s ruling class. The plotters would then have sought to kidnap James’ ten-year-old daughter and put her on the throne as a puppet ruler - Elizabeth II - and foment rebellions across the country in their support.

By late 1605 the plot was well advanced, with 36 barrels of illicitly-obtained gunpowder being stored in the undercroft of the House of Lords.

And at this stage, enters the Suffolk player in the drama: plotter Ambrose Rookwood. He was a member of a family which had been at Stanningfield, near Bury St Edmunds, since the last 13th Century. By 1605 Rookwood, who had taken over the family estates at the death of his father five years earlier, was 27. Contemporary reports paint him as good-looking, a fine horseman, courteous, rich – and fiercely Catholic. Joseph Ringwood plays him in the BBC drama.

The Rookwood mansion of Coldham Hall is a lovely late-Tudor home, set in 580 acres of Suffolk countryside. The pediment over the entrance hall gives the date ‘1574’ and the initials ‘R R’, that of Ambrose’s father Robert, its builder.

The family’s steadfast adherence to the Roman Catholic faith is shown not only through its chapel, dating from around 1770, but also, more significantly perhaps, from its several priest holes – hiding places for visiting clerics from a time when harbouring one was held as treason.

The family had already suffered from the crackdown on Catholicism. Ambrose’s cousin Edward, of Euston Hall, had incurred Queen Elizabeth’s displeasure when he hosted her in 1578, and he spent the last ten years of his life rotting in Ely jail.

Rookwood himself was convicted of ‘recusancy’ in February 1605 – the offence of refusing to attend Anglican services – which would only have increased his anger at the state’s treatment of his co-religionists. Even so, he was horrified when Catesby first approached him to tell him of the plot.

The Suffolkman’s role would have been to ride north of Catesby’s Midlands base following the explosion to tell him of the plot’s success. Catesby would then have begun the first of a series of rebellions across the country. Rookwood was also to supply some of his fine stable of horses and part of the finance needed.

By late October there were 12 plotters. On October 26 the inevitable happened: word of the conspiracy leaked. On that day a mystery man delivered a letter to William Parker, Lord Monteagle – a friend to some of the conspirators but, crucially, most definitely not part of the plot – warning him to stay away from the opening of Parliament.

Alarmed, Monteagle immediately took the letter to Sir Robert Cecil, king’s minister and chief spymaster, who ordered an urgent investigation.

That had its sequel on the evening of November 4, when Sir Thomas Knyvet – once, MP for Thetford and now justice of the peace for Westminster – led a search party through the cellars of the Houses of Parliament. It was here, shortly after midnight, that he came across Fawkes with his dark lantern and tinderbox.

Fawkes, caught red-handed, tried to buy time for his fellow conspirators by claiming to be a lowly servant, ‘John Johnson’. No-one believed him, and the king personally authorised his torture. Despite Fawkes refusing to reveal any of the names of his co-conspirators, the (genuine) servants of some of them were rather more forthcoming to the authorities when questioned. On November 7 proclamations were issued for the arrest of Catesby, Rookwood and five others.

The plotters rode to Holbeche House in Staffordshire where – irony of ironies – several were injured in a gunpowder explosion as they tried to dry some damp powder. On November 8 the house was besieged by a 200-strong armed party.

Realising the position was hopeless, Catesby boldly led his co-plotters outside to face their pursuers. He and another conspirator, Thomas Percy, were fatally wounded, allegedly by the same bullet. Rookwood, too, was injured.

Other plotters were soon rounded up. The Gunpowder Plot was over.

And it is now in the narrative that the Norfolk connection comes. The chief prosecutor in the trial of the eight surviving conspirators was to be the Attorney-General, Sir Edward Coke.

He came from an ancient county family. Born in Mileham in 1552 he followed in his father’s footsteps into the law, becoming a barrister aged 26. He was quickly marked out as a man of talent and ambition, becoming counsel for Ipswich in 1584 and recorder of Norwich the following year. By 1592 he was recorder of London and speaker of the House of Commons, then attorney-general.

His long life, shrewd land dealings, and two marriages (the first happy, the second most definitely not) to wealthy heiresses laid the foundations for the vast land holdings of the Coke family today, although the seat of the estate has long since moved from Godwick, between Tittleshall and Whissonsett, to magnificent Holkham Hall.

In his long life Coke was credited with the establishing many of the principles which underpin our democracy, standing up for the rule of law and the rights of ordinary people and property. In the process he helped secure the legacy of Magna Carta.

Coke eventually became the first Lord Chief Justice, but ended up angering James and his son Charles I – even spending time in the Tower. His elegant tomb can be found in Tittleshall church, home to other early Coke monuments. Sir Edward had plenty of faults: the Dictionary of National Biography says ‘in matters of religion he was the most intolerant of men’ and proved as good at making enemies as he did allies.

And what tiny, tiny hope of mercy the eight surviving plotters might have at their trial on January 30 1606 – all had optimistically pleaded not guilty - had vanished like summer mist the minute that Coke began addressing the court. For here was a man who had proved himself a ferocious prosecutor in some of the most high-profile state trials of the age. From the Earl of Essex to Sir Walter Raleigh, Coke had torn into each defendant in turn with all the gentleness of an enraged pitbull trapped in a clump of nettles. ‘In all of these [state trials] he exhibited a spirit of rancour, descending even to brutality,’ the DNB adds.

The eight Gunpowder Plotters were tried and condemned in two days. Their sentence: to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Rookwood ended his days in agony in Old Palace Yard in Westminster in London on January 31 alongside Guy Fawkes and two others, a grim warning to the king’s enemies.

Bury St Edmunds Records Office has several documents relating to the Rookwood family and also Victorian copies of pamphlets sold just after the execution of the plotters. It has a talk every year about the ill-fated plotter.

Later in the same century another Ambrose Rookwood was to meet a similar fate. This later Ambrose, a confirmed Jacobite, was executed for treason in 1696 for plotting to kidnap or assassinate William III. Like his great-grandfather, he had pleaded not guilty, without success.

Coldham Hall was confiscated by the Crown in 1606, but bought back by the family a generation later. It stayed in their ownership until 1869. Its current owners are the celebrity couple supermodel Claudia Schiffer, her husband film director Matthew Vaughn, and their family.

It has fared rather better than Coke’s Norfolk home, the estate of Godwick. Although there is a Godwick Hall, that is a modern building. Only the Godwick great barn – now an upmarket events venue – and the evocative remains of the village it once served are reminders of earlier days.

At the time of the quatercentenary there were estimates of the explosive power of the 36 barrels of gunpowder. It was suggested that they would have contained 2,500kg – a shade under 2.5 tons – of explosive. The destructive power would have been increased by the confines of the 73ft by 24ft cellar, making its walls in effect the shell of a massive bomb.

As well as blowing parliament, Westminster Abbey, and everyone in them, to kingdom come, buildings would have been damaged across a huge area, bounded in modern-day London by Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and the Tate Gallery.

But we don’t have to guess about the power of gunpowder because there is another, if lateral, local connection to the events of 1605.

In April 1648 a 2,000-strong crowd rioted in Norwich as tensions between the city’s Puritans and Royalist supporters.

The rioters tried to seize arms and ammunition from the building near the market place which housed the County Committee of the Parliamentary authorities. But devastation ensued when spilled gunpowder – and there were actually more barrels stored here than in the 1605 Plot – ignited, causing a huge explosion.

Forty people were killed, buildings destroyed, and windows at St Peter Mancroft and St Stephen’s Churches blown out. Not surprisingly, it became known as the ‘Great Blowe’.

As for the legacy of the 1605 conspiracy itself, we might have grown up with a romantic view of the Gunpowder Plotters but we should not forget that these were ruthless, determined men, prepared to sacrifice the lives of hundreds in a terrible explosion and risk what could have been a bloody civil war on religious fault-lines. In another age, perhaps, we would have branded them terrorists.

The fuse they lit on November 5 1605 could have created an explosion that would not just have wrecked parliament but destroyed lives up and down the land. They could have ended up with the blood of not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands, on their hands.

Of course, it was the ordinary law-abiding Catholics who were to pay the price, with the Plot guaranteeing centuries of persecution and discrimination. It became the default setting for rabble-rousers to claim that Rome or its agents were seeking to take control of Britain and plunge the country into a new dark age of religious superstition and loss of liberties. In 1780, for instance, the notorious Gordon Riots began as a protest against efforts to reduce discrimination against Catholics.

As it was, the failure of the Gunpowder Plot probably cost many, many fewer lives than its success would ever have had.

‘Remember, remember, the Fifth of November’? But how could we ever forget?

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