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date: 11 November 2019

Catesby, Robertfree

(b. in or after 1572, d. 1605)
  • Mark Nicholls

Catesby, Robert (b. in or after 1572, d. 1605), conspirator, was the third and only surviving son of Sir William Catesby (1547–1598) of Lapworth, Warwickshire [see Catesby family], and his wife, Anne, daughter of Sir Robert Throckmorton of Coughton in the same county. He was a direct descendant of that William Catesby lampooned as Richard III's 'cat' in a famous fifteenth-century rhyme and executed at Leicester after the battle of Bosworth. Many works on Gunpowder Plot state that Robert Catesby was born at Lapworth in 1573, but no certain documentary proof for this detail seems to survive. The indenture for his marriage, dated 2 March 1593, notes that he was then under twenty-one years of age.

Essex rebel and Catholic conspirator

Catesby's parents were prominent Roman Catholics, suffering the usual financial penalties dealt out to wealthy recusants in late Elizabethan England. Robert adhered to his parents' faith. He attended Gloucester Hall, Oxford, in 1586, the choice of a college noted for its Catholic intake being perhaps significant. In 1593 he married Catherine Leigh (d. 1598), daughter of Sir Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh, and he inherited the Chastleton estate upon the death of his grandmother in the following year. His elder son, William, died young, and Catesby lost Catherine soon after, leaving him with an only surviving child, Robert, baptized on 11 November 1595.

On 8 February 1601 Catesby sided with the earl of Essex in the latter's doomed rebellion. He was wounded, imprisoned, and fined £3000 for his part in this affair. It has been supposed that his need of ready cash prompted the sale of Chastleton to Walter Jones, wool merchant of Witney, but the cause is in fact by no means certain. Catesby also owned, and occasionally lived in, houses in Hillingdon, Middlesex, and Lambeth, Surrey, while his mother held a life interest in the family home at Ashby St Ledgers, Northamptonshire.

Bitterness at the failure of Essex's design nevertheless seems to have sharpened an already well-honed neurosis; Catesby certainly attracted the attentions of a government all too wary of trouble from extremists in sensitive times. With his fellow Essex rebels John Wright and Christopher Wright, later participants in Gunpowder Plot, and also that perennial rowdy Sir Edmund Baynham, Catesby was placed under arrest at the death of Queen Elizabeth, William Camden contemptuously dismissing the group as men 'hunger-starved for innovation' (Smith, 347–8). It was about this time that Catesby used, occasionally, the alias Mr Roberts, particularly when visiting Jesuits and their followers at White Webbs and other safe houses. Though they were not to know this for some years, the government's suspicions were well founded. In 1602 a small group of Catholic gentlemen, Francis Tresham and Lord Monteagle prominent among them, had sent another future co-conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot, Catesby's cousin Thomas Winter, to Spain to negotiate for an invasion of England in support of domestic Catholics. Winter later confessed that Catesby had been involved in all these schemes.

According to Oswald Tesimond and John Gerard, two Jesuit priests who knew their man very well, Catesby was 'more than ordinarily well proportioned, some six feet tall, of good carriage and handsome countenance'. 'Very wild' in his youth, he was, so they say, 'reclaimed … and became a Catholic, unto which he had always been inclined in opinion, though not in practice'. In other words, the wayward young Catholic became, in maturity, a zealot (Gunpowder Plot: the Narrative of Oswald Tesimond, 61–2; Catholics under James I, 54–7). Both Tesimond and Gerard say that Catesby was loved by all for his generosity and affability, and it certainly appears that he did exercise some compelling hold over many co-conspirators in Gunpowder Plot, a hold sufficiently powerful to make them take his easy assurances at face value. Nevertheless, when reviewing the testimony gathered after 5 November 1605 it is important to reflect that prisoners seeking favour—seeking life itself—naturally placed blame and responsibility on the shoulders of a dead colleague.

Gunpowder Plot: planning and recruitment

The date at which Catesby conceived the notion of destroying king and parliament with gunpowder remains uncertain, but it seems very likely that he had some such scheme in mind early in 1604. It may be that he, along with many co-religionists, had initially harboured hopes of better treatment under James I, but it is perhaps more likely that he had all along held James, his faith, and his religious policies in deep contempt. Catesby was more interested in establishing how Spain would react to the change of dynasty, sending his friend Christopher Wright to Madrid in order to sound out Philip III's government. Sensing correctly that the Spanish court was edging towards peace, Catesby dismissed further hopes of foreign military aid, reasoning that English Catholics would have to take matters into their own hands if they wished to rid the country of its protestant hierarchy. Others felt the same way, notably Thomas Percy, the scheming but capable constable of Alnwick Castle and cousin of the ninth earl of Northumberland. But whenever Percy and other more impetuous friends urged action Catesby would recommend caution, thinking through his plan. Eventually he revealed the idea to Christopher's brother John Wright and to his own cousin Thomas Winter, after swearing them both to secrecy.

Catesby's reasoning, as preserved in Winter's subsequent confession, was straightforward, and characteristic of the man. 'In that place', he observed, 'have they done us all the mischeif, and perchance God hath desined that place for their punishment' (Salisbury MS 113/54). Further attempts to establish whether Spanish forces in the Low Countries might yet fight on behalf of English Catholics, which took the form of a visit to Flanders by Winter, were made without optimism, and seem to have had from the start a separate motive: it was on this visit that Winter sought out Guy Fawkes, and brought him back to England in order to join the conspiracy. Winter on his return told Catesby what he clearly both expected and wanted to hear, that although the Spanish authorities in the Low Countries had spoken 'good words' about supporting the English Catholics, he feared that 'the deeds would nott answere'. In this he was right. Philip III made peace with England in August that year.

So Catesby, Wright, and Winter disclosed the plot to Fawkes and Thomas Percy. They did so early in May 1604 at Catesby's lodging in the Strand, the five men having first received communion from Father Gerard. From that moment the plot took on its own momentum, the pace dictated by subsequent prorogations of parliament and the providential availability of a ground-floor vault under the House of Lords, vacated by a coal merchant and swiftly rented by Percy. Fawkes, an unknown face after long service abroad, posed as his servant. Nothing deflected Catesby from his purpose. When a late recruit, Ambrose Rookwood, muttered on learning the secret that 'it was a matter of conscience to take away so much blood', Catesby replied briskly 'that he was resolved that in conscience it mought be done and wished this examinate so to satisfie himselfe'. It was even legitimate to see innocent men die, 'rather than the action should quaile' (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/136). And Rookwood, admiring and docile, went along with this. He said afterwards in mitigation that he had 'loved and respected [Catesby] as his owne life' (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/136).

Catesby seems to have enjoyed a wide circle of friends, beyond the list of embittered Catholic gentry and fugitive Jesuit priests. One anonymous piece of information that arrived on the earl of Salisbury's desk after the treason was discovered had him dining in October at the Mitre tavern in Bread Street with the Catholic peer Lord Mordaunt, the earl of Northumberland's brother Sir Josceline Percy, a servant of the archduke's ambassador, a Northamptonshire neighbour Mr Pickering, and Richard Hakluyt, presumably the chronicler of discovery and navigation (Salisbury MS 112/160). Another of Northumberland's brothers, Sir Charles Percy, had lived at Moorcrofts, Catesby's house at Hillingdon, rent-free for several months before taking a lease of the place in 1605. Catesby was certainly on close terms with Mordaunt during the summer of 1605, a circumstance which would count against the peer later that year. Conversations with another Catholic nobleman, Lord Montagu, made the authorities suspect that he too had been warned by Catesby to stay away from parliament on 5 November (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/74, 86, 100). These suspicions were most probably groundless; in a revealing examination the plotter Robert Keys emphasized the contempt that had underpinned Catesby's dealings with the English nobility. When Keys asked that Mordaunt might be warned against attending parliament Catesby promised that he would 'put a tricke uppon him, but would not for the chamber full of diamonds acquaint him with the secret for that he knewe he could not kepe it'. While hoping to save 'nobles that were Catholiques', he 'said withall that rather then the project should not take effect, if they were as dere to him as his own sonne … they should be also blowen uppe'. With far too few exceptions, the peers were nothing more than 'atheistes fooles and cowards' (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/126).

The story of Gunpowder Plot is well enough known, and told fully elsewhere (see the articles on Guy Fawkes and Thomas Winter). At every stage Catesby was the moving spirit. He worked on the original mine, recruited the first additions to the inner ring of five, funded the accumulation of gunpowder, and schemed to raise the banner of rebellion upon the successful execution of the plot, assembling the Catholic gentry of the midlands under cover of a day's hunting and recruiting for the regiment pledged to serve the archduke in Flanders. The hope was, 'when the acte was done, that all the Catholiques and discontented persones would take their parts and proclaime the Lady Elizabeth being next heire', abducting the nine-year-old princess from the home of Sir John Harington, near Coventry (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/126). Having cleared the matter with Thomas Percy in the summer of 1605, Catesby personally recruited three gentlemen with the means to finance this attempt, and the military struggle that would inevitably follow: Sir Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, and Francis Tresham. Never persuaded that Catesby's cause was just, Tresham almost certainly betrayed the conspiracy by sending an anonymous warning letter to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle. The letter survives in the Public Record Office.

Failure and its aftermath

When, early on the morning of 5 November, news spread round London that Guy Fawkes had been captured red-handed in the cellars at Westminster, Catesby and several fellow conspirators fled north, hastening as best they might up Watling Street to the appointed Northamptonshire rendezvous, Percy and John Wright casting their cloaks into the hedgerows in an effort to ride faster (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/136). They stopped at Ashby St Ledgers only long enough for Catesby to call out his servant Thomas Bate, another sworn conspirator, who armed them all with pistols. Then they rode to Dunchurch. The Catholic gentry had enjoyed their day's hunting but when Catesby, with his dishevelled companions, arrived and told them even an optimistic version of what had occurred in London the majority vanished into the gloom of a November evening. Confusion and a sense of great peril held sway. George Prince, a servant at the Red Lion at Dunchurch, later remembered hearing a man speak 'owt at a casement in the ynne', saying 'I doubt wee are all betrayde' (Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot, 43).

There followed a protracted and miserable anticlimax. Catesby, his fellow conspirators, and a few misguided Catholic gentlemen and their servants resolved to make the best of their lot and to see whether the country would rise for the Catholic cause. However, the country did not rise, and over the next two days even this meagre force dwindled, the ringleaders keeping a constant but not altogether successful watch to prevent desertions. Lacking any real plan of action—fatally torn between flight and resistance—the rebels plundered Warwick Castle for fresh horses late on the 5th, and then spent 6 and 7 November wandering from one Catholic house to another across Warwickshire and Worcestershire: from Norbrooks to Huddington, then to Hewell Grange, and then, finally, to Holbeach, the home of Stephen Littleton, just over the Staffordshire border. Here, as they rested on the evening of the seventh, the accidental explosion of gunpowder which they were drying in front of a fire injured some of the plotters, notably Ambrose Rookwood, Henry Morgan, John Grant, and Catesby himself.

This chance mishap, with its suggestion of divine condemnation, seems finally to have broken their nerve. According to Bate, John Wright:

stept to Catesby, tooke him by the midle and sayd woe worth the time that wee have seene this day, and called for the rest of the powder, saying that he would have that also fired, that they might all togeather be blowen up.

TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/145

Frightened out of his wits, Bate took horse and rode off into the night. He was not alone: even Catesby now began to suspect that the plotters had offended God. When Thomas Winter, who had been on a futile mission to raise the local gentry, returned to his companions he asked what they intended to do. Catesby informed him that they would fight to the death, and Winter, in his own version of events, declared that he would do the same. About eleven o'clock on the morning of 8 November the remaining rebels advanced out into the courtyard of the house, brandishing swords in a final gesture of defiance. Catesby was shot, perhaps by the same bullet that mortally wounded Thomas Percy, fired by John Street of Worcester. It is said that he crawled back inside the house, and that he died clasping an image of the Virgin. Thomas Lawley, who rode with the sheriff of Worcestershire against the insurgents, told the privy council in a letter dated 14 November how he had tried to revive the principal casualties, rightly reckoning that the king's interests would be better served by their preservation. But, he noted, the 'baser sort' among the sheriff's posse were quite out of hand. They stripped the wounded and countered any good he might have done (Salisbury MSS 113/4, 191/80). Ten other men, some of them wounded, were taken prisoner. Everyone else had fled.

The usual grim postscript followed: attainder for treason, and the forfeiture of estates and property. One Ralph Dobbinson, gentleman, of St Martin-in-the-Fields, sought allowance at the end of the year for 23s. 6d., the sum incurred by a blacksmith in making the ironwork which displayed the heads of Catesby and Percy on London Bridge. Catesby's son was taken by his servant to Ashby St Ledgers on 5 November. A pedigree in The history and antiquities of Northamptonshire, compiled from the manuscript collections of … John Bridges (1791, 1.17) has the boy subsequently marrying Thomas Percy's daughter.


  • TNA: PRO, SP14/216
  • TNA: PRO, E178/4162
  • Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, Salisbury–Cecil MSS
  • M. Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot (1991)
  • M. Nicholls, ‘Sir Charles Percy’, Recusant History, 18 (1986–7), 237–50
  • private information (2004) [Jennifer O'Brien]
  • M. Whitmore Jones, The Gunpowder Plot and life of Robert Catesby, also an account of Chastleton House (1909)
  • The condition of Catholics under James I: Father Gerard's narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, ed. J. Morris (1871)
  • The Gunpowder Plot: the narrative of Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway, ed. and trans. F. Edwards (1973)
  • G. B. Morgan, The great English treason for religion known as Gunpowder Plot, 2 vols. (1931–2)
  • T. Smith, ed., V Cl Camdeni et illustrium virorum ad G Camdenum epistolae (1691)



  • C. van de Passe, line engraving, 1605 (The Gunpowder Plot conspirators), NPG
  • line engraving, pubd 1794 (after C. Passe), NPG
  • portrait, Syon House, Syon Park, Brentford, London
  • portrait, Brockhall Manor, Northamptonshire
National Portrait Gallery, London
private collection
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London