Robert Catesby was one of the conspirators in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot – the attempt to blow up James I and members of Parliament. Robert Catesby was considered to be one of the leading conspirators – but he managed to escape the butchery of being hung, drawn and quartered which was handed out to those conspirators who were caught.
Robert Catesby was born in 1573. The Catesby family had a long history – a descendant had worked for Richard III.
Robert Catesby’s father, William, was a fervent Catholic and was seen by many Catholics as a leader of their cause in England. In 1581, along with the father of fellow conspirator, Francis Tresham, William had to stand before the Star Chamber for harbouring a Jesuit priest – Father Edmund Campion. William spent many years after 1581 in prison and he lost large amounts of his fortune as a result of paying off fines. The treatment of his father clearly had a major impact on Robert in an era when the father dominated the household and was looked up to by all within the family.
Robert attended Oxford University but never gained a degree as he left in order to avoid taking the Oath of Supremacy that was required before a degree was granted.
Catesby went to France to broaden his education. He attended a school founded by Cardinal William Allen that taught Theology. It is believed that Catesby studied a book by the Jesuit Martin de Azpilcueta that dealt with the moral issue of when a forbidden action can be justified on theological grounds.
In 1593, Catesby married the Protestant Catherine Leigh. She came from a wealthy family. In 1594, Catesby himself came into considerable money when his grandmother died and he was left an estate at Chastleton, Oxford. Despite the fact that he married a Protestant and that his son Robert was baptised in an Anglican church, Catesby remained a fervent Catholic. His homes provided a safe haven for Jesuits – John Gerard fled to one of his houses after his famous escape from the Tower of London in 1597. Clearly this would never have happened if the Catholic community within England did not trust Robert Catesby. Father Oswald Tesimond wrote that Robert Catesby “could be seen nowhere without his priest."
In 1596, Elizabeth I fell ill and known leading Catholics were imprisoned – including Catesby. He was held in the Tower of London along with Christopher and John Wright and Francis Tresham. When Elizabeth recovered, they were released.
Catesby was involved in the Essex Rebellion of 1601 but his minor role in it was recognised when he was fined 4,000 marks. While this was a large sum of money, he could have faced charges of treason and execution. He paid off his fine by selling his manor at Chastleton. However, he was still a wealthy man and it was Catesby who was to be a major financial contributor to the 1605 conspiracy.
In 1603 Elizabeth died and James I became king of England. To many Catholics this, they believed, ushered in an era whereby Catholics could openly worship as of old. They believed that James offered religious toleration. They were soon disillusioned. James ordered all bishops to hunt down Catholics and in February 1604 the king ordered that all priests should be removed from England. He also ordered the proper collection of fines imposed on Catholics that had yet to be collected – with extra added on because of the arrears. In April 1604, he asked the Commons to classify all Catholics as excommunicates – even Elizabeth had rejected this as being too severe. This law meant that no one had to pay Catholics rent, that Catholics could no longer make wills, that Catholics could no longer go to the law when people owed them debts etc. To all intents, the law made Catholics outcasts and enemies of the state.
Very shortly after this, Catesby revealed his plot to Thomas Wintour at his house in Lambeth. Thomas Wintour was to introduce Guy Fawkes to Robert Catesby and as the conspiracy developed more and more conspirators were brought in.
The conspirators had made arrangements to flee London if the plot failed. When it became clear that it had, Catesby fled to Holbeche House in Staffordshire. On November 8th, the manor house was surrounded by troops under the charge of the Sheriff of Worcester. Catesby and the other conspirators there refused to surrender and a gunfight broke out. Catesby and fellow conspirators Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, were shot dead. It is said that the same shot killed both Catesby and Thomas Percy. However, his death by gunfire ensured that Catesby escaped being put on trial, probably after a period of torture, and being sentenced to being hung, drawn and quartered.