Everard Digby was one of the conspirators in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot – the attempt by Catholics to kill James I and as many members of Parliament as was possible. Everard Digby was caught and executed.
The exact date of Everard Digby’s birth is not known. It many well have been either 1576 or 1578. His family may have been Catholics but they led a very low-key life and did not attract the hostility that the Catesby and Wright families did. The Digby family did not experience the financial penalties experienced by these families. The anger that seemingly greatly influenced Catesby and the Wrights was not found in Everard Digby and he was the most unlikely of conspirators.
In 1596, Digby married Mary Mulsho who came from a staunch Protestant family and lived within their household. Mary was the sole heir to a considerable fortune as her father was a very rich man. Digby presented himself at court and he became a popular member of the court. Contemporary accounts of Everard Digby refer to him as being an excellent horseman, excellent musician and excellent swordsman. When at his father-in-law’s estate he went hunting and hawking. Affairs of politics barely seemed to have touched his life.
In 1599 Digby was introduced to John Gerard, the Jesuit priest. A neighbour of Digby’s, Roger Lee, made the first introduction. It was in this year that Digby first started to discuss theological issues. Gerard played his part well. He was well versed in hunting and dressed in a manner that would not attract attention. When Mary inherited her father’s estates his death, she announced her intention to convert to Catholicism. Gerard received her into the Catholic faith – despite her disbelief that he was a priest such was his card playing ability.
On a trip to London Digby fell seriously ill. He asked for Gerard to attend him. It was while helping Digby through this time of illness that Digby also converted to Catholicism. He asked Gerard to bring his wife to London so that she might also convert – such was the secrecy of the time that Digby did not know that his wife had already converted!
Digby and Gerard became close friends. Gerard showed both Everard and Mary how best to set up a Catholic household. Gerard wrote of Digby:
“To me he was always a most loyal friend, and we might have been brothers in blood. In fact we called each other ‘brother’ when we wrote or spoke to each other”.
The new king, James I, knighted Digby on April 23rd, 1603, as the king made his way south to London. Many Catholics expected the new king to be more tolerant of Catholics than Elizabeth had been but they were quickly disillusioned.
There remains much doubt as to when Digby joined the other conspirators and who introduced him to the plot. Many years after his death, letters were found that had been written by Digby while imprisoned in the Tower of London. They make it clear that while questioned Digby lied to throw his questioners off the scent of others. Previously many conclusions as to when and why he joined the conspirators were made as a result of his confession and these generally point to Robert Catesby as the man who introduced him. However, one theory is that it was Thomas Wintour who was in the Tower along with Digby. Wintour had yet to be questioned in the Tower so Digby gave out Catesby’s name to protect Wintour.
What is known is that Digby financed the plot to the tune of £1500.
Digby’s part in the plot was very specific. He was in charge of the Midlands. Digby was to gather 100 known Catholic supporters at Dunsmoor Heath on the pretext of gathering for a hunt. This was to be near Coombe Abbey where Princess Elizabeth was being held. They were to capture her and after this start a general Catholic uprising in the Midlands.
Robert Catesby met the group on November 5th at the Red Lion Inn at Dunchurch. Here Catesby told them that the plot had failed but that the uprising and kidnap of the princess should still go ahead. With the news of the failure, many in the group simply left – including John Wintour, brother of Thomas.
Digby headed, as was agreed, to Holbeache House. Here on November 8th he escaped the firefight that killed Catesby, Percy and Christopher and John Wright. However, he was caught just four miles from the house. Sent to the Tower, Digby was not tortured – he simply faced questioners and replied to their answers.
Digby pleaded guilty to the charges brought before him and as a result he was put on trial separately from the others who had pleaded not guilty. His approach – pleading his guilt – allowed Digby to make a speech at his trial. This was denied to the other conspirators. Digby gave his reasons for joining the plot. The main ones were his belief that James was about to embark on a campaign against Catholics in England and that the king had also broken promises made in 1603 that offered Catholics the hope that they would be more tolerated in his kingdom. His last two requests were both denied – that because of his title that he be beheaded and that no action should be taken against his family.
Digby was hung, drawn and quartered on January 30th 1606. Legend has it that as the executioner cut out his heart, held it up and shouted out “Here is the heart of a traitor” Digby called out “Thou liest.”