Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Catesby, Robert

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CATESBY, ROBERT (1573–1605), second and only surviving son of Sir William Catesby of Lapworth, Warwickshire, by Anne, daughter of Sir Robert Throckmorton of Coughton in the same county, was born at Lapworth in 1573. He was sixth in descent from William Catesby [q. v.], of the household to Henry VI (Rot. Parl. v. 197) and speaker of the House of Commons in the parliament of 1484 (vi. 238), who, being on the side of Richard III, escaped from the battle of Bosworth only to be hanged at Leicester a few days afterwards (Gairdner, Richard III, 308). The attainder against him being reversed, his estates reverted to his family, and the Catesbys added largely to them in the century that followed. Sir William Catesby, in common with the great majority of the country gentry throughout England who were resident upon their estates and unconnected with the oligarchy who ruled in the queen's name at court, threw in his lot with the catholic party and suffered the consequences of his conscientious adherence to the old creed. He was a recusant, and for the crime of not attending at his parish church and taking part in a form of worship which he regarded as worse than a mockery, he suffered severely in person and substance during the latter half of Queen Elizabeth's reign. He had become compromised as early as 1580 by his befriending of the Roman emissaries (Cal. State Papers. Dom. 1580, p. 322), and he certainly was a liberal contributor to their support (Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers, 2nd ser. p. 156). There is some reason to believe that Robert, his son, was for a time a scholar at the college of Douay (Diary of the English College, Douay, ed. Dr. Knox, 1878, p. 206), but in 1586 he entered at Gloucester Hall, now Worcester College, Oxford, which was then a favourite place of resort for the sons of the recusant gentry, as Peterhouse was at Cambridge. The young men of this party rarely stayed at the university more than a year or two, the oath of supremacy being a stumbling-block to them; and Catesby never proceeded to the B.A. degree. In 1592 he married Catherine, daughter of Sir Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, and with her had a considerable estate settled to the uses of the marriage. Next year, by the death of his grandmother, he came into possession of the estate of Chastleton, where he continued to reside for the next few years. His wife died while he was living at Chastleton, leaving him with an only son, Robert; an elder son, William, having apparently died in infancy. In 1598 his father died, and though his mother, Lady Catesby, had a life interest in a large portion of her husband's property, Catesby was by this time a man of large means and much larger expectations; but it seems that the pressure of the persecuting laws, which had been applied with relentless cruelty upon the landed gentry in the midland counties, had produced an amount of irritation and bitterness which to proud and sensitive men was becoming daily more unsupportable, and the terrible fines and exactions which were levied upon their estates, and the humiliating espionage to which they were subjected, tended to make them desperate and ready for any risks that promised even a remote chance of deliverance. As early as 1585 Sir William Catesby had compounded with the government, to the extent of a fifth of his income, for the amount of impositions to be levied upon him for his recusancy (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. 640). Nevertheless we find him three years after a prisoner at Ely along with Sir Thomas Tresham and others of the recusant gentry, and indignantly protesting against the cruel treatment to which he was exposed. In 1593 he was still in durance, and with some difficulty obtained a license for fifteen days' absence to go to Bath for the recovery of his health, which presumably had suffered from his long confinement (ib. 5th Rep. 311). Matters did not mend for the recusants during the next few years, and the penal laws were not relaxed, though the victims were perforce kept quiet. When the mad outbreak of Robert, earl of Essex, in 1601 brought that foolish nobleman to the scaffold, Catesby was one of his most prominent adherents, and in the scuffle that took place in the streets he received a wound. He was thrown into gaol, but for once in her career the queen did not think fit to shed much blood in her anger. More money was to be made out of the conspirators by letting them live than by hanging them, and Catesby was pardoned, but a fine of 4,000 marks was imposed upon him, 1,200l. of which was handed over to Sir Francis Bacon for his share of the spoils (Spedding, Bacon Letters, iii. 11). It was an enormous impost, and equivalent to a charge of at least 30,000l. in our own times. Catesby was compelled to sell the Chastleton estate, and seems then to have made his home with his mother at Ashby St. Legers, Northamptonshire. Growing more and more desperate and embittered, he seems after this to have brooded fiercely on his wrongs and to have surrendered himself to thoughts of the wildest vengeance. Casting aside all caution he consorted habitually with the most reckless malcontents and brought himself so much under the notice of the government that a few days before the queen's death he was committed to prison by the lords of the council, and was probably under arrest on the accession of James I (Camden, Ep. p. 347; Cal. State Papers, Dom. James I, 1603–10, p. 1). During the first six months of his reign the new king seemed inclined to show favour to the catholic gentry, or at any rate inclined to relax the cruel harshness of the laws. The fines and forfeitures upon recusants almost disappeared from the accounts of the revenue, and a feeling of uneasiness began to spread among the protestant zealots that toleration was going too far. This forbearance lasted but a little while. Continually urged by the outcries of the puritan party to show no mercy to their popish fellow-subjects, and worried by his hungry Scotchmen to bestow upon them the rewards which their poverty needed so sorely if their services did not merit such return, James, who soon discovered that even English money and lands could not be given away without limit, began to show that he had almost as little sympathy with the romanising party as his predecessor, and the old enactments were revived and the old statutes put in force. The catholics, who had begun to hope for better days, were goaded to frenzy by this change of attitude. The more conscientious and the more sincerely desirous they were simply to enjoy the liberty of worshipping God after their own fashion, the more sullenly they brooded over their wrongs. The catholics by this time had become divided into two parties somewhat sharply antagonistic the one to the other. The one party consisted of those who had a vague idea of setting up an organised ecclesiastical establishment in England which should be placed under the discipline of its own bishops appointed by the pope, and which should occupy almost exactly the same position occupied by the Roman catholics in England at the present moment. They hoped that by submitting themselves to the government and taking the oath of allegiance they might purchase for themselves a measure of toleration of which they suspected that in process of time they might avail themselves to bring back the nation to its allegiance to the see of Rome.

The other party consisted of those who were under the paramount influence of the jesuits, and these were vehemently opposed to any submission or any temporising; they would have all or nothing, and any concession to the heretics or any weak yielding to laws which they denounced as immoral they taught was mortal sin, to be punished by exclusion for ever from the church of Christ in earth or heaven. It was with this latter party—the party who, not content with toleration, could be satisfied with nothing but supremacy—that Catesby had allied himself, and of which he was qualified to be a leading personage. At the accession of James I he was in his thirtieth year, of commanding stature (Gerard, p. 57) and great bodily strength, with a strikingly beautiful face and extremely captivating manners. He is said to have exercised a magical influence upon all who mixed with him. His purse was always at the service of his friends, and he had suffered grievously for his convictions. Moreover, he was a sincerely religious man after his light, a fanatic in fact, who subordinated all considerations of prudence to the demands which his dogmatic creed appeared to him to require. A catholic first, but anything and everything else afterwards. Such men get thrust into the front of any insane enterprise that they persuade themselves is for the advancement of a holy cause, and Catesby when he girded on his sword took care to have that sword engraved ‘with the passion of our Lord,’ and honestly believed he was entering upon a sacred crusade for the glory of God. In the confused tangle of testimony and contradiction, of confession under torture, hearsay reports and dexterous prevarication on which the story of the Gunpowder plot is based, it is difficult to unravel the thread of a narrative which is told in so many different ways. Thus much, however, seems to be plain, viz. that the plot was originally hatched by Thomas Winter about the summer of 1604, first communicated to Guy Faux and soon after to Catesby, who was always to be relied on to furnish money; that it was not revealed to any of the Roman priesthood except under the seal of confession, which rendered it impossible for them as priests to divulge it; that the two jesuit fathers Garnett and Gerrard, who were a great deal too astute and sagacious not to see the immeasurable imprudence of any such attempt, revolted from its wickedness, and did their best to prevent it, foreseeing the calamitous issue that was sure to result from it; finally, that it never would have gone so far as it did but for the ferocious daring of Faux, supported by the immovable obstinacy, amounting to monomania, of Catesby. The Gunpowder plot is, however, a matter of history, not of biography, and into its details it is not advisable here to enter. The full particulars are to be read in the confession of Thomas Winter, among the documents at the Record Office (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1603–11, pp. 262, 279). It is sufficient to say that about midnight of 4 Nov. 1605 Faux was apprehended at the door of the cellar under the parliament house by Sir Thomas Knyvett, who found thirty-six barrels of powder in casks and hogsheads prepared in all readiness for the explosion. Catesby obtained information of his confederate's arrest almost immediately and lost no time in getting to horse. He was joined by the two Wrights, Percy, and Ambrose Rookwood, and the party reached Ashby St. Legers, a distance of eighty miles, in less than seven hours. On the evening of the 7th the whole company, about sixty strong, reached Holbeach, on the borders of Staffordshire. Next morning occurred the remarkable explosion of the gunpowder which the conspirators were getting ready for their defence of the house against assault, whereby Catesby himself was severely scorched. Some few hours after this Sir Richard Walsh arrived with his force, surrounded the house, and summoned the rebels to lay down their arms. On their refusal the attack commenced, and Catesby and Percy, standing back to back and fighting furiously, were shot through the body with two bullets from the same musket. Catesby, crawling into the house upon his hands and knees, seized an image of the Virgin, and dropped down dead with it clasped in his arms (8 Nov. 1605). Of course the property of the unhappy man was forfeited, and fell to the courtiers who scrambled for their reward; but the settlement of that portion of the estates which had been made by Sir William upon Lady Catesby preserved them from alienation, and though an attempt was made in 1618 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1611–18, p. 580) to set that settlement aside, it seems to have failed, and Robert Catesby the younger, recovering the fragments of his inheritance, is said to have married a daughter of that very Thomas Percy who perished fighting ingloriously back to back with his father when they made their last stand at Bostock. Of his subsequent history nothing is known.

The old Manor House of Ashby St. Legers is still standing, and a portrait reported by tradition to be a likeness of the conspirator is to be seen at Brockhall, Northamptonshire.

[Gairdner's Richard III; Notes and Queries, 6th series, xii. 364, 466; Genealogist, v. 61 et seq.; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1580; Jardine's Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, 1857; The Visitation of Warwickshire (Harl. Soc.); Morris's Condition of Catholics under James I, 2nd edit. 1872; Knox's Diary of the English College at Douay, 1878.]

A. J.