03 June 2020

How the gunpowder plot
came to an inevitable end
in a house in Staffordshire

The Littleton Arms in Penkridge … the Littleton family was related by marriage to the Comberford family, and one branch was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot in 1606 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was writing this morning of how pleased I am to have acquired my own copy of Michael Greenslade’s Catholic Staffordshire, with its stories of recusancy, ‘priests’ holes,’ conspiracies, poverty and family networks.

In one of his many colourful vignettes, Greenslade tells the surprising story of the Staffordshire connections with the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and how it came to a grisly end in Staffordshire.

Greenslade recalls how Catholic disappointment with James I was keen in Staffordshire from shortly after his accession to the throne in 1603. However, only a few Catholics in Staffordshire turned to violence and gunpowder treason, and the Gunpowder Plot was finally broken in Staffordshire in a shoot-out at Holbeach, just south of Himley in the south-west of the county.

These events are associated with the home of George Littleton, who had already been in trouble for recusancy in the 1590s, and his home had two ‘priests’ holes. The Littleton family were prominent Catholics, and Walter Littleton of Pillaton in Penkridge had married Alice Comberford.

When Guy Fawkes was captured on 5 November 1605, the ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot, Robert Catesby, escaped with the other plotters to the Midlands in the hope of regrouping and gathering support.

The group was joined by Sir Everard Digby, a nephew of another leading Catholic, Sampson Erdeswick, identified by Greenslade as Staffordshire’s first real county historian, and by Stephen Littleton of Holbeach.

However, as they journeyed on, the group tired and their hopes dimmed. They reach Holbeach at 10 o’clock at night on 7 November 1605. They were being pursued by Sir Richard Walsh, Sheriff of Worcestershire, and a small force, and the plotters hoped to fortify themselves at Holbeach.

As you might expect, the plotters had taken some of their gunpowder with them. But by now the gunpowder was damp and – in a twist that you could not write into the script of a novel – they put it in front of a fire to let it dry. It was unbelievable an inevitable folly.

It was a winter’s night, and it may well have been a roaring fire. But what followed could have been foreseen.

As you might expect, a spark flew from the fire and hit the powder. In the ensuing conflagration, the ringleader, Robert Catesby, and two of his comrades were badly burnt, a fourth member of the gang was blinded, and the house was damaged.

In the confusion, Everard Digby and some other plotters slipped away, hoping to find a way to give themselves up honourably in Warwick.

However, eight of the plotters and a number of their servants were still in the house when Walsh and his troop arrived at Holbeach at noon the following day, 8 November. It must have been easy to find them.

Four of the gang tried to make their escape across the courtyard but were wounded. Catesby and another plotter were shot down at the door of the house and the besieging party rushed in. Three of the plotters were stripped as they lay dying.

In an act of faith or an act of folly, Catesby crawled back into the house, and died clutching an image of the Virgin Mary. The image and a gold crucifix around his neck were seized by the sheriff’s assistant and sent to London as ‘superstitious and popish idols.’

Greenslade goes on to tell how Digby was captured before he could reach Warwick. Stephen Littleton and Robert Winter, one of the original plotters, found various hiding places in the area before eventually reaching Rowley Regis in Worcestershire. There they found shelter in a barn at Hagley before they were taken into Hagley Hall by Stephen Littleton’s first cousin, Humphrey Littleton.

But the story does not end there. The cook, John Fynwood, betrayed the fugitives and they were caught as tried to make good their escape. Humphrey Littleton fled to nearby Prestwood in Kinver, but he too was captured on 9 January 1606.

Sir Everard Digby was taken to the Tower of London, was tried there on 27 January 1606, was found guilty of high treason, and was hanged, drawn and quartered on 30 January 1606.

Humphrey Littleton was executed on 7 April 1606, when he was hanged, drawn and quartered, together with the Jesuit Father Edward Oldcorne, John Wintour, and Ralph Ashley at Red Hill, outside Worcester. John Perkes, the Hagley tenant farmer, and his servant Thomas Burford, were also executed for aiding the fugitives.

As Greenslade remarks, it ‘gives a twist to this story to find that Staffordshire commemorates the Gunpowder Plot in a special way.’ He points out that several streets on a housing estate south-east of Holbeach House are named after people who were part of the plot, including Catesby Drive and Digby Road.

Michael Greenslade, Catholic Staffordshire 1500-1850 Leominster: Gracewing, 2006, xxi + 297 pp, ISBN 978-0-85244-655-3 .

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