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The Gunpowder Plot – Who were the women?

Discover the women behind the Gunpowder Plot

Sofia Wood
Printed proclamation for the apprehension of the chief conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot
Printed proclamation for the apprehension of the chief conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, 7th November 1605 (ER123)

When I first think of any links between Shakespeare and the Gunpowder Plot, as an English Literature student my mind is instantly drawn to Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  

First performed in 1606, this play holds quite a few similarities to the Gunpowder Plot, such as the topic of the regicide of a Scottish King, which perhaps would have given a contemporary audience that extra chill when watching that murky tragedy. Fireworks called Squibs were used to create the flashes and bangs of the ‘thunder and lightning’ described in the opening scene, which seems especially topical considering the explosive nature of the plot against the King’s life. There are even references to the equivocation of the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet in the porter’s speech in Act 2 Scene 3. Equivocation is also present in the witches’ ambiguous opening lines, ‘fair is foul and foul is fair’, which sets the tone of the play and is similar to the words of Catholics trying to both preserve their faith and their lives.

The "Scottish play” is also very famous for its complex female characters, most notably Lady Macbeth. This made me wonder about the women in the story of the Gunpowder Plot, specifically the wives of those named on the Royal Proclamation for the Apprehension of Gunpowder Plotters, which I saw up close. 

Those named on that Royal Proclamation were Thomas Percy, Robert Catesby, Ambrose Rookwood, Thomas Winter (Wintour), Edward Grant (John Grant), John Wright, Christopher Wright, and Robert Ashfield (most likely Thomas Bates), servant to Robert Catesby, all of whom were caught (and some killed) at Holbeche House on what used to be the Staffordshire border. As men who refused to conform to the Protestant ruling of the country and instead remain loyal to the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church, the plotters and others like them would have been labelled “Popish recusants”. They were subjected to consequences if they did not conform to the law, such as the 1559 Act of Uniformity of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacrament, and the 1593 Act for restraining Popish recusants. Such consequences included:

  • Imprisonment if you held or attended private masses
  • Initially fined 12 shillings for non attendance at church, the harsher Recusancy laws increasing this fine to £20 per month
  • Non payment of fines resulted in imprisonment

However, the case was quite different for Catholic women. Before the introduction of a statute requiring married women who were recusants to swear an oath in 1610, such an oath was only required of men who held ecclesiastical or civic offices within England. Since a married woman had no property of her own, she could not pay her own fines, meaning that wives had some degree of immunity from financial penalties if she was found to be an active recusant. Also, allowances were made for women whose husbands were conformists, but only if those women weren’t converting those around them. In the early 1590s the Privy Council began ordering the imprisonment of recusant wives of conformist men if they converted or tried to convert others. 

A significant woman in the life of Robert Catesby was his wife Catherine Leigh, who he married in 1593. Catherine was from a wealthy Protestant family, which meant that his wife’s religious association offered Robert some respite from the recusancy laws. Interestingly, it was the death of his Protestant wife that led Robert to embrace his Catholic faith and to become involved in the plot. 

Printed proclamation for the apprehension of the chief conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot
Printed proclamation for the apprehension of the chief conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, 7th November 1605 (ER123)

Catesby was related to fellow plotter Francis Tresham, who was related to Anne Vaux, a very active recusant at this time, despite not being involved in the plot. At age 25, she became the protector of Father Henry Garnet, Jesuit Superior of England. The pair travelled around the country together via the network of safe houses that her brother had helped to set up.  One of these safe houses was Baddesley Clinton, which Anne and her sister Eleanor had rented since 1588. The women employed the principal builder of priest holes, Nicholas Owen, to create hiding places there for 12 priests. These hiding places proved themselves in 1591 when priest hunters came to the house looking for Garnet and a group of priests he had arranged to meet. The priests in question were not found, meaning that Anne saved the lives of five priests on that day alone. Anne was arrested in 1606 in relation to the plot, and although she did harbour priests, she was not guilty of treason, and was released. 

A few of the plotters were linked by women, Martha Wright being such a woman. Sister to Christopher and John Wright and wife to Thomas Percy, Martha was from a staunchly recusant Catholic family. Her mother Ursula was a convicted recusant. Thomas Wintour and John Grant were also connected via marriage, as Wintour’s sister Dorothy married Grant. Ambrose Rookwood’s marriage to Elizabeth Tyrwhitt was part of recusant networking, as it connected two wealthy and prominent Roman Catholic families.

Although the Gunpowder women weren't as influential to the cause as other recusant women of the period, I still find their roles fascinating, as their lives, deaths, and marriages all affected the plot in some way.

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