As a feature writer and content Editor for Discover Britain’s Gardens, Historic Homes & Castles magazine, part of my self-imposed remit is to focus on the great wealth of heritage properties dotted around the UK.
With it being Bonfire Night, here’s an abridged piece of a recent article exploring connections between the Gunpowder Plot and some of the UK’s historic houses.
The fifth of November – Guy Fawkes Night, is a reminder of the ill-fated attempt to kill King James back in 1605. On that date over four centuries ago, a solitary figure is arrested down in the cellars of Parliament House in London. Although he first gives his name as John Johnson, Guy Fawkes – as he is really called, is one of thirteen who have conspired to blow up Parliament, and with it the King, and his Lords. By doing so, they were looking to throw the whole country into state of turmoil, out of which these traitors hoped to raise a new monarch who would be sympathetic to their cause, and ultimately return England to its Catholic past.
By 1605, English Catholics had suffered 50 years of repression. Catholic worship was illegal in England and fines were imposed on all those who failed to attend Anglican services.
Some Catholics thought direct action against the government was both justified and necessary. As a known expert in explosives, Guy Fawkes was approached by a group of Catholic extremists who were planning the Gunpowder Plot. The idea was to blow up King James, the royal family and the assembled ruling classes of England during the State Opening of Parliament in London on 5 November 1605 at The Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament), and in particular the Chamber of The House of Lords.
Having discussed their plan to blow up Parliament House, the Gunpowder plotters leased a small house in the heart of Westminster, installing Fawkes as caretaker, under the alias of John Johnson. In March 1605 the group then took out a lease on a ground-floor cellar close by the house they had rented.
The cellar lay directly underneath the House of Lords, and over the following months 36 barrels of gunpowder were moved in, enough to blow everything and everyone in the vicinity sky high, if ignited.
The plot failed when following an anonymous tip-off Guy Fawkes was found underneath the Houses of Parliament. Fawkes was captured, held prisoner and almost certainly tortured at the Tower of London. Along with the other conspirators, he was to encounter a horrible death from being hanged, drawn and quartered, a punishment most commonly inflicted on traitors at that time. The other conspirators had all fled largely in the direction of central England, but whilst trying to escape the authorities were subsequently also captured and put to death, or shot and subsequently killed.
Interestingly, over 400 years on from The Gunpowder Plot, today before the State Opening of Parliament, the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster where Fawkes was discovered and arrested to ensure that there is no repeat of the Gunpowder Conspiracy.
In many ways, the ill-fated events of 1605 changed the course of history in Britain. What’s more the history behind the ill-fated Gunpowder plot and persecuted Catholics is still very evident today at several historic homes and heritage properties around the UK. These properties have strong connections to the Plot and the conspirators and in some cases the property’s themselves played a major part in the story of those events over four centuries ago.
Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
Standing proud on the north Northumberland coast, Alnwick Castle has been home to the Duke of Northumberland’s family – the Percy’s, through over 700 years of drama, intrigue, tragedy and romance.
The castle became the family seat of the Percy’s, and when Henry Percy was made Earl of Northumberland in 1368, it became the seat of the Earldom, and later the Dukedom.
In 1585 Henry Percy became the 9th Earl of Northumberland and succeeded in gaining great influence both in the court of Elizabeth, and in her successor, James VI of Scotland. However in 1594, he appointed a relative, Thomas Percy, Constable of Alnwick and his Commissioner and Auditor.
Through his connections, Thomas, known as an ‘outspoken and bigoted Catholic’, and accused of harsh and unjust conduct, became a spokesperson to the Scottish King on behalf of the English Catholics. Thomas and his family lived for many years at Alnwick, but the succession of James brought new hope.
However James soon reneged on the promises he had made to Thomas Percy regarding toleration for the English Catholics. Percy, a close friend of Robert Catesby, was then soon drawn into the folds of the Gunpowder treason. After his death, the Earl was tainted with the stain of supposed confederacy with Thomas, and although nothing was ever proven, the Earl spent many years incarcerated in the Tower.
Today, Alnwick Castle is one of the largest inhabited castles in Europe, with opulent State Rooms filled with a stunning array of art and furniture collected over the years by the Percy family, and a magnificent collection of art, featuring work by Canaletto, Titian and Van Dyck.
Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire
The picturesque medieval moated manor house and garden of Baddesley Clinton dates back from the 15th century and was the home of the Ferrers family for 500 years.
The atmospheric house and its delightful interiors reflect its heyday in the Elizabethan era when it was a Catholic home during troubled times. Baddesley Clinton was a regular refuge for outlawed priests and their servants. Although the Ferrers family kept a low profile, it was a haven for those persecuted Catholics, but it did not stop the priest hunters raiding the house. Whilst protestant soldiers searched the house, eight priests hid to great effect in one of the three priest holes cunningly concealed within the building.
Baddesley Clinton has been in the care of the National Trust for 30 years and visitors today can soak up the feel of this well-loved home and enjoy a delightful garden with stewponds and a romantic lake and nature walk.
Boughton House, Northamptonshire
Dubbed ‘The English Versailles’, Boughton House, really is the hidden home of Bonfire Night and its connections to The Gunpowder Plot.
It is relatively well known that several key elements of this audacious plot owe their origins to Northamptonshire through the roles of Robert Catesby and his man servant Thomas Bates and that of Francis Tresham. Few may know however of the role of Edward Montagu of Boughton, the former MP for Northamptonshire, a supporter of King James I, and direct ancestor of the current Duke of Buccleuch, in establishing this annual national celebration via his personal sponsorship of ‘The Observance of 5th November Act 1605’ .
This called for a public annual thanksgiving for the failure of the Catholic Plot, known today as ‘Bonfire Night’.
Boughton House is the Northamptonshire home of the Duke and Duchess of Buccleuch. Built in the sixteenth century and later transformed into a vision of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles, the house and the Grade 1 Designed Landscape nestle in an Estate encompassing eleven thousand acres of beautiful English countryside and five villages. The House and Gardens are open for group visits by appointment.
Coughton Court, Warwickshire
It was at the magnificent Tudor mansion of Coughton Court, nestled on the edge of the old Forest of Arden, that arms, horses and ammunition had been stored, ready for the uprising that was meant to follow the annihilation of Parliament.
Coughton has been the home of the Throckmortons for over 600 years. Staunch Catholics, the Throckmortons had their part to play in this dark moment of English history. They were involved in their own conspiracies against Elizabeth I, as were their descendants amongst who were Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham, and Coughton was rented by Sir Everard Digby at the time of the Gunpowder Plot.
Facing persecution for their Catholic faith, they were willing to risk everything. It was in Coughton’s great gatehouse, early on 6th November 1605, that the family and associates of one of the chief gunpowder plotters received news of the plot’s failure.
This finest of Tudor houses stands testament to a family’s courage in maintaining their beliefs. From a position of high favour to one of fear and oppression post-Reformation, the Throckmortons were leaders in a dangerous age, helping to bring about Catholic emancipation in the 19th century.
Coughton is still very much a family home with an intimate feel. The Throckmorton family still live here, managing the fabulous gardens which they have created.
The imposing Tudor house is set in beautiful gardens, and a visit here offers the opportunity to explore the story of fascinating personalities through a ‘family album’ of portraits and view a wealth of Catholic treasures around the house.
Don’t miss chance to relax in the gardens and stroll along the river, unearth the priest holes from those troubled times, explore the grounds by stretching your legs on a walk through the woods, plus take in the expansive views from the Tudor tower.
Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire
Lyveden New Bield is a remarkable survivor of the Elizabethan age and was planned and financed by Sir Thomas Tresham to symbolise his Catholic faith.
Yet this curiously looking sight of an incomplete building is exactly that, for work stopped on the building upon Tresham’s death in 1605 and was never re-started.
Sir Thomas was born into a wealthy and respected Northamptonshire family who acquired large estates in Northamptonshire including the manor houses of Lyveden and Rushton. Lyveden’s history dates as far back as Roman Britain, and was occupied for hundreds of years before Sir Thomas was to make his mark. Lyveden also has a strong historical connection with Coughton Court for Sir Thomas married Muriel Throckmorton.
He was a fervent Catholic, at a time when Queen Elizabeth was anxious about the Catholic threat posed by Spain and by her cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Nonconformists were targets for perpetual persecution, and between 1581 and 1605 Tresham was required to pay penalties totalling just under £8,000 because of his faith. As a result he was left with considerable debts, from which his finances never fully recovered.
After Sir Thomas died in 1605, his elder son Francis inherited the estate as well as the debt, and then became embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot later that year along with his cousins Catesby and Wintour. Imprisoned for his actions he too met an early death in December 1605.
While the estate now passed to Francis’s younger brother Lewis, Lady Tresham shouldered the debt admirably until her death in 1615, before Lewis’s reckless lifestyle only increased the family debt back again. Lyveden was to then pass out of the family’s hands, and so Sir Thomas’s dream was never to be fulfilled and the New Bield remained as it stands today, incomplete.
Today there is opportunity to explore the Bield and take a closer look at this traditional if unfinished garden lodge. See the inner structure of what was intended to be a fully functioning country residence. Lyveden’s gardens are a delight and amongst the oldest in the country, for they provide chance to climb the spiral mounds, stroll the banks of the moat, visit the orchard and take in the beauty of one of the country’s finest surviving examples of Elizabethan garden design.
Hagley Hall, Worcestershire
Just after the Gunpowder plot was discovered, two of the plotters, Robert Wintour and Stephen Lyttelton, escaped arrest at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, before travelling south to ask Humphrey Lyttelton for his assistance. At the time Muriel Lyttelton, the widow of John Lyttelton who had died in prison, lived at Hagley Park. However Humphrey had the use of the house.
Both plotters were captured at Hagley Park because the authorities had been informed of their presence by Lyttelton’s cook – John Fynwood. Despite Lyttelton’s protests that he was not harbouring anyone, a search was made and another servant, David Bate, showed where the two plotters were escaping from a courtyard into the countryside.
With its rich Rococo decoration surrounded by picturesque parkland, today Hagley Hall still remains a much loved family home.
Set in 350 acres of beautiful landscaped parkland with stunning views, this country house is situated right on the border of Worcestershire with the West Midlands.
Hagley Hall and Park are among the supreme achievements of eighteenth-century English architecture and landscape gardening. Hagley was the last of the great Palladian houses, and was possibly influenced by nearby Croome Court, but it ultimately derives from Colen Campbell’s designs for Houghton in Norfolk.