Coughton Court

On the way home from my recent weekend in Oxford, we stopped off at Coughton Court. The beginning of November seems an appropriate time to visit Coughton Court because it and the Throckmorton family who owned it played a pivotal role in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

The plot was the climax of a series of Roman Catholic conspiracies against the Anglican Church and monarchy due to their persecution of Catholics and also the measures taken against them to stop them practicing their faith.

Catholic persecution started during the reign of King Henry VIII, who at the start of his reign was Catholic as was every Christian in England at that time. This changed when the Pope in Rome refused to annul Henry’s marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in 1533. The request for annulment was made because Catherine had not produced an heir to the throne. The refusal from the Pope led to Henry declaring that his marriage to Catherine was over and him proclaiming himself as head of the English Church therefore breaking away from the Catholic Church.

During subsequent successions of monarchs the two competing denominations each learned to fear the other’s rise to power. The reigning monarchs of the day’s religious allegiance always led to suppression of the ‘other’ denomination. Heightened persecutions of Catholics were put in place when Elizabeth I re-established the Church of England after she came to power in 1558.  Catholic Mass became illegal and attendance at Anglican Church services was mandatory with non-attendance leading to heavy fines. All recusants were listed and their names known by the Government. The heads of Catholic families were frequently imprisoned and in 1593 an act was passed that restricted the recusants’ mobility to a 5 mile radius from their homes.

Catholics who did not wish to renounce their faith continued to worship in secret. The sacrament was given by Jesuits who had trained in Europe and came illegally to England. These services took place in secret chapels within homes of prominent Catholics. These precautions were necessary as the houses were regularly searched and if the priests were discovered they would be sentenced to death.

Gunpowder Plot Parliament Cellar - Image source Wiki

Against this backdrop ‘The Gunpowder Plot’, a scheme to blow up the Houses of Parliament killing the King and his Government, was conceived and led by Robert Catesby. There were 13 major players in The Gunpowder Plot; all were ‘recusants’, devout Catholics who rejected the Church of England and wished to practice their faith without persecution. Many were kinsmen of the Throckmortons and other Old Catholic families. They believed that if the Protestant King James and his government were removed from power they could start a rebellion and restore England to a Catholic country. One of the plotters, Sir Everard Digby, moved into Coughton Court which was to be the base for the conspirators.

Guy Fawkes Confession - Image source Wiki

The plot, however, was foiled, at the turn of midnight on November 5th 1605 just hours before King James I was due to open Parliament. A bearded man dressed in a dark cloak was discovered acting suspiciously in the cellar beneath the House of Lords. When searched he was found to be carrying a watch and some matches. Closer inspection revealed 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden in bundles of firewood. The man, Guy Fawkes, was arrested and brought before the King for questioning where he admitted his intentions. Initially he refused to give his real name and denied the involvement of others. This led to him being tortured to reveal these facts leaving him a broken man hardly able to sign his confession.

Instead of the remaining conspirators using their planned route to join a Midlands uprising, the plotters now had to use the route as a means of escape. The conspirators were hunted down and captured. All were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. The Throckmortons were not directly implicated because Thomas’ permanent residence at the time was his house in Weston Underwood having rented Coughton Court to his cousin Digby in 1604. The heads of the so called traitors including those who had died trying to flee were placed on spikes as a chilling deterrent for any other would-be plotters to king and Government.

Each year before the annual state opening of Parliament the cellars of the Palace of Westminster are searched by the Yeoman of the guard. The legacy of a custom that was established after Guy Fawkes was discovered on the 5th November 1605.

  • Sources: The 2009 and 2012 editions of the National Trust guidebook to Coughton Court and The Gunpowder Plot and the connections with the Throckmortons of Coughton Court (Jarrold publishing and Coughton Court 2013)

12 Comments CherryPie on Nov 5th 2014

12 Responses to “Remember, Remember…”

  1. james higham says:

    Needed a post to recommend on Nov 5. Cheers, Cherie.

  2. Amfortas says:

    Excellent. One small point though…. Catholics do not see the Church as a denomination. Other christian groups are the denominations.

  3. Great post! Thank you. Coughton Court’s been on my list for awhile. I always felt rather sorry for Digby. The topic of the Reformation is – of course – a huge, complex and controversial one and its fallout resonates today. The Gunpowder Plot, had it succeeded, would have been a horrendous terrorist act even by today’s standards. I can highly recommend Antonia Fraser’s book on it, if you haven’t already come across it. Hope you make it to Ashby St Ledgers sometime!

    • CherryPie says:

      Thanks Mike, I think your posts compliment it :-)

      It is indeed a controversial subject which still resonates today. If the plot had succeeded it would also have changed the course of history.

      I have not read Antonia’s book, but on your recommendation I will get hold of a copy.

  4. ubermouth says:

    Fabulous post,Cherie! I saw many copies of Guy Fawkes signature before during and after his torture and even all these years later, it bothered me to see how badly he was tortured judging by his failing signature. Horrendous how he was treated!

    I wonder if putting their heads on spikes in the town square lead to the gibbets or if that is where they got the idea.

    One of my pet interests is to read up on the history of certain words and sayings. I nearly passed out when I read up on hung,drawn and quartered.

    What a barbaric past we have!

    Loved this post!

    • CherryPie says:

      I am not sure of the history time line of gibbets. I learned about the meaning of ‘hung, drawn and quartered’ whilst I was at school.

      We did have a barbaric past! But sadly barbaric things still go on today…

      • Indeed, and still so often in the name of one religion or another, and sometimes none. The things peple will do when they believe their way is the only way… More praise for uncertainty might help.

  5. lisl says:

    You can imagine the background to what was played out at Westminster being plotted and then causing fear here, Cherie