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Religious Persecution in England: Life of Robert Catesby and Attempt to Blow up the English Parliament With Guy Fawkes

Updated on August 11, 2020
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Robert Catesby
Robert Catesby


Recently there was an animated discussion between my friend from the UK and a Chinese from Singapore. The subject was religious persecution and the English man pointed out that there was a lot of persecution of Christians in China. The Singaporean man who works under me mentioned that England also had its fair share of religious persecution and he pointed to the case of Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes. Not many have heard of Robert Catesby but the name of Guy Fawkes as the man who planned to blow up the English Parliament is better known. Robert Catesby intrigued me and I thought to write an article for readers who may be interested in history.

Robert Catesby is a figure in English History who is both tragic and perhaps misguided. He was born in 1573 and died in 1605 at the young age of 32. That's not a long life but he made a name in that span of life. He was the son of Sir William Catesby of Lapworth and Anne Coughton. Catesby was directly related to Richard III through his father. He was 6th in the line of succession. He was an important man in that era.

A point that is of some importance is that Catesby’s father was a staunch Catholic and a prime supporter of the Jesuit mission. His religious belief led to his arrest in 1581. Richard was only 8 years old at that time. His father was tried along with Lord Vaux and his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Tresham, for harboring a Jesuit, Father Edmund Campion. This arrest and trial had a traumatic effect on Richard who grew up as a strong supporter of the Catholic mission.

Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes

Life and Further

Early Years

Robert entered Gloucester Hall, Oxford in 1586. He left the university before completing his degree as he wished to avoid taking the Oath of Supremacy. He opted to go and study in France which had a predominant Catholic faith. He chose to study at the seminary college of Douai, Rheims. This is the city that houses the famous Notre Dame de Reims and for more than 1000 years, French Kings were crowned there.

The seminary college was founded by Cardinal William Allen and provided a course in moral theology, classical languages, and history of the church in England. This course and the test book written by the Jesuit Martin de Azpilcueta greatly molded the thoughts and subsequent actions of Robert Catesby.

Marriage and religious belief

Robert Catesby returned to England after completion of his course and married Catherine Leigh in 1593. He was 21 years old at that time.

Catherine came from an affluent family and brought an annual dowry of 2000 pounds. As she was related to the family of the Spencer’s, the fortunes of Catesby rose considerably. He had two sons from Catherine, one of who died in childhood.

There are reports that Catesby for a brief period left the Catholic faith and embraced the Angelical church. After the death of his wife and father in 1598 as well as his son, he reportedly returned to the Catholic faith. Probably the death of his wife, father, and son had some spiritual effect on him and he reaffirmed his faith in Catholicism

Catesby also believed in righteousness. We know that that in 1594, he gave shelter to Father Henry Garnet and other priests at his house. He also gave sanctuary to Father John Gerard, after he escaped from the Tower of London in 1597. There is a possibility that because of his connections with the royal family Catesby got away with these indiscretions.

Despite his religious inclinations Catesby was held in high esteem by both Catholics and Protestants and was part of the glamorous circle that surrounded the court. This affluence and popularity played a great part in protecting him from the rigours of recusancy.

When Queen Elizabeth I fell ill in 1596, as a precautionary measure Catesby and some of his friends from his circle namely John Wright, his brother Christopher and Francis Tresham were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Supporting Catholics, Guy Fawkes and death

Essex Rebellion

Now an event called the Essex rebellion took place in 1601. The genesis of the problem was in the fight for supremacy between Sir Robert Cecil and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex. The rebellion was against Elizabeth I The rebellion collapsed and all the conspirators and Catesby were arrested. Catesby however escaped with a lenient sentence of a fine 4000 pounds. He was not awarded the death penalty for treason, as his role was very minor. Catesby had to sell his house to pay the fine. The Earl of the Essex was executed for treason in 1601 in the Tower of London.

Persecution of Catholics

Events now began to move at a fast pace. After the death of Elizabeth I, James I became King. He proclaimed on 22 February 1604, that all Catholic priests would be expelled out of his realm and reversing the appeals against fines payable. In April of the same year, the House of Commons passed a law that excommunicated all Catholics. In simple, language the Catholics were considered the enemies of the state.

Catesby was disturbed and decided on a drastic retaliation. He along with his cousin Thomas Wintour hatched what is known as the Gunpowder plot. The plan involved blowing up the English Parliament and the King. Catesby felt he was morally justified in his actions.

Guy Fawkes

Catesby also made overtures to Spain, but Spain did not help and in the treaty of 19 August 1605with England, no mention was made of the Catholics. Catesby and the conspirators now decided to go it alone. They recruited an explosive expert Guy Fawkes. He was born and educated in York and was a member of a group of provincial English Catholics who fought for the Spanish. Catesby and other conspirators contacted Fawkes and he was tasked with placing the explosives in a cellar below parliament and explode it on 5 November. The date was chosen as that was the day parliament was to be opened by the king.

Failure of the Plot to Blow Parliament

The plot was discovered and Guy Fawkes arrested. Under severe torture he revealed the names of the other conspirators. Catesby and other consipirators escaped to Holbeche House. The house was surrounded by troops and in the ensuing gunfight, Catesby and his fellow conspirator Thomas Percy were both shot dead on 8 November 1605. Guy Fawkes day also called bonfire night is the day when Britain observes and celebrates the November 5 failure of the gunpowder plot


Robert Catesby died young, but none can question his dedication and willingness to risk everything for the Catholic cause. As far as Fawkes is concerned he along with his fellow conspirators attempted to mount a terrorist attack on their king and government because of religious upheavals and persecution. Not different from what is happening today in other parts of the world.


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