BONFIRE NIGHT – Brought to mind in Wolverhampton

The traditional rhyme goes “Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot”.

Over four hundred years ago a man called Guy Fawkes and a group of co-conspirators hatched a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

Guy Fawkes born in York in 1570 was a ‘soldier of fortune’ and was approached in Flanders by Thomas Winter and crossed to England in 1604 to join the group

“The Gunpowder Plot”, in earlier centuries often called the Gunpowder Treason Plot or the Jesuit Treason was a failed assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.

The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament on 5 November 1605, as the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James’s nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was to be installed as the Catholic head of state. 

So much attention has been focused on Guy Fawkes, and his activities at Westminster, that it is often forgotten that the majority of the plotters came from the West Midlands and that part of the final drama of trials and executions took place in Wolverhampton.

Yes, two of Guy Fawkes plotters were executed at High Green, (Queen Square) Wolverhampton.

Before I carry on with the inevitable end of the story I will try to give you some idea of life and times around High Green. 



This map was part of a national atlas commissioned by Thomas Seckford with the backing of Queen Elizabeth 1st Privy Council who ordered the surveyor Christopher Saxton, should be “assisted in all  places he shall come… to describe certain counties in Cartes being thereto appointed by her Majesty

Thirty-five maps were produced in all, between 1574 and 1579, bearing the lion and the dragon of the Tudors and the coat of arms of the Seckford family. 

Early conventional symbols were used, fences denote landed estates, trees wooded areas, and bumps show the position of hills.

The number of buildings grouped round the church was intended to indicate the relative size of the town

Many place names near to Wolverhampton can be identified eg: Tetnall for Tettenhall, Byshburye for Bushbury and Over and Nether Penn for Upper and Lower Penn respectively.

The only place name marked close to the town centre is “The Lea”, a house of this name existed until at least the 1940’s and the name continues in Lea Road which was built over land formerly belonging to the house.

It is interesting to note that no roads are marked on this map. Clearly the idea of maps as purely an aid for travellers is relatively modern.

Around the Mother Church

The meeting point of Wolverhampton’s main streets by the beginning of the 16th century- and no doubt long before then – was the High Green, this is today represented approximately by Queen Square.

It is conceivable that with the growth in size and importance of Wolverhampton from the 13th century onwards a market place away from the Collegiate Church and affording more space than could have been allowed in immediate proximity to it had to be found.

At any rate, the late mediaeval cross stood at the east end of High Green, very near to the junction of the present Queen Square with Dudley Street, and when a new market hall was built in 1532 it still carried the name “Market Cross”   

High Green Isaac Taylors map amended to show High Green
as it probable looked depicted in 1532 without the new Town Hall.

A lease from the Sutherland manuscripts dated 23rd March 1630, calls the building “the Townehall” in Wolverhampton.

This building was eventually called the “Old” Town Hall in contrast with the “New” Town Hall, begun about the year 1687.

In the Act, the Old Town Hall is referred to as “a certain ancient building called the Slaughter Houses and Butchers Shambles, and its dimensions are set down as being 68ft by 29 ft 4ins.

An idea of the layout of High Green at that time

Two lively sketches of the Market Place. looking up the “High Street” towards the church.

The first.
 Is in Rowlandson’s inimitable style and forms, apart from the church, the earliest view of the town. (the original watercolour drawing of which is in the Art Gallery.

Conspicuous on the one side is the old gabled half-timbered corner house at the turning into Lichfield Street above,  was the town clock, below was, “ Bevan’s” brandy shop. 

Matching it on this later view from the William Salt library is John Likley’s wine and spirit store on the opposite corner of Lich Gate, (to become in December 1818 the long-established business of George Cope) a stately Georgian brick building dated 1732.

 High Green showing the New Town Hall

Isaac Taylors map 1750 with the New Town Hall built around the year 1687, pictured at the junction of The Square with Lichfield Street.

The Map of 1750  marks the old Town Hall site “Charity School”, and it is clear from the Wolverhampton Constables Accounts that both this and the New Town Hall were used by the trustees of the school at various periods.

My impression of the New Town Hall

My idea of the High green now with the New Town Hall on the Market place.

Both Town Halls succumbed to the plans of the Wolverhampton Town Commissioners when they began to carry out the provisions of the first improvement act of 1777.

Across on the South West side of High Green

The High Hall

Just West of the old Town Hall,  built in the sixteenth century was one of the finest houses in town.

 It was owned by The Leveson Family. ( pronounced  Lewson). A branch of one of the wealthiest families associated with Wolverhampton for many years.

This was the High Hall a fine timber-framed structure which projected into the centre of High Green.

There are several views of the house including this one by Robert Noyes,  showing the house divided into two parts the upper shop and lower shop. 

This view completed less than twenty years before the site was sold in 1841 to the Town commissioners and its eventual demolition.

Immediately behind the Hall were three of the many inns, and beer houses in High Green at that time, The Wheatsheaf, The Lamb. and the Hop pole.

Finally back to the story

As we said beforehand, on a memorable date, 5th November 1605, Guy Fawkes failed to blow up the House of Lords, and the conspirators forthwith fled towards their homes in the West Midlands.

The chase ended at Holbeach House, Himley the home of Stephen Littleton were most of the group were killed or captured.

But in the commotion, Stephen Littleton and Robert Winter escaped. and went on the run.

The refugees were passed on from hand to hand, being able to pay for help, it seems to saviours of shifty and uncertain loyalty.

Such was Thomas Smart and John Holyhead of Rowley, who later led them to the house of Christopher White at Rowley Regis, he  hid them in his barn where they stayed quite a while until he White, became suspect. 

Finally, early in January, the unfortunate pair were forced to take refuge at Hagley where Humphrey (Red) Littleton, of Hagley House, gave them shelter.

Which proved most unfortunate because the cook to Mrs Littleton John Fynes, next morning (Thursday, 9th January) betrayed them to the authorities, for which he received a pension.

Littleton and Winter were seized and sent to London and executed on 30 January 1606.

Red Humphrey was arrested and with his manservant and maid was sent to Worcester for trial they were found guilty of High Treason and ordered to be drawn, hanged, and quartered except for the woman, who was sentenced to be burned.

The inevitable end came in the year 1606 in Wolverhampton.

A Report on the Traytors executed
at Worcester and Wolverhampton

Smart and Holyhead were captured and brought to trial in Wolverhampton before Sir Richard Lewknor who was specially summoned from Ludlow for the purpose.

They were indicted and convicted without delay, and received the usual sentence: to be drawn, hanged and quartered. 

It was likely that such was carried out in High Green before a closely packed audience.

Sources for this post came from:

Wolverhampton in the Early Seventeenth Century by G. P. Mander.

Wolverhampton The Early Town and its History. by John S. Roper. M.A.

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