“The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, 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. “ – wikipedia.org
Guy Fawkes plotters were executed at High green
Gerald Mander wrote in his article on Wolverhampton Books and Printers published in 1922.
The bibliographical history of Wolverhampton can strictly be said to begin with the book which first bore the name of the town on its title-page.
A political affair which caused unusual commotion was the excuse for the publication of this 28 page booklet, entitled A TRUE REPORT. It tells nothing though of the two men hanged in Wolverhampton, Smart and Holyhead for that story we look toward Shaws history of Staffordshire.
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.
Many of the conspirators were related, and all of them were of course, Roman Catholics.
There was the ringleader Robert Catesby, who was born at Lapworth, in Warwickshire. He was cousin to the Littletons – Humphrey who owned the family home, Hagley Hall near Stourbridge and his brother Stephen, owner of Holbeach House between Himley and Kingswinford.
They in turn were cousins to the three Winter Brothers of Huddington Court Worcestershire. Then there was John Grant of Norbrook, near Stratford on Avon, brother-in-law to Robert Winter; also related to the Winters were the Wright brothers of Yorkshire.
Other conspirators outside this charmed circle of relations included Ambrose Rookwood, a Suffolk gentleman, Thomas Percy, a cousin of the Earl of Northumberland and of course, Guy Fawkes who was a Yorkshireman.
He had been recruited by Thomas Winter while serving as a soldier of fortune in Spanish pay in the Netherlands and brought to England to be the chief instrument of the plot.
The plan was that Guy Fawkes should fire the gunpowder which had been hidden in a cellar beneath the House of Lords and escape to Flanders by boat.
In the chaos following the massacre of the King and both houses of Parliament, the Princess Elizabeth, aged nine, was to be kidnapped and placed on the throne under the control of a Roman Catholic regent. She was staying at Combe Abbey near Coventry at the time, as the guest of Lord Harrington.
In order to have a striking force ready, Sir Everard Digby, a Buckinghamshire gentleman, implicated in the plot from the first, was to arrange a great hunting match on the Dunsmoor Heath in east Warwickshire to which the papist gentry of the area were to be invited … and then informed of the plot and its success.
On Tuesday November 5th the huntsmen duly assembled at the village of Dunchurch near Rugby to the number of over a hundred; only to be told that the plot had failed.
Guy Fawkes had been captured, but the rest of the ringleaders had escaped from London and ridden on horseback 80 miles in seven hours.
The reached Dunchurch with the bad news at 6 p.m. By 10p.m. the party of huntsmen had dwindled to forty. They decided to escape towards Wales where they might hope for succour from the Roman Catholics who abounded in the Principality.
So they set off westwards; through the night and rain which continued to fall for the rest of the week.
At Warwick they broke into a stable and stole ten fresh horses. They then called at Norbrook where in John Grant’s house there was refreshments, and much needed rest for the men who had ridden from London. Having equipped themselves with arms and ammunition collected there for the purpose, they set off at dawn on Wednesday via Alcester for Huddington Court.
There the tired men flung themselves down for a brief rest and in the small hours of the next morning attended mass administered by Father Nicholas Hart.
At 6 a.m. that morning – Thursday they left Huddington, equipped with a horse and cart to convey the powder and shot they had with them. Their cross country journey was discouraging; the wet weather had made the lanes they followed virtually impassable. For fear of more desertions four ringleaders rode at the front of the party, four at the rear.
They travelled by way of Burcot, Lickey End, Catshill, Clent and Hagley to Stourbridge and thence towards Wolverhampton; having crossed the County boundary between Worcestershire into Staffordshire they took refuge at Holbeach House, the home of Stephen Littleton. They had only covered 25 miles in 16 hours and the numbers had dwindled to ten.
The scene of the final round-up of Catesby and other leading conspirators.
In fording the flooded river Stour at Amblecote, the water was so high that the cartload of powder and shot was soaked . The spread some of the gunpowder on platters to dry in front of a blazing fire.
Then poetic justice caught up with them for a chance spark from the fire caused a gigatic explosion which blew a heavy sack of gunpowder clean through the roof of the house. Catesby and Rookwood were both injured.
Greatly discouraged by this, three of the company, Sir Everard Digby, Robert Winter, and Stephen Littleton abandoned their seven companions. Winter and Littleton took refuge in the Rowley Hills where they were sheltered by farmers and escaped capture for over two months.
Meantime the Sheriff of Worcestershire had assembled a force to capture the conspirators . They beseiged Holbeach House and in their attack killed the Wright brothers, Rookwood, Percy and Catesby, and captured Thomas Winter and John Grant.
They were sent to London for trial and executed on January 27, 1606. John, the youngest of the Winter brothers, was executed at Red Hill, near Worcester; Stephen Littleton, as owner of Holbeach was executed at Stafford.
This Stephen Littleton, with Robert Winter had fled secretly from Holbeach House the night before the siege. They spent a wretched eight weeks living on a starvation diet and exposed to bitter weather with a price on their heads.
Among the Littleton tenants who sheltered them were Thomas Smart and John Holyhead of Rowley. Finally, early in January, the unfortunate pair were forced to take refuge at Hagley Hall where the cook, John Fynes, betrayed them to the authorities, for which he received a pension.
Smart and Holyhead were captured and brought to trial in Wolverhampton before Sir Richard Lewknor who was specially summoned from Ludlow for the purpose.
Their execution took place in High Green, as Queen Square was then called.
So today, when you here the shout ‘A penny for the Guy!’ or as you pass Holbeach House on your way to Stourbridge, spare a thought for the group of Midland gentry whose failed plot has made the fifth of November the most memorable day in English History.
For the main source of this article I am indebted to the late Michael Rix, M.A.