Who was Gunpowder’s Robert Catesby? And how is Kit Harington related to him?

The Game of Thrones star plays his own ancestor in new BBC drama Gunpowder

BBC/Getty - HF

New BBC drama Gunpowder comes with an interesting hook. Not only does it tell the surprisingly little-known story of the failed plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament (and King James I), but it also allows star and executive producer Kit Harington to play his own ancestor, Robert Catesby, who was the subject of family tales for a long time as the true mastermind of the Gunpowder Plot (and not, as most people assume, Guy Fawkes).

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“It kind of came about in me knowing that as part of a strange quirk in my family history,” Harington says of the new series – and it’s a family history that could have had massive consequences for UK history, had Catesby’s grand scheme come to fruition.


Who was the real Robert Catesby?

Born around 1572 to Sir William and Anne Catesby (their third and only surviving son), Robert Catesby was surrounded by a family of recusant Catholics, with his father once suffering years of imprisonment for his faith and his mother’s family facing executions and arrests for their own Catholicism (as well as an involvement in the plot to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from her imprisonment).

In 1586 Catesby went to study at Gloucester Hall, an Oxford college known for its large Catholic intake. He never actually took his degree – probably because doing so would mean he had to swear the Oath of Supremacy, compromising his Catholic faith.


How did Catesby come to be a Catholic plotter?

Kit Harington Gunpowder
Kit Harington in Gunpowder (BBC)

Surprisingly, despite his background and beliefs in 1593 Robert married a woman from a prominent Protestant family – Catherine Leigh, daughter of Sir Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire.

Catherine’s Protestant background could be explained by the fact that she offered Robert some shielding from the recusancy laws of the time (essentially persecuting practising Catholics), as well as her family’s significant wealth. The pair settled into an estate at Chastleton in Oxfordshire that Catesby inherited from his grandmother. Their first son, William, died in infancy, but second son Robert survived.

For a while, Catesby seemed happy to continue with a milder version of his faith, but when his wife died in 1598 he was further radicalised, reverting to a more fanatical version of Catholicism. This newfound fervour led to his involvement in the Essex Rebellion, where Robert Devereux the 2nd Earl of Essex tried to seize control of Elizabeth I’s court in a plot that eventually fell apart (it’s thought that Catesby hoped the rebellion would pave the way for a Catholic monarch).

After the rebellion’s failure, Catesby was captured and fined 4,000 marks (several million pounds today), forcing him to sell his estate.


What was Catesby’s role in the Gunpowder Plot?

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An illustration of the plotters – Catesby is second from the right

Catesby’s hopes that new king James I would be a more tolerant ruler than Elizabeth (his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was a devout Catholic) soon withered when James exiled all Jesuits and Catholic priests, and reimposed the collection of fines for recusancy.

As depicted in Gunpowder, Catesby began to gather together likeminded men similarly suffering under the current regime, utilising his oft-cited natural charisma and charm to recruit them to his cause.

“By the dignity of his character he exercised an irresistible influence over the minds of those who associated with him,” Jesuit priest Father Tesimond wrote years later.

It’s thought that the germ of the idea for the plot took root in early 1604, and Catesby quickly enlisted the likes of swordsman John “Jack” Wright (Luke Neal in the drama), Thomas Percy and his cousin Thomas Wintour (Edward Holcroft) to blow up “the Parliament howse with Gunpowder…. in that place have they done us all the mischiefe, and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment,” as he told Wintour (a piece of dialogue directly adapted into Gunpowder’s first episode).

Later the group were introduced to Guy Fawkes, adding him to their group and swearing an oath of secrecy in the back room of a pub called the Duck and Drake (administered by priest John Gerard, played by Robert Emms in Gunpowder).

Later additions to the group included Thomas Wintour’s brother Robert, Catesby’s servant Thomas Bates (who discovered the plot by accident), John Grant, John Wright’s brother Christopher, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham and Everard Digby.

The plotters bought the tenancy to the undercroft beneath the House of Lords, storing 36 barrels of gunpowder there by 20 July 1605. However, the state opening of Parliament (when the King would be in the House of Lords) was frequently delayed due to fears of the Plague, meaning that it wasn’t until the 5th of November that the ceremony was set. The plan was for Fawkes to light the fuse and escape across the Thames on a boat, with an uprising beginning in the Midlands during which the Princess Elizabeth would be captured. Following this, Fawkes would head to the continent and explain to the Catholic powers what had transpired.

Unfortunately for Catesby, however, one of the plotters attempted to warn a family member to avoid the House of Lords on that day, and the letter found its way into the hands of spymaster Sir Robert Cecil (played by Mark Gatiss in the BBC1 drama). Deciding the letter was vague enough to not alter their plans, the plotters carried on regardless, with Catesby, John Wright and Thomas Bates heading to the Midlands for the planned uprising.

Interestingly, Gunpowder slightly alters these events, placing the discovery of the Monteagle letter much closer to the attempted assassination and not including the plotters’ reaction to it.

That night, on Monday 4th November, Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding the Gunpowder in the undercroft, and the entire scheme began to fall apart.


What happened to Catesby after the failed Gunpowder Plot?

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A 1754 depiction of Catesby and Percy’s attempted escape from Holbeche House

While on the road Catesby and his co-conspirators learned of their plan’s failure, but decided to carry on anyway, raiding Warwick Castle for supplies and collecting previously-stored weapons from Norbrook, and continuing to travel until they ended up in Huddington. En route they had picked up a few more supporters, though they still only numbered 36.

Shunned by family members and friends terrified of being associated with their treason, the group holed up at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, where they accidentally set fire to some gunpowder and burned several of their party including Catesby. All survived, but some were badly injured.

Thomas Bates and Thomas and Robert Wintour were among the plotters who fleed at this point, but Catesby refused to let himself be captured and instead decided to stage a final stand. Holbeche House was subsequently besieged on 8th November by Sheriff of Worcester Richard Walsh and a company of 200 men; Catesby was struck down by a musket shot.

After being shot Catesby managed to crawl back into the house, where his body was found clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary.

Catesby was buried near Holbeche, but the Earl of Northampton commanded that the bodies be exhumed and decapitated, with the severed heads put on display outside Parliament.


How is Kit Harington related to Robert Catesby?

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Harington is a direct descendant of Catesby through his mother’s side, as he explained to RadioTimes.com and other press on the set of Gunpowder earlier this year.

“My mother’s maiden name is Catesby, my middle name is Catesby,” he said.

“I was very reticent to play [him], for the very reason you might ask, ‘Were you playing your own ancestor?’

“It’s not really about me wanting to play my own ancestor. I don’t feel connected to him in that way. I just think he ended up being the character that I was most suited to, and the one that I was most intrigued about, wanted to play.

“I’m not right for [Guy] Fawkes, actually. Tom Cullen is perfect for Fawkes. I’m very glad I didn’t play that part, it would have been wrong.”

He added: “You go that far back and everyone’s related to everyone. Everyone around this table is probably related to Catesby in some way.”

Harington’s own ancestry could demonstrate this idea, with the actor also descended from King Charles II of England (his eight times great-grandfather) as well as a contemporary of Catesby’s called John Harington, who has a bizarre connection to the Gunpowder plotter: he once went to visit the heads of Catesby and co while travelling to London, and is said to have remarked how ugly and “terrible” the faces of the men were.

So in a way, Harington has ancestors on both sides of the Gunpowder Plot. Quite the family tree.

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Gunpowder continues on Saturdays at 9.10pm on on BBC1, and all three episodes are available on BBC iPlayer