The Holyhead Road: The Gunpowder Treason Plot

dust jacket

The following post is the twenty-first of a series based on information obtained from a fascinating book Susana recently obtained for research purposes. Coaching Days & Coaching Ways by W. Outram Tristram, first published in 1888, is replete with commentary about travel and roads and social history told in an entertaining manner, along with a great many fabulous illustrations. A great find for anyone seriously interested in English history!

Mr. Ambrose Rookwood

…in November, 1605, roads as we now understand them did not exist; but this same route, or at all events tracks across un-inclosed heaths; even then connected the above-mentioned places [St. Albans, Redbourn, Dunstable, Brick-hill, Towcester, Dunchurch, Coventry, Birmingham, and Shrewsbury] with each other and the capital, and marked the shortest way for those riding post to reach Northamptonshire, or the Counties beyond its borders.

Map: St. Albans – Dunstable – Towcester – Daventry

Mr. Ambrose Rookwood

Mr. Ambrose Rookwood

Early then in the November of 1605, certain elaborate preparations which had been made for rapid travelling between London and Dunchurch, 80 miles down in Warwickshire was the common talk of ostlers and loafers at the chief posting-houses at St. Albans, Dunstable, Towcester, and Daventry. At each of these places, a Mr. Ambrose Rookwood, a young Catholic gentleman of fortune, well known on the road for his splendid horses, had placed heavy relays. The heaviness of these relays excited continual discussion. The confused rumour of the tap-room, fed by chance travellers on the road, decreed presently that these heavy relays were to carry Mr. Ambrose Rookwood down to a great hunting party, to be shortly assembled at Dunsmoor. But when this hunting party was to take place, no one seemed to know, or why the young Catholic gentleman should have made such elaborate preparations to reach it so hurriedly.

An Aura of Fear Pervades London

And so the few intervening days passed till the 5th of November, 1605, dawned grayly over London—amidst torrents of driving rain and wild gusts of a west wind which had gathered strength as the night waned, and by daylight had grown into a hurricane—dawned on a city distracted. Narrow streets were already crowded with excited groups, who whispered, gesticulated at street corners. Some men but half dressed rushed from their houses as if the rumour of some monstrous imminent doom had startled them suddenly from sleep. Others with drawn swords in their hands counselled all men to arm in one breath, and, as now and again a woman’s shriek rose above the press everywhere,—but no fixed rumour prevailed. Only each man eyed his neighbour suspiciously, only a vague feeling as of some nightmare had seized upon London that the past darkness had brought forth a portent.

Mr. Ambrose Rookwood and Mr. Thomas Winter Join the Fray

thomas winter

Mr. Thomas Winter

In the dim twilight of that November dawn Mr. Ambrose Rookwood, the young Catholic gentleman, whose relays of fine horses had excited such discussion on the North-western Road—came out into these distracted streets, in company with a friend—one Mr. Thomas Winter. The two gentlemen walked aimlessly here and there for some time, listening attentively to all that was said on all sides, now joining themselves to a group and adding questions on their own part, to the sort of universal interrogatory which prevailed—now shuddering and passing, on their way wuickly as the unformed phantom of the people’s fear began to grow gradually into defined shape. Then as if fearful any longer of uncertainty, they made with extraordinary coolness towards the Parliament House.

The sun had not yet risen; but in the middle of King Street, Westminster, the two found a guard standing. Permission to pass was peremptorily refused. Then as Mr. Rookwood’s friend stood parleying with the guard a white-faced citizen passed by hurriedly, exclaiming in panic-stricken tones, “There is treason discovered! And the king and lords should have been blown up.”

Flight of the Conspirators

The two gentlemen turned without a word, and made for their horses. The heavy relays on the North-western Road were now to be put to their proper use. But great caution had to be exercised. The appalling news had circulated in the city with the rapidity of poison. Barricades were being hastily erected at the ends of the streets; passengers were being stopped and questioned; any appearance of hurry would have led to instant arrest. It was eleven o’clock therefore before the two gentlemen got clear of London—and they were but just in time; for rumours were already in the air of a proclamation forbidding anybody to leave the town for three days. Once clear of London they rode desperately.

Huddington Court, Worcester

Huddington Court, Worcester

Few incidents I think in history seize the imagination so forcibly as that wild flight of the Gunpowder Conspirators northward. Thomas Winter made for his brother’s house at Huddington in Worcestershire; but Rookwood rode fiercely down the North-western Road to bear the fatal news to the conspirators already assembling on Dunsmoor. Catesby, Piercy, John and Christopher Wright were he knew on the road in front. But the relays already placed for him, and the desperate fear which urged him forwards enabled Rookwood to overtake the others as they were rising the ascent at Brickhill.

In a few words he told them what had happened in London—that Fawkes had been arrested and lodged in the Tower—that at any moment torture might make him give up their names—that the whole scheme had fallen through, and that their only chance of safety lay in instantly joining their friends. From this moment the flight became a stampede. “They devoured the ground,” shouting as they rode through startled towns and villages that they were carrying despatches from the King to Northampton, flinging off their large cloaks, heavy with the rain that still poured remorselessly, that they might add wings even to their precipitate flight. Rookwood rode thirty miles in two hours on one horse. At six in the evening the fugitives arrived at Catesby’s house at Ashby St. Ledgers, about three miles from Daventry. They had ridden the eighty miles from London in seven hours.

Map: Ashby St. Ledgers – Gayhurst

The gatehouse occupied by the Catesbys

The gatehouse occupied by the Catesbys

Here after a brief consultation with Robert Winter, who was staying in the house (it still stands in all its gloomy suggestiveness, this home of England’s most desperate conspirator), they rode off hastily on the same tired horses to join Sir Everard Digby and the pretended hunting gathering on Dunsmoor Heath which the direct road to Holyhead still crosses at the eighty-fifth mile-stone from London.

Sir Everard Digby, knighted by the king three years before he plotted to kill him

Sir Everard Digby, knighted by the king three years before he plotted to kill him

Their further wild course through Warwickshire to Holbeach on the Staffordshire border calls here for no telling, as it is no longer associated with the Road. But so intimately associated with the Gunpowder Treason does the way to Holyhead seem that thought its history is closed so far as the directest route is concerned, the earlier route by Chester has another link to add to its story. A short distance from Newport Pagnell (fifty-one miles from London), stands Gayhurst,the fine Elizabethan house once the home of Sir Everard Digby. Of him a sympathetic historian writes, “His youth, his personal graces, the constancy which he had exhibited whilst he believed himself a martyr in a good cause, the deep sorrow which he testified on becoming sensible of his error, seem to have moved all hearts with pity and even admiration; and if so detestable a villainy as the Gunpowder Plot may be permitted to have its hero Everard Digby was undoubtedly the man.”

Gayhurst House

Gayhurst House

The gray walls of his beautiful Buckinghamshire house were indeed witnesses at all events of some of the most suggestive incidents in the heart-quaking scheme. Fawkes was a frequent guest here—meditating through the prolonged rains which heralded the approach of the destined day, on the state of the powder, by now safely placed under the Parliament House; riding to and fro frequently from London; often an unexpected, always a welcome guest. From Gayhurst, besides, set out that Pilgrimage to St. Winifred’s well, in Flintshire, the motive of which was so much discussed after the discovery of the Conspiracy.

St. Winefride's Well: site of the conspirators' meetings?

St. Winefride’s Well: site of the conspirators’ meetings?

Motives apart however, what is mort important from my point of view is that the company of about thirty persons—all relations of the conspirators; some of the actual conspirators among these, travelled in coaches—proceeded by Daventry to John Grant’s house at Norbrook, a fine melancholy, moated manor once (where is it now?), thence to Robert Winters, at Huddington, and so to Flintshire by Shrewsbury.


Holbeche House: where the surviving conspirators were captured


 Index to all the posts in this series

1: The Bath Road: The (True) Legend of the Berkshire Lady

2: The Bath Road: Littlecote and Wild William Darrell

3: The Bath Road: Lacock Abbey

4: The Bath Road: The Bear Inn at Devizes and the “Pictorial Chronicler of the Regency”

5: The Exeter Road: Flying Machines, Muddy Roads and Well-Mannered Highwaymen

6: The Exeter Road: A Foolish Coachman, a Dreadful Snowstorm and a Romance

7: The Exeter Road in 1823: A Myriad of Changes in Fifty Years

8: The Exeter Road: Basingstoke, Andover and Salisbury and the Events They Witnessed

9: The Exeter Road: The Weyhill Fair, Amesbury Abbey and the Extraordinary Duchess of Queensberry

10: The Exeter Road: Stonehenge, Dorchester and the Sad Story of the Monmouth Uprising

11: The Portsmouth Road: Royal Road or Road of Assassination?

12: The Brighton Road: “The Most Nearly Perfect, and Certainly the Most Fashionable of All”

13: The Dover Road: “Rich crowds of historical figures”

14: The Dover Road: Blackheath and Dartford

15: The Dover Road: Rochester and Charles Dickens

16: The Dover Road: William Clements, Gentleman Coachman

17: The York Road: Hadley Green, Barnet

18: The York Road: Enfield Chase and the Gunpowder Treason Plot

19: The York Road: The Stamford Regent Faces the Peril of a Flood

20: The York Road: The Inns at Stilton

21: The Holyhead Road: The Gunpowder Treason Plot

22: The Holyhead Road: Three Notable Coaching Accidents

23: The Holyhead Road: Old Lal the Legless Man and His Extraordinary Flying Machine

24: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part I)

25: The Holyhead Road: The Coachmen “More Celebrated Even Than the Most Celebrated of Their Rivals” (Part II)

26: Flying Machines and Waggons and What It Was Like To Travel in Them

27: “A few words on Coaching Inns” and Conclusion

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