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The Reign of James I page 8

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Meantime, Catesby had been ardently at work in the prosecution of his idea. Ha had communicated his plan to Percy and Wright. Thomas Percy was of the Northumberland family, and steward to the earl, and John Wright was brother-in-law to Percy, and reputed to be the best swordsman in England. Percy had joined the catholics about the same time as Catesby returned to them, and like a zealous proselyte had, during the latter days of Elizabeth, gone to James at Edinburgh, and endeavoured to draw from him a promise of favour to the catholics on his accession. James is reported to have assured Percy that he would at least tolerate the mass in a corner. This James afterwards denied, but his denial can go for very little, for it was perfectly in keeping with his kingcraft to promise what served to secure his ends for the time; and almost every monarch in Europe had to make that complaint against him. Percy, on the breaking out of the persecution under James, felt that he had been made the dupe of James's duplicity. He presented a remonstrance to the king, to which no answer was deigned, and Catesby found him in a mood of great resentment against the king, and in a favourable temper for his views. He not only agreed to co-operate but brought in his brother-in-law Wright, who was also a recent proselyte to Catholicism.

Percy appears to have been of a very excitable nature: the embryo conspirators assembled at Catesby's lodgings, and Percy demanded whether they were merely to talk and never to act. Catesby said that before he would open his plan to them, he must demand from every one an oath of secrecy. This was assented to, and a few days afterwards, as appears by the confession of Winter, the five, that is, Catesby, Winter, Percy, Wright, and Fawkes, "met at a house in the fields beyond St. Clement's Inn, where they did confer and agree upon the plot, and there they took a solemn oath and vows by all their force and power to execute the same, and of secrecy not to reveal it to any of their fellows but of such as should be thought fit persons to enter into that action."

When they had all sworn and perfectly understood what was proposed, Catesby led them into an upper chamber of the house, where they received the sacrament from Gerard, the Jesuit missionary, but who, according to Winter's confession, was not let into the secret. Fawkes and Winter both asserted this in their examinations, which were read at the trial; but the part exculpating Gerard was omitted by Coke, whose mark, with the words ad usque, still remains in the original document, showing that Coke purposely omitted what would have exempted Gerard from blame.

This dreadful oath was taken on the 1st of May, 1604, but the conspirators resolved to wait for the remotest chance of any good arising out of the negotiations betwixt England and Spain. But the treaty was concluded on the 18th of August, without any clause protective of the catholics. Peace and commercial relations were restored betwixt the two countries, and James was left at liberty to do as he pleased with the cautionary towns if the states did not redeem them. After the ratification of the treaty, the Spanish ambassador solicited in the name of his sovereign the goodwill of James towards his catholic subjects; but James assured Velasco that however much he might be disposed to such indulgence, he dared not grant it, such was the terror of his protestant subjects of any return to power of the catholics. Velasco took his leave, and fresh orders were issued to judges and magistrates to enforce the laws against the catholics with all rigour. This put the finish to the patience of the conspirators, and they protested that it was but a fitting retribution to bury the authors of all their oppressions under the ruins of the edifice in which they enacted such diabolical laws.

They now sought for a proper place to commence their operations, and they soon found a house adjoining the parliament house in the possession of one Ferris, the tenant of Whinneard, the keeper of the king's wardrobe. This Percy hired, in his own name, of Ferris, on pretence that his office of gentleman pensioner compelled him to reside part of the year in the vicinity of the court. But the conspirators were debarred from immediate operations, by the commissioners appointed by James to consider a scheme for the union of the two kingdom?, taking possession of this house, where they sate for several months. Not wholly, however, to lose time, the conspirators hired another house in Lambeth, on the banks of the river, where they stored up wood, gunpowder, and other combustibles, which they could easily remove by night in boats, as occasion served, to their house in Westminster, as soon as it was in their hands. They confided the charge of this house in Lambeth to Thomas Kay, a catholic gentleman of reduced means, who took the oath and entered into the plot.

On the 11th of December the conspirators obtained possession of their house, when they again swore to be faithful to each other, and they began by night their preparations. Behind the house, in a garden, and adjoining the parliament house, stood an old building. Within this they began to perforate the wall, one keeping watch whilst the others laboured. The watching was allotted to Fawkes, whose person was unknown, and who assumed the name of Johnson, and appeared as the servant of Percy. Three of the others worked whilst the fourth rested. During the clay they toiled at undermining the wall, and during the night they buried the rubbish under the earth in the garden. They had laid in a store of eggs, dried meats, and the like, so that no suspicion should be excited in the neighbourhood by their going in and out, or from there being brought in provisions for so many persons. They thus laboured indefatigably for a fortnight, when Fawkes brought them the intelligence that parliament was prorogued from the 7th of February to the 3rd of October. On this they agreed to cease their labours till after the Christmas holidays, and to separate to their respective residences, and agreeing neither to meet in the interim, nor to correspond or send messages to each other regarding the plot.

During their late labours, as they discussed various matters, Catesby, to his dread and mortification, discovered a strong tendency amongst his associates to doubt the lawfulness of their attempt, because innocent people must perish with the guilty, catholics amid the persecuting protestants. In vain he employed all his ingenuity in reasoning, he saw the feeling remain, and he endeavoured to secure a plausible argument before their coming together again. He therefore consulted Garnet, the provincial of the Jesuits, on this point. He had accepted a commission as captain in a regiment of cavalry, to be commanded by Sir Charles Percy, in the service of the archduke. He now observed to Garnet in a large company that he had no doubt about the justice of the war on the side of the archduke; but as he might be called on to make attacks in which the innocent might fall with the guilty, women and children with armed soldiers, could he do that lawfully in the sight of the Almighty? Garnet replied certainly, otherwise an aggressor could always defeat the object of the party invaded by placing innocent persons amongst guilty ones in his ranks. This was enough for Catesby, the principle was admitted; and on the meeting of the conspirators after the recess, he was prepared to banish their scruple by assuring them that it was decided to be groundless by competent ecclesiastical authority.

Catesby had also employed the holidays in bringing over Christopher, the brother of John Wright, and Robert, the brother of Thomas Winter, to his views. They had both suffered severely as recusants, and the storm of persecution, which was now raging amongst the catholic population, stimulated them to thoughts of vengeance. "In the shires and provinces," says Persons, "and even in London itself, and in the eyes of the court, the violence and insolency of continuall searches grew to be such as was intolerable; no night passing commonly but that soldiers and catchpoles brake into quiet men's houses when they were asleepe, and not only carried away their persons into prisons at their pleasure, except they would brybe excessively, but whatsoever liked them best besydes in the house." Gentlewomen were dragged out of their beds to see whether they had anything there concealed. The gaols were crammed with prisoners; priests and missionaries were condemned to death. Sugar, a priest, and Grissold, Baily, Wilbourne, Furthering, and Brown, suffered death; Hill, Green, Tichbourne, Smith, and Briscow, priests, were sentenced to death, but at the intercession of the French and Spanish ambassadors, were let off with banishment; Skitel, a layman, suffered exile with them for having received a Jesuit into his house. But a case which excited peculiar sympathy was that of an old gentleman of the name of Pound, who had suffered under Elizabeth. He ventured to present a petition to the king, complaining of the sentence of Skitel. Instead of obtaining redress, he was immediately seized and carried into the star-chamber, where all the great lawyers and bishops assailed him with a very tempest of abuse. Coke excelled himself in virulent Billingsgate of the bar, chief justice Popham, chancellor Egerton, Cecil, the archbishop of Canterbury, the bishop of London, and several of the judges stormed at the poor old man, who stood without a single advocate; but Bancroft, the primate, was thought to exceed them all in violence. They condemned Pound to lose one of his ears in London, and the other in the place whence he came; to be fined one thousand pounds, and to remain a prisoner for ever unless he impeached those who incited him to this course. The queen interceded for the poor old man, but James forbade her ever again to open her mouth in favour of a catholic; however, some time after the French and Spanish ambassadors remonstrated on the severity of the sentence, and the old man was suffered to retire to his own house at Belmont, in Hampshire, after standing a whole day in the pillory in London.

The virulence of the storm seemed to increase rather than abate. The penalties were enforced with a rigour which exceeded all past example. The bishops were ordered to excommunicate the more opulent catholics in their dioceses; to sue for writs in chancery by which they would be rendered liable to imprisonment and outlawry, and made incapable of recovering debts, rents, or damages for injuries. Under these inhuman exactions no less than four hundred and nine families in the county of Hereford were suddenly reduced to beggary. The clergyman at Allan Moor, near Hereford, refused to bury a woman because she was a catholic, on the plea that she was excommunicated, which led to a riot, and government were compelled to call in the aid of the earl of Worcester, a catholic, to appease the people, which was done by the aid of the missionaries and priests.

In the midst of this frightful state of things the conspirators again met at their house in Westminster, nerved to desperation by the desolation of almost every catholic family in the kingdom. On the 30th of January, 1605, they resumed their operations. They found the wall through which they had to dig was no less than three yards thick, and composed of huge stones, so that the labour was intense, and the danger of their blows being heard began to alarm them. They had an accession of force to their numbers, the brothers of Wright and Winter, one John Grant, of Norbrook, in Warwickshire, who had married a sister of the Winters. He had suffered much from persecution under Elizabeth, and his house was large and strongly fortified, offering a good depot for horses and ammunition. Besides these, Catesby had admitted Bates, his confidential servant, into the secret, believing he had more than half-guessed it, and sent him with arms and ammunition to Grant's house in Worcestershire.

Whilst the conspirators were labouring with all their energies to complete the passage through the wall, they were suddenly startled by the tolling of a bell, deep in the earth, under the parliament house, and the sound could only be stopped by the aspersion of holy water. But a still more formidable obstacle appeared in the shape of ordinary water, which now began to ooze in from the river, and put a stop to all hope of making the passage. Whilst they were in this state of dejection, they were extremely alarmed by a loud noise, which appeared to come from a room just over their heads. Fawkes went to endeavour to learn the cause of it, and returned with the intelligence that it proceeded from the selling of the stock in trade of Bright, a coal merchant, who was evacuating the cellar, which would be in a few days unoccupied. At this joyful news, the mining of the foundation was abandoned; the cellar, which lay directly under the house of lords, was immediately taken by Fawkes in the name of his pretended master, Percy. In a short time they had removed thirty-six barrels of gunpowder from the house in Lambeth in the darkness of night, and had covered them over in the cellar with faggots and billets of wood. All being prepared, they once more separated till September, a few days before the assembling of parliament. They dispersed themselves to avoid all suspicion, and Fawkes went over to Flanders to endeavour to procure a supply of military stores, and to win over Sir William Stanley, Captain Owen, and other officers of the regiment in the pay of the archduke. Catesby, it will be remembered, was an officer of this regiment; most of these officers were catholics and his personal friends, and he informed them through Fawkes, that things were come to that pass that it was reported that the catholics were to be utterly exterminated throughout England, and that if they could not defend themselves by peaceable means, they must do it by the sword; and he enjoined them to engage as many of their brethren as possible to aid them in their deliverance. Sir William Stanley was absent in Spain, and Owen promised that he would communicate with him; but little effect appears to have been produced by Fawkes' mission, except that of exciting the attention of Cecil, who received repeated intimations from Flanders that the English exiles had some secret enterprise in agitation, though what it was the informants could not discover.

Catesby at home was in constant activity. He had obtained a fresh accomplice in Keyes, an intimate friend of his, who had been stripped of his property, and was prepared for the worst, being a man of determined disposition; and he had his eye on others who appeared in a mood for it. At the same time the growing excitement of Catesby endangered the secret. There was a tone and a restlessness about him which attracted the notice of his friends. He still delayed joining his regiment in Flanders, and Garnet, the Jesuit, came to suspect that he was engaged in some plot, and warned him against such attempts. This only excited the anger of Catesby, and Garnet wrote to Rome and obtained letters from the pope and the generals of his order, strongly enjoining on the catholics submission to the government. Catesby, uneasy in his conscience, at length confessed to Garnet the existence of some plot. The Jesuit refused to hear anything of it, but endeavoured to impress on the conspirator the necessity of obedience to the breves from Rome. At length he prevailed on him to promise that nothing should be done till they had sent a messenger to the pope fully detailing the condition of the catholics in England, and had received an answer, But Catesby -had no intention of deferring his enterprise on such grounds. Fawkes returned to England in September, and they resolved to proceed. A second prorogation of parliament, however, from October to the 5th of November, disconcerted the conspirators, and induced them to fear that their designs had become known to government. To ascertain this, if possible, Thomas Winter was deputed to attend in the house of lords and watch the countenances and behaviour of the commissioners during the ceremony of prorogation. He returned, assuring them, that their secret was still safe, for the commissioners walked about and conversed in the utmost unconsciousness of danger on the very surface of the prepared volcano - the six-and-thirty barrels of gunpowder.

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