Holbeche House, Staffordshire
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Holbeche House, Staffordshire

by Jennifer O'Brien and David Herber

Holbeche House

After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, the flight of the plotters ended at Holbeche House, near Kingswinford, in Staffordshire. This property belonged to Stephen Littleton, a descendant of the Littletons of Frankley, Worcestershire, who had joined them at the proposed hunting party at Dunchurch. The plotters were being closely followed by the sheriff of Warwick, Sir Richard Walsh, and his men, who were seeking to apprehend them for the raid on the stables at Warwick Castle. Sir Richard did not actually learn of their involvement in the Gunpowder Plot until his arrival at Holbeche as the government forces converged with their orders from Robert Cecil.

Fireplace at Holbeche House where gunpowder exploded accidentallyAt Holbeche, the conspirators did their best to prepare the house for a siege, and told those not willing to make a stand that they should escape as best they could. During the flight from Warwick Castle via Hewell Grange (the home of Lord Windsor, who was kin to Sir John Talbot of Grafton and the Wintour brothers) where they were reported to have stolen arms and munitions, their store of gunpowder had become wet from the pouring rain, and it was laid out in front of the fireplace to dry. A stray spark landing in the gunpowder caused a sudden explosion that blinded John Grant, and slightly injured Robert Catesby, Ambrose Rookwood and Henry Morgan, a friend of John Grant's. This was the final demoralizing blow: when Thomas Wintour asked the party what they intended to do, he was told "We mean here to die".

Stephen Littleton and Thomas Wintour left temporarily for 'Pepperhill', the Shropshire residence of Sir John Talbot, which lay 10 miles away, where they hoped to rally further support. Sir John dismissed them in anger saying that it was more than his life was worth to assist them, only confirming the thoughts of Robert Wintour who had refused the task of visiting Sir John.

By approximately 11.00 am the following morning, Walsh's men had surrounded the house. Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright, Kit Wright and Ambrose Rookwood were soon shot in the courtyard, perhaps attempting to quell a fire that Walsh and his men had started in an attempt to drive the conspirators from the house. The two Wrights were moribund, but Thomas Wintour managed to make it back to the house, where Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy were the only defenders left who were not incapacitated by their injuries.

"Stand by me, Mr. Tom," said Catesby, "and we will die together."

The three men stood close inside the door of the house, and went outside to face their death. Catesby and Percy, standing side by side, were supposedly felled by a single shot. According to the account by Father Oswald Tesimond, Robert Catesby managed to crawl back inside the house, and finding a picture of the Virgin Mary, clutched it in his arms until he died. The soldiers rushed into the house, realising Wintour's fears of being captured. Many of those present at the siege declared later that the actions of the soldiers, hungry for trophies, had perhaps not been conducive to the survival of those who were dying, and that with swift medical aid, one or more of them may have lived.

Bullet-Holes still to be seen at Holbeche HouseThe last door that many of the conspirators ever went through is still in existence today at Holbeche House. Although many additions have been made to the back, the front rooms and facade of the house are still the same as they were in 1605. You can still see the musket holes in the wall from this siege, which adds further intrigue to the story of the last stand of the conspirators. The location of the musket holes offers strong evidence that those inside the house were utilising the upstairs windows, probably to gain the advantage of height over their pursuers, and would thus have almost certainly been using firearms.

Holbeche House today is a private nursing home. The present owners kindly gave the Gunpowder Plot Society permission to tour the house and the grounds. Although a great deal of construction has recently taken place, which has resulted in the destruction of the remnants of the old water-mill, you can still see traces of the original wall that surrounded the property. Even more interesting is the existence of a tunnel in the dining room that, according to legend, led to another property. It was a surprising find, as none of the Plot literature has ever mentioned this tunnel, although it was certainly in existence in 1605. Perhaps this was the method that many used to escape, leading one to conclude that the final defenders must have chosen to die.

The Mysterious Tunnel at Holbeche HouseThe owners of Holbeche House have also given the Gunpowder Plot Society permission to supervise the opening up of this tunnel and investigate it in 1999. At present it is unclear where the tunnel leads to or if it is still useable, but it is certainly a task we are looking forward to, in the hope of making a startling discovery or revelation. At present we are trying to locate survey maps that may indicate the tunnel's existence, or at the very least, identify the neighbouring properties that could have been the tunnel's destination. It is also yet another indication of the length to which the Catholic families of the area were prepared to go to in order to preserve the safety of their numbers. We will keep everyone up to date on the developments within this project.

Reproduced by kind permission of the Gunpowder Plot Society

Aims of the Gunpowder Plot Society

The aims of the Gunpowder Plot Society are to promote and encourage research on all aspects of the Gunpowder Plot by providing a central repository for information, source material, and research assistance, as well as to provide an open forum for discussion through our mailing list and newsletters.

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