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Robert Keyes
by David Herber

Born: circa 1565
Died: 31 January 1606, Old Palace Yard, Westminster

Robert Keyes was the son of Edward Keyes, Rector of Stavely in North Derbyshire, and his wife, a daughter of Sir Robert Tyrwhitt of Kettleby, Lincolnshire. Although Edward was a Protestant, his wife's family were renowned recusants. Through his mother's family, Robert was related to the staunchly Catholic Babthorpes of Osgodby (who had a household of fifty two, including two full-time Jesuit priests), and the Mallory and Ingilby families of Ripon, and therefore was kin to John and Christopher Wright of Plowland, and to Robert and Thomas Wintour of Huddington Court. Undoubtedly brought up as a Protestant, Keyes was a Jesuit convert at the time of the plot.

Keyes was nearly 40 in 1604, and was described as a tall and red-bearded man. He was employed by Lord Mordaunt, perhaps as a property manager, and his wife Christiana, widow of Thomas Groome, was governess to Lord Mordaunt's children. Keyes had a servant at the time of the Gunpowder Plot, one William Johnson.

Keyes was the sixth conspirator to join this plot, which he did so around October of 1604. His job was to take charge of Robert Catesby's home at Lambeth, where the gunpowder and other necessary items were to be temporarily stored.

Keyes apparently was not a wealthy man. During his trial, he maintained that he had tasted persecution himself, having lost his goods because of it. He thought it the lesser of two evils to die rather than to live in the midst of so much tyranny, and the unending persecution of ruthless foes.

Oswald Tesimond confirms this: "They could not expect from him any help beyond what he could give in his own person. He had neither possessions nor money more than what was necessary to maintain himself and his wife. Apart from this, he was a man magnanimous and fearless".

It is also claimed that one of the reasons Keyes joined the conspiracy was at the prospect of wealth and riches in a new Catholic state. Certainly Alan Haynes is of the belief he was initiated into the plot with the promise of financial gain, "... and since the Keyes family was not well off, it seems Catesby paid him and then took him into the plot on the conviction that he was a trusted and honest man" (The Gunpowder Plot [Stroud, 1994]).

John Gerard, in his Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, says of him that "... his virtue and valour were the chiefest things wherin they could expect assistance from him...".

Little is known of Keyes' actual involvement in the early stages of the plot. He probably assisted in the work of digging the mine, and it is thought he continued to oversee Catesby's Lambeth property until virtually the day of the plot's discovery.

The first record of his involvement comes with the discussions on which Catholic peers should be forewarned of the explosion so that they could excuse themselves from parliament that day. Keyes and Francis Tresham spoke on behalf of Lord Mordaunt, whereby Catesby declared "he would not for the chamber full of diamonds acquaint him with the secret, for that he knew he could not keep it". It is possible that Keyes was aware that Lord Mordaunt had written to King James I, excusing himself from the opening of parliament anyway because of business commitments.

On the night of 4 November, Keyes (who had been joined by his cousin Ambrose Rookwood) spent the night at the house of Elizabeth More beyond Temple Bar, not far from Essex House. At about 10.00 p.m., Guy Fawkes visited Keyes, and was handed a watch which Thomas Percy had left for him to time the fuse.

During the early morning of 5 November, Keyes and Rookwood became aware of the arrest of Guy Fawkes, but elected to remain a little longer in London until further news arrived. Keyes was the first of the two to leave, but Rookwood, riding a superior mount, caught up with him at Highgate and the two rode together to Bedfordshire before separating, for Keyes intended to ride to Lord Mordaunt's house to inform his wife of the events and to bid her farewell. However, there is evidence to support the claim that at this time Christiana Keyes was holidaying with her Rookwood relatives.

Hugh Ross Williamson depicts Keyes as a deserter, alluding to the idea that he fled the conspirators' group once given his chance on the road to Dunchurch with Rookwood, and was hoping to hide out at the estate of Lord Mordaunt, his employer, knowing he was away on business at the time.

Keyes appears to have eventually been caught in Warwickshire on 9 November, perhaps while heading to the Midlands to be reunited with his fellow conspirators. On 12 November, after a "little delay", he was examined by Sir Fulke Greville in Warwick, at which time Keyes told Greville that he had been on his way to visit Rookwood his kinsman, who he had heard was captured. Also on the list of those being interrogated was one Marmaduke Ward, brother-in-law to the Wright brothers.

Keyes is named in a list of prisoners sent by Sir Richard Verney, Sheriff of Warwickshire, in a letter dated 16 November, and he was interrogated in the Tower on 30 November.

During the trial, Keyes spoke little, but he showed plenty of spirit. He claimed that his motive had been to promote the common good. That is, he hoped that his native land would be turned back to the catholic faith. The violence of the present persecution had driven him also to take part in the conspiracy.

At the time of his death, he showed, rather to the admiration and surprise of everyone that he was a man of serious and mature disposition, possessing good judgement and intelligence, and also great fervour and devotion.

On 31 January 1606, he was drawn to the Old Palace Yard in Westminster along with Ambrose Rookwood, Thomas Wintour and Guy Fawkes. After Wintour and Rookwood came Keyes "who like a desperate villain, using his speech, with small or no show of repentance went stoutly up the ladder". When he was on the ladder, "not staying the hangman's turn, he turned himself off with such a leap that, with a swing he brake the halter. But after his fall, was quickly drawn to the block, and there was quickly divided into four parts".

Reproduced by kind permission of the Gunpowder Plot Society

Sources
.............

Durst, Paul, Intended Treason: What really happened in the Gunpowder Plot, 1970
Edwards, Francis, S.J., Guy Fawkes: the real story of the Gunpowder Plot?, 1969
Edwards, Francis, S.J., The Gunpowder Plot: the narrative of Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway, trans. from the Italian of the Stonyhurst Manuscript, edited and annotated, 1973
Fraser, Antonia, Faith & Treason - The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, 1996
Gerard, John, The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, tr. Philip Caraman
Hatfield MSS, Hatfield House, Herts.
Haynes, Alan, The Gunpowder Plot, 1994
Simons, Eric N., The Devil of the Vault, 1963
Spink, Henry Hawkes, The Gunpowder Plot and Lord Mounteagle's Letter, 1902
Williamson, Hugh Ross, The Gunpowder Plot, 1951


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