• Richard Prosser

Gunpowder, Treason, and Flop

This is the Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary & St Leodegarius, located in the village of Ashby St Ledgers, which is literally ten minutes up the road from me.

Ashby St Ledgers is a pretty wee place, with plenty of thatched roofs of the type that American tourists love to regard with awe. There are still a good few craftsmen in Britain who can lay and maintain thatches, and they still work as intended, though they're held together nowadays with chicken wire - which one can only assume the thatchers of yore would have used, had it been available.

The Church itself is relatively modern, dating from the 14th Century, and was built on the site of the original 12th Century Church.

And today, November 5th, marks the 414th anniversary of how this humble abode of Our Lord came to be famous, for reasons it probably wishes it hadn't.

Adjoining the Church, and on the same Estate, is Ashby Manor House, which predates the Domesday Book, having been gifted in 1068 to Hugues de Grandmesnil, Sheriff of Leicester, by William I of England.

Attached to the Manor's Gate House is a slightly incongruous little white room with Tudor woodwork on the outside. It is known as the Plotter's Room, and it was in this very building that the 1605 Gunpowder Plot was hatched, by the infamous Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators.

In 1375 the Catesby family acquired the estate. At the time of the Gunpowder Plot Robert Catesby was in residence; he was a descendant of Sir William Catesby, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer under King Richard III, and who fought alongside the King at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

Robert Catesby was probably an even more important figure amongst the Plotters than Fawkes himself, though it is fair to say that they were all pretty radicalised Catholic insurgents. Guy Fawkes was certainly a colourful character, going by the name of Guido Fawkes whilst fighting as a mercenary on behalf of Catholic Spain, and operating under the alias John Johnson during the Gunpowder Plot. On occasion he even pretended that Guido was his own non-existent brother.

Fawkes became the most famous of the Plotters because it was he who was caught red-handed with 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellars under Parliament. In a way he was luckier than some of the others, however; despite being tortured on the rack, he managed to escape some of the grislier punishment metered out to the other 12 conspirators by falling off the scaffold on the way up to the gallows and breaking his neck.

This spared him from the fate endured by most of the rest, who were variously hanged, drawn, and quartered; as one account puts it, "dragged on a hurdle behind a horse, their heads in contact with the ground, unto a place of execution, where they shall be hanged by the neck, and then, whilst still alive, cut down, their genitals removed and burned before their eyes; then their bowels and heart shall be cut out, before they be beheaded, and their bodies dismembered into four parts, the parts being distributed to the four corners of the Kingdom, that they might become prey for the fowls of the air, to serve as a warning to other would-be traitors."

....so Three Strikes laws and preventive detention seem fairly mild by comparison, eh. Catesby also got away quite lightly, managing to get himself shot dead while attempting to escape.

I've been into quite a few of these old churches now. And although I don't do religion, I always go in with respect; these are venerable buildings, rich in history, holders of untold ancient memories. This one has a strange feeling to it - not unwelcoming, but rather, very intensely sad. Maybe that's because the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament wasn't successful ;-)

Richard Prosser


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