In January 1604, four men met in a house known as the Gatehouse in Ireland Yard. It is alleged that two of the men were Nicholas Owen, and Robert Catesby; the other two men have never been identified with any certainty. It is thought that the house was then owned by a man named John Robinson.
Nicholas Owen was an Oxfordshire master builder, who specialized in building priest-holes, which were hiding places for Catholic Priests, as under Elizabeth I, the practice of the Catholic faith was banned. Priests were exiled and forbidden under pain of death from returning or performing the sacraments. Many priests however, risked their lives to come back and minister to their flock, and many Catholics likewise risked their lives and fortunes to hear Mass and have their children baptised. Wealthy families either built, or had built, hiding places, "priest holes", in their homes to hide priests in case their homes were raided by the secret police. Nicholas Owen had worked solidly for twenty years to help his fellow Catholics in re-establishing their religion in houses across the country.
Robert Catesby was a charismatic young country gentleman from Warwickshire. He was a devout Catholic and familiar with the price of his faith. His father had been imprisoned for harbouring a priest, and he himself had had to leave university without a degree to avoid taking the Protestant Oath of Supremacy.
This was a time of conflict and violent religious turmoil. It was a time when firstly Queen Elizabeth I, followed by James I, succeeded in galvanizing the very faith of a nation, against a backlash of insurgency, recusancy and calls for religious freedom. It was thus a time that not only nurtured treason, but also provoked it, and fuelled it.
In 1601 Robert Catesby’s name was brought to the attention of the Government, as having played a role in a plot, to overthrow the Queen, which was led by Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, and which became known as the Essex Rebellion. Supporters of Essex arranged for Shakespeare’s play, Richard II to be played at the Globe Theatre, the day before the rebellion was to start. The play tells the story of how Richard II was overthrown by Henry IV and how Richard the King, like Elizabeth the Queen, had abdicated many of her powers in favour of her advisors Cecil and Raleigh. It was hoped that the theme expressed in the play would generate support for the rebellion amongst Londoners, but it failed to generate any support, and when Essex marched into the streets of London with his followers, the ordinary man in the street stayed as far away as possible, fearing trouble.
Needless to say, when the Queen heard about it, she was furious and ordered Essex’s arrest. The rebellion collapsed and Essex was captured. On 25th February 1601 he was executed for treason. No evidence was offered, as to Robert Catesby’s involvement in this plot. Equally, no evidence was offered regarding Shakespeare’s involvement; did Shakespeare realise the significance of playing Richard II? Did any of his company know about the rebellion? Certainly no proof was ever offered up, and no charges were ever made.
James I eventually succeeded Elizabeth to the throne in 1603. The Catholic leaders celebrated what they saw as their newfound religious freedom. James, however, was not to be their saviour. No sooner had the Hampton Court Conference ended, with no compromise being given to either the Puritan faction or the Catholics, than James re-introduced the harsh penalties for recusancy (a dissenter; a nonconformist).
What then, were these two dissenters, Nicholas Owen, and Robert Catesby, along with their two unknown friends, doing at the Gatehouse in Ireland Yard in January 1604? In the three years that followed the failed Essex Rebellion, Catesby had certainly not been letting the grass grown beneath his feet, and had formed a small band of fellow conspirators around him. He had persuaded his young cousin Thomas Wintour, along with friends John Wright and Thomas Percy, and later friend Robert Keyes to join him in his plot to blow up the new king and overthrow the government, thus returning England to Catholic rule. Wintour had met Guy Fawkes, a Yorkshire born soldier, serving in Spanish service, whilst on a trip to Spain. Fawkes was an expert in the use of gunpowder, and had changed his name to Guido Fawkes to reflect his allegiances with the Catholic Spanish.
Catesby and Fawkes pledged to incite an uprising in England, with Spain providing troops to secure power, but this so-called “Spanish treason” was met with a lukewarm reception by the Spanish Government, who was eager to restore friendly relations with the new regime in England. Undeterred the plotters hatched a plan to smuggle a large quantity of gunpowder into the cellars of the Parliament building, with the aid of Thomas Percy, who was a well-connected courtier, and was able to rent cellars there without arousing suspicion. Catesby was to become known as the leader of the Gunpowder Plot.
The Gatehouse in Ireland Yard had been known for some years, amongst dissenters, as a Catholic Mass house. After the Gunpowder Plot, Government priest-hunters raided the house on numerous occasions. But this meeting took place a year prior to the Plot, when the Gatehouse was still considered as a relatively safe house, both for prayer, and perhaps to store anything of a more controversial nature, such as gunpowder perhaps. The amount of gunpowder needed to cause enough damage to Parliament and to kill the King, was considerable indeed, and would necessitate finding a reasonably close storage place, and then transferring it to Westminster in smaller amounts. Ireland Yard is very close to the River Thames, from where a boat could take as little as 20 minutes to travel almost unseen and unhindered, to Westminster where it could unload its cargo at the waterside quay of the Parliament building.
As we now know, the Gunpowder Plot was set to take place on November 5th 1605, which was the official State Opening day of Parliament, when the King, Lords and Commons would all be present in the Lords Chamber. The day before however, an anonymous letter was alleged to have been sent to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, warning him not to attend the State Opening. Monteagle was very perturbed by the letter and enlisted the help of the Lord Chamberlain, who helped him to make an initial search of Parliament. By later that day however, the news of the letter had spread, and armed guards made a thorough search of the whole building. When the guards entered the cellar at midnight, they found Guy Fawkes, surrounded by barrels of gunpowder. He was immediately seized and arrested.
News quickly spread of Fawkes capture and the failure of the plot. The other conspirators immediately saddled their horses and fled as far away from London as possible, in the vain hope of rallying further support from the area around Warwickshire. By this time however, the Sheriffs of both Worcestershire and Warwickshire had been informed and with an army of around 200 men, they surrounded the house the conspirators were staying in, and a great battle took place,
Killing both Catesby and Sir Thomas Percy, along with many of the others. Those who were not killed, were apprehended, imprisoned in Worcester jail, and then transported to London to await trial.
Nicholas Owen was also arrested, but not immediately charged with anything. He was kept in prison and tortured, in the hope of getting more information about all the conspirators from him. Earlier on in his life, he had ruptured himself while single-handedly building priest-holes. An iron plate was therefore fitted around his body so that he could be tortured on the rack without ripping his body open. It did not work. In early March 1606 his bowels burst and he died, taking his secrets with him.
On 27 January 1606, Fawkes and those of his fellow conspirators that were still alive were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. On the 30th January, Sir Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John grant and Thomas bates were dragged through the streets of London before being hung, drawn and quartered in front of the crowds in St Paul’s Courtyard. The next day, Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes and finally Guy Fawkes, were also hung, drawn and quartered but this time at Westminster. The heads of the traitors, including those that had died at Holbeach, were placed on spikes as 'prey to the fowls of the air', a grim warning to others who may threaten the King or his Government.
So ended the now infamous Gunpowder Plot, but two mysteries still remain, which are firstly, who sent the so called anonymous letter to Lord Monteagle, and secondly, who were the other two men who visited the Gatehouse in Ireland Yard, with Nicholas Owen, and Robert Catesby that day in January 1604?
The only person to benefit from the so called anonymous letter, would have been someone in the pay of the head of the secret service at this time, the Earl of Salisbury, Robert Cecil, who seems to have infiltrated the plot at an early stage and to have manipulated it for the King’s propaganda purposes.
One of Cecil’s informants at this time was a man recorded solely as ‘Davies’. It has been widely speculated since the Plot, that Davis, was none other than Sir John Davis, who had been one of Robert Catesby’s co-conspirators in the Essex Rebellion. Some say that Catesby was too trusting of those around him, and confided too much to Davis, whom he still considered to be a Catholic, and to be on his side. The meeting at the Gatehouse in Ireland Yard that day had obviously been in connection with the forthcoming Gunpowder Plot, and there can be no doubt that neither Owen or Catesby would inform on themselves, so that leaves Davis as the most likely candidate to have informed about the Plot.
But what of the fourth man present that day I hear you say? The fourth man was none other than William Shakespeare, who although never displaying any outward signs of his religious beliefs was brought up in the Catholic faith, and according to an Anglican vicar Richard Davis, after Shakespeare’s death, he claimed that Shakespeare received the last sacrament from a mysterious Benedictine, and later wrote that Shakespeare ‘dyed a Papist’.
The four men then, were all of the Catholic Faith, with some misgivings regarding Sir John Davis, who was obviously present that day in the pay of his master, the Earl of Salisbury. Robert Catesby, as the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, Nicholas Owen, as his fellow conspirator, and priest-hole builder, and William Shakespeare, as a practising Catholic, attending that day for Mass. Some will say that Shakespeare was more involved in the Plot, than just attending the Gatehouse to pray, but there is absolutely no proof whatsoever of that.
Nine years later however, in 1613, Shakespeare did in fact buy the Gatehouse. The exact reason for Shakespeare buying this property, remains something of a mystery, as he never lived there himself, but immediately after buying it, re-let it to its original tenant, John Robinson, at a peppercorn rent. He also moved back to Stratford-upon-Avon in that same year, and made his daughter, Susanna, the recipient of the Gatehouse, in his will, and she in turn passed it to her daughter, Elizabeth, who was Shakespeare's last descendant, who then sold it on around 1667.
Seven years after Shakespeare’s death, on Sunday 26th October 1623, a major tragedy occurred in Blackfriars. A clandestine meeting of some three hundred Catholics, assembled for Mass in a secret garret at the top of the Gatehouse. The combined weight of all these people, proved too much for the wooden beams that supported the garret floor, and it gave way, sending at least ninety worshippers, and two priests, plunging to their deaths.
The Anglican Bishop of London, George Montaigne, gave strict instructions, that none of the dead were to be buried in the City's cemeteries. Two large pits were dug at the site of the accident, and at least sixty-three of the bodies were unceremoniously, disposed of there. When news of the tragedy reached the Spanish ambassador, Diego Sarmiento de Acuna, who resided at St. Etheldreda’s, he made special arrangements to bury the Catholic dead beneath the Crypt and cloister garth at St. Etheldreda’s, where they remain to this day under the flagstones at St. Etheldreda’s.
The tragedy became known as the ‘Doleful Evensong’, and was denounced from Protestant pulpits. Some Anglican homily writers wrote off this terrible calamity as the Lord’s vengeance on Catholics for the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Other notable names, who have lived in Ireland Yard, were Shakespeare's friend the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, who had a house there in about 1607 and the painter Van Dyck, who also lived there between 1632-41.
The old Gatehouse, which Shakespeare paid £140 for in 1613, is no longer standing, but the present day Cockpit public house, roughly marks its position. No physical description of the house survives, but a deed of Conveyance for the property states that it was: 'now or late being in the tenure or occupancy of one William Ireland... abutting upon a street leading down to Puddle Wharf on the east part, right against the Kinges Majesties Wardrobe'. The King's Wardrobe was a department of the royal household. The name still survives in nearby Wardrobe Place, and in the name of the church of St. Andrew By the Wardrobe.
The Gatehouse was then the main entrance to the vast monastery of the Black Friars, so called because of the black habits they wore. The monastery, which consisted of several buildings, had been seized and sold off during the dissolution of the Monasteries, but was left, mostly intact. The former Gatehouse remained, and it was this, which Shakespeare bought, and which in all probability featured heavily in the Gunpowder Plot.
Sadly, the only relic of the monastery buildings and the Gatehouse, which once stood here, is a small section of the wall of the Provincial's Hall. This can be seen in the part of St. Ann's churchyard that is still preserved here.