Robert Catesby Biography

(The Leader of a Group of English Catholics Who Planned the Failed 'Gunpowder Plot' of 1605)

Born: 1572

Born In: Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire, England

Robert Catesby was the main conspirator of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which was a conspiracy to kill Protestant King James I of England and all members of the government by blowing up the Parliament with explosives. Though educated at Oxford, Catesby quit his studies without a degree, to avoid taking the Oath of Supremacy, that might have clashed with his Catholic views. After his rebellion in association with the Earl of Essex failed, he was imprisoned and fined. He was imprisoned again, for fear of another rebellion, when Queen Elizabeth I’s health deteriorated. Following Elizabeth’s death, when James I became the next king, Catesby and his co-conspirators, such as Guy Fawkes, planned to destroy the Parliament and kill the king, to end Protestant rule. They hired a basement beneath the House of Lords and filled it with explosives. However, days before the execution of the plot, their plan was discovered. Catesby and the other conspirators were soon executed.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Robin Catesby

Died At Age: 33


Spouse/Ex-: Catherine Leigh

father: Sir William Catesby

mother: Anne (née Throckmorton) Catesby

children: Robert, William

Born Country: England

British Men

Died on: November 8, 1605

place of death: Staffordshire, England

Cause of Death: Gunshot Wound

Childhood, Early Life & Education

Robert Catesby was born after 1572, in Bushwood Hall, Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire, England, into a Catholic family. He was the third son of Sir William Catesby of Lapworth and Anne Throckmorton.

Catesby was a direct descendant of William Catesby, a prominent councillor of King Richard III, who was executed after the Battle of Bosworth. Born in a newly Protestant England, he witnessed his family being harassed for their faith. His father was imprisoned for years and was later tried in Star Chamber.

In 1586, he studied at Gloucester Hall, University of Oxford. His college was noted for its marked Catholic intake.

University students and those willing to take public office back then had to take the Oath of Supremacy, which could have clashed with Catesby's Catholic faith. Thus, to avoid this, Catesby quit college without a degree.

It is believed he then attended the seminary college of Douai. In 1588, he was imprisoned at Wisbech Castle.

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Adulthood & Family

In 1593, Robert Catesby married the granddaughter of Sir Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, Catherine Leigh. Catherine, who was from an affluent Protestant family, brought in a dowry of £2,000. Her religious affiliation gave Catesby momentary relief from the recusancy laws that were prevalent back then.

They lost their first son, William, in infancy. Their second son, Robert, however, survived.

After losing his father in 1598, Catesby remained at Chastleton and was content being a Church Papist. Following his wife’s death later that year, he became a staunch Catholic.

Early Days of the Rebellion

In 1601, Robert Catesby was associated with the Essex Rebellion, against Queen Elizabeth’s advisor Robert Cecil, in the hope that with the success of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, there could be a Catholic monarch. After the rebellion failed, a wounded Catesby was captured and imprisoned at the Wood Street Counter. He also had to pay a hefty fine of 4,000 marks (more than £6 million) to Elizabeth I.

Sir Thomas Tresham helped Catesby with part of the fine amount. Catesby later sold his Chastleton estate to pay the rest of the fine.

After being released, he tried joining a Spanish campaign of England. It is believed, Catesby had also offered monetary help to some Jesuit priests and often visited them using the alias Mr. Roberts.

As Elizabeth's health failed in 1596, he was arrested again, soon after. In fact, he was one of the main papists captured by a government in fear of a tough rebellion just before the queen’s death. The other leading Catholics who were arrested were John Wright, Francis Tresham, and Christopher Wright. They were all sent to the Tower of London.

After Elizabeth I’s death in March 1603, there were no heirs to succeed to the throne. James, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, was next in line to the English throne. Since James was a Protestant, the parliament supported him as the next king.

The Roman Catholics, however, were not happy with the idea of another Protestant monarch. They were doubly angry when James passed a law imposing heavy fines on those who did not attend Protestant church services.

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The Gunpowder Plot

Since he was desperate to bring back Catholic faith in England and did not believe the promises of religious tolerance by King James I, Robert Catesby, in May 1603, hatched the idea of killing the king and destroying the Parliament by a gunpowder explosion under the Parliament building.

Thus, in January 1604, he started to gather a group of Catholics as part of his team to execute the plan. His team included soldier Guy Fawkes and Thomas Percy, who was related to the earl of Northumberland. The final team had co-conspirators John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, and Christopher Wright.

They rented a house beside the House of Lords initially and tried digging a tunnel to plant the explosives under the House. However, in March 1605, they rented a basement just beneath the House. Guy Fawkes, due to his experience with ammunition in the Netherlands, was assigned the task of creating the explosion.

According to Catesby’s plan, after the death of James in the planned explosion, he wanted to make the king's young daughter, Elizabeth, the queen. Catesby also planned to fix Elizabeth's marriage to a Catholic nobleman later. Everard Digby was assigned the task of kidnapping Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey.

Catesby also planned to blow up the Parliament on November 5 and had chosen the date as the king was supposed to open Parliament on that day. One of the conspirators, Francis Tresham, was worried that the explosion might kill his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, too. Tresham thus sent Lord Monteagle a warning letter, asking him not to attend Parliament on November 5.

The government, however, came to know about the plot days before its scheduled date, as Lord Monteagle grew suspicious after receiving the letter and passed it on to Robert Cecil, King James’s chief minister. Cecil immediately arranged a search of the Houses of Parliament.

On the night of November 4-5, 1605, Fawkes was arrested in the cellar, with 36 barrels of gunpowder, while Catesby and most other plotters fled. Fawkes was tortured and broke down, eventually revealing the names of his co-conspirators.


The conspirators, including Robert Catesby, who fled, left London and decided to meet at Holbeche House, near Kingswinford in Staffordshire. However, their hiding place was discovered by the men of Worcester’s Sheriff.

On November 8, 1605, the hiding place was surrounded by government troops. Catesby and his co-conspirators refused to surrender. Heavy gunfire followed. and Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Christopher Wright were all killed. Catesby was in his early 30s at the time of his death.

As a warning to other potential rebels, Catesby’s body was exhumed and decapitated. His head was later put up for display outside the Parliament. The plot worsened the anti-Catholic sentiments in England.


Robert Catesby was portrayed by actor Kit Harington in the 2017 BBC One drama series Gunpowder. Interestingly, Harington is related to Catesby, as his mother is a direct descendant of Catesby.

See the events in life of Robert Catesby in Chronological Order

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