Gunpowder, treason and plot... Discover History’s Paul Harding on the oft-forgotten part Worcestershire played as a backdrop to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605

MUSKETS, powder and shot stockpiled in Worcestershire cellars, horses hidden in isolated country barns and the whispered talk of treason held in secret meeting.

This is a story often forgotten when we celebrate Bonfire Night on November 5.

The plotters were led by Robert Catesby and met in sleepy Worcestershire, where a great many Catholics lived at the start of the 17th century. Arrangements were also made in London, where this most serious crime was going to play out.

If everything went to plan Guy Fawkes, the war veteran, explosives expert, and mercenary would have succeeded in killing King James I (VI); the same king who would go on to gift the City of Worcester an important Charter in 1621, something we are celebrating this year with Charter400.

Once the deed was done, during the State Opening of Parliament in 1605, Catesby and his fellow plotters would start a violent rebellion across the Midlands, culminating with the young Princess Elizabeth being made a puppet monarch.

Catholicism would be re-established in England. Religion was a delicate subject and had been the cause of many rebellions, invasion threats and civil unrest ever since Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church.

Worcestershire was one of the counties that had a great many powerful Catholic families and in many cases their fine homes still stand today.

Many of these families continued to worship secretly from makeshift Chapels in their homes. The Habbington family lived at Hindlip Hall, the Wintours at Huddington Court and the Lyttletons at Hagley Hall. The beautiful Harvington Hall was owned by the Packingtons.


Blessed Edward Oldcorne

Blessed Edward Oldcorne


Harvington Hall has the largest collection of priest holes in Britain. Priest holes were used to hide priests who illegally held services in Catholic homes. Nicholas Owen was the architect of these secret hiding places. Members of the Worcestershire Militia and state officials watched these homes and searched them regularly in a hope of catching a priest.

Guy Fawkes had been discovered in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament in the early hours of November 5 1605. He was hiding next to a pile of firewood, which was concealing 36 barrels of gunpowder.

As the details of the plot unravelled, mainly from torturing Guy Fawkes, Sir Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Worcestershire, was tasked to search for those who had been planning an uprising nearby.

Sir Richard Walsh mustered the Worcestershire Militia, who travelled across the Midlands on a man hunt. This armed force numbered 200 men.

On November 8 1605, this band had surrounded Holbeche House in Staffordshire, where a small band of desperate and injured men were hiding. Sir Richard Walsh tried to talk the men out peacefully, but failed. The men prayed together, threw open the door and ran into a hail of lead musket balls.

As the gun powder smoke began to clear, several men lay screaming in pain on the damp grass. Thomas Percy and Robert Catesby had been brought down by the same lead bullet, fired by John Streete, a Worcester man and long serving member of the Militia. The wounded men were holding swords and daggers, which were quickly kicked to one side, and the men arrested for being involved in what would become one of the most famous assassination attempts in history – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.


The memorial cross on Red Hill which remembers Catholics executed in Worcester

The memorial cross on Red Hill which remembers Catholics executed in Worcester


Humphrey Lyttleton , John Wintour, Ralph Ashley, a man called Perks and even the Jesuit priest, Father Oldcorne, had all been arrested in Worcestershire and held in the City of Worcester.

They were tried and found guilty of treason. They were dragged backwards on sleds pulled by horses from the old Castle, where King’s School now stands. The procession travelled under Sidbury Gate and up London Road. When they reached Red Hill they were given a traitor’s death.

They were hanged to within an inch of their lives, disembowelled and their privy parts removed and burnt in front of them. The grisly scene ended with their beheading and quartering in front of the crowd who had followed them from the city walls to the infamous hill above the city, where a memorial cross still stands.