AS bonfires and fireworks light up the night sky over the next few days, many people enjoying the spectacle may not realise how close West Oxfordshire’s link is to the events Bonfire Night recalls.
Chastleton House, near Chipping Norton, used to be owned by the leading figure behind the ill-fated plot to blow up Parliament, Robert Catesby.
Although Guy Fawkes, the man caught in Parliament’s cellars with the barrels of gunpowder, is remembered each year – and effigies of him burned on bonfires – it was actually Catesby who led the 1605 plan.
Catesby was a devout Catholic who grew angry at James I’s increasing hostility towards his religion after the Scottish king succeeded Queen Elizabeth on the throne in 1603.
He had long opposed the persecution of Catholics and he left Oxford University before taking his degree in the 1580s to avoid swearing the Protestant Oath of Supremacy.
In 1594 he had inherited the Chastleton estate from his grandmother and moved there with his Protestant wife Catherine.
Their son Robert was baptised a Protestant at Chastleton’s St Mary’s Church on November 11, 1595.
In 1601, he took part in the Essex Rebellion, which saw the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, executed for treason for leading a coup against Queen Elizabeth.
Catesby was captured and imprisoned before being fined 4,000 marks, the equivalent of about £6m today. As a result, he was forced to sell most of his assets, including the Chastleton estate, to pay the penalty.
Three years later, bitter that King James was no more sympathetic towards Catholics than Elizabeth had been, Catesby held the first meeting of the Gunpowder plotters with four others, including Guy Fawkes, at the Duck and Drake pub in the Strand.
The growing group rented a cellar under the House of Lords in March 1605 and over the following months moved in 36 barrels of gunpowder. But in October, an anonymous letter tipped off the authorities to the plot.
A search of the Houses of Parliament on the night of November 4 uncovered the gunpowder, which was being guarded by Guy Fawkes. He had with him a lantern which is now on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Catesby and others had left earlier that day for the Midlands, where they planned to start an uprising timed to take advantage of the killing of the king and his ministers.
They learned that the plot had been foiled when a fellow conspirator who had fled London caught up with them.
They reached Holbeche House, near Dudley, late on the evening of November 7 but were cornered there the following morning by some 200 men, led by the High Sheriff of Worcestershire. Catesby was shot dead as they stormed the house.
In January 1606, the surviving plotters, including Fawkes, were tried and found guilty of treason before being executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered.
Although Catesby had sold Chastleton House to pay his fine after the Essex Plot to Walter Jones, a prosperous wool merchant, lawyer and MP in Worcester, Catesby’s mother Anne was still living in the house in 1606.
And Catesby himself, along with other conspirators, stayed there early in 1605 – leading to theories the plot may have been discussed in West Oxfordshire.
Chastleton House steward Sebastian Conway said: “Catesby and other plotters were all here at the house in January 1605.
“The plot was hatched in 1604, because they had intended for it to go off in September 1604, but the plague had closed Parliament and it was put off a year.
“The plan was well under way when they met here and they were probably just at the point of hiring Guy Fawkes.”
He added: “The fact his mother lived here in 1606 also raises some interesting questions about whether Walter Jones was a Catholic or sympathised with the plotters.”
Chastleton House, as it is today, was built between 1607 and 1612 by Jones, and his descendants lived there for almost 400 years, until 1991.
It was opened to the public by the National Trust in 1997 after a six-year refurbishment and is now regarded as one of England’s finest and most complete Jacobean houses.
- For more information about Chastleton House, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/chastleton-house or call 01608 674981.
Bonfires and fireworks displays in West Oxfordshire this weekend
- Bampton: Spajers’ charity fireworks night at Buckland Road sports ground, Saturday, from 6.15pm.
- Chipping Norton: Rotary Club fireworks display at King’s Stone Farm, near the Rollright Stones, on Sunday, from 6.30pm.
- Wychwoods: Wychwoods fireworks display and bonfire at Shipton Cricket Club, in Burford Road, on Saturday, from 5.45pm.
- Burford: Burford Chamber of Trade’s bonfire night at the recreation ground on Monday, from 6.30pm.
- Charlbury: Bonfire and fireworks at Charlbury Cricket Club, in Dyers Hill, on Saturday, from 6pm.
- Kingham: Bonfire Night celebrations at the village playing village on Monday, from 6pm.
- Long Hanborough: Fireworks and bonfire at the playing field and pavilion, in Pinsley Road, on Friday, from 6pm.
- Minster Lovell: Old Swan and Minster Mill, School Hill, on Saturday, from 6pm.
- Standlake: Village hall, Rack End, Standlake, from 6pm, fireworks 7pm. In aid of 1st Standlake and Cokethorpe Scouts.
- Witney: Cogges Manor Farm bonfire and soup party on Sunday, from 6pm.
- Witney: Fireworks display at Witney Rugby Football Club, in Hailey Road, on Sunday, from 3pm.
Please note there are admission fees to most events listed to cover costs and in aid of local good causes.