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Gunpowder Treason

Joan and Peter Shaw


Please to remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot


Four centuries after Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament, children at Burton County Primary School revel in all the excitement of bonfires, fireworks and homemade effigies. But the children living here during the terrible months which followed the discovery of gunpowder in the cellars beneath the Palace of Westminster had no cause to celebrate the occasion, for Sir Everard Digby had been implicated in the plot, and met death at the hands of the public executioner. The handsome Everard was the son of Mary Nele, and although he had been brought up at Tilton-on-the-Hill in High Leicestershire, the Neles had been Lords of the Manor of Prestwold for as long as anyone could remember [1].

The gunpowder plot was devised in 1605 by a group of fanatical Roman Catholics, led by Robert Catesby. Frustrated and disappointed by the failure of James I (who had a Roman Catholic wife) to make any progress towards toleration of those who clung to the old religion, they planned to detonate a great quantity of gunpowder at the opening of Parliament, thus ridding themselves of King and many of their enemies in one foul act. The fact that innocent people would also be killed was a price which, though regretted, would have to be paid. Their plans were thwarted when they were betrayed and the gunpowder found.

Intelligent and clever, Everard Digby had charm in abundance to complement his good looks and was a great favourite both at Court and among the common people. He was the thirteenth man to be admitted to Robert Catesby's select band of conspiritors although he played no active part in the gunpowder plot and may not even have known about it – it is not certain just how much he did know of Catesby'?s plans. His role was to recruit a group of like-minded men, prepare for an uprising in the Midlands, and provide money and horses – he was himself renowned for his horsemanship. It is possible that he was also involved in a scheme to abduct the young Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey.

Ostensibly Everard Digby had been born into a well-respected Protestant family, unlike most of his fellow conspiritors who came from strong recusant backgrounds, however, in 1585 his father had been stripped of his Fellowship of St John's College, Cambridge, for his 'Romanist tendencies'? and in later years his son Kenelm would come to embrace the Roman Catholic faith. Everard was the only one of the thirteen to confess. His faith was strong, and his admission of guilt gave him the opportunity to plead the Roman Catholic cause. He was a man of strong principles, and bore no malice towards the King – perhaps his only sin was to trust the charismatic Catesby too well. Confession probably saved him the manacles and the rack, but death, when it came, was terrible. He was the first to be dragged through the streets, the first to be hung, the first to be drawn and quartered. He was just twenty-eight years old and the spectacle was witnessed by his widow and two small sons.

Throughout, he behaved with all the courage and dignity his broken mind and body could muster, and it was said that when the executioner plucked out Sir Everard Digby's heart and held it aloft before the crowd, declaring it to be the heart of a traitor, Sir Everard from somewhere found the strength to cry aloud and deny the accusation. "Brave noble, thou wert something more than man" reads Sir Everard's epitaph.

Grief and despair must have gripped the parish of Prestwold. The impressionable children would have pictured the scene at the scaffold as clearly as if they had been among the onlookers, and would have told the tale to their own children and their grandchildren in the years to come, it would be handed down from generation to generation, and in true school playground tradition, the churchyard at Prestwold [2] surely echoed with a local version of the well-loved rhyme.

The spirit of Everard Digby lives on at Tilton where it is said that a coach with a headless driver and passenger is still seen on the road to Halstead, and there are legends of hauntings too at North Luffenham, another Digby home. Can we hope that by recalling these events we have reminded someone of a story they once heard, a song they used to sing, or perhaps even a ghostly happening that set their hair on end?

Notes

1: George Farnham believed that the Neles could trace their ancestery back to Prestwold and Poutrel families who were Lords of the Manor of Prestwold in the thirteenth century. Mary Nele and her son sold the Manor in 1604 to Mary's mother Jane Skipwith, widow of Francis Nele.

2: The churchyard at Prestwold was the playground for the local children during the 17th and 18th centuries. Lessons were held first in the Church and later in a small schoolroom close by.

Sources

John Nichols History and Antiquities of Leicester

George F. Farnham 'Prestwold and its Hamlets in Medieval Times', Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society Vol.17 Pt.1 19312

Antonia Fraser The Gunpowder Plot

L. Digby Digby and Strutt Families

Roy Palmer The Folklore of Leicestershire and Rutland


Originally published in the WHO Newsletter 1998.

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