West Horsley Place has many amazing stories connecting it to major events in English history; one of the most exciting is its connection to the Gunpowder Plot. The below account is by Pam Bowley, respected local historian and author of a book on the history of West Horsley Place.
At the age of about 19 Guy Fawkes took up the position of a footmen to the 1st Lord Montague of West Horsley Place and Cowdray Park in Sussex. Lord Montague was quite elderly by then and died two years later in 1592. Then Fakes went into the service of the 2nd Lord Montague. The Montagues were staunch Catholics but often managed to escape paying recusant fines; they had so many houses in Surrey and the surrounding counties to which they could escape.
Guy Fawkes is believed to have been more than an ordinary footman, because being a Catholic he was in a position of confidence and trust, probably accompanying his master everywhere. He was well educated so he may have been more of a personal assistant. He was tall, powerfully built with reddish-brown hair, and later in life he added a flowing moustache and a bushy beard. He was intelligent courageous, steadfast and loyal. Recognising these qualities in the young man, and his zeal for furthering the Catholic cause, the 2nd Lord Montague may have helped him obtain a career in the Spanish army in Flanders where his Catholicism was no bar to success. Many young Catholic Englishmen did the same.
His career prospered. He became an ensign and later a captain in the Spanish army. Once he had been sent on a mission to Phillip III of Spain, to ask for his support in an invasion of England to further the cause of the English Catholics, but he received nothing but empty promises. Expecting the King of Spain to be true to his word, Guy, who spoke both French and Spanish fluently, changed his first name to Guido.
When King James came to the throne in 1603, there was widespread joy among the Catholics who hoped he would now restore some degree of toleration towards them. But instead he made a new peace treaty with Spain. The English Catholics became impatient with the lack of action, and soon a number of Catholic gentlemen decided that something must be done, and under Robert Catesby, a group of conspirators got together meeting in secret. They were a tightknit circle and were all related by kinship, marriage or friendship. The 2nd Lord Montague of West Horsley Place was married to Catesby’s first cousin, Elizabeth Tresham, whose brother, Francis Tresham was among the conspirators, so Montague may have been aware of the plot. The conspirators decided the only way to be rid of the King was to blow up the House of Lords from a cellar beneath the chamber where the King was opening Parliament, but they needed someone who could handle gunpowder.
Guido Fawkes, as he was now called, being back in England, had probably taken up employment again with his former master, Lord Montague. He was sworn to secrecy and drawn into the plot, but he remained an outsider. Not being one of the élite, he was not privy to their private supper parties where plotting took place.
The old Houses of Parliament in those days were nothing like they are today. They consisted of a warren of buildings with the principal rooms and offices on the upper two floors, while down below at street level were taverns, shops and one house known as ‘the Whynniard Lodging’. This house consisted of a ‘cellar’ at ground floor level for storage with a small chamber above connected by a door to the King’s Robing Room, for John Whynniard was the keeper of the King’s wardrobe. Thomas Percy of Albury (friend and neighbour of Lord Montague), whose lodgings were nearby, took out a lease on Whynniard’s and installed Guido Fawkes in it. Guido estimated that up to 36 barrels of gunpowder would be required to demolish the building, so over the following months he accumulated numerous barrels of different sizes which were stored in the cellar.
On the 4th November 1605, Lord Montague received an anonymous letter at his London home, advising him not to go to the Houses of Parliament on the following day the 5th November. Could this have been from Guido himself? But what the conspirators did not know was that a long-delayed search of Parliament ‘both above and below’ had been ordered to be carried out! On hearing that the losing had been leased to Thomas Percy, the Kind became suspicious and ordered a more thorough search led by Sir Thomas Knevett of Ockham. This time the barrels and their contents were discovered and a tall figure wearing a dark cloak was seen leaving the building and was promptly arrested. He gave his name as John Johnson, servant to Thomas Percy, but, of course, it was Guy Fawkes. As news of his arrest broke, the conspirators fled in all directions.
Fawkes was ordered to be tortured until he gave his true identity as they thought ay first that he might be a Jesuit priest. He bravely held out until all the conspirators were had had time to get away. Then he was given the worst torture of all, which was the rack, whereby all a man’s joints would be dislocated and he would be permanently damaged. After two days of unmerciful torture, his body broken and his mind gone, he at last gave the names of the other conspirators.
They were soon rounded up and executed after a brief trial, but poor Guido Fawkes, not being of the ‘gentleman class’ was hung drawn and quartered after his broken body was dragged to the execution site on a hurdle.
Lord Montague spent nine months in the Tower, but his name was eventually cleared. Sir Walter Raleigh was also under suspicion, because his wife was a Throckmorton [her brother Nicholas Carew would later buy West Horsley Place in 1643], although he had not had anything to do with the plot.
Except taken from ‘West Horsley Place: The Story of an Old House and the People Who Once Lived In It’ by Pam Bowley ©Pam Bowley 2007