Remember, remember, the fifth of November. Enfield's local history associations with Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

Remember, remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot” so goes the children’s rhyme assocated with “Guy Fawkes night” which we commemorate with fireworks and bonfires on November 5th each year.
But many things about the Gunpowder Plot have not been remembered - many misconceptions have passed down through history. However one thing is clear, our bit of London – in particular Whitewebbes House up at Enfield Chace - plays a significant part in the story.

Elizabethan England saw Protestantism restored as the official state religion. In the febrile religious conflict Catholics were forced to practice their faith in secret – away from the mainstream. One such place was Whitewebbs House - hidden on the edge of the Royal Hunting Forest of Enfield Chace .The original Whitewebbs House stood on the site of what is now Guy’s Lodge Farm in Whitewebbs Lane, opposite the King and Tinker Pub.

In 1600 the house was taken by Anne Vaux (c. 1562 –1637) a wealthy Catholic daughter of a nobleman who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. Anne Vaux and her sister Eleanor Brooksby supported Catholic priests by renting houses where they and their supporters could convene safely. Whitewebbs became the home of Anne Vaux where she lived under the assumed name Mrs Perkins. She was particularly associated with Henry Garnett, a Jesuit priest and leader Image left).

Garnett born in 1555, and educated at Winchester College, left England in 1575 to join the Jesuit order in Rome where he became an ordained priest. In 1586 he travelled back to England with a fellow Jesuit, Robert Southwell (later made a Catholic Saint). Although the Jesuit Order were outlawed in England Garnett made contact with other Catholics, including the Vaux family, who supported him and financed him for the rest of his life. Garnett became the leader of the English Jesuits hiding in “priest holes” and evading arrest by moving between safe houses like Whitewebbs for twenty years, during which many of his colleagues, including Southwell, were caught and executed.

Whitewebbs was used as a refuge for up to 14 other priests. The composer William Byrd played the organ there at masses which were attended by members of the Catholic nobility.

Gunpowder Plot:

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was an attempt by Catholic rebels to kill Protestant King James I of England, his eldest son and much of the English court and government by exploding gunpowder beneath a session of the Houses of Parliament. In the preparation of the plan Whitewebbs was visited by several of the plotters Thomas Winter, Francis Tresham (Anne Vaux’s cousin), Thomas Bates and Robert Catesby, the leader of the plot, are known to have attended the house over the summer of 1605.

Although not directly involved in the plot Henry Garnett knew about it. He first heard details in summer 1605 from Father Greenway a priest who had been part of the grouping at Whitewebbs. Fr Greenway revealed what he had been told in the confessional by Robert Catesby. In a face-to-face meeting with Catesby at Whitewebbs in July 1605 Garnett tried to stop the conspirators. He also sent a message to the Pope in Rome appealing for a judgement on whether English Catholics could act violently to end their persecution. Catesby and the conspirators ignored these attempts to end the plot yet Garnett did not reveal what he knew to the authorities.

The plot proceeded with the conspirators obtaining a lease to an undercroft beneath Westminster Hall at the Palace of Westminster - a room they stacked with barrels of gunpowder, coal and firewood in the weeks before the Opening of Parliament. The plot began to unravel following the delivery of an anonymous letter to Baron Monteagle warning him to stay away from Parliament. It is believed that Anne Vaux may have been the writer, if not the author of this letter.

There is a story that on 30th October 1605 Guy Fawkes visited the cellar under the House of Parliament to check that the gunpowder was still in place and undiscovered. Later he reported back to the leader, Robert Catesby at Whitewebbs House. Yet just a week later Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding the explosives when a search of the cellars was ordered by the King.

Trial and Excecution

The trial of the eight surviving conspirators was held in the same room they had tried to blow up: Westminster Hall, within the Parliament building. All eight were found guilty and by the end of January 1606, all eight had been executed. The plotters were hung, drawn and quartered. Their heads were then set upon poles as a warning to others.

Impromptu street celebrations in London at the overthrow of the plot were consolidated the following year when Parliament passed the “Observance of 5th November Act 1605” enforcing an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot's failure.

Whitewebbs and Garnett - the aftermath

After the discovery of the “Popish Plot” Catholics books and relics were discovered in Whitewebbs house, numerous trap doors and concealed passages were also found. The prosecution at the trials presented the government’s official, and largely fictional, story of how the Jesuits had dreamt up, organised, recruited and supplied the plot, aided by statements extracted under torture from some of the conspirators.

Garnett learned of the failure of the plans in a letter from Robert Catesby on 6 November. He went into hiding immediately and was eventually captured in January 1606. He was tried, found guilty of treason and executed on 3 May 1606.

The role of the Whitewebbs based Jesuits and in particular their leader Garnett in the Gunpowder plot has been fiercely contested over many years. He claimed that he felt bound by confession and could not reveal the details of the plot against the Crown, yet he knew his attempt to halt Catesby had failed, and he did nothing else to stop it, making him guilty of concealing treason, a criminal offence then as now.


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