Ghosts of the Gunpowder Plot

On the fifth of November, James Lloyd remembers two houses in Kent, which have their own connections with the Gunpowder Plot.

In last week’s blog, we visited Scotney Castle, a fourteenth-century manor house that was home to a family of recusant Papists during the sixteenth century. This week, we visit another fourteenth-century manor house, though this one is much better preserved. Ightham Mote is a picturesque hybrid of stonework and half-timbering, encircled by an aquatic security feature that is not, in fact, the root of its name (the “mote” actually refers to a nearby mootstow, the ancient meeting place of the hundred court).

In 1591, Ightham Mote was bought by Sir William Selby, a scion of a northern family with branches in Yorkshire, County Durham and Northumberland. Sir William himself had grown up in Twizell Castle on the Scottish border and in 1603 his nephew, another William, surrendered the keys of Berwick-upon-Tweed to James, King of Scots, on his way south to take possession of his English realm. Once resident at Ightham Mote, Sir William the elder obtained permission to worship at his house, rather than in the parish church, on the grounds of poor health but the Rector of Ightham suspected a more sinister explanation.

The Selbies, like the Darells of Scotney, were recusants and Ightham Mote has the obligatory priest-hole. It has more than that, however. On Boxing Day in 1872, workmen looking for the source of a current of cold air in the tower bedroom, uncovered a secret alcove, containing a human skeleton propped up on a chair. This gruesome discovery inspired a necessarily gruesome explanation, one which drew together the Selbies’ recusancy and their relationship with King James to give them a role in England’s first terrorist incident.

As Catholics, the Selbies knew of the Gunpowder Plot but Sir William’s wife, Dame Dorothy, was distressed. She had no particular love for King James or for the Parliament that oppressed her co-religionists but she did have sympathy for one man whom Catesby’s conspiracy had doomed to the conflagration. Her cousin was William Parker, fifth Baron Monteagle. He was a Roman Catholic and had even participated in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601 but he had learnt to conform publicly and, as a peer, would attend the State Opening of Parliament on the fifth of November 1605. Surely, Dame Dorothy thought, it would do no harm at least to forewarn this one innocent child of the church?

On the evening of the twenty-sixth of October, while dining at his house in Hoxton in Middlesex, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous and cryptically worded letter, warning him not to attend the ceremony, for “they shall receive a terrible blow, this Parliament, yet they shall not see who hurts them”. Suspicious and keen to prove his loyalty to the new regime, Monteagle showed the letter to the Secretary of State. Initially uncertain about the meaning of the letter or even its genuineness, the Privy Council did not react right away but allowed the plotters time to incriminate themselves. At midnight between the fourth and fifth of November, Guy Fawkes was arrested preparing his gunpowder in the cellar beneath the Lords Chamber.

Robert Catesby, the ringleader, would be shot resisting arrest. The other plotters, including Fawkes, were hanged, drawn and quartered but to this day no one knows for certain who wrote Lord Monteagle the tip-off, without which the history of Britain might have turned out exceedingly differently. According to the Ightham Mote theory, it was Dame Dorothy but her Catholic relatives worked this out as well and they walled her up alive in the tower. There are those who say that the chill in the tower bedroom that the workmen were initially brought in to repair remains to this day and that anyone who remains alone in that room for too long will become paralysed by a sensation of dread and will feel the breath ebbing away.

There is, needless to say, not a shred of evidence for this theory. By far the likeliest suspect for tipping off Monteagle was his brother-in-law, Francis Tresham, who was brought into the Plot at a later stage when Catesby was strapped for funds and who, right up till the last minute, was offering Catesby money to call the whole thing off. There is no evidence that the Selby family even knew of the Plot and Dame Dorothy herself was in fact the wife not of the first Sir William Selby but of his nephew, the second Sir William and was unrelated to Lord Monteagle. Far from being walled up in a cubby hole in her house, was buried in the parish church, where a lavish monument gives the date of her death as 1641. The Plotters waited a while to take their revenge on her.

The monument’s poetic epitaph gives a clue to how her name became associated with the Gunpowder Plot. Dame Dorothy was an accomplished seamstress

“Whose art disclosed that plot which, had it taken,
Rome had triumphed and Britain’s walls had shaken.”

This really refers to an embroidery that she created depicting incidents from the history of the Plot, not to her alleged role in its exposure. Perhaps she should have stopped embroidery after that. The real cause of her death was a prick from an infected needle.

With the Dame Dorothy story exploded another explanation had to be provided for the skeleton in the cupboard. The alternative story claims that she was a servant-girl with whom the house chaplain had an affair. After his suicide, the lord of the manor punished the lascivious servitrix by walling her up. This story is, if anything, even more preposterous and the real explanation is that the whole thing was probably a practical joke. Boxing Day was a traditional occasion for such japes and two of the guests at Ightham Mote that Christmas were medical students.

Yet this is not Kent’s only association with the Gunpowder Plot. Not far from Ightham Mote is Knole House, a mansion built in the second half of the fifteenth century by Archbishop Thomas Bourchier but later acquired by the Sackville family. One such, Thomas Sackville, first Earl of Dorset, was Lord High Treasurer to King James I and he had his house renovated in anticipation of a royal visit.

In 2014, latter-day renovators from the Museum of London Archaeology team removed and examined some of the beams in what has become known as the Upper King’s Room. They have been dendrochronologically dated to 1606, no more than a year after the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. The nation was in a state of paranoia after the unprecedented audacity of Catesby’s conspiracy and King James’s own interest in witchcraft inspired the workmen at Knole to employ a most unusual form of security.

The beams, which had been placed under the floor and around the fireplace, had been scorched and had grid-like patterns scratched onto them. These are believed to be witchmarks, a form of beneficent magic that repelled demonic forces. In other words, the workmen at Knole, perhaps even Dorset himself, believed that, with the Gunpowder Treason having been defeated, the Papists might resort to the Black Arts to assassinate the King and so magically fortified the bedroom intended for his use.

In the event, this precaution proved unnecessary. King James never did visit Knole and eventually bucked the trend of all five previous King Jameses by dying of natural casues, in his bed.

Photo credits: Ightham Mote (Richard Croft) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Memorial to Dame Dorothy Selby, Ightham Church (Julian P Guffogg) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Knole House – front gate (N Chadwick) / CC BY-SA 2.0