Torture and Capture

Meanwhile, Guido Fawkes was being brutally interrogated. Yet his composure did not falter. Aside from admitting to some basic facts, like his age and origins in Yorkshire, Fawkes remained resolutely tight-lipped. He continued to maintain that his name was John Johnson and evaded all questions pertaining to the identity of his fellow plotters. At no stage, however, did he attempt to deny his involvement in the Plot or show any signs of penitence. Defiant in the face of his questioners and the torture he knew to expect, he even voiced his dislike for the legion of Scotsmen who had descended on the English Court after James’s Coronation, brazenly declaring that it had been his intention to blow them all back to Scotland.

Torture was a contentious issue in Jacobean England, just as it was during the Elizabethan era, and as it remains today. Even torture had its rules and conventions. It was generally accepted that people should not be tortured to death (which would, after all, be counter-productive). It was also understood that torture should be inflicted gradually, its severity increased incrementally. To this end, different methods were deployed at various stages in the process, the most common being manacles and the rack.

Manacles, which involved the accused being hung by his hands for extended periods of time, were regarded as the gentler of the two. The dreaded rack, on the other hand, involved a person being stretched by the arms and legs on a large wooden frame until the limbs became dislocated. Fawkes, who had by this stage been transferred to the Tower of London, was definitely subjected to manacles. Whether or not he was forced to endure the rack remains uncertain, but highly likely.

Guy Fawkes’ signature

Fawkes withstood the suffering until the night of 7 November, when his resolve finally broke. After successive bouts of torture, he gradually revealed his true identity and the names of all his co-conspirators – confirming the information already obtained by Popham and implicating, for the first time, Tresham, Keyes, Digby and Robert Wintour. By the time he had answered all the questions put to him, many of which had been drawn up by the King himself, he was a broken man. The agony inflicted on him had had its devastating and intended effect, both physically and emotionally. When he came to sign his confession, his signature appears tremulous, illegible and quite unrecognisable from his usual one.

Meanwhile, the situation at Holbeach House had grown more fraught. The dreadful gunpowder explosion proved to be the final straw for some of the conspirators. Finally realising the hopelessness of their situation, the ties that bound the men to Catesby began to unravel. The intense loyalty they had once felt towards their hero dissipated, and it became every man for himself. Digby rode off into the night with the intention of giving himself up to the authorities. Robert Wintour, Bates and Littleton soon followed. Thus the group remaining at Holbeach consisted of Catesby, Percy, Tom Wintour, both Wright brothers, the blinded Grant, and the wounded Rookwood and Morgan.

Thus fatigued, demoralized and scared, the fugitives were incapable of mounting any kind of effective defence. On the morning of Friday, 8 November, a legion of 200 government men, headed by the Sheriff of Worcestershire, descended on the beleaguered encampment at Holbeach House. A brief gunfight ensued, but the outnumbered conspirators didn’t stand a chance. Thomas Wintour was the first casualty – shot in the shoulder, he lost the use of his right arm. Rookwood was next, followed by the two Wright brothers. Catesby, determined to go down in a blaze of glory, stood resolutely at the door of Holbeach House with his old friend Thomas Percy. Amazingly, they were both felled by a single bullet.

At this stage, although wounded, all were still clinging to life. The Sheriff’s men, emboldened by their victory, rushed into the house and proceeded to strip the afflicted men of their clothes and possessions in a final act of humiliation. Catesby, meanwhile, managed to escape the mêlée. Dragging himself into the inner rooms of Holbeach House, he came upon a picture of the Virgin Mary. In a gesture of devotion he cradled the revered Catholic icon in his arms as he died.

Those who had been killed during this short-lived clash in Staffordshire, namely Catesby, Percy and the Wright brothers, were thus spared the terrifying prospect of captivity and execution. Having secured a victory at Holbeach House, the authorities now sought the remaining plotters. While the injured were being returned to London, the King’s men rounded up Thomas Bates, Robert Keyes and Everard Digby. Francis Tresham’s arrest in London was a result of Fawkes’ forced testimony. After his capture, it became clear that Tresham was a very sick man. Suffering from a painful ailment of the bladder, his imprisonment precipitated a worsening of his condition. He died an agonizing death in the early hours of the morning of 23 December 1605 before he could be tried.

Of the original conspirators, only one, Robert Wintour, managed to elude his pursuers for any length of time. After two months on the run, his luck eventually ran out – he was apprehended, along with Stephen Littleton, on 9 January 1606. Wintour soon joined his colleagues in the Tower of London. By this stage, they had all signed confessions admitting their guilt.

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