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Holbeche [Holbeach] House

After the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, the flight of the plotters ended at Holbeche House, near Kingswinford, in Staffordshire. This property belonged to Stephen Littleton, a descendant of the Littletons of Frankley, Worcestershire, who had joined them at the proposed hunting party at Dunchurch. The plotters were being closely followed by the sheriff of Warwick, Sir Richard Walsh, and his men, who were seeking to apprehend them for the raid on the stables at Warwick Castle. Sir Richard did not actually learn of their involvement in the Gunpowder Plot until his arrival at Holbeche as the government forces converged with their orders from Robert Cecil.

At Holbeche, the conspirators did their best to prepare the house for a siege, and told those not willing to make a stand that they should escape as best they could. During the flight from Warwick Castle via Hewell Grange (the home of Lord Windsor, who was kin to Sir John Talbot of Grafton and the Wintour brothers) where they were reported to have stolen arms and munitions, their store of gunpowder had become wet from the pouring rain, and it was laid out in front of the fireplace to dry. A stray spark landing in the gunpowder caused a sudden explosion that blinded John Grant, and slightly injured Robert Catesby, Ambrose Rookwood and Henry Morgan, a friend of John Grant's. This was the final demoralizing blow: when Thomas Wintour asked the party what they intended to do, he was told "We mean here to die".

Stephen Littleton and Thomas Wintour left temporarily for 'Pepperhill', the Shropshire residence of Sir John Talbot, which lay 10 miles away, where they hoped to rally further support. Sir John dismissed them in anger saying that it was more than his life was worth to assist them, only confirming the thoughts of Robert Wintour who had refused the task of visiting Sir John but had given them a letter which they were to hand to a servant who would in turn pass it to Sir John. In the aftermath of the plot, Sir John Talbot fell under suspicion and was arrested as a matter of course, yet no incriminating evidence against him could be found.

By approximately 11.00 am the following morning, Walsh's men had surrounded the house. Thomas Wintour, John Wright, Christopher Wright and Ambrose Rookwood were soon shot in the courtyard, perhaps attempting to quell a fire that Walsh and his men had started in an attempt to drive the conspirators from the house. The two Wrights were moribund, but Thomas Wintour managed to make it back to the house, where Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy were the only defenders left who were not incapacitated by their injuries.

"Stand by me, Mr. Tom," said Catesby, "and we will die together."

The three men stood close inside the door of the house, and went outside to face their death. Catesby and Percy, standing side by side, were supposedly felled by a single shot. According to the account by Father Oswald Tesimond, Robert Catesby managed to crawl back inside the house, and finding a picture of the Virgin Mary, clutched it in his arms until he died. The soldiers rushed into the house, realising Wintour's fears of being captured. Many of those present at the siege declared later that the actions of the soldiers, hungry for trophies, had perhaps not been conducive to the survival of those who were dying, and that with swift medical aid, one or more of them may have lived.

The last door that many of the conspirators ever went through is still in existence today at Holbeche House. Although many additions have been made to the back, the front rooms and facade of the house are still the same as they were in 1605, although several of the original windows have now been bricked over. You can still see the musket holes in the wall from this siege, which adds further intrigue to the story of the last stand of the conspirators. The location of the musket holes offers strong evidence that those inside the house were utilising the upstairs windows, probably to gain the advantage of height over their pursuers, and would thus have almost certainly been using firearms.

Holbeche House today is a private nursing home. The owners kindly gave the Gunpowder Plot Society permission to tour the house and the grounds. Although a great deal of construction has recently taken place, which has resulted in the destruction of the remnants of the old water-mill, you can still see traces of the original wall that surrounded the property. Even more interesting is the existence of a tunnel in the dining room that, according to legend, led to another property. It was a surprising find, as none of the Plot literature has ever mentioned this tunnel, although it was certainly in existence in 1605. Perhaps this was the method that many used to escape, leading one to conclude that the final defenders must have chosen to die.

The new owners of Holbeche House have indicated that the property is imminently due for restoration, and this will involve the gutting of the house interior, back to the original brick and timber work, before being covered over again. It is at this point that we are hoping Holbeche will reveal many more secrets. As part of this restoration the Gunpowder Plot Society with co-operation from the new owners would like to supervise the opening up of the tunnel and investigate, something we have previously been unable to do due to the daily use of the property. At present it is unclear where the tunnel leads to or if it is still useable, but it is certainly a task we are looking forward to, in the hope of making a startling discovery or revelation. At present we are trying to locate survey maps that may indicate the tunnel's existence, or at the very least, identify the neighbouring properties that could have been the tunnel's destination. It is also yet another indication of the length to which the Catholic families of the area were prepared to go to in order to preserve the safety of their numbers. We will keep everyone up to date on the developments within this project.

As part of the investigation, the Gunpowder Plot Society aims to map out as much of the original house as possible and ensure the preservation of anything historically important. Very little is known generally about the property, when it was built, how Stephen Littleton came to be its owner, or who created the priest hides that are evident today.

The Gunpowder Plot has also been seeking permission from the new owners to erect a plaque on the grounds in remembrance of the plotters who lost their lives here. Any new information will be posted in the Newssection.

UPDATE - As of June 2005 we have been informed that the priest hides under Holbeche are in fact nothing more than underground storage water tanks, and it is also unlikely that any of the original building survives other than the great fireplace. Extensive renovations were carried out in 2003/2004 and the subsequent discoveries certainly dispel any myths as to what the house perhaps held. One thing that is supported though - if the house has been all but rebuilt, it adds credence to the story that the powder left to dry in front of the fire blew the roof off, and therefore would have destroyed much of the house.

We are now attempting to go back as far as we can from extant records of the property to determine exactly what changes were made to the building and when these were made. We are certain that much of the current rear of the house including the side garden, was added, or greatly modified in the 19th century.

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