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Sir Everard Digby

Born: 16 May 1576 or 1578

Died: 30 January 1606, St. Paul's Churchyard, London

Sir Everard Digby and his wife Mary

Everard Digby was the son of Everard Digby of Stoke Dry, Rutland and Maria, daughter of Francis Neale of Keythorpe, Leicestershire.[1] The family had ancient roots: Digby's son Kenelm later commissioned a genealogy which allegedly traced the family's descent from Aelmar, "Anglicus-Saxonus"[2]. His father died when he was fourteen[1] or sixteen[3] and his wardship was purchased by Roger Manners, Esq. and may later have been sold back to his mother.

Although Digby's parents may have had catholic tendencies, they managed to avoid detection, and Digby of all the conspirators never experienced persecution first hand, leading an untroubled and seemingly Protestant early life.

In 1596 he married Mary Mulsho, the only daughter and heiress of the staunchly Protestant William Mulsho of Gothurst [1] (later Gayhurst), and resided in their household[3]. This seems to have truly become a marriage of great affection. Digby described his wife as 'the best wife to me that ever man enjoyed', and by her he had two sons, Kenelm and John[4].

As a wealthy and well-connected young man, Digby soon presented himself at court and was received into the office of gentleman pensioner, although he later claimed, as did Thomas Percy, that he 'tooke the othe belonging to the place of a pencioner and no other'.[3]

Handsome and popular, Everard Digby was the 'goodliest man in the whole court' [6] and 'as complete a man in all things that deserved estimation, as one should see in a kingdom'. He was the embodiment of all the qualities expected of a dashing young courtier of the time; an excellent horseman, swordsman and musician.[7].

He did not have much of an interest in politics however, and being a strong and well-built young man with a passion and ability for field sports, he spent most of his time on his estates pursuing his love of hunting, horses and hawking. As was common for the time, he and his new stepfather, Mr. Erdeswick, became involved in lawsuits brought by his tenants for enclosing land and for taking money for leases that were not honoured, including a suit brought by the husband of his old nurse [5].

In about 1599, Digby was introduced by a neighbour of his, Mr. Roger Lee, to the Jesuit priest John Gerard who was represented as simply being Lee's friend. During their conversations, they would raise catholic issues in passing, with Lee taking the bolder stand in order to lead suspicion away from the priest. Digby was so convinced by this act, with Gerard's impeccable dress and knowledge of hunting, that he even once inquired of Lee as to John Gerard's suitability as a match for his sister! He said he wanted to see her married to a catholic because they were 'good and honourable people'.[3]

After the death of the parents of Digby's wife Mary, she became the mistress of the house. During one of her husband's trips to London, Mary expressed a wish to convert to the catholic faith. She received the news that Gerard was a priest with disbelief. "Why, the man lives like a courtier." she said, "Haven't you watched him playing cards with my husband?" She was only convinced when she saw him in clerical dress.[3]

Soon afterwards, Everard Digby became seriously ill in London, and while being attended by Gerard, he was received into the church. Digby expressed less surprise than his wife on finding out that Gerard was a priest, and was glad to have a priest who 'understood men like him' and could 'appear in company without danger of his priesthood being discovered.'[3]

Secrecy was such that Digby asked Gerard's help in bringing his wife into the church. Gerard said nothing, but in amusement decided to wait until Mary arrived in London and watch them each try to convert the other.[3]

Digby and Gerard became firm friends and constant companions. Says Gerard, "To me he was always a most loyal friend, and we might have been brothers in blood. In fact we called each other 'brother' when we wrote or spoke to each other". Under Gerard's guidance, Digby set up a model catholic household. Now when they played at cards, at the end of the game they exchanged the money (which they used for appearances) for Ave Marias.[3]

Digby was one of those who welcomed the new King James at Belvoir Castle, and was knighted there on 23 April 1603[1]. However, as with the others, he soon grew bitterly disillusioned when the promises of James vanished into thin air.

He was one of the last conspirators to join, enlisted for his wealth, ability and devotion, although the story of his induction and subsequent actions are shrouded in mystery. Most of the traditional story comes to us from his later confessions. However, in secret letters [8] smuggled out of the tower that were only discovered 70 years after his death amongst his son Kenelm's papers [9], he makes quite clear the extent of his lying to his examiners in order to protect other, throwing all of his statements under examination into serious doubt.

Some hold that Digby was supposed to have been enrolled into the plot by Robert Catesby toward the end of August 1605 while his wife was away on a pilgrimage with Garnet and others to St. Winifred's Well. While riding from Harrowden back to Gothurst, Catesby revealed the plot to him without his having to take the Blessed Sacrament, due to the fact that they were such close friends.[10]

Digby was shocked and wanted to hear no more, and was only persuaded when Catesby assured him that the Jesuits knew and approved of the plot. Others hold that this took place while out riding during a visit of Catesby to Gothurst at the Feast of St. Luke (October 21st)[4].

However, in his letters from the Tower, Digby states that he told the examiners that he did not take the Sacrament so that he could avoid the question of who administered it[8]. Also, Oswald Tesimond (who has never been known to make an error of fact) later says that it was Thomas Wintour who actually revealed the Plot to Digby [11]. It is possible that Digby was looking to protect the still-alive Wintour. In letter V to Gerard he says "I do not well conceive my brother, for I did never say that any other told me but Mr. Catesby..."

There are three pieces of evidence from his own hand that point away from the story that he was lied to by Catesby into believing that the Jesuits knew and approved of the plot.

First, in his secret letter IX, he clearly states that Father Henry Garnet told him directly that the Pope did not want the priests to hinder any stirs for the catholic cause, and that "with Mr. Catesby's proceedings with him (Garnet) and me, give me absolute belief that the matter in general was approved, though every particular was not known."

Secondly, when Gerard came to Gothurst on November 2 and was suspicious to find the household removed, with only Sir Everard remaining to prepare for his hunt, he asked if there was 'any matter in hand, and did Whalley (Garnet) know about it?' Digby replied that there was nothing in hand that he knew of or could tell him of[4][10]. In letter VIII Digby says himself that "...the reasons of my not acquainting an inward friend with this business, was not for any particular wilfulness or ill end; but I thought it not best for the Cause..." He would not have lied to one of his closest friends if he believed that the Jesuits had complete knowledge and had given their approval.

And lastly, in the same letter VIII he says "I saw the principal point of the case, judged in a latin book of M.D., my brother's father-in-law..."

However he became involved, Digby agreed to provide 1500 pounds to the project, and to move to Coughton Court in order to be more centrally located[10].

Digby's role in the plot was to manage the Midlands operations. He was to gather a large group of disaffected catholic gentry at Dunsmoor Heath under the guise of a hunt, who would be brought into confidence once the gunpowder was fired. This group would be used to capture Princess Elizabeth, who was staying nearby at Coombe Abbey, before the news became public, and to lead a general uprising.

There are some who plead Digby's ignorance at what was to happen in London [4], but this can surely be discounted in the face of his statement "...for that night, before any other could have brought the news, we should have it known by Mr. Catesby, who should have proclaimed the Heir Apparent at Charing Cross, as he came out of Town; to which purpose there was a proclamation drawn; if the Duke had not been in the House, then there was a certain way laid for possessing him; but in regard of the assurance, they should have been there, therefore the greatest of our business stood in the possessing of Lady Elizabeth...".[8]

On Monday, 4 November, Digby was in position with over 100 others at the Red Lion Inn at Dunchurch. This group included his uncle Sir Robert Digby, Humphrey and Stephen Littleton, John Grant, John Wintour, Henry Morgan and Father Hammond, and 7 servants.

On the arrival of his bedraggled and exhausted co-conspirators from their desperate flight from London on the evening of the 5th, Catesby told Digby that the plot was discovered, but "though the field be lost, all is not lost", and they decided to try to proceed with the uprising. On hearing of these plans, many in the hunting party, his uncle Sir Robert Digby included, were shocked and quickly departed, although a vast majority of them remained. Given the circumstances, it seems unlikely that Catesby would have told him that the King and his Chief Minister, Robert Cecil, were both dead[4], as it would have required the cooperation of all of the other conspirators to pull it off.

Digby then told his servant "but now there is no remedy", and a servant at the inn overheard him say "I doubt not but that we are all betrayed".

On the band's flight towards Wales, they made detour to break into the stables at Warwick Castle, and then they stopped at Norbrook at about three in the morning for breakfast and to collect arms that Grant had stored there. During their brief stay, Digby and Catesby composed a letter which they sent with Thomas Bates to Father Garnet who was with Lady Digby at Coughton Court, to advise them of what had happened, to "excuse their rashness" and to for assistance. Garnet naturally refused, but Tesimond was persuaded to come to their aid and help his friend Catesby.

After the explosion at Holbeache, Digby departed, some say to make good his escape, some to give himself up to the authorities[4][10][12], but by his own claim to obtain assistance. Before leaving, he offered his servants money and horses to enable them to escape, but two of them refused to leave him, and the three left Holbeache together.[7]

They had only travelled four miles away, to a spot near Dudley, when they were spotted by a posse. They attempted to hide in a pit in the middle of a wood, but they were seen by their pursuers who cried 'Here he is, here he is'. To this Digby replied "Here he is indeed, what then?", after which he attempted to break out of the pit using an advanced equestrian manoeuvre called a curvette. It was not until he saw over a hundred reinforcements, and realised the futility of escape, that he gave himself up.[7]

While in the Tower of London, Digby was treated fairly leniently and not tortured, perhaps because he was such a latecomer to the conspiracy and was thus not held to know that much. However, the letters that he smuggled out imply a different story and show his evasive answers to the examiners:

Click here to read the full text of the letters

"At my first examination, the Earl of Salisbury told me that some things should be affirmed against me by Gerrat the Priest, who (saith he) I am sure you know well. My answer was, that if I might see him, I would tell him whether I knew him or no, but by that name I did not know him, nor at Mrs. Vauxe's, as he said I did, for I never saw a priest there."[8]

In his letters he vacillated between dismay at the reaction of the catholic community to his action and the trouble he had brought upon the priests, to defence of his actions:

"For some good space," he says, "I could do nothing, but with tears ask pardon at God's hands for all my errors, both in actions and intentions in this business, and in my whole life, which the censure of this contrary to my expectations caused me to doubt: I did humbly beseech that my death might satisfy for my offense, which I should and shall offer most gladly to the Giver of Life". [8]

Then, "..that if I had thought there was the least sin in the Plot, I would not have been in it for all the world: and no other cause drew me to hazard my Fortune, and Life, but Zeal to God's religion." and "For if this design had taken place, there could have been no doubt of other success.."[

Another mystery is an undated letter written by Digby to Cecil[13], saying that if harsh measures were taken against Catholics "within a brief time there will be massacres, rebellions and desperate attempts against the King and State" and that "it was hoped that the King that now is would have been at least free from persecuting, as his promise was before coming into his Realm, and as divers his promises have been since his coming, saying that he would take no soul money nor blood....All these promises every man sees broken, and to trust them further in despair most Catholics take note of a vehement look (book?), written by Mr. Attorney, who's drift, as I have heard, is to prove that the only being a Catholic is to be a traitor..." In this letter, Digby offers his services to send a priest to Rome to obtain a ruling from the Pope to excommunicate "against all such as shall go about to disturb the King's quiet and happy reign".

Given the context of the letter, some claim that this letter was written between May and September 1605, before Digby became involved in the plot.[14][15] The evidence for this is that the form of address and tone of the letter are if not exceedingly tactless and self-destructive, are at least quite unlike that which one would expect from a prisoner for such a crime. Also, during the trial Cecil acknowledged that on the subject of the treatment of Catholics, "Sir Everard Digby was his ally."

Some however believe that this letter was written while Digby was in the Tower, in a misguided, if not delusional, attempt to redeem himself.[9] The basis for this theory comes from other passages in the letter. For example, "I shall be glad to be the instrument, for no hope to put off from myself any punishment..." and "...I know, as the priest himself told me, that if he had not hindered, there had somewhat been attempted, before our offense, to give ease to Catholics." The words 'punishment' and 'offense' are used as evidence of his being a prisoner at the time, however they could just as easily be seen to be referring to catholic persecution or other, earlier issues as otherwise.

The strongest evidence for this theory comes from a passage in letter III: " lord Salisbury told me he had received my letter, but if the King should propose such a course, he had no need of me."

Digby was tried separately from the other conspirators as he was the only one of them to plead guilty. The others had refused to plead guilty because the indictment included charges against the priests, which they denied. Given Digby's later determination to protect the priests, this is surprising behaviour on his part, although in doing so it gave him permission to make a speech.

He gave four reasons for his involvement in the plot; the cause of his religion, his friendship and regard for Catesby, his (justified) fear that harsher laws were in the making against Catholics, and quite bravely, because of the King's broken promises of toleration to Catholics. This provoked Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, the government's catholic 'lame duck', to make a vehement denial that any such promises were ever made.[16]

Digby asked the court that although he did not justify his act, and that he deserved 'the vilest death', that punishment not be visited on his innocent family. He also asked that in consideration of his status that he be beheaded. Both requests were denied.[16]

Upon receiving the sentence of death, Digby who had many friends present at his trial, said to the Lords "If I may but hear any of your Lordships say you forgive me, I shall go more cheerfully to the gallows". The Lords replied to him, "God forgive you, and we do".[16]

Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Thomas Bates were the first scheduled to be executed. Their executions took place at St. Paul's Churchyard on 30 January 1606. Digby was the first to mount the scaffold, which he did unrepentant. In his speech he had claimed that he 'could not condemn himself of any offense to God' in his motives of the 'ending of the persecution of the Catholics, the good of souls, and the cause of religion', although he freely admitted to offending the laws of the realm, for which he was willing to suffer death, and 'thought nothing too much to suffer for those respects which had moved him to that enterprise.'[7]

He refused to pray with the preachers, and called on the Catholics in the crowd to pray with him, whereby he "fell to his prayers with such devotion as much moved all the beholders."[7]

He then saluted each nobleman and gentlemen upon the scaffold, in 'so friendly and cheerful manner' that they later said that he seemed 'so free from fear of death' that he could have been taking his leave of them as if he was just going from the Court or out of the city.[7]

Digby was hung only a very short time, and was undoubtedly alive when he went to the quartering block and was disembowelled. Cecil's cousin, Sir Francis Bacon told the story that when the executioner plucked out his heart, and held it up saying, as was the custom "Here is the heart of a traitor", Digby managed to summon up the strength to respond "Thou liest".[17

Digby, perhaps given his youth and earlier popularity, made quite an impression, as recounted by Gerard:

"He was so much and so generally lamented, and is so much esteemed and praised by all sorts in England, both catholics and others, although neither side do or can approve this last outrageous and exorbitant attempt..."[7]


[1] Dictionary of National Biography, 1895
[2] Heal, Felicity and Holmes, Clive, The Gentry in England and Wales 1500-1700
[3] Gerard, John, The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest, tr. Philip Caraman
[4] Fraser, Antonia, Faith & Treason - The Story of the Gunpowder Plot, 1996
[5] Salisbury (Cecil) Manuscripts Volume XXIV, Addenda 1605-1668, Her Majesty's Stationer's Office
[6] Anstruther, Godfrey, O.P., Vaux of Harrowden, 1953
[7] Morris, John, S.J. ed., The Condition of Catholics under James I
[8] Sir Everard Digby's Letters from the Tower
[9] Sidney, Philip, A History of the Gunpowder Plot
[10] Durst, Paul, Intended Treason: What really happened in the Gunpowder Plot, 1970
[11] Edwards, Francis, S.J., The Gunpowder Plot: the narrative of Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway, trans. from the Italian of the Stonyhurst Manuscript, edited and annotated, 1973
[12] Parkinson, C. Northcote, Gunpowder Treason & Plot, London, 1976
[13] State Papers Domestic, xvii, 10
[14] Gerard, John, S.J., What Was Gunpowder Plot? The traditional story tested by original evidence.
[15] Gardiner, Samuel Rawson, What Gunpowder Plot Was
[16] Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials.., II, 1603-1627
[17] Bacon, Sir Francis, Historia Vitae et Mortis

Copyright © 1997,1998 The Gunpowder Plot Society; Written by Jennifer O'Brien

Last updated 29 October 1998

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