UK paperback

Buy now

Find your local bookshop

UK hardback

Buy now

Find your local bookshop



Four months after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Anne Vaux awoke in a prison cell. She had been on the run, changing her lodging every two to three days. Her confessor had hoped that she would have ‘kept herself out of their fingers’, but the authorities had tracked her down and taken her to the Tower of London. She was placed in solitary confinement and interrogated.

There were three chief lines of enquiry, all concerning Anne’s fraternisation with known, or suspected, conspirators. The first focused on White Webbs, a house she kept in Enfield Chase. It had been used by her cousin, the plot’s ringleader, ‘Robin’ Catesby, as a rendezvous. One official called it ‘a nest for such bad birds’.

Who had been paying for the house’s upkeep? Anne’s interrogators demanded.

Who had visited?


What had they talked about?

Where else had she stayed and with whom?

Anne was pressed about the pilgrimage she had recently undertaken with several of the conspirators and their families to St Winifred’s Well in Wales.

When did she go?

With whom?

What had been the purpose of the trip and where had they lodged?

Had she seen or heard anything to make her suspicious?

And what had some of the wives meant when they had asked her where she would bestow herself ‘till the brunt were past, that is till the beginning of the Parliament’?

Finally, Anne was asked about Garnet: Father Henry Garnet alias Measy, alias Walley, alias Darcy, alias Farmer, alias Roberts, alias Philips: the superior of the Society of Jesus in England.

What advice had she heard him give the traitors?

Why, after he had been proclaimed a ‘practiser’ in the plot on 15 January 1606, had she helped him evade arrest?

Why, after his capture twelve days later, had she followed him to London and sent him secret letters etched in orange juice?

And what was the nature of their relationship? Was she his sister? Benefactor? Confederate? . . . Lover?

Anne’s nerve had been tested many times. She had faced down spies in her household, slurs against her name and raids on her home. She was well lessoned in the art of equivocation and had heard enough prison tales to have some expectation of her treatment. But nothing could prepare her for the indignity of incarceration, nor the odium concentrated upon those Catholics suspected of involvement in the plot to annihilate King James I, his family and the political and spiritual elite of the realm.

It was reported that ‘to more weighty questions she responded very sensibly’. She revealed the names of some of her house guests, though was hazy on ‘needless’ details, and she admitted that her suspicions had been raised on the pilgrimage, when she had feared that ‘these wild heads had something in hand’. But when her interrogators accused her of impropriety with her priest, Anne’s manner shifted. She ‘laughed loudly two or three times’, then rounded on them:

‘You come to me with this child’s play and impertinence, a sign that you have nothing of importance with which to charge me.’

Of course, she sneered, she had known about the powder treason. She was, after all, a woman, and women make it their business to know everything. And of course Garnet had been involved: since he was the greatest traitor in the world, he wouldn’t have missed it. Then she thanked her guards for giving her board and lodging, as no one else in London was prepared to put her up.

‘She is really quite funny and very lively,’ wrote an admirer. ‘She pays no attention whatsoever to them, and so she has them amazed and they are saying, “We absolutely do not know what to do with that woman!”’