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‘It is more than my life is worth’ …another Gunpowder Plot connection to Sandwell .

Johnson, Cornelius; John Talbot of Grafton (1542-1611); Ingestre Hall Residential Arts Centre;
Johnson, Cornelius; Margaret Talbot, Second Wife of John Talbot (d.1620); Ingestre Hall Residential Arts Centre;

We recently celebrated Bonfire Night, when we commemorate the failure of Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plotters to blow up King James and the Houses of Parliament in 1605. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the story and many of you will be aware of the local connection (if you read our earlier blog), with fugitive plotters seeking refuge in farms and barns in Rowley Regis. If not, then here is a previous blog which will fill you in or a spooky story video, put out over Halloween week.

But we thought we would tell a different story with a slightly more tenuous local link, but one that will be of especial interest to those of us who as children attended Arts and Music courses at the Council’s residential Arts Centre, Ingestre Hall, in the depths of the Staffordshire Countryside.

Amongst the wonderful collection of portraits of (mainly) relatives and ancestors of the Chetwynd-Talbot family which were bought by West Bromwich Corporation along with the house in the early 1960s is the pair of wonderful early 17th century portraits by the Dutch court painter Cornelius Johnson, which you can see above.

Find out more about the Ingestre paintings on Art UK

The portraits are catalogued as being of John Talbot of Grafton and his second wife Margaret. The paintings were painted after both their deaths in about 1640 (John died circa 1611 and his second wife in 1620). They were probably painted after two of John’s sons had become, respectively, 9th and 10th earls of Shrewsbury and the wider family wanted some high quality portraits of their illustrious ancestors. But the catalogue is problematic as John’s second wife wasn’t Margaret but Anne but I’m going off-topic now: maybe I’ll return to this another time.

Anyway most people looking at the portraits would presume them to be of a couple of early 17th century Puritans: dour expressions, black clothing, white lace collars and cuffs, … but as we never tire of telling our visitors at Oak House, during the early 17th century black clothes were the very height of fashion and worn by only the very rich as the dyes were rare and very expensive. As indeed was the handmade lace!

In fact John Talbot of Grafton was a ‘notorious’ Catholic, who retained his faith to his dying day. He never hid his religion, spending many years in the Tower of London or confined in the houses of non-Catholic relatives. When freed in 1592 (20 years after losing his parliamentary seat, at Droitwich, as a consequence of his religion) he was obliged to pay fines of £20.00 per month until his death in 1611 (when an average daily workingman’s wage might be tuppence (and when there were 240, not 100, pennies to the pound).

His connection to the gunpowder plotters was straightforward. Thomas Wintour (the brother of Robert Wintour who was the plotter who found himself in Rowley Regis), who alongside Robert Catesby had originated the plot (unless as is increasingly thought by many historians it was all a government led plot to discredit the Catholics!). Thomas was John Talbot’s son-in-law. Thomas was asked to recruit John but declined, advising that although a Catholic he would never act against his king or parliament.

After Guy Fawkes’ arrest in the parliamentary cellars, where he was guarding 100 tons of gunpowder, many of the conspirators fled to Holbeche House in Worcestershire not far from John’s home at Albrighton. Asked to seek his father-in-law’s aid, Thomas declined, but his brother and another conspirator, Stephen Lyttleton, tried to gain John’s help. They were, to use modern parlance, ‘sent packing’ with John telling them that to treat with them ‘is more than my life is worth’.

Thomas was injured in the gunfight at Holbeche that followed the arrival of the Sherriff of Worcester with a posse of 200 local armed men on November 8th, and was taken to London where he was tried and executed.

Robert Wintour and Stephen Lyttleton (a relative of the Lyttleton family of Lyttleton Hall in West Bromwich) spent November and December on the run hiding in barns and outbuildings across South Staffordshire and North Worcestershire until their capture in January 1606 at Hagley House. We’ll let you guess their fate! John Talbot was arrested and questioned at length, his house and personal papers ransacked, but no evidence involving him in the plot was ever found and he returned, quietly, to his very expensive Catholic retirement.

Johnson, Cornelius; John Talbot of Grafton (1542-1611); Ingestre Hall Residential Arts Centre;

Published by Sandwell Museums & Arts

Sandwell Museums & Arts Service is a local authority organisation part of Sandwell Council. We have some fantastic heritage buildings to visit with fascinating stories to tell as well as a lively programme of events, activities and exhibitions each year between April and December.

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