The Catesbys were far from ordinary. Members of the family occupy storied positions in England’s past. The same family also held manors in Watford parish for well over two centuries. History seems to have had greater impact on the Catesby manors of Watford than on other manors in the parish.
John Catesby began the family’s journey in Watford when he became Emma de Swynford’s second husband in 1381. Emma had inherited the de Watford Manor as well as lands in Ashby Leger from her mother, Margaret de Craunford, nee de Watford. Margaret obtained the Watford Township lands from her de Watford family and those in Ashby St Ledger from her husband, Robert de Craunford, whose family had been lords in Ashby. After her marriage, Emma's lands and manor in Watford became known as the “Catesby Manor of Watford”.
Even before John, his father William Catesby did much to establish the family fortunes. Advantageous marriages to the Lodbroke and Ardern families brought the lands of Ladbroke and Radburne. John’s son was another William Catesby, eventually Sir William. One of Sir William’s children was yet another William Catesby. Never knighted (although some historians erroneously add “Sir” to his name), in 1478 the younger William inherited a large estate, including the Catesby Manor in Watford along with lands in Ashby St Ledgers. Not long before he died, Sir William acquired what was effectively a “mini-manor” of lands lying in Watford township held by another de Watford family for the prior 200 years.
William Catesby rose to great height in England’s politics as councillor to King Edward and then as a councillor and favourite of King Richard III. As one of the trio effectively ruling England, William’s reputation was encapsulated by the rhyme: The Cat, the Rat and Lovel our Dog; Doe rule all England under a Hog … The “Cat” was William Catesby.
The Cat fought in support of King Richard III at the tumultuous Battle of Bosworth in 1485, which ended England’s Wars of the Roses. Richard lost the battle and William and many other followers of the former King were executed as a result.
The victor of the battle was Henry Tudor, who became King Henry VII. Normal treatment for the times was handed out to the many on the losing side. Parliament quickly passed Acts convicting each of them for “traitorous offences against the [new] king” and confiscating “all the castles, manors and lands &c whereof he was seized or possessed in fee” on the day of the Battle. The new King then passed on the confiscated lands to his new favourites, those who had supported him at Bosworth.
A decade later, William’s son and heir, George Catesby, with the help of his father-in-law, Richard Empson, petitioned Parliament for the return of the lands of his deceased father, William. His request was granted but with conditions. Lands given by the King to a grantee who had a legitimate heir could not be returned to George Catesby. Unfortunately for George, the lucky beneficiary of the Catesby Manor of Watford had heirs, and therefore the Watford town lands were forever lost to the Catesbys.
However, other lands lying in Silsworth, one of the three townships of Watford parish, did end up back in the hands of George and the Catesby family. This recovery was by virtue of either or both of two factors, one potentially cooked up by Richard Empson. For one, the benefactor of the Silsworth lands died without an heir. For another, Richard Empson claimed in a document he delivered to the Exchequer, nearly nine years late, conveniently just before the Parliamentary Session on the Petition, that the lands were held in fee - they were probably held by lease.
The Catesby manor of Silsworth, along with other restored lands such as Ashby Legers, passed from George to his son, William. He died before reaching majority, and William’s brother, (Sir) Richard Catesby, inherited. His son William also died young whereupon the estate rested in a wardship, eventually falling to William’s son, (Sir) William Catesby. And finally, upon Sir William’s death in 1598, to Robert Catesby.
In the late Elizabethan years, Sir William’s refusal to convert to the Catholic faith cost him dearly, in hard cash as well as the deterioration of his health. His son and heir, the flamboyant Robert Catesby, also remained with the faith, and consequently father and son were forced to sell many of their manor estates to pay fines. Robert’s involvement as a leader of the Powder Plot is well known. The conspirators sought to re-establish Catholic influence in England by blowing up the House of Lords in 1605. The Plot failed, and Catesby escaped from London by horseback but was shot dead shortly afterwards in a skirmish with his pursuers.
Similar to his great great great grandfather, William Catesby, 120 years before, Robert’s lands along with those of his co-conspirators were given or leased to favourites of King James. Robert’s mother, Ann, was referred to as the recusant Lady Catesby of Ashby. The Manors of Legers Ashby and Silsworth were at some point given or leased to Sir William Irving and Messrs Temple and Rowse, respectively. A quarter-century later, the Silsworth lands appear mainly in the hands of (Sir) George Clerke and to a lesser extent the Spencers, eventually the Earls Spencer.
One of the five parts of the book, The Watford Knight’s Fee, is devoted to
the de Watford and Catesby manors of Watford.