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Kit Harington: My ancestor tried to blow up parliament

19 October 2017

As Kit Harington’s new drama Gunpowder premieres on BBC One, the Game of Thrones star reflects on playing his own ancestor, the real mastermind behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Robert Catesby. Here be murder, intrigue, fireworks and not a dragon in sight.

Kit Harington as Robert Catesby | Photo: BBC/Kudos/Robert Viglaski

George RR Martin's fantasy opus Game of Thrones is famously inspired by a particularly bloody chapter in British history, the War of the Roses. But the hit TV show's producers may not have realised how close to Britain's brutal history their brooding mega-star Kit Harington actually is.

It's been a family curiosity for as long as I can remember
Kit Harington

Harington spoke to Front Row about a part of his family's history that helped inspire his latest drama.

"It's been a family curiosity for as long as I can remember".

"Mum used to say 'Robert Catesby was the leader of the gunpowder plot' and not many people know that."

Harington is a direct descendant of Robert Catesby. Catesby was his mother’s maiden name and he even carries the name himself. His given name is Christopher Catesby Harington.

"If you asked someone on the street they'd know the name Guy Fawkes. They know that barrels of gunpowder were put underneath parliament. They know the rhyme ‘remember, remember the 5th November’ but that’s pretty much all they know.”

Born in Warwickshire in 1572, Catesby came from a well-off devout Roman Catholic family and was well educated. He was brought up at a time when England was in religious turmoil. Henry VIII's break away from the Catholic church created terrible tensions and after King James I ascended to the English throne in 1603, it became a criminal act to practice Catholicism.

Image courtesy of HBO/Sky Atlantic
Tom Cullen as Guy Fawkes and Kit Harington as Robert Catesby | Photo: BBC / Kudos

Catesby organised the Gunpowder Plot in response to the persecution of his own friends and family.

I think he almost had a death wish to go to heaven to be with his wife again

As plots go, and there were many at this time, it came very close to being realised. So why do we only remember Guy Fawkes, an accomplice, and not the leader, Catesby?

The authorities were alerted to the plan and Guy Fawkes was found in the cellars with the damning barrels of evidence all around him.

He was tortured, confessed and died from a broken neck fleeing the brutal execution that awaited him. The demise of Catesby was far less public.

Harington, convinced the story should be dramatised, turned to friend Daniel West and they developed the idea with writer Ronan Bennett.

Harington is an Executive Producer on the three-part series.

Robert Catesby circa 1600 | Photo: Hulton Archive / Stringer
One of the violent "very historically accurate" scenes in Gunpowder | Photo: BBC / Kudos

So after playing his own ancestor what does he make of Robert Catesby?

I never wanted to think of these men as terrorists.

"He’s a firebrand. He’s one of those people that really in some ways was intensely arrogant, was incredibly ambitous but also he was driven by a real religious fervour. The fact that he was widower meant that I think he almost had a death wish to go to heaven to be with his wife again."

"He wasn’t happy on this earth. And I don’t’ think he was a particularly good man for those reasons – he took innocent people along with him to their deaths."

"But the context he was in, was that his religion was being persecuted, his friends were hung, drawn and quartered and that has to be taken into account. "

Liv Tyler as Catesby's cousin Lady Anne Vaux | Photo: BBC / Kudos

"That's why we have this very, very violent scene at the start which we needed to show why he did this."

Mark Gatiss as Robert Cecil in Gunpowder | Photo: BBC/ Kudos
It never occurred to me as a kid that we were burning a Catholic in effigy
Mark Gatiss

“What we’re trying to do is to tell the story from the plotters’ perspective as well, to try to understand what pushes people to do horribly violent things.”

"It’s important to say – I never wanted to think of these men as terrorists."

"They thought they were revolutionaries. They thought they were bringing direct change to government because how they were being persecuted."

"However there is a comparison to be had with these young men who are disenfranchised from society and go about trying to blow up government."

Mark Gatiss who plays Robert Cecil, the royal spymaster, also stars in the drama:

"It’s not just bad Catholics who want to blow up the King, there are terrible things being done against the Catholics in the name of justice and reason. It’s an extremely interesting and murky time politically."

“Bonfire Night is a big thing, but it feels like all the fireworks and the bonfire itself makes it seem like the actual story is fading in people’s minds.”

“It never occurred to me as a kid that we were burning a Catholic in effigy, you just don’t really think about those things - it’s just a bit of fun involving sparklers and Roman candles.”

Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in Game of Thrones | Image courtesy of HBO/Sky Atlantic

And what of the inevitable comparison of the scheming, violent world of Gunpowder and the George RR Martin adaptation Game of Thrones?

Game of Thrones has changed how we watch and how we absorb TV

"It's kind of mad to me that Thrones has had that cultural relevance or is referred to so much."

"I think it did change TV."

"I don't think we'd have got a lot of what we wanted done on this (Gunpowder) had Game of Thrones not come about."

"Little things like how dirty people are on screen...that's what Thrones directly I think has allowed us to do on Gunpowder."

But also Ronan Bennet is a doctor of history and it was important to him that things felt very real.

But I certainly think Game of Thrones has changed how we watch and how we absorb TV.”

Watch Gunpowder

Listen to Kit Harington's interview

Gunpowder begins on Saturday 21st October at 9:10pm on BBC One.

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