The story

The Gunpowder Plot (Commentary)

The Gunpowder Plot (Commentary)

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This commentary is based on the classroom activity: The Gunpowder Plot

Q1: Study sources 3 and 5. Explain why Guy Fawkes and Thomas Wintour wanted to blow up Parliament.

A1: Guy Fawkes said he wanted to blow up Parliament because "religion had been unjustly suppressed there". Fawkes and Wintour, like other Catholics in England, had been disappointed when King James agreed to a law being passed that imposed heavy fines on people who did not attend Protestant church services.

Q2: Explain why the group led by Robert Catesby wanted to "seize Lady Elizabeth, the King's eldest daughter".

A2: If James was killed the Catholics had to find another person to replace him. At that time there were no Catholics in England who had a strong legal case to become king. They therefore decided to make Elizabeth queen. The plan was that once she was old enough, they would marry her to a Catholic nobleman.

Q3: Compare sources 2 and 7. Give a reason why these two writers disagreed about who was behind the Gunpowder Plot. It will help if you consider the dates of the two sources.

A3: James Oliphant believed that the Roman Catholics were responsible for the Gunpowder Plot. Robert Crampton argues that it was the English government. Oliphant wrote his account in 1920. Since his book was published new evidence has emerged about the Gunpowder Plot. For example, evidence that suggests that Tresham did not write the letter has only been available during the last few years.

Q4: Why does Robert Crampton believe the Catesby group were not guilty of trying to blow up Parliament? Why do historians such as James Oliphant believe they were guilty?

A4: Crampton puts forward four main reasons why he believes that the members of the group were not guilty: (i) no one has seen the tunnel; (ii) the group would have had great difficulty obtaining the gunpowder; (iii) the government would not have rented the cellars to a known Catholic agitator; (iv) the Tresham letter was not written by Tresham.
A large number of historians disagree with Crampton. The main evidence they use to support their view is the signed confessions of Guy Fawkes and Thomas Winter. One of the reasons that historians disagree about what happened in the past concerns their selection and interpretation of the evidence. Crampton, for example, doubts the reliability of confessions obtained under torture.

Q5: Discuss the reliability and value of sources 3, 4 and 5 in helping us understand who organised the Gunpowder Plot.

A5: In sources 3 and 5 both Guy Fawkes and Thomas Winter admit they were involved in the plot to blow up Parliament. However, both these confessions were obtained while they were being tortured. Guy Fawkes' signature in source 4 suggests that he was in a bad state when he signed the confession. At this time people tended
to believe that whatever the pain, the defendant would not confess to a crime he did not commit. They believed if someone was innocent, God would help them resist making a confession. Today, people are much more likely to doubt evidence produced under torture. There are many examples from history where people have confessed to crimes they could not possibly have committed. In recent years, doubts have even been raised against confessions that have been made without the use of torture.

However, just because evidence was obtained under torture does not mean that it is untrue. Many historians argue that the story Fawkes and Winter told sounds very convincing. For example, the group had a strong motive and their idea to seize Elizabeth and force her to marry a Catholic nobleman is the sort of plan they would have come up with. Of course, Robert Cecil would have been aware of this and maybe he told them what to write. As you can see, it is virtually impossible for historians to be certain about the reliability of these confessions.

Source 1 was produced by an artist living in Germany. All the evidence suggests he never met these men and therefore it is highly unlikely that these portraits are accurate. On the engraving these men are named as the conspirators. However, the artist only knew their identities because they were the ones named during the trial in January, 1606. Therefore this is not a reliable source in helping us understand who was involved in the Gunpowder Plot.

Q6: Use sources 8, 9, 10 and 11 to describe the execution of Guy Fawkes.

A6: Philip Sidney (source 8) describes how conspirators were "tied to separate hurdles, they were dragged, lying bound on their backs, through the muddy streets to the place of execution, there to be first hanged, cut down alive, drawn, and then quartered". This is shown in source 10.

A contemporary source (source 9) suggests that Guy Fawkes, with the help of the hangman, was killed before he was castrated. This is explained by Camilla Turner (source 11): "As he awaited his grisly punishment on the gallows, Fawkes leapt to his death - to avoid the horrors of having his testicles cut off, his stomach opened and his guts spilled out before his eyes".

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Spying and shoot-outs, treachery and torture, not to mention gruesome deaths. The Gunpowder Plot has it all. Why were Catholics so bitter, and what did they hope to achieve?

The year 1603 marked the end of an era. After 45 years on the English throne, Elizabeth I was dying. All signs suggested her successor would be James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots - the queen who had been executed in 1587 on Elizabeth's orders.

English Catholics were very excited. They had suffered severe persecution since 1570, when the Pope had excommunicated Elizabeth, releasing her subjects from their allegiance to her. The Spanish Armada of 1588 had made matters worse. To the Tudor State, all Catholics were potential traitors. They were forbidden to hear Mass, forced instead to attend Anglican services, with steep fines for those recusants who persistently refused.

Yet rumours suggested James was more warmly disposed to Catholics than the dying Queen Elizabeth. His wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, was a Catholic, and James himself was making sympathetic noises. The crypto-Catholic Earl of Northumberland sent one of his staff, Thomas Percy, to act as his agent in Scotland. Percy's reports back optimistically suggested that Catholics might enjoy protection in James' England.

The early signs were encouraging. Upon his accession as James I of England (VI of Scotland), the new king ended recusancy fines and awarded important posts to the Earl of Northumberland and Henry Howard, another Catholic sympathiser. This relaxation led to considerable growth in the number of visible Catholics.

Trying to juggle different religious demands, James was displeased at their increasing strength. The discovery in July 1603 of two small Catholic plots did not help. Although most Catholics were horrified, all were tainted by the threat of treason.

Yet rumours suggested James was more warmly disposed to Catholics than the dying Queen Elizabeth.

The situation deteriorated further at the Hampton Court Conference of January 1604. Trying to accommodate as many views as possible, James I expressed hostility against the Catholics in order to satisfy the Puritans, whose demands he could not wholly satisfy. In February he publicly announced his 'utter detestation' of Catholicism within days all priests and Jesuits had been expelled and recusancy fines reintroduced.

Although bitterly disappointed, most English Catholics prepared to swallow the imposition of the fines, and live their double lives as best they could. But this passive approach did not suit all.

Robert Catesby was a devout Catholic and familiar with the price of faith. His father had been imprisoned for harbouring a priest, and he himself had had to leave university without a degree, to avoid taking the Protestant Oath of Supremacy. Yet he possessed immense personal magnetism, crucial in recruiting and leading his small band of conspirators.

The Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Plot is one of the most notorious events in British history. The shock it caused can still be sensed in the words of the House of Commons Journal for 5 November 1605. ‘This last night the upper House of Parliament was searched . Thirty-six Barrels of Gunpowder in the Vault under the House, with a purpose to blow King, and the whole Company, when they should there assemble’. What lay behind this extraordinary conspiracy? We need to go back at least a decade before 1605 to understand its origins.

The New Reign

By 1595 Queen Elizabeth, born in 1533, was visibly ageing. She was childless and had never proclaimed her heir. James VI of Scotland wanted to maximise his chances of succeeding to the English throne, since he had a strong claim through his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth gave James an annual pension in 1586 and promised that she would not undercut any right or title that he possessed, but she would not go further. Increasingly agitated that he had never been officially proclaimed as heir, James began to build up as much support as possible for his claim, making informal overtures to catholic powers such as Spain, Savoy and Tuscany. The attitude of the papacy might be crucial, so James used his catholic queen, Anne of Denmark, to correspond with Clement VIII.

The king’s strategy successfully deflected any foreign opposition to his claim, but more important was his success in 1601 in secretly winning over Sir Robert Cecil, the principal secretary of state and the leading member of the English privy council. Once he began to write secretly to James, the king was reassured, and promised to wait patiently until Elizabeth died. In England, the Roman Catholic minority was particularly interested in the prospect of James’ accession. The creation of the moderately protestant church of England in 1559 had raised hopes that it would become a truly national church for all English people, but a small minority of deeply committed catholics retained their faith despite severe financial and legal penalties. The priests who slipped in secretly from abroad to say Mass and encourage the faithful risked the hideous death of hanging, drawing (disembowelling) and quartering if they were caught.

James was by nature a tolerant and broad-minded man. Writing to Cecil, he expounded his view that blood should never be shed over differences of religious opinion. But equally he did not want catholic numbers to increase, since ‘they might practise their old principles on us’. Similarly James told the earl of Northumberland that he would not persecute catholics who were quiet and outwardly obedient to the law. If they gave the king good service, he would reward them. This suggested a more liberal policy than that pursued by Elizabeth. Unfortunately these cautious royal remarks were often interpreted more widely, and some English catholics became convinced that James would get rid of all the Elizabethan recusancy laws (the legislation that penalised those who refused to attend their protestant parish churches).

When at last Queen Elizabeth died, on 24 March 1603, most English catholics openly rejoiced. In April 1603 the king left Edinburgh to travel south, and on his journey he was petitioned by catholics for a toleration. In July at Hampton Court, just before his coronation, James received some leading catholic gentry who brought a petition for toleration. The king declined to go so far, but he told them he would suspend the monthly recusancy fines so long as the catholic community continued to support both king and state.

So far everything had gone fairly well for the catholics. Then in June and July 1603 came the revelation of the Bye and Main plots. The Bye plot, so called because it was the lesser in importance, was a crazy attempt led by a priest named William Watson to hold the king to ransom until he declared a catholic toleration. The Main plot was more drastic, and less religious: it aimed to get rid of the Scottish king and his ‘cubs’, instead placing his English-born cousin Lady Arbella Stuart on the throne. Both plots were hopelessly incompetent, but showed how quickly disenchantment with James had set in.

The Conspirators

Some catholics were quick to think of aggressive action. Among them were several young men who had been implicated in 1601 in the abortive revolt of the earl of Essex, when they had shown themselves to be valiant fighters. Robert Catesby, son of a wealthy catholic family from Warwickshire, was the charismatic leader of a tightly-knit circle, which included Francis Tresham and the brothers Jack and Kit Wright, all noted swordsmen who fought in the rebellion. The Wrights were at school at St Peter’s, York, with Guy Fawkes, who left England in 1592 to fight in the armies of catholic Spain against the rebel Dutch. They were brothers-in-law to Thomas Percy, a catholic employed by his kinsman the earl of Northumberland. Catesby was related to Robert and Thomas Wintour, whose Worcestershire home was known as a priests’ refuge. In late autumn 1601 Tom Wintour journeyed to Spain on behalf of Catesby, Tresham and the others left leaderless after the downfall of Essex. He offered support to Spain in case of a future invasion of England to aid catholics, but got little more than vague promises of financial assistance.

Guy Fawkes also travelled to Spain and in July 1603 wrote a memorandum, still in the Spanish archives, which insisted that James was intent on driving all catholics out of England. Fawkes was fiercely anti-Scottish, believing that the natural hostility between the English and the Scots would make it impossible to reconcile the two nations for long. He warned the Spanish court that any peace overtures from James should be treated as subterfuges and ignored. Fawkes was too late, for in spring 1603 Spain rather grudgingly sent an envoy to congratulate the king on his accession. Philip III, hoping to end the hostilities between England and Spain that began in 1585, thought that his envoy Juan de Tassis should insist on toleration for English catholics as part of the negotiations. But on arrival in England Tassis realised this would be impossible and advised that the issue should wait until the peace treaty was finalised.

The Plot

Catesby and his friends had already begun to lose faith in Spain. In winter 1604, Tom Wintour was summoned to London by Catesby, who announced that he had thought of a way ‘at one instant’ to deliver English catholics without foreign help. ‘In a word, it was to blow up the Parliament house with gunpowder for said he, in that place have they done us all the mischief [by the recusancy laws] … and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment’. A proclamation had come out on 18 January announcing that the new king would shortly call a parliament. Catesby’s self-confidence won over the reluctant Wintour. As a last-ditch effort, they decided to contact the Constable of Castile, the chief Spanish envoy for the forthcoming peace treaty with England. He had recently arrived in Flanders, but gave little indication that he would help the English catholics. Guy Fawkes was told by Tom Wintour that they were resolved to take action if the peace with Spain ‘helped us not’. Shortly afterwards, Thomas Percy came to London, and challenged them: would they talk and never do anything, or take action? In May the inner group of five men met at a lodging in the Strand. They took an oath of secrecy, then heard Mass in another room, whereupon Catesby disclosed to Fawkes and Thomas Percy his plan, already familiar to Wright and Wintour.

By this time the first session of a new Parliament had opened on 19 March 1604 and was likely to last for two to three months. In May, Thomas Percy used his links with his kinsman Northumberland to lease a small house adjacent to the House of Lords’ chamber in the old palace of Westminster. The idea was to drive a tunnel from the cellars through to the foundations of the chamber. Gunpowder could be ferried across the Thames at night from Catesby’s house in Lambeth. However, Parliament was prorogued on 7 July with its next meeting announced for 7 February 1605. All the Elizabethan legislative penalties on catholics had been confirmed, and in July two priests who had refused to leave the country were executed in the usual barbaric fashion, the first victims of the reign. Even worse, by late 1604 the recusancy fines were once again being collected.

The treaty negotiations between Spain, England and Spanish Flanders were concluded in August 1604. There was no mention of toleration for the English catholics. The plotters had already abandoned any hopes of Spain, and agreed to meet again in the autumn, to dig the tunnel before the new parliamentary session convened in February 1605. Unfortunately they were unable to use their leasehold house just before Christmas 1604, only to learn on 28 December that Parliament had been further delayed until 3 October 1605. They began work again in February 1605, when they also began to discuss how they could get hold of the young Prince Charles and his sister Elizabeth. It was assumed that the heir, Prince Henry, would attend the opening of parliament with his father, as he had done in 1604. For their coup d’état to be successful, they needed to have all the surviving royals in their hands. With the help of Northumberland, in June 1604 Percy was made a gentleman pensioner (one of the king’s bodyguard) and could use his court position to capture Charles. However, the four-year-old was sickly, and they did not take him too seriously since he might not survive. His elder sister, Princess Elizabeth, would make a more malleable puppet queen, better suited to their purposes.

In March 1605 three other members of Catesby’s circle were let into the plot: Robert Wintour (Tom’s brother), Kit Wright (Jack’s brother) and John Grant (the Wintours’ brother-in-law). Then a new opportunity unexpectedly arose. The street-level chamber or vault between the underground tunnel and the House of Lords’ first-floor meeting place was used for coal storage, and became available for rent. The chamber was part of the warren of medieval kitchen buildings of the original palace of Westminster, abandoned as a royal residence after a fire in 1512. Renting the chamber, they could stack the gunpowder directly under the House of Lords. They broke off for the summer but Catesby, the paymaster for the whole venture, was running short of cash. Three wealthy catholic gentlemen – Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby, and Francis Tresham – were indicted into the inner circle, although Tresham was agitated on hearing what was planned. On 3 October 1605 Parliament was prorogued again until 5 November.

The Plot Foiled

By late October the plotters were back in London and everything seemed to be in place. However, on 26 October 1605, just as four of the leading lords of the privy council – the earls of Salisbury, Suffolk, Northampton and Worcester – were sitting down to supper at Whitehall, a letter was brought in to them by Lord Monteagle. A former catholic and follower of Essex, Monteagle had been helped out of trouble in 1601 by Robert Cecil, later earl of Salisbury. In public, Monteagle emphasised his new-found protestantism, but he was still intimately linked to catholic circles by marriage. Even more significantly, Tom Wintour, at the heart of the plot, acted as Monteagle’s occasional secretary. By summer 1605 Lord Salisbury was already receiving disturbing rumours of a possible catholic conspiracy, but as yet he had little specific information. The letter brought by Monteagle (and most probably secretly written by him, using information he had gathered from his catholic contacts) included a warning to stay away (‘devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this Parliament’) since ‘a terrible blow’ would be struck. Once again, the information was hardly specific. The privy councillors agreed that no immediate action should be taken until the king returned from his hunting: he would be safer in the country, away from Westminster.

On Friday 1 November, Salisbury showed the king the Monteagle letter. James recalled his father Lord Darnley’s murder in the gunpowder plot at Kirk O’Field in Edinburgh in 1567, and wondered if something similar was planned. They decided that Lord Chamberlain Suffolk, whose task was to prepare the palace of Westminster for the parliament, should search the areas near the meeting places of the Lords and the Commons. Meanwhile Catesby learned of the letter delivered to Salisbury. Fearing they were betrayed, he sent Fawkes to check the rented chamber, but he reported that nothing had been touched. Both Catesby and Tom Wintour suspected Francis Tresham of betraying them, but he swore his innocence. Thomas Percy agreed with Catesby that they should see their plan through. On 4 November Percy rode to Syon House on the Thames to see Northumberland, but sensed he knew nothing. He did not warn his kinsman to stay away from the state opening. Later the same day, Fawkes went to the vault with a slow match and a watch given him by Percy to check the time. Astonishingly, Lord Chamberlain Suffolk, making his rounds of the palace accompanied by Monteagle among others, encountered Fawkes, whom he took to be some sort of servant. Suffolk noted the large pile of brushwood and faggots (concealing the gunpowder) but was satisfied when he learned that it belonged to the chamber’s tenant, Mr Thomas Percy of the gentleman pensioners.

On their return to court, Monteagle expressed surprise that Thomas Percy should be renting a vault in Westminster when he had his own house in London. He commented that Percy was a catholic, perhaps even the author of the anonymous warning letter, since he and Monteagle had been friends. The king then ordered a further search of the cellars and undercrofts of the old palace, this time undertaken by Sir Thomas Knyvet. To avoid raising any alert, it was given out that they were looking for hangings missing from the stores. About midnight on 4 November they reached Fawkes in the vault, booted and fully clothed. Knyvet had him arrested, and his men found the gunpowder, packed in 36 barrels, under the wood pile. Fawkes gave his name as John Johnson, a servant of Thomas Percy.

The plan was that on the morning of Tuesday 5 November, Fawkes would light the length of slow match as soon as the king came into the Lords (presumably on hearing the noise overhead) and get away across the Thames before the explosion. Meanwhile Sir Everard Digby and his servants waited at the Red Lion inn in Dunchurch, under the guise of a hunting party. As soon as he learned of the plot’s success, Catesby would leave London for the midlands where he would meet Digby to mastermind the catholic rising that formed the next stage of the plot. They would seize Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey near Coventry, the home of her governor, Lord Harington, and proclaim her queen. But little of this had been fully worked out. As the Jesuit Father Oswald Tesimond later commented, ‘They left all at random’.

The Aftermath

Once the news of Fawkes’ arrest was out, Catesby, Percy and John Wright fled north, arriving at Dunchurch that evening. One of the servants at the Red Lion later recalled hearing a man speak out of a casement window: ‘I doubt wee are all betrayde’. The other huntsmen melted away, refusing to involve themselves in the conspiracy.

The ringleaders were not ready to give in. Late on 5 November they raided the stables of Warwick Castle for fresh horses, then spent two days moving from one catholic ‘safe house’ to another, including Huddington Grange, the Wintour home where they received communion. No new supporters joined them and other recusants had refused them assistance. On 7 November they reached Holbeach House in Staffordshire. Worn out by strain, fear and their hours of riding, they carelessly spread out before the fire some damp gunpowder taken from one of the houses in which they had sheltered. It exploded, burning Catesby and Rookwood and blinding John Grant. They already knew that they were being followed by government forces, and the explosion convinced them that they had lost their great gamble – even that God had abandoned them, turning their own gunpowder plot against them. Jack Wright suggested to Catesby that they should blow themselves up with the remaining gunpowder. Tom Wintour, who had been out of the house trying in vain to raise some catholic help, asked on his return what they would do. Catesby, the Wright brothers, Thomas Percy and the rest replied unhesitatingly, ‘We mean here to die’.

The following morning the sheriff of Worcestershire with at least 200 men arrived outside Holbeach. In the shootout, the Wright brothers were killed. Thomas Percy and Robert Catesby were brought down by one shot which passed through both of them. From beginning to end, the plot was all the work of Catesby. Courageous, affluent and ruthless, he had brought the others in and exercised a compelling hold over them. Although Catesby paid occasional lip-service to the idea that they should save as many as possible of the crypto-catholic noblemen who would attend the fatal state opening, he despised the men who had offered so little leadership to their beleaguered co-religionists, and never showed the slightest remorse for what he planned to do.

Tom Wintour was captured, shot in his right arm and unable to defend himself. Also captured were the injured Ambrose Rookwood and the severely burned John Grant. They were taken back to London, where others including Digby and Tresham later joined them in the Tower. By 9 November Fawkes had been tortured and given six statements on the conspiracy, each fuller than the last. He reiterated his intense dislike of the Scots, evident on his visit to Spain. The king immediately proposed questions to be put to Fawkes, including a query about the authorship of a hostile libel asserting that the monarch would die for taking the unpopular title of ‘King of Great Britain’. James leaped to the conclusion that anti-Scots hatred was at the heart of the plot, rather than his own slipperiness in raising and then dashing catholic hopes. However, Fawkes and Wintour were the only survivors of the original plotters and their testimony would be vital. The fight at Holbeach saved the government most of the task of hunting down survivors, as well as demonstrating beyond doubt that these were the guilty men. By 9 November the privy council could feel that they were back in control. The king’s speech that day at the prorogation of parliament was gracious, emphasising that he believed the plot to be the work of a few fanatics rather than the whole catholic community. He also exonerated catholic monarchs abroad. He gave thanks that God had delivered them all from ‘a roaring, nay a thundering sin of fire and brimstone’.

Northumberland was unable to clear himself of suspicion, since the privy council suspected that the plotters intended to use him as Protector, to guide Princess Elizabeth through her minority. The earl was imprisoned for years in the Tower, although in comfortable quarters. The surviving plotters – Fawkes, Tom and Robert Wintour, Everard Digby, John Grant, Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rookwood and Catesby’s servant Thomas Bates – were tried on 27 January 1606, found guilty and executed over the next few days. The government was also keen to implicate the catholic priests on the periphery of the plot, and here the confession of Bates proved invaluable. He incriminated Father John Gerard, who had said Mass at the plotters’ initial meeting in May 1604, as well as Fr Oswald Tesimond and above all Fr Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior. In July 1605, Catesby had suffered a rare spasm of moral unease, revealing something of his plans to Tesimond. Greatly distressed, Tesimond passed the information on to Garnet, but neither revealed the plot to the authorities, although they tried to damp down any treasonable activity among catholics. Gerard and Tesimond got away from England just in time, but Garnet was hunted down, tried then hanged, drawn and quartered in May 1606.


On the evening of 5 November 1605, with Fawkes in custody and the plot foiled, there was a great outburst of bell-ringing, and the inhabitants of London lit bonfires to celebrate the providential deliverance of the king and his nobility. An act was passed in 1606 for an annual public thanksgiving with appropriate sermons, a religious occasion rather than a rambunctious social event. It was only in the later 17th century that effigies of the Pope were burned on the bonfires, and ‘the guy’ appeared in the 18th century.

The long-lasting impact of the Gunpowder Plot was related above all to the grand scale of the intended atrocity. Unlike earlier assassination plots against Queen Elizabeth, the gunpowder plot would have killed hundreds if not thousands, not only in the House of Lords but in the great fire which would surely have swept through the decrepit palace and beyond. Moreover the story was so chillingly dramatic, and recently it chimes with the concerns of our own post-9/11 world. The word ‘terrorism’ was not known in 1605, but protestant contemporaries (and many catholics) regarded the plotters as murderous fanatics. Yet they were also tragic figures, brave and deeply religious men drawn into a doubtful cause. Led by the charismatic figure of Robert Catesby, they were driven by sustained state persecution to see themselves as heroes freeing their oppressed people. Perhaps we should see the Gunpowder Plot as the last violent act of England’s turbulent Reformation.

Pauline Croft is Professor of Early Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of several articles and books, including King James (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003).


Religion in England Edit

Between 1533 and 1540, King Henry VIII took control of the English Church from Rome, the start of several decades of religious tension in England. English Catholics struggled in a society dominated by the newly separate and increasingly Protestant Church of England. Henry's daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, responded to the growing religious divide by introducing the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which required anyone appointed to a public or church office to swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the Church and state. The penalties for refusal were severe fines were imposed for recusancy, and repeat offenders risked imprisonment and execution. Catholicism became marginalised, but despite the threat of torture or execution, priests continued to practise their faith in secret. [1]

Succession Edit

Queen Elizabeth, unmarried and childless, steadfastly refused to name an heir. Many Catholics believed that her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, was the legitimate heir to the English throne, but she was executed for treason in 1587. The English Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, negotiated secretly with Mary's son and successor, King James VI of Scotland. In the months before Elizabeth's death on 24 March 1603, Cecil prepared the way for James to succeed her. [b]

Some exiled Catholics favoured Philip II of Spain's daughter, Isabella, as Elizabeth's successor. More moderate Catholics looked to James's and Elizabeth's cousin Arbella Stuart, a woman thought to have Catholic sympathies. [3] As Elizabeth's health deteriorated, the government detained those they considered to be the "principal papists", [4] and the Privy Council grew so worried that Arbella Stuart was moved closer to London to prevent her from being kidnapped by papists. [5]

Despite competing claims to the English throne, the transition of power following Elizabeth's death went smoothly. [c] James's succession was announced by a proclamation from Cecil on 24 March, which was generally celebrated. Leading papists, rather than causing trouble as anticipated, reacted to the news by offering their enthusiastic support for the new monarch. Jesuit priests, whose presence in England was punishable by death, also demonstrated their support for James, who was widely believed to embody "the natural order of things". [6] James ordered a ceasefire in the conflict with Spain, and even though the two countries were still technically at war, King Philip III sent his envoy, Don Juan de Tassis, to congratulate James on his accession. [7] In the following year both countries signed the Treaty of London.

For decades, the English had lived under a monarch who refused to provide an heir, but James arrived with a family and a clear line of succession. His wife, Anne of Denmark, was the daughter of a king. Their eldest child, the nine-year-old Henry, was considered a handsome and confident boy, and their two younger children, Elizabeth and Charles, were proof that James was able to provide heirs to continue the Protestant monarchy. [8]

Early reign of James I Edit

James's attitude towards Catholics was more moderate than that of his predecessor, perhaps even tolerant. He swore that he would not "persecute any that will be quiet and give an outward obedience to the law", [9] and believed that exile was a better solution than capital punishment: "I would be glad to have both their heads and their bodies separated from this whole island and transported beyond seas." [10] Some Catholics believed that the martyrdom of James's mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, would encourage James to convert to the Catholic faith, and the Catholic houses of Europe may also have shared that hope. [11] James received an envoy from Albert VII, [7] ruler of the remaining Catholic territories in the Netherlands after over 30 years of war in the Dutch Revolt by English-supported Protestant rebels. For the Catholic expatriates engaged in that struggle, the restoration by force of a Catholic monarchy was an intriguing possibility, but following the failed Spanish invasion of England in 1588 the papacy had taken a longer-term view on the return of a Catholic monarch to the English throne. [12]

During the late 16th century, Catholics made several assassination attempts on Protestant rulers in Europe and in England, including plans to poison Elizabeth I. The Jesuit Juan de Mariana's 1598 On Kings and the Education of Kings explicitly justified the assassination of the French king Henry III—who had been stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic in 1589—and until the 1620s, some English Catholics believed that regicide was justifiable to remove tyrants from power. [13] Much of the "rather nervous" [14] James's political writing was "concerned with the threat of Catholic assassination and refutation of the [Catholic] argument that 'faith did not need to be kept with heretics'". [15]

Early plots Edit

In the absence of any sign that James would move to end the persecution of Catholics, as some had hoped for, several members of the clergy (including two anti-Jesuit priests) decided to take matters into their own hands. In what became known as the Bye Plot, the priests William Watson and William Clark planned to kidnap James and hold him in the Tower of London until he agreed to be more tolerant towards Catholics. Cecil received news of the plot from several sources, including the Archpriest George Blackwell, who instructed his priests to have no part in any such schemes. At about the same time, Lord Cobham, Lord Grey de Wilton, Griffin Markham and Walter Raleigh hatched what became known as the Main Plot, which involved removing James and his family and supplanting them with Arbella Stuart. Amongst others, they approached Philip III of Spain for funding, but were unsuccessful. All those involved in both plots were arrested in July and tried in autumn 1603 Sir George Brooke was executed, but James, keen not to have too bloody a start to his reign, reprieved Cobham, Grey, and Markham while they were at the scaffold. Raleigh, who had watched while his colleagues sweated, and who was due to be executed a few days later, was also pardoned. Arbella Stuart denied any knowledge of the Main Plot. The two priests, condemned and "very bloodily handled", were executed. [16]

The Catholic community responded to news of these plots with shock. That the Bye Plot had been revealed by Catholics was instrumental in saving them from further persecution, and James was grateful enough to allow pardons for those recusants who sued for them, as well as postponing payment of their fines for a year. [17]

On 19 February 1604, shortly after he discovered that his wife, Queen Anne, had been sent a rosary from the pope via one of James's spies, [d] Sir Anthony Standen, James denounced the Catholic Church. Three days later, he ordered all Jesuits and all other Catholic priests to leave the country, and reimposed the collection of fines for recusancy. [23] James changed his focus from the anxieties of English Catholics to the establishment of an Anglo-Scottish union. [24] He also appointed Scottish nobles such as George Home to his court, which proved unpopular with the Parliament of England. Some Members of Parliament made it clear that in their view, the "effluxion of people from the Northern parts" was unwelcome, and compared them to "plants which are transported from barren ground into a more fertile one". Even more discontent resulted when the King allowed his Scottish nobles to collect the recusancy fines. [25] There were 5,560 convicted of recusancy in 1605, of whom 112 were landowners. [26] The very few Catholics of great wealth who refused to attend services at their parish church were fined £20 per month. Those of more moderate means had to pay two-thirds of their annual rental income middle class recusants were fined one shilling a week, although the collection of all these fines was "haphazard and negligent". [27] When James came to power, almost £5,000 a year (equivalent to almost £12 million in 2020) was being raised by these fines. [e] [28] [29]

On 19 March, the King gave his opening speech to his first English Parliament in which he spoke of his desire to secure peace, but only by "profession of the true religion". He also spoke of a Christian union and reiterated his desire to avoid religious persecution. For the Catholics, the King's speech made it clear that they were not to "increase their number and strength in this Kingdom", that "they might be in hope to erect their Religion again". To Father John Gerard, these words were almost certainly responsible for the heightened levels of persecution the members of his faith now suffered, and for the priest Oswald Tesimond they were a rebuttal of the early claims that the King had made, upon which the papists had built their hopes. [30] A week after James's speech, Lord Sheffield informed the king of over 900 recusants brought before the Assizes in Normanby, and on 24 April a Bill was introduced in Parliament which threatened to outlaw all English followers of the Catholic Church. [31]

The conspirators' principal aim was to kill King James, but many other important targets would also be present at the State Opening, including the monarch's nearest relatives and members of the Privy Council. The senior judges of the English legal system, most of the Protestant aristocracy, and the bishops of the Church of England would all have attended in their capacity as members of the House of Lords, along with the members of the House of Commons. [32] Another important objective was the kidnapping of the King's daughter, Elizabeth. Housed at Coombe Abbey near Coventry, she lived only ten miles north of Warwick—convenient for the plotters, most of whom lived in the Midlands. Once the King and his Parliament were dead, the plotters intended to install Elizabeth on the English throne as a titular Queen. The fate of her brothers, Henry and Charles, would be improvised their role in state ceremonies was, as yet, uncertain. The plotters planned to use Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, as Elizabeth's regent, but most likely never informed him of this. [33]

Initial recruitment Edit

Robert Catesby (1573–1605), a man of "ancient, historic and distinguished lineage", was the inspiration behind the plot. He was described by contemporaries as "a good-looking man, about six feet tall, athletic and a good swordsman". Along with several other conspirators, he took part in the Essex Rebellion in 1601, during which he was wounded and captured. Queen Elizabeth allowed him to escape with his life after fining him 4,000 marks (equivalent to more than £6 million in 2008), after which he sold his estate in Chastleton. [f] [28] [34] [35] In 1603 Catesby helped to organise a mission to the new king of Spain, Philip III, urging Philip to launch an invasion attempt on England, which they assured him would be well supported, particularly by the English Catholics. Thomas Wintour (1571–1606) was chosen as the emissary, but the Spanish king, although sympathetic to the plight of Catholics in England, was intent on making peace with James. [36] Wintour had also attempted to convince the Spanish envoy Don Juan de Tassis that "3,000 Catholics" were ready and waiting to support such an invasion. [37] Concern was voiced by Pope Clement VIII that using violence to achieve a restoration of Catholic power in England would result in the destruction of those that remained. [38]

According to contemporary accounts, [g] in February 1604 Catesby invited Thomas Wintour to his house in Lambeth, where they discussed Catesby's plan to re-establish Catholicism in England by blowing up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament. [35] Wintour was known as a competent scholar, able to speak several languages, and he had fought with the English army in the Netherlands. [39] His uncle, Francis Ingleby, had been executed for being a Catholic priest in 1586, and Wintour later converted to Catholicism. [40] Also present at the meeting was John Wright, a devout Catholic said to be one of the best swordsmen of his day, and a man who had taken part with Catesby in the Earl of Essex's rebellion three years earlier. [41] Despite his reservations over the possible repercussions should the attempt fail, Wintour agreed to join the conspiracy, perhaps persuaded by Catesby's rhetoric: "Let us give the attempt and where it faileth, pass no further." [35]

Wintour travelled to Flanders to enquire about Spanish support. While there he sought out Guy Fawkes (1570–1606), a committed Catholic who had served as a soldier in the Southern Netherlands under the command of William Stanley, and who in 1603 was recommended for a captaincy. [42] Accompanied by John Wright's brother Christopher, Fawkes had also been a member of the 1603 delegation to the Spanish court pleading for an invasion of England. Wintour told Fawkes that "some good frends of his wished his company in Ingland", and that certain gentlemen "were uppon a resolution to doe some whatt in Ingland if the pece with Spain healped us nott". The two men returned to England late in April 1604, telling Catesby that Spanish support was unlikely. Thomas Percy, Catesby's friend and John Wright's brother-in-law, was introduced to the plot several weeks later. [43] [44] Percy had found employment with his kinsman the Earl of Northumberland, and by 1596 was his agent for the family's northern estates. About 1600–1601 he served with his patron in the Low Countries. At some point during Northumberland's command in the Low Countries, Percy became his agent in his communications with James. [45] Percy was reputedly a "serious" character who had converted to the Catholic faith. His early years were, according to a Catholic source, marked by a tendency to rely on "his sword and personal courage". [46] [47] Northumberland, although not a Catholic himself, planned to build a strong relationship with James I in order to better the prospects of English Catholics, and to reduce the family disgrace caused by his separation from his wife Martha Wright, a favourite of Elizabeth I. Thomas Percy's meetings with James seemed to go well. Percy returned with promises of support for the Catholics, and Northumberland believed that James would go so far as to allow Mass in private houses, so as not to cause public offence. Percy, keen to improve his standing, went further, claiming that the future King would guarantee the safety of English Catholics. [48]

Initial planning Edit

The first meeting between the five conspirators took place on 20 May 1604, probably at the Duck and Drake Inn, just off the Strand, Thomas Wintour's usual residence when staying in London. Catesby, Thomas Wintour, and John Wright were in attendance, joined by Guy Fawkes and Thomas Percy. [49] Alone in a private room, the five plotters swore an oath of secrecy on a prayer book. By coincidence, and ignorant of the plot, Father John Gerard (a friend of Catesby's) was celebrating Mass in another room, and the five men subsequently received the Eucharist. [50]

Further recruitment Edit

Following their oath, the plotters left London and returned to their homes. The adjournment of Parliament gave them, they thought, until February 1605 to finalise their plans. On 9 June, Percy's patron, the Earl of Northumberland, appointed him to the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, a mounted troop of 50 bodyguards to the King. This role gave Percy reason to seek a base in London, and a small property near the Prince's Chamber owned by Henry Ferrers, a tenant of John Whynniard, was chosen. Percy arranged for the use of the house through Northumberland's agents, Dudley Carleton and John Hippisley. Fawkes, using the pseudonym "John Johnson", took charge of the building, posing as Percy's servant. [51] The building was occupied by Scottish commissioners appointed by the King to consider his plans for the unification of England and Scotland, so the plotters hired Catesby's lodgings in Lambeth, on the opposite bank of the Thames, from where their stored gunpowder and other supplies could be conveniently rowed across each night. [52] Meanwhile, King James continued with his policies against the Catholics, and Parliament pushed through anti-Catholic legislation, until its adjournment on 7 July. [53]

The conspirators returned to London in October 1604, when Robert Keyes, a "desperate man, ruined and indebted", was admitted to the group. [54] His responsibility was to take charge of Catesby's house in Lambeth, where the gunpowder and other supplies were to be stored. Keyes's family had notable connections his wife's employer was the Catholic Lord Mordaunt. Tall, with a red beard, he was seen as trustworthy and, like Fawkes, capable of looking after himself. In December [h] Catesby recruited his servant, Thomas Bates, into the plot, [55] after the latter accidentally became aware of it. [54]

It was announced on 24 December that the re-opening of Parliament would be delayed. Concern over the plague meant that rather than sitting in February, as the plotters had originally planned for, Parliament would not sit again until 3 October 1605. The contemporaneous account of the prosecution claimed that during this delay the conspirators were digging a tunnel beneath Parliament. This may have been a government fabrication, as no evidence for the existence of a tunnel was presented by the prosecution, and no trace of one has ever been found. The account of a tunnel comes directly from Thomas Wintour's confession, [43] and Guy Fawkes did not admit the existence of such a scheme until his fifth interrogation. Logistically, digging a tunnel would have proved extremely difficult, especially as none of the conspirators had any experience of mining. [56] If the story is true, by 6 December the Scottish commissioners had finished their work, and the conspirators were busy tunnelling from their rented house to the House of Lords. They ceased their efforts when, during tunnelling, they heard a noise from above. The noise turned out to be the then-tenant's widow, who was clearing out the undercroft directly beneath the House of Lords—the room where the plotters eventually stored the gunpowder. [57]

By the time the plotters reconvened at the start of the old style new year on Lady Day, 25 March, three more had been admitted to their ranks Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Christopher Wright. The additions of Wintour and Wright were obvious choices. Along with a small fortune, Robert Wintour inherited Huddington Court (a known refuge for priests) near Worcester, and was reputedly a generous and well-liked man. A devout Catholic, he married Gertrude, the daughter of John Talbot of Grafton, a prominent Worcestershire family of recusants. [40] Christopher Wright (1568–1605), John's brother, had also taken part in the Earl of Essex's revolt and had moved his family to Twigmore in Lincolnshire, then known as something of a haven for priests. [58] [59] John Grant was married to Wintour's sister, Dorothy, and was lord of the manor of Norbrook near Stratford-upon-Avon. Reputed to be an intelligent, thoughtful man, he sheltered Catholics at his home at Snitterfield, and was another who had been involved in the Essex revolt of 1601. [60] [61]

Undercroft Edit

In addition, 25 March was the day on which the plotters purchased the lease to the undercroft they had supposedly tunnelled near to, owned by John Whynniard. The Palace of Westminster in the early 17th century was a warren of buildings clustered around the medieval chambers, chapels, and halls of the former royal palace that housed both Parliament and the various royal law courts. The old palace was easily accessible merchants, lawyers, and others lived and worked in the lodgings, shops and taverns within its precincts. Whynniard's building was along a right-angle to the House of Lords, alongside a passageway called Parliament Place, which itself led to Parliament Stairs and the River Thames. Undercrofts were common features at the time, used to house a variety of materials including food and firewood. Whynniard's undercroft, on the ground floor, was directly beneath the first-floor House of Lords, and may once have been part of the palace's medieval kitchen. Unused and filthy, its location was ideal for what the group planned to do. [62]

In the second week of June Catesby met in London the principal Jesuit in England, Father Henry Garnet, and asked him about the morality of entering into an undertaking which might involve the destruction of the innocent, together with the guilty. Garnet answered that such actions could often be excused, but according to his own account later admonished Catesby during a second meeting in July in Essex, showing him a letter from the pope which forbade rebellion. Soon after, the Jesuit priest Oswald Tesimond told Garnet he had taken Catesby's confession, [i] in the course of which he had learnt of the plot. Garnet and Catesby met for a third time on 24 July 1605, at the house of the wealthy catholic Anne Vaux in Enfield Chase. [j] Garnet decided that Tesimond's account had been given under the seal of the confessional, and that canon law therefore forbade him to repeat what he had heard. [66] Without acknowledging that he was aware of the precise nature of the plot, Garnet attempted to dissuade Catesby from his course, to no avail. [67] Garnet wrote to a colleague in Rome, Claudio Acquaviva, expressing his concerns about open rebellion in England. He also told Acquaviva that "there is a risk that some private endeavour may commit treason or use force against the King", and urged the pope to issue a public brief against the use of force. [68]

According to Fawkes, 20 barrels of gunpowder were brought in at first, followed by 16 more on 20 July. The supply of gunpowder was theoretically controlled by the government, but it was easily obtained from illicit sources. [69] [k] On 28 July, the ever-present threat of the plague again delayed the opening of Parliament, this time until Tuesday 5 November. Fawkes left the country for a short time. The King, meanwhile, spent much of the summer away from the city, hunting. He stayed wherever was convenient, including on occasion at the houses of prominent Catholics. Garnet, convinced that the threat of an uprising had receded, travelled the country on a pilgrimage. [70]

It is uncertain when Fawkes returned to England, but he was back in London by late August, when he and Wintour discovered that the gunpowder stored in the undercroft had decayed. More gunpowder was brought into the room, along with firewood to conceal it. [71] The final three conspirators were recruited in late 1605. At Michaelmas, Catesby persuaded the staunchly Catholic Ambrose Rookwood to rent Clopton House near Stratford-upon-Avon. Rookwood was a young man with recusant connections, whose stable of horses at Coldham Hall in Stanningfield, Suffolk was an important factor in his enlistment. His parents, Robert Rookwood and Dorothea Drury, were wealthy landowners, and had educated their son at a Jesuit school near Calais. Everard Digby was a young man who was generally well liked, and lived at Gayhurst House in Buckinghamshire. He had been knighted by the King in April 1603, and was converted to Catholicism by Gerard. Digby and his wife, Mary Mulshaw, had accompanied the priest on his pilgrimage, and the two men were reportedly close friends. Digby was asked by Catesby to rent Coughton Court near Alcester. [72] [73] Digby also promised £1,500 after Percy failed to pay the rent due for the properties he had taken in Westminster. [74] Finally, on 14 October Catesby invited Francis Tresham into the conspiracy. [75] Tresham was the son of the Catholic Thomas Tresham, and a cousin to Robert Catesby—the two had been raised together. [76] He was also the heir to his father's large fortune, which had been depleted by recusant fines, expensive tastes, and by Francis and Catesby's involvement in the Essex revolt. [l] [77]

Catesby and Tresham met at the home of Tresham's brother-in-law and cousin, Lord Stourton. In his confession, Tresham claimed that he had asked Catesby if the plot would damn their souls, to which Catesby had replied it would not, and that the plight of England's Catholics required that it be done. Catesby also apparently asked for £2,000, and the use of Rushton Hall in Northamptonshire. Tresham declined both offers (although he did give £100 to Thomas Wintour), and told his interrogators that he had moved his family from Rushton to London in advance of the plot hardly the actions of a guilty man, he claimed. [78]

Monteagle letter Edit

The details of the plot were finalised in October, in a series of taverns across London and Daventry. [m] Fawkes would be left to light the fuse and then escape across the Thames, while simultaneously a revolt in the Midlands would help to ensure the capture of the King's daughter, Elizabeth. Fawkes would leave for the continent, to explain events in England to the European Catholic powers. [82]

The wives of those involved and Anne Vaux (a friend of Garnet who often shielded priests at her home) became increasingly concerned by what they suspected was about to happen. [83] Several of the conspirators expressed worries about the safety of fellow Catholics who would be present in Parliament on the day of the planned explosion. [84] Percy was concerned for his patron, Northumberland, and the young Earl of Arundel's name was brought up Catesby suggested that a minor wound might keep him from the chamber on that day. The Lords Vaux, Montague, Monteagle, and Stourton were also mentioned. Keyes suggested warning Lord Mordaunt, his wife's employer, to derision from Catesby. [85]

On Saturday 26 October, Monteagle (Tresham's brother-in-law) arranged a meal in a long-disused house at Hoxton. Suddenly a servant appeared saying he had been handed a letter for Lord Monteagle from a stranger in the road. Monteagle ordered it to be read aloud to the company. "By this prearranged manoeuvre Francis Tresham sought at the same time to prevent the Plot and forewarn his friends" (H Trevor-Roper).

My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you. [86]

Uncertain of the letter's meaning, Monteagle promptly rode to Whitehall and handed it to Cecil (then Earl of Salisbury). [87] Salisbury informed the Earl of Worcester, considered to have recusant sympathies, and the suspected Catholic Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, but kept news of the plot from the King, who was busy hunting in Cambridgeshire and not expected back for several days. Monteagle's servant, Thomas Ward, had family connections with the Wright brothers, and sent a message to Catesby about the betrayal. Catesby, who had been due to go hunting with the King, suspected that Tresham was responsible for the letter, and with Thomas Wintour confronted the recently recruited conspirator. Tresham managed to convince the pair that he had not written the letter, but urged them to abandon the plot. [88] Salisbury was already aware of certain stirrings before he received the letter, but did not yet know the exact nature of the plot, or who exactly was involved. He therefore elected to wait, to see how events unfolded. [89]

Discovery Edit

The letter was shown to the King on Friday 1 November following his arrival back in London. Upon reading it, James immediately seized upon the word "blow" and felt that it hinted at "some strategem of fire and powder", [90] perhaps an explosion exceeding in violence the one that killed his father, Lord Darnley, at Kirk o' Field in 1567. [91] Keen not to seem too intriguing, and wanting to allow the King to take the credit for unveiling the conspiracy, Salisbury feigned ignorance. [92] The following day members of the Privy Council visited the King at the Palace of Whitehall and informed him that, based on the information that Salisbury had given them a week earlier, on Monday the Lord Chamberlain Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk would undertake a search of the Houses of Parliament, "both above and below". On Sunday 3 November Percy, Catesby and Wintour had a final meeting, where Percy told his colleagues that they should "abide the uttermost triall", and reminded them of their ship waiting at anchor on the Thames. [93] By 4 November Digby was ensconced with a "hunting party" at Dunchurch, ready to abduct Elizabeth. [94] The same day, Percy visited the Earl of Northumberland—who was uninvolved in the conspiracy—to see if he could discern what rumours surrounded the letter to Monteagle. Percy returned to London and assured Wintour, John Wright, and Robert Keyes that they had nothing to be concerned about, and returned to his lodgings on Gray's Inn Road. That same evening Catesby, likely accompanied by John Wright and Bates, set off for the Midlands. Fawkes visited Keyes, and was given a pocket watch left by Percy, to time the fuse, and an hour later Rookwood received several engraved swords from a local cutler. [95]

Although two accounts of the number of searches and their timing exist, according to the King's version, the first search of the buildings in and around Parliament was made on Monday 4 November—as the plotters were busy making their final preparations—by Suffolk, Monteagle, and John Whynniard. They found a large pile of firewood in the undercroft beneath the House of Lords, accompanied by what they presumed to be a serving man (Fawkes), who told them that the firewood belonged to his master, Thomas Percy. They left to report their findings, at which time Fawkes also left the building. The mention of Percy's name aroused further suspicion as he was already known to the authorities as a Catholic agitator. The King insisted that a more thorough search be undertaken. Late that night, the search party, headed by Thomas Knyvet, returned to the undercroft. They again found Fawkes, dressed in a cloak and hat, and wearing boots and spurs. He was arrested, whereupon he gave his name as John Johnson. He was carrying a lantern now held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, [96] and a search of his person revealed a pocket watch, several slow matches and touchwood. [97] 36 barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden under piles of faggots and coal. [98] Fawkes was taken to the King early on the morning of 5 November. [99]

Flight Edit

As news of "John Johnson's" arrest spread among the plotters still in London, most fled northwest, along Watling Street. Christopher Wright and Thomas Percy left together. Rookwood left soon after, and managed to cover 30 miles in two hours on one horse. He overtook Keyes, who had set off earlier, then Wright and Percy at Little Brickhill, before catching Catesby, John Wright, and Bates on the same road. Reunited, the group continued northwest to Dunchurch, using horses provided by Digby. Keyes went to Mordaunt's house at Drayton. Meanwhile, Thomas Wintour stayed in London, and even went to Westminster to see what was happening. When he realised the plot had been uncovered, he took his horse and made for his sister's house at Norbrook, before continuing to Huddington Court. [n] [100]

Extract of a letter from Sir Edward Hoby (Gentleman of the Bedchamber) to Sir Thomas Edwards, Ambassador at Brussells [sic] [101]

The group of six conspirators stopped at Ashby St Ledgers at about 6 pm, where they met Robert Wintour and updated him on their situation. They then continued on to Dunchurch, and met with Digby. Catesby convinced him that despite the plot's failure, an armed struggle was still a real possibility. He announced to Digby's "hunting party" that the King and Salisbury were dead, before the fugitives moved west to Warwick. [100]

In London, news of the plot was spreading, and the authorities set extra guards on the city gates, closed the ports, and protected the house of the Spanish Ambassador, which was surrounded by an angry mob. An arrest warrant was issued against Thomas Percy, and his patron, the Earl of Northumberland, was placed under house arrest. [102] In "John Johnson's" initial interrogation he revealed nothing other than the name of his mother, and that he was from Yorkshire. A letter to Guy Fawkes was discovered on his person, but he claimed that name was one of his aliases. Far from denying his intentions, "Johnson" stated that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and Parliament. [o] Nevertheless, he maintained his composure and insisted that he had acted alone. His unwillingness to yield so impressed the King that he described him as possessing "a Roman resolution". [104]

Investigation Edit

On 6 November, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Popham (a man with a deep-seated hatred of Catholics) questioned Rookwood's servants. By the evening he had learned the names of several of those involved in the conspiracy: Catesby, Rookwood, Keyes, Wynter [sic], John and Christopher Wright, and Grant. "Johnson" meanwhile persisted with his story, and along with the gunpowder he was found with, [p] was moved to the Tower of London, where the King had decided that "Johnson" would be tortured. [105] The use of torture was forbidden, except by royal prerogative or a body such as the Privy Council or Star Chamber. [106] In a letter of 6 November James wrote: "The gentler tortours [tortures] are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur [and thus by steps extended to the bottom depths], and so God speed your good work." [107] "Johnson" may have been placed in manacles and hung from the wall, but he was almost certainly subjected to the horrors of the rack. On 7 November his resolve was broken he confessed late that day, and again over the following two days. [108] [109]

Last stand Edit

On 6 November, with Fawkes maintaining his silence, the fugitives raided Warwick Castle for supplies and continued to Norbrook to collect weapons. From there they continued their journey to Huddington. Bates left the group and travelled to Coughton Court to deliver a letter from Catesby, to Father Garnet and the other priests, informing them of what had transpired, and asking for their help in raising an army. Garnet replied by begging Catesby and his followers to stop their "wicked actions", before himself fleeing. Several priests set out for Warwick, worried about the fate of their colleagues. They were caught, and then imprisoned in London. Catesby and the others arrived at Huddington early in the afternoon, and were met by Thomas Wintour. They received practically no support or sympathy from those they met, including family members, who were terrified at the prospect of being associated with treason. They continued on to Holbeche House on the border of Staffordshire, the home of Stephen Littleton, a member of their ever-decreasing band of followers. Whilst there Stephen Littleton and Thomas Wintour went to 'Pepperhill', the Shropshire residence of Sir John Talbot to gain support but to no avail. Tired and desperate, they spread out some of the now-soaked gunpowder in front of the fire, to dry out. Although gunpowder does not explode unless physically contained, a spark from the fire landed on the powder and the resultant flames engulfed Catesby, Rookwood, Grant, and a man named Morgan (a member of the hunting party). [110]

Thomas Wintour and Littleton, on their way from Huddington to Holbeche House, were told by a messenger that Catesby had died. At that point, Littleton left, but Thomas arrived at the house to find Catesby alive, albeit scorched. John Grant was not so lucky, and had been blinded by the fire. Digby, Robert Wintour and his half-brother John, and Thomas Bates, had all left. Of the plotters, only the singed figures of Catesby and Grant, and the Wright brothers, Rookwood, and Percy, remained. The fugitives resolved to stay in the house and wait for the arrival of the King's men. [111]

Richard Walsh (Sheriff of Worcestershire) and his company of 200 men besieged Holbeche House on the morning of 8 November. Thomas Wintour was hit in the shoulder while crossing the courtyard. John Wright was shot, followed by his brother, and then Rookwood. Catesby and Percy were reportedly killed by a single lucky shot. The attackers rushed the property, and stripped the dead or dying defenders of their clothing. Grant, Morgan, Rookwood, and Wintour were arrested. [111]

Bates and Keyes were captured shortly after Holbeche House was taken. Digby, who had intended to give himself up, was caught by a small group of pursuers. Tresham was arrested on 12 November, and taken to the Tower three days later. Montague, Mordaunt, and Stourton (Tresham's brother-in-law) were also imprisoned in the Tower. The Earl of Northumberland joined them on 27 November. [112] Meanwhile, the government used the revelation of the plot to accelerate its persecution of Catholics. The home of Anne Vaux at Enfield Chase was searched, revealing the presence of trap doors and hidden passages. A terrified servant then revealed that Garnet, who had often stayed at the house, had recently given a Mass there. Father John Gerard was secreted at the home of Elizabeth Vaux, in Harrowden. Vaux was taken to London for interrogation. There she was resolute she had never been aware that Gerard was a priest, she had presumed he was a "Catholic gentleman", and she did not know of his whereabouts. The homes of the conspirators were searched, and looted Mary Digby's household was ransacked, and she was made destitute. [113] Some time before the end of November, Garnet moved to Hindlip Hall near Worcester, the home of the Habingtons, where he wrote a letter to the Privy Council protesting his innocence. [114]

The foiling of the Gunpowder Plot initiated a wave of national relief at the delivery of the King and his sons, and inspired in the ensuing parliament a mood of loyalty and goodwill, which Salisbury astutely exploited to extract higher subsidies for the King than any (bar one) granted in Elizabeth I's reign. [115] Walter Raleigh, who was languishing in the Tower owing to his involvement in the Main Plot, and whose wife was a first cousin of Lady Catesby, declared he had had no knowledge of the conspiracy. [116] The Bishop of Rochester gave a sermon at St. Paul's Cross, in which he condemned the plot. [117] In his speech to both Houses on 9 November, James expounded on two emerging preoccupations of his monarchy: the divine right of kings and the Catholic question. He insisted that the plot had been the work of only a few Catholics, not of the English Catholics as a whole, [q] and he reminded the assembly to rejoice at his survival, since kings were divinely appointed and he owed his escape to a miracle. [119] Salisbury wrote to his English ambassadors abroad, informing them of what had occurred, and also reminding them that the King bore no ill will to his Catholic neighbours. The foreign powers largely distanced themselves from the plotters, calling them atheists and Protestant heretics. [117]

Interrogations Edit

Sir Edward Coke was in charge of the interrogations. Over a period of about ten weeks, in the Lieutenant's Lodgings at the Tower of London (now known as the Queen's House) he questioned those who had been implicated in the plot. For the first round of interrogations, no real proof exists that these people were tortured, although on several occasions Salisbury certainly suggested that they should be. Coke later revealed that the threat of torture was in most cases enough to elicit a confession from those caught up in the aftermath of the plot. [120]

Only two confessions were printed in full: Fawkes's confession of 8 November, and Wintour's of 23 November. Having been involved in the conspiracy from the start (unlike Fawkes), Wintour was able to give extremely valuable information to the Privy Council. The handwriting on his testimony is almost certainly that of the man himself, but his signature was markedly different. Wintour had previously only ever signed his name as such, but his confession is signed "Winter", and since he had been shot in the shoulder, the steady hand used to write the signature may indicate some measure of government interference—or it may indicate that writing a shorter version of his name was less painful. [121] Wintour's testimony makes no mention of his brother, Robert. Both were published in the so-called King's Book, a hastily written official account of the conspiracy published in late November 1605. [43] [122]

Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, was in a difficult position. His midday dinner with Thomas Percy on 4 November was damning evidence against him, [123] and after Thomas Percy's death there was nobody who could either implicate him or clear him. The Privy Council suspected that Northumberland would have been Princess Elizabeth's protector had the plot succeeded, but there was insufficient evidence to convict him. Northumberland remained in the Tower and on 27 June 1606 was finally charged with contempt. He was stripped of all public offices, fined £30,000 (about £6.6 million in 2021), and kept in the Tower until June 1621. [124] The Lords Mordaunt and Stourton were tried in the Star Chamber. They were condemned to imprisonment in the Tower, where they remained until 1608, when they were transferred to the Fleet Prison. Both were also given significant fines. [125]

Several other people not involved in the conspiracy, but known or related to the conspirators, were also questioned. Northumberland's brothers, Sir Allen and Sir Josceline, were arrested. Anthony-Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount Montagu had employed Fawkes at an early age, and had also met Catesby on 29 October, and was therefore of interest he was released several months later. [126] Agnes Wenman was from a Catholic family, and related to Elizabeth Vaux. [r] She was examined twice but the charges against her were eventually dropped. [128] Percy's secretary and later the controller of Northumberland's household, Dudley Carleton, had leased the vault where the gunpowder was stored, and consequently he was imprisoned in the Tower. Salisbury believed his story, and authorised his release. [129]

Jesuits Edit

Thomas Bates confessed on 4 December, providing much of the information that Salisbury needed to link the Catholic clergy to the plot. Bates had been present at most of the conspirators' meetings, and under interrogation he implicated Father Tesimond in the plot. On 13 January 1606 he described how he had visited Garnet and Tesimond on 7 November to inform Garnet of the plot's failure. Bates also told his interrogators of his ride with Tesimond to Huddington, before the priest left him to head for the Habingtons at Hindlip Hall, and of a meeting between Garnet, Gerard, and Tesimond in October 1605. At about the same time in December, Tresham's health began to deteriorate. He was visited regularly by his wife, a nurse, and his servant William Vavasour, who documented his strangury. Before he died Tresham had also told of Garnet's involvement with the 1603 mission to Spain, but in his last hours he retracted some of these statements. Nowhere in his confession did he mention the Monteagle letter. He died early on the morning of 23 December, and was buried in the Tower. Nevertheless he was attainted along with the other plotters, his head was set on a pike either at Northampton or London Bridge, and his estates confiscated. [130] [131] [132]

On 15 January a proclamation named Father Garnet, Father Gerard, and Father Greenway (Tesimond) as wanted men. Tesimond and Gerard [133] managed to escape the country and live out their days in freedom Garnet was not so lucky. Several days earlier, on 9 January, Robert Wintour and Stephen Littleton were captured. Their hiding place at Hagley, the home of Humphrey Littleton (brother of MP John Littleton, imprisoned for treason in 1601 for his part in the Essex revolt) [134] was betrayed by a cook, who grew suspicious of the amount of food sent up for his master's consumption. Humphrey denied the presence of the two fugitives, but another servant led the authorities to their hiding place. [135] On 20 January the local Justice and his retainers arrived at Thomas Habington's home, Hindlip Hall, to arrest the Jesuits. Despite Thomas Habington's protests, the men spent the next four days searching the house. On 24 January, starving, two priests left their hiding places and were discovered. Humphrey Littleton, who had escaped from the authorities at Hagley, got as far as Prestwood in Staffordshire before he was captured. He was imprisoned, and then condemned to death at Worcester. On 26 January, in exchange for his life, he told the authorities where they could find Father Garnet. Worn down by hiding for so long, Garnet, accompanied by another priest, emerged from his priest hole the next day. [136]

Trials Edit

By coincidence, on the same day that Garnet was found, the surviving conspirators were arraigned in Westminster Hall. Seven of the prisoners were taken from the Tower to the Star Chamber by barge. Bates, who was considered lower class, was brought from the Gatehouse Prison. Some of the prisoners were reportedly despondent, but others were nonchalant, even smoking tobacco. The King and his family, hidden from view, were among the many who watched the trial. The Lords Commissioners present were the Earls of Suffolk, Worcester, Northampton, Devonshire, and Salisbury. Sir John Popham was Lord Chief Justice, Sir Thomas Fleming was Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, and two Justices, Sir Thomas Walmsley and Sir Peter Warburton, sat as Justices of the Common Pleas. The list of traitors' names was read aloud, beginning with those of the priests: Garnet, Tesimond, and Gerard. [137] [138]

The first to speak was the Speaker of the House of Commons (later Master of the Rolls), Sir Edward Philips, who described the intent behind the plot in lurid detail. [138] He was followed by the Attorney-General Sir Edward Coke, who began with a long speech—the content of which was heavily influenced by Salisbury—that included a denial that the King had ever made any promises to the Catholics. Monteagle's part in the discovery of the plot was welcomed, and denunciations of the 1603 mission to Spain featured strongly. Fawkes's protestations that Gerard knew nothing of the plot were omitted from Coke's speech. The foreign powers, when mentioned, were accorded due respect, but the priests were accursed, their behaviour analysed and criticised wherever possible. There was little doubt, according to Coke, that the plot had been invented by the Jesuits. Garnet's meeting with Catesby, at which the former was said to have absolved the latter of any blame in the plot, was proof enough that the Jesuits were central to the conspiracy [139] according to Coke the Gunpowder Plot would always be known as the Jesuit Treason. [140] Coke spoke with feeling of the probable fate of the Queen and the rest of the King's family, and of the innocents who would have been caught up in the explosion. [139]

Each of the condemned, said Coke, would be drawn backwards to his death, by a horse, his head near the ground. He was to be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both". His genitals would be cut off and burnt before his eyes, and his bowels and heart then removed. Then he would be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of his body displayed so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air". [139] Confessions and declarations from the prisoners were then read aloud, and finally the prisoners were allowed to speak. Rookwood claimed that he had been drawn into the plot by Catesby, "whom he loved above any worldy man". Thomas Wintour begged to be hanged for himself and his brother, so that his brother might be spared. Fawkes explained his not guilty plea as ignorance of certain aspects of the indictment. Keyes appeared to accept his fate, Bates and Robert Wintour begged for mercy, and Grant explained his involvement as "a conspiracy intended but never effected". [141] Only Digby, tried on a separate indictment, [138] pleaded guilty, insisting that the King had reneged upon promises of toleration for Catholics, and that affection for Catesby and love of the Catholic cause mitigated his actions. He sought death by the axe and begged mercy from the King for his young family. [142] His defence was in vain his arguments were rebuked by Coke and Northumberland, and along with his seven co-conspirators, he was found guilty by the jury of high treason. Digby shouted "If I may but hear any of your lordships say, you forgive me, I shall go more cheerfully to the gallows." The response was short: "God forgive you, and we do." [143] [144]

Garnet may have been questioned on as many as 23 occasions. His response to the threat of the rack was "Minare ista pueris [Threats are only for boys]", [s] and he denied having encouraged Catholics to pray for the success of the "Catholic Cause". His interrogators resorted to the forgery of correspondence between Garnet and other Catholics, but to no avail. His jailers then allowed him to talk with another priest in a neighbouring cell, with eavesdroppers listening to every word. [145] Eventually Garnet let slip a crucial piece of information, that there was only one man who could testify that he had any knowledge of the plot. Under torture Garnet admitted that he had heard of the plot from fellow Jesuit Oswald Tesimond, who had learnt of it in confession from Catesby. [146] Garnet was charged with high treason and tried in the Guildhall on 28 March, in a trial lasting from 8 am until 7 pm. [147] According to Coke, Garnet instigated the plot: "[Garnet] hath many gifts and endowments of nature, by art learned, a good linguist and, by profession, a Jesuit and a Superior as indeed he is Superior to all his predecessors in devilish treason, a Doctor of Dissimulation, Deposing of Princes, Disposing of Kingdoms, Daunting and deterring of subjects, and Destruction." Garnet refuted all the charges against him, and explained the Catholic position on such matters, but he was nevertheless found guilty and sentenced to death. [114]

Executions Edit

Although Catesby and Percy escaped the executioner, their bodies were exhumed and decapitated, and their heads exhibited on spikes outside the House of Lords. [112] On a cold 30 January, Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Thomas Bates, were tied to hurdles—wooden panels [148] —and dragged through the crowded streets of London to St Paul's Churchyard. Digby, the first to mount the scaffold, asked the spectators for forgiveness, and refused the attentions of a Protestant clergyman. He was stripped of his clothing, and wearing only a shirt, climbed the ladder to place his head through the noose. He was quickly cut down, and while still fully conscious was castrated, disembowelled, and then quartered, along with the three other prisoners. [149] The following day, Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, and Guy Fawkes were hanged, drawn and quartered, opposite the building they had planned to blow up, in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. [150] Keyes did not wait for the hangman's command and jumped from the gallows, but he survived the drop and was led to the quartering block. Although weakened by his torture, Fawkes managed to jump from the gallows and break his neck, thus avoiding the agony of the gruesome latter part of his execution. [151] [152]

Steven Littleton was executed at Stafford. His cousin Humphrey, despite his co-operation with the authorities, met his end at Red Hill near Worcester. [153] Henry Garnet's execution took place on 3 May 1606. [154]

Greater freedom for Roman Catholics to worship as they chose seemed unlikely in 1604, but the discovery of such a wide-ranging conspiracy, the capture of those involved, and the subsequent trials, led Parliament to consider introducing new anti-Catholic legislation. The event also destroyed all hope that the Spanish would ever secure tolerance of the Catholics in England. [155] In the summer of 1606, laws against recusancy were strengthened the Popish Recusants Act returned England to the Elizabethan system of fines and restrictions, introduced a sacramental test, and an Oath of Allegiance, [156] requiring Catholics to abjure as a "heresy" the doctrine that "princes excommunicated by the Pope could be deposed or assassinated". [13] Catholic Emancipation took another 200 years, but many important and loyal Catholics retained high office during King James I's reign. [157] Although there was no "golden time" of "toleration" of Catholics, which Father Garnet had hoped for, James's reign was nevertheless a period of relative leniency for Catholics, and few were subject to prosecution. [158]

The playwright William Shakespeare had already used the family history of Northumberland's family in his Henry IV series of plays, and the events of the Gunpowder Plot seem to have featured alongside the earlier Gowrie conspiracy in Macbeth, written some time between 1603 and 1607. [159] Interest in the demonic was heightened by the Gunpowder Plot. The King had become engaged in the great debate about other-worldly powers in writing his Daemonologie in 1599, before he became King of England as well as Scotland. Inversions seen in such lines as "fair is foul and foul is fair" are used frequently, and another possible reference to the plot relates to the use of equivocation Garnet's A Treatise of Equivocation was found on one of the plotters. [160] Another writer influenced by the plot was John Milton, who in 1626 wrote what one commentator has called a "critically vexing poem", In Quintum Novembris. Reflecting "partisan public sentiment on an English-Protestant national holiday", [161] in the published editions of 1645 and 1673 the poem is preceded by five epigrams on the subject of the Gunpowder Plot, apparently written by Milton in preparation for the larger work. [162] The plot may also have influenced his later work, Paradise Lost. [163]

The Gunpowder Plot was commemorated for years by special sermons and other public acts, such as the ringing of church bells. It added to an increasingly full calendar of Protestant celebrations that contributed to the national and religious life of 17th-century England, [164] and has evolved into the Bonfire Night of today. In What If the Gunpowder Plot Had Succeeded? historian Ronald Hutton considered the events which might have followed a successful implementation of the plot, and the destruction of the House of Lords and all those within it. He concluded that a severe backlash against suspected Catholics would have followed, and that without foreign assistance a successful rebellion would have been unlikely despite differing religious convictions, most Englishmen were loyal to the institution of the monarchy. England might have become a more "Puritan absolute monarchy", as "existed in Sweden, Denmark, Saxony, and Prussia in the seventeenth century", rather than following the path of parliamentary and civil reform that it did. [165]

Accusations of state conspiracy Edit

Many at the time felt that Salisbury had been involved in the plot to gain favour with the King and enact more stridently anti-Catholic legislation. Such conspiracy theories alleged that Salisbury had either actually invented the plot or allowed it to continue when his agents had already infiltrated it, for the purposes of propaganda. [158] The Popish Plot of 1678 sparked renewed interest in the Gunpowder Plot, resulting in a book by Thomas Barlow, Bishop of Lincoln, which refuted "a bold and groundless surmise that all this was a contrivance of Secretary Cecil". [166]

In 1897 Father John Gerard of Stonyhurst College, namesake of John Gerard (who, following the plot's discovery, had evaded capture), wrote an account called What was the Gunpowder Plot?, alleging Salisbury's culpability. [167] This prompted a refutation later that year by Samuel Gardiner, who argued that Gerard had gone too far in trying to "wipe away the reproach" which the plot had exacted on generations of English Catholics. [168] Gardiner portrayed Salisbury as guilty of nothing more than opportunism. Subsequent attempts to prove Salisbury's involvement, such as Francis Edwards's 1969 work Guy Fawkes: the real story of the gunpowder plot?, have similarly foundered on the lack of any clear evidence. [169]

The cellars under the Houses of Parliament continued to be leased out to private individuals until 1678, when news of the Popish Plot broke. It was then considered prudent to search the cellars on the day before each State Opening of Parliament, a ritual that survives to this day. [166]

Bonfire Night Edit

In January 1606, during the first sitting of Parliament since the plot, the Observance of 5th November Act 1605 was passed, making services and sermons commemorating the event an annual feature of English life [170] the act remained in force until 1859. [171] The tradition of marking the day with the ringing of church bells and bonfires started soon after the Plot's discovery, and fireworks were included in some of the earliest celebrations. [170] In Britain, 5 November is variously called Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, or Guy Fawkes Night. [171]

It remains the custom in Britain, on or around 5 November, to let off fireworks. Traditionally, in the weeks running up to the 5th, children made "guys"—effigies supposedly of Fawkes—usually made from old clothes stuffed with newspaper, and fitted with a grotesque mask, to be burnt on 5 November bonfire. These guys were exhibited in the street to collect money for fireworks, although this custom has become less common. [172] The word guy thus came in the 19th century to mean an oddly dressed person, and hence in the 20th and 21st centuries to mean any male person. [171]

Remember, remember,
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot
For I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

5 November firework displays and bonfire parties are common throughout Britain, in major public displays and in private gardens. [171] In some areas, particularly in Sussex, there are extensive processions, large bonfires and firework displays organised by local bonfire societies, the most elaborate of which take place in Lewes.

According to the biographer Esther Forbes, the Guy Fawkes Day celebration in the pre-revolutionary American colonies was a very popular holiday. In Boston, the revelry on "Pope Night" took on anti-authoritarian overtones, and often became so dangerous that many would not venture out of their homes. [174]

Reconstructing the explosion Edit

In the 2005 ITV programme The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend, a full-size replica of the House of Lords was built and destroyed with barrels of gunpowder, totalling 1 metric tonne of explosives. The experiment was conducted on the Advantica-owned Spadeadam test site and demonstrated that the explosion, if the gunpowder was in good order, would have killed all those in the building. [175] The power of the explosion was such that of the 7-foot (2.1 m) deep concrete walls making up the undercroft (replicating how archives suggest the walls of the old House of Lords were constructed), the end wall where the barrels were placed by, under the throne, was reduced to rubble, and the adjacent surviving portions of wall were shoved away. Measuring devices placed in the chamber to calculate the force of the blast were recorded as going off the scale just before their destruction by the explosion a piece of the head of the dummy representing King James, which had been placed on a throne inside the chamber surrounded by courtiers, peers and bishops, was found a considerable distance from its initial location. According to the findings of the programme, no one within 330 feet (100 m) of the blast could have survived, and all of the stained glass windows in Westminster Abbey would have been shattered, as would all of the windows in the vicinity of the Palace. The explosion would have been seen from miles away and heard from further away still. Even if only half of the gunpowder had gone off, which Fawkes was apparently prepared for, everyone in the House of Lords and its environs would have been killed instantly. [175]

The programme also disproved claims that some deterioration in the quality of the gunpowder would have prevented the explosion. A portion of deliberately deteriorated gunpowder, of such low quality as to make it unusable in firearms, when placed in a heap and ignited, still managed to create a large explosion. The impact of even deteriorated gunpowder would have been magnified by its containment in wooden barrels, compensating for the quality of the contents. The compression would have created a cannon effect, with the powder first blowing up from the top of the barrel before, a millisecond later, blowing out. Calculations showed that Fawkes, who was skilled in the use of gunpowder, had deployed double the amount needed. In a test detonation of all 12 kilograms (26 lb) of period-accurate gunpowder available in the UK inside the same size of barrel Fawkes had used, the experts for the project were surprised at how much more powerful an effect that compression had in creating an explosion. [176]

Some of the gunpowder guarded by Fawkes may have survived. In March 2002 workers cataloguing archives of diarist John Evelyn at the British Library found a box containing a number of gunpowder samples, including a compressed bar with a note in Evelyn's handwriting stating that it had belonged to Guy Fawkes. A further note, written in the 19th century, confirmed this provenance, although in 1952 the document acquired a new comment: "but there was none left!" [177]

The Gunpowder Plot

On November 5, 1605, a secret plot to blow up the British Parliament on opening day and kill both King James I and as many members of parliament as possible was discovered and stopped. An anonymous letter that tipped off an advisor to the king made it possible to stop the planned mass murder from happening, and the perpetrators were captured, tried, and then executed for treason.

This historical event is known as the “Gunpowder Plot” because of the 36 barrels of gunpowder found in the basement of the parliament building, gunpowder intended to be used in a massive and deadly explosion.


In 1603, after Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I dies, her cousin James IV of Scotland takes the throne and the title of King James I. Although James is a protestant, he is also the son of the devout Catholic Mary of Scots, so Catholics are hopeful that this king will be more sympathetic towards them than his predecessor.

But in early 1604, the king shows that his loyalty belongs solely to the Church of England by ordering all Catholic priests to leave the country. Going even further, he continues the practice of imposing fines on Catholics who refuse to attend the Church of England services.

Meanwhile, Catholic Robert Catesby, whose father had been persecuted for their religion during Elizabeth’s reign, meets with his cousin Thomas Wintour and John Wright to begin plotting their attempt to kill James I. As part of the plan, Wintour goes to Spanish-ruled Flanders to ask for Spain’s support in their effort, but is turned down because Spain wants peace with England and refuses to help the plotters.

While he is in Flanders, Wintour meets and recruits fellow Englishman Guy Fawkes, who is an explosives expert and a mercenary. Fawkes is also a Catholic convert and has been fighting with the Catholic army in Spain against the government. Meanwhile, in England, more anger towards James is stirred up when he and the Parliament rule that Catholics no longer have the right to makes wills or receive rent.

Fawkes and Wintour return to England to meet with Catesby, Thomas Percy, and John Wright it is these five men who form the core of the rebellious group and who swear a religious oath of secrecy. With help from the influential and zealous Fawkes, eight more conspirators join the effort. The conspirators devise a plan to blow up the House of Lords on opening day, and to begin a popular urising that will eventually restore the throne to a Catholic monarch.

Around June 1604, unaware that Thomas Percy is plotting against the throne, his patron, the Earl of Northumberland, secures Percy a position as a royal bodyguard. Percy moves into a house close to Parliament accompanied by Guy Fawkes, who poses as his servant and goes by the name John Johnson. Because of Percy’s new position, he and Fawkes are able to move around Parliament easily and without any suspicion being aroused.

At the same time, Robert Catesby and newcomer Robert Keyes (cousin to both Wintour and Wright) begin to obtain and store gunpowder in Catesby’s house, which is across the river from Parliament. The plotters disperse for the summer after it’s announced that the opening of Parliament has been postponed until February. When they come back together in October they begin digging a tunnel from underneath Percy’s house to the House of Lords.

But once again, the opening of the House of Lords is postponed, this time due to fears about the plague it is rescheduled for October, 1605. In March 1605, the tunnelers are able to stop their labor-intensive tunneling efforts because Thomas Percy manages to rent the cellar directly beneath the House of Lords. Still posing as Percy’s servant, Guy Fawkes attends the cellar and the 36 barrels of gunpowder that have been moved there from their storage spot at Catesby’s house. The barrels of gunpowder are hidden under piles of coal and wooden sticks which are legitimately intended to be used as fuel during the winter.

The conspirators need more money to support the armed uprising that they plan for after the explosion at Parliament. Catesby’s cousin Francis Tresham helps fund them, as does wealthy Ambrose Rookwood. The uprising in the Midlands is supposed to be led by Sir Everard Digby, who is a Catholic convert. Father Henry Garnett, the head of the Jesuit mission in England, learns of the plot in the confessional and tries, unsuccessfully, to persuade Catesby to give the plan up. Meanwhile, the opening of Parliament is pushed back yet again, this time until November.

The lengthy time between the start of the plot and the actual opening of Parliament gives some of the plotters time to have second thoughts about what they are involved in, especially since there will be Catholics present in the Parliament on opening day – and that means Catholic casualties. Ten days before the scheduled November 5 opening date, Francis Treshim’s brother-in-law Lord Monteagle, is delivered an unsigned letter that warns him not to attend the opening although it does not go into specifics, it is clear that being there will be dangerous, perhaps deadly.

A Catholic who is loyal to the crown, Lord Monteagle takes the letter to the king’s chief minister, Robert Cecil. One of Monteagle’s servants informs the plotters about what has occurred, and Catesby – who immediately suspects his cousin Francis Tresham, of penning the letter – confronts him. Tresham denies having had any part in it, but uses the opportunity to try to persuade Catesby to completely abandon the idea. Catesby refuses and has Guy Fawkes check the cellar to see if the gunpowder has been seized. It has not.

Meanwhile, Robert Cecil has shown the letter to King James, who immediately hones in on the phrase “terrible blowe.” He makes the connection to gunpowder and orders a search. The first search of the cellar is unsuccessful, as the attendant (Guy Fawkes posing as John Johnson), assures them that the cellar is rented to his master Thomas Percy, a royal bodyguard.

The searchers are satisfied with the explanation, but the king is not. He orders another search, and this time, just after midnight on November 5, the searchers return to the cellar. This time they find Fawkes dressed for travelling and in possession of matches and fuses. Further searching turns up the 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Fawkes is taken into custody and then taken to the king. He is interrogated, but refuses to talk until he has been tortured. He finally admits his real identity and confesses to the plot to destroy England’s Protestant reign and replace it with a Catholic monarchy.

Catesby is shot and killed, and Fawkes and the other surviving conspirators are sentenced to be publicly hanged, drawn and quartered. On January 31, 1606, the day of the intended execution, Fawkes jumps from the ladder leading up to the gallows, breaking his neck and dying.

Guy Fawkes Day

Guy Fawkes Night (also called Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night) was established that same year, 1606, by Parliament in remembrance of the foiled Gunpowder Plot. It is now celebrated every year on November 5, when people across England set off fireworks, light bonfires and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes.

List of Important Facts

1. The Gunpowder Plot is the name of a foiled effort in England in 1605 by Catholic rebels to kill the non-Catholic king and many members of parliament by blowing up the House of Lords.
2. The plot was scheduled to take place on the opening day of the House of Lords, ensuring the presence of the king and most if not all of the members of Parliament.
3. The hostility and bitter history between the Catholics and the Church of England protestants dates back to to the reign of Henry 8, who instituted the legality of divorce by separating from the Catholic church.
4. The leader of the rebels was Robert Catesby, a Catholic whose father had been imprisoned for his beliefs. After the plot and explosives were discovered, Catesby was shot and killed, holding a picture of the Virgin Mary.
5. The most famous of the rebels was Guy Fawkes, a Catholic convert, mercenary and explosives expert, who was in charge of – and captured with – the gunpowder. After being tortured, Fawkes gave up the plot and the names of his co-conspirators.
6. Fawkes avoided being hanged, drawn and quartered by leaping from the scaffolding leading up to the gallows, breaking his neck and dying.
7. 36 barrels of gunpowder were kept in the cellar right below parliament while opening day kept being postponed.
8. An anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle warning of the impending attack.
9. It took two searches of the cellar to discover the gunpowder.
10. Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated in England every year on November 5 all across England with bonfires, fireworks and hanging effigies of Fawkes.

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The Gunpowder Plot

Three illustrations in a horizontal alignment. The leftmost shows a woman praying, in a room. The rightmost shows a similar scene. The centre image shows a horizon filled with buildings, from across a river. The caption reads "Westminster". At the top of the image, "The Gunpowder Plot" begins a short description of the document's contents.

In 1604 a group of conspirators tried to assassinate the King by blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

When Elizabeth I of England died in 1603, she left behind a kingdom bitterly divided along religious lines. Under her guidance, the Anglican Church grew in power and closer to Protestantism. At the same time, Catholics were marginalized. When James VI of Scotland took the throne and became James I of England, most Catholics hoped he would bring a more tolerant religious attitude. They were quickly disappointed.

Because of this, in 1604, the Catholic Robert Catesby decided to organized a conspiracy to assassinate the king, kidnap his children, and start a revolution. Catesby organized a small group of fellow plotters, most notably, Guy Fawkes a former soldier and demolitions expert. In May of 1604, the group rented a house next to the House of Lords with the idea to mine under House of Lords and plant explosives. Before they could fully put this plan into action, they had the luck of finding and renting a cellar already underneath the Parliament. By March of 1605, the conspirators had packed the seller with 1800 pounds of gunpowder, enough to reduce Parliament and much of the surroundings to rubble.

Here the luck of the conspirators ran out. A series of incidents delayed the start of Parliament. The conspirators decided it was wiser not to remain together in London and left Guy Fawkes alone to oversee the gunpowder. Then, days before Parliament was due to open, one of the Lords received an anonymous letter, advising him not to attend. This led to a further delay of Parliament and a search of the grounds. On the morning of November 5, Guy Fawkes was found and arrested. He freely admitted his intent to kill the king.

Due to the extreme nature of this attempted crime, King James authorized the use of torture on Fawkes. Guy Fawkes grimly held his tongue for several days before succumbing on the rack and naming his fellow conspirators. Over the next few months, all of the conspirators were killed or captured. A trial was held on January 27, 1606. All were found guilty and sentenced to death by being hanged, drawn, and quartered, the traditional punishment for traitors. Four men were executed on January 30, with Fawkes and two others being put to death a day later.

The incident proved to be a disaster for the Catholic population of England, especially after it was revealed that one of the conspirators had told a Jesuit Priest of the plot during confession. Catholics would continue to suffer and be persecuted in England for hundreds of years. They would not even be allowed to vote until 1829.

In England today, November 5 is called Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, or Fireworks Night. It is traditionally celebrated by the burning the effigy of Guy Fawkes on a large bonfire and letting off fireworks all night long.

Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (1996)

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It seems that when reading Fraser, I comment on not being a fan. Upon finishing one of her books my opinion always shifts when I come to terms with how well-informed I've become. This seems fairly similar to my take on some high school and college professors: didn't enjoy the method but loved the results.

Fraser, per her usual, is even-handed, painfully thorough and brilliant in her lack of judgement, foreshadowing or gross suppositions. While that makes for a sometimes interesting read, it's really not what is wanted in a good history, which despite my protestations, is precisely what this book is. ( )

Lady Antonia Fraser’s Faith and Treason compared with Alice Hogge’s God’s Secret Agents.

The Gunpowder Plot was the 9/11 of its day (that day being November 5, 1605). Conspirators packed a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder, the idea being to set it off when the Royal Family and both houses were present for the ceremonial Opening sand wipe out the entire English government at a stroke. Like 9/11, the plot was motivated by religion – all the conspirators were Catholic. Like 9/11, the plot evoked an outburst of patriotism in both its best and worst forms. And like 9/11, there were immediate and subsequent allegations that the whole thing was a Government-sponsored hoax.

Lady Antonia Fraser’s book, Faith and Treason, is a straightforward narrative with Fraser’s usual excellence in bringing the times and the characters to life.

Faith and Treason was written in 1997, well before 9/11, which makes many of the parallels even more unnerving. Although Guy Fawkes is the one who gets the day named after him, it was Thomas Catesby who fills the role of Osama bin Laden, extremely charismatic and able to persuade others that an act of terrorism was religiously justified. Like the 9/11 hijackers, all of the conspirators were young men, and almost all had come to religious fanaticism after a less than devout, even dissolute, earlier life. There were accusations that the conspiracy was actually sponsored by a foreign power – Spain perhaps, or the Papacy – and the government enthusiastically forced the Jesuits into the role of Al Qaeda, even though the Jesuits had publicly disavowed involvement in politics.

Lady Fraser, while emphatically disavowing the “hoax” theory, does point out that the English government was aware of the plot well before its intended date – about October 26. Salisbury deliberately fed information to James I so the King could reasonably believe he had penetrated the plot himself. Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed – with a dark lantern and a slow match – and the other conspirators were quickly hunted down: of the thirteen, four were killed resisting arrest (including Catesby), one died in prison awaiting trial, and the remaining eight were hanged, drawn, and quartered. Ironically, Guy Fawkes broke his neck at the hanging stage the others were disemboweled alive. Sir Everard Digby reportedly made the physiologically unlikely comment “Thou liest!” when the executioner held his heart aloft at the end of the “drawing” and made the traditional cry “Behold the heart of a traitor!”. (Perhaps the executioner was anatomically challenged and Sir Everard meant not “Thou liest! I’m not a traitor!” but “Thou liest!” That’s my spleen.”)

The death of Catesby is what gave armament to the hoax theorists, who speculated that he was an agent provocateur who had recruited the others to give the government an excuse to further persecute Catholics, and who was then shot “attempting to flee” in order to insure his silence. There certainly are a few interesting details the government claimed the original plot was a “mine” beneath Parliament but no trace of a mine was ever found even though access to Parliament was fairly easy in those more trusting days, it’s not clear how somebody could have smuggled that much in with notice the amount of gunpowder involved is unclear, varying from one to five tons and when the gunpowder was returned to a powder magazine, the receipt noted it was “decayed”. Nevertheless, even though Fraser is a Catholic, and shows some sympathy to the conspirators, she is emphatic that it was not a hoax – “It was a violent conspiracy involving Catholic fanatics”.

If there’s a tragic hero to the story, it’s not Catesby or Fawkes or any of the other conspirators, but Father Henry Garnet, SJ. It was not, strictly speaking, illegal to be a Catholic priest in England, but it was illegal for one to enter the country or to celebrate Mass and Garnet met both of these qualifications. Garnet did know of the plot, but his knowledge was under the seal of the confessional. His attempts to prevent it may have seem less than vigorous, but since he was spending most of his time hiding in various “priest holes” he perhaps can be excused. Garnet was not captured until after the plotters had been executed although any plotter who was asked denied that Father Garnet or any other priest had been involved, they were not available for cross examination. The prosecution made much of the Jesuit doctrine of “equivocation” the idea that a someone could avoid self incrimination by answering a question in a misleading fashion – for example, if asked “Are you a priest?” you could answer “No”, meaning secretly “No, I am not a priest of Apollo”. Garnet was convicted after what was essentially a “show trial” at least, his defense may have impressed King James I or others high in the government, because he was left hanging for fifteen minutes and was thus dead or insensible by the drawing and quartering stage.

God’s Secret Agents is Alice Hogge’s first book. Although subtitled “Queen Elizabeth’s Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot”, the Gunpowder Plot plays a very minor part in the story. Instead, it’s an engaging discussion of the politics, secular and religious, of Elizabethan and early Stuart times. A procession of priests, including the poets and intellectuals Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, entered England to do missionary work and administer to the spiritual needs of the remaining English Catholics. Their stories, and those of many of the laity that aided or harbored them are all tragic and a little repetitious there’s only so many ways you can describe an execution.

One the interesting characters is Nicholas Owen, a skilled carpenter who devised many of the “priest holes” in Catholic homes. Owen’s strategy was to build no two “hides” alike to build double “hides” such that if searchers discovered the outer one, they would stop looking and miss the second and to outfit the “hides” with a drinking tube so water and broth could be fed to the concealed priests. Owen eventually died under torture (the official story was that he committed suicide) without revealing the location of any of his “hides” he was canonized in 1970. Every now and then a previously unknown hide, usually attributed to Owen, is discovered when some old manor house is remodeled.

Since this book is copyright 2005, Hogge does not hesitate to draw the obvious parallels between the Gunpowder Plot and 9/11 she’s completely silent on the question of a hoax, taking it for granted that the plot was as advertised.

One interesting observation here is the prevalence of wishful thinking by people who should have known better. Catholics almost invariably thought that there were a lot more of them than there actually were, probably because most people they associated with were also Catholics. Unfortunately they also spread that belief overseas, so that Spain and the Vatican frequently thought that Catholics were a majority in England and all it would take would be a token landing by Spanish troops and the populace would enthusiastically revert to the Old Religion. Catholic diplomats traveling in England would quickly disabuse themselves of this view, but it kept springing up. As the Spanish found out when they attempted a landing in Ireland, they didn’t get enthusiastic support from the people even if there actually was a Catholic majority.

This explains the poorly thought-out nature of the Gunpowder Plot. Blowing up Parliament was the easy part the plotters only had a vague idea of what to do next. There were various arm-waving plans to kidnap Princess Elizabeth (later Elizabeth of Bohemia) or Prince Charles (later Charles I), put them on the throne and “force” them to be Catholic, but the basic idea was that the English people were just waiting for some excuse to all be Catholic again.

I found one other little item that appeals to my sense of the weird. Don Juan de Tassis was one of the Spanish diplomats sent to England to negotiate and snoop around a little. “Tassis” is a Hispanicized form of “Taxis”, part of the Hapsburg noble family of Thurn und Taxis. The Princess von Thurn und Taxis was a patron of poet Ranier Maria Rilke, who wrote the Duino Elegies at her castle at Duino on the Adriatic. Later, Thomas Pynchon used the development of the Hapsburg postal system by the Thurn und Taxis family as the centerpiece of a vast international conspiracy in the novel The Crying of Lot 49. The fictional aerospace company Yoyodyne also figured in the novel, and later turned up as the den of the alien Lectroids in the cult movie The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. If you freeze-frame shots from various Star Trek films and TV shows, you can sometimes see equipment labeled with “YSP”, for Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems, the major manufacturer of Federation starships. While writing this review, another coffee shop costumer came, looked at the book, and asked “Why would God need secret agents?”, inadvertently echoing Kirk’s question from Star Trek: The Final Frontier: “What does God need with a starship?” The study of history is full of little surprises like that.

I can’t really say which book is better – Hogge for the big picture, Fraser for details and character studies.

Remember, Remember, Eleventh September,
For Hijacking, Terror, and Plot…
( )

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King James learns of Gunpowder Plot

Early in the morning, King James I of England learns that a plot to explode the Parliament building has been foiled, hours before he was scheduled to sit with the rest of the British government in a general parliamentary session.

At about midnight on the night of November 4-5, Sir Thomas Knyvet, a justice of the peace, found Guy Fawkes lurking in a cellar under the Parliament building and ordered the premises searched. Some 20 barrels of gunpowder were found, and Fawkes was taken into custody. During a torture session on the rack, Fawkes revealed that he was a participant in an English Catholic conspiracy to annihilate England’s Protestant government and replace it with Catholic leadership.

What became known as the Gunpowder Plot was organized by Robert Catesby, an English Catholic whose father had been persecuted by Queen Elizabeth I for refusing to conform to the Church of England. Guy Fawkes had converted to Catholicism, and his religious zeal led him to fight in the Spanish army in the Netherlands. Catesby and the handful of other plotters rented a cellar that extended under Parliament, and Fawkes planted the gunpowder there, hiding the barrels under coal and wood.

As the November 5 meeting of Parliament approached, Catesby enlisted more English Catholics into the conspiracy, and one of these, Francis Tresham, warned his Catholic brother-in-law Lord Monteagle not to attend Parliament that day. Monteagle alerted the government, and hours before the attack was to have taken place Fawkes and the explosives were found. By torturing Fawkes, King James’ government learned of the identities of his co-conspirators. During the next few weeks, English authorities killed or captured all the plotters and put the survivors on trial, along with a few innocent English Catholics.


The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt to kill King James I and the members of parliament. The plot was foiled and its failure is celebrated every year in England on 5 November when bonfires and fireworks are lit.

In the late 16th century most people in England were Protestants but there was a significant minority of Catholics. The Catholics faced persecution although it was mainly priests who were executed as they were regarded as foreign agents. However ordinary Catholics faced severe fines for not attending Church of England services.

In 1570 the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth I and declared that her people no longer had a duty to obey her. However, most Catholics remained loyal to Elizabeth but the Pope’s actions made Protestants more suspicious of them.

Queen Elizabeth died in March 1603 and she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who now became King James I of England as well. Catholics hoped that James would treat them better, after all his wife, a Danish woman was a Catholic. They were soon to be disappointed. At first, James stopped the fines for non-attendance at Church of England services. However, 2 failed Catholic plots in 1603 alienated the king and he reinstated the fines in 1604.

Nevertheless, most Catholics remained loyal to James and would not take part in any violence. There were however a small number who would. Among them were Robert Catesby (born 1573) and his friend Thomas Percy. Also Thomas Winter and John Wright. The most notorious of the plotters was a soldier named Guy Fawkes (born in Yorkshire in 1570).

The five men met in May 1604. They discussed a plan to blow up parliament using gunpowder. n In March Thomas Percy began renting a house next to the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes was made caretaker of the house. It included a cellar underneath the House of Lords. In the cellar, the plotters hid barrels of gunpowder. The barrels were hidden by firewood.

Meanwhile, other men were drawn into the plot. Parliament was due to meet on 5 November 1605 and the plotters planned to ignite the gunpowder then. Meanwhile, other men were drawn into the conspiracy.

However on 26 October 1605 William Parker, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him not to be present in parliament when it met. Monteagle took the letter to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, one of the king’s ministers. The government now knew that a plot existed. On 4 November 1605, they searched the parliament buildings including the cellar under the House of Lords. They discovered a suspiciously large amount of firewood. A second search was conducted around midnight and this time they found Guy Fawkes.

At first Guy, Fawkes refused to talk but he was tortured and eventually confessed. n Meanwhile the other conspirators fled to Holbeach House in Warwickshire. On 8 November 1605, the sheriff then stormed the house with a party of armed men. Five conspirators were killed in the fighting. Four were captured and five others were still at large but they were soon arrested.

One conspirator died in prison while awaiting trial. The others were put on trial in January 1606. All of the eight plotters were found guilty of treason and were sentenced to death. Guy Fawkes was hanged on 31 January 1606.

Inevitably the Gunpowder Plot led to a hardening of attitudes towards Catholics. On the other hand, 5 November became a great English celebration. Ever afterward bonfires were lit on that night and fireworks were lit. It also became traditional to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes. It used to be traditional to ring church bells on Bonfire night but this custom has died out.

Watch the video: The Gunpowder Plot: A Simple Plan. BBC Studios (June 2022).


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