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The Gunpowder Plot: Treason and Torture

The Gunpowder Plot: Treason and Torture

In 1605, five men conspired to blow up the King and the Houses of Parliament but the question is why?

It seems to be that the argument surrounds the age-old issue of religious beliefs and the right to choose to worship whatever god you have faith in. But, being late 16th century England, there were forces and even laws implemented to stop anyone worshiping outside of the Church of England. To find out the full rationale, you have to go back a couple of years in history to the reign of Elizabeth I.

In 1558 a law was introduced (passed in 1559) which demanded that all the people of the country must attend the local Church at least once a week or face a fine of 12d. Now whilst this seems a very small amount of money today, it was the equivalent of £12.50 in today’s money. A considerable sum of money, especially given that most of the country was really poor. The service had to be conducted in accordance with the Common Book of Prayer.

Elizabeth I, in her defence took to the law to try to stop the unrest as the faith of the country changed between Catholicism and Protestantism. Unfortunately, the results of her attempts were not well received, not just by the Catholic Church but moreover between the High and Low Church elements within the Protestant Church.

This was only the start of the persecution of the Catholic Church faithful and they were referred to as Recusants if they refused to be educated in the Protestant Church and worship there. The faithful Catholics took to sending their children over to France and Spain to be educated and the young men to fight for the Catholic Church. Even after the death of the Queen and the subsequent coronation of James I of England, the situation just continued to get worse. This was the final straw for the main conspirator, Robert Catesby who came to the decision to rid the country of the King and the idealism which was now completely preventing him and his fellow Catholics from worship.

So, in May 1604, the main five conspirators, Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Robert Wintour, Thomas Percy, and Christopher Wright began to hatch a plot to rid themselves of the establishment at its very core. They met in the upstairs room of a pub in London to discuss his plans for the blowing up of parliament. They looked at what they would need in order to bring about the complete destruction of the very centre of the church of England, the legal system, and all the Lords in attendance.

The plan simple enough – blow ‘em all up. The means with which to put this plan into effect suddenly fell at their feet when the house adjacent to the house of lords becomes vacant, leaving the way for the plotters to secure the lease and for Thomas Percy to place Guy Fawkes (or John Johnson as his alias) in residence to complete the dastardly task as if he were Percy’s servant. Guy Fawkes was relatively unknown having been over in Spain fighting for the Catholics for a number of years and therefore had little chance of bumping into known associates and he fitted in with the people around in Jacobean England. Unfortunately, the whole of England was literally crawling with spies on the lookout for any Catholic who might be a threat to the King. The most important of whom was the spymaster Sir Robert Cecil, chief of state and a complete workaholic who had his spies everywhere and although the information he received was vague at best, there were still many whispers around which were leading towards some sort of Plot which had not yet taken form.

Unfortunately, although the planning was coming along well in readiness for the state opening of Parliament, originally scheduled to take place in February 1605, they suffered a set back when it was announced that due to the effects of the Plague, which was rife in London at the time, the opening was to be delayed for 8 months.

Of course, the longer the time is before the opening, the more the chance of discovery increased as more people got involved but at least they had a definite date of 5th November 1605.

Thoughts turned then to the Gunpowder required to finish the task. Robert Catesby lodged over the River from the Houses of Parliament but, as luck would have it, there had been a local coal merchant giving up the lease on storage directly under the houses of parliament. The plan was in place.

Unfortunately, with tensions high, the authorities were taking no chances so they commented that Thomas Percy, as suspected Catholic agitator, had leased storage facilities under the Houses of Parliament. Now, with any plan which involves a lot of people which is increasing numbers all the time, you are running the risk of someone passing on details and this case was no exception. In light of the plan to blow the houses of parliament and all those contained within for the opening ceremony meant that some members of the plotters groups had family and friends (Catholic) who were bound to be there. One of whom was Lord Monteagle who received an anonymous letter advising of the plot. In his attempts to inveigle himself back into the good books (as he was known to be a turncoat Catholic peer) he legs it to the King’s spymaster Lord Cecil who shows it to the King. They decided to leave it a couple of days and then look into the matter in more depth, to allow the plot to ‘ripen’.

This was the beginning of the end for the plot as the king ordered a search of the area and found ‘John Johnson’ dressed, booted, and spurred which they found suspicious. They carried out a search and found a pile of firewood under which were the 36 barrels of gunpowder. The plot was foiled.

Guy was arrested and taken along to the Tower of London where he met with being tortured for 24 hours and was refusing to talk. The King was impressed with Fawkes’ resolve but the inquisitors were getting frustrated.

In 17th Century England, torture was illegal but use could be permitted under special circumstances and James gave his permission to torture in increasing levels till they achieved the goal of discovering all the people involved in the plot (when all said and done, the act of treason held the death penalty all the way through to 1998 when it was changed to life imprisonment). Now whilst Guy put up a fight and was tortured constantly for 24 hours on the rack until he gave up his own name and then for a further 48 hours until he told them everything including the names of all the conspirators.

Meanwhile, Robert Catesby and the remaining plotters left London and went to Warwickshire where they met up with a party of influential Catholics who were expected to join the conspirators in rebellion against the King. Most of those in attendance vanish immediately into the night, refusing to help further. They were left with no choice but to leave the area and head North.

The authorities were in hot pursuit of Catesby and his friends who were discovered in a house in Staffordshire, wet and generally disheartened at the turn of events and of course, concerned about how long Guy can withstand the pain on the rack. Furthermore, whilst attempting to escape their gunpowder in their muskets got wet and they dried it, rather stupidly, in front of an open fire. The resultant explosion was seen for miles and drew attention to the address where they were staying. The following morning, a couple of hundred soldiers surrounded the house and prepared to take them dead or alive. In the mele, Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy were both shot and died from the same musket ball passing through their bodies.

The trial of the remaining conspirators including Guy Fawkes lasted a couple of minutes at the most. They were all found guilty and given the death penalty and were hung then cut off the genitalia, drawn and quartered before the hearts were removed.

To this day, and since the early 1600’s the King said that a law to make people light bonfires in recognition of the foiling of the plot which other than a short respite in the days of Oliver Cromwell, we continue to support to this day with beautiful fireworks and of course, the Bonfire with a Guy on top.

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