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The Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, or the Powder Treason, as it was known at the time, was a failed attempt by a group of provincial English Catholics to kill King James I of England (also known as James VI of Scotland), his family, and most of the Protestant aristocracy in a single attack by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening on the 5th of November 1605. The conspirators also planned to abduct the royal children, who were not present in Parliament and stir up support to incite a revolt.

The Gunpowder Plot was one of many unsuccessful assassination attempts on James I and followed the Main Plot and Bye Plot of 1603. It has been said by some that the government had some degree of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot; however this has never been proved.

Robert Catesby (the real ringleader of the conspiracy) may have felt forced into the plot when hopes of Catholic toleration under King James I faded, which left many Catholics of the time disappointed and uncertain of the future. However, it is more likely Catesby simply envisaged a Catholic future for England brought about by his dastardly scheme. The plot was intended to begin a rebellion during which James' nine-year-old daughter (Princess Elizabeth) could be installed as a Catholic head of state and controlled by Catholic advisors.

The plot was masterminded from May 1604 by Robert Catesby. Other plotters included Thomas Winter, Robert Winter, Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, John Wright, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham, and Catesby's servant, Thomas Bates. The explosives were prepared by Guy Fawkes, an explosives expert with considerable military experience, who had been introduced to Catesby by a man named Hugh Owen.

The details of the plot were well known to the principal Jesuit of England, Father Henry Garnet, as he heard of the plot from Oswald Tesimond, a fellow Jesuit who, with the permission of his penitent Robert Catesby, had discussed the plot with him. As the details of the plot were learned through confession, Garnet was bound not to reveal them to the authorities. Despite his admonitions and protests the plot went ahead, yet Garnet's opposition did not save him from being hanged, drawn and quartered for treason in 1606.

In May 1604 Percy leased lodgings adjacent to the House of Lords. The plotters' plan was to mine their way under the foundations of the House of Lords to lay the gunpowder. The main idea was to kill James, but many other important targets were to be present. Guy Fawkes posing as 'John Johnson' was put in charge of this building and he pretended to be Percy's servant while Catesby's house in Lambeth was used to store the gunpowder along with the picks and implements for mining. However when the plague came again to London in the summer of 1604 it proved to be particularly severe, leading to the opening of parliament being suspended until 1605. By Christmas Eve they had still not reached parliament and just as they recommenced work early in 1605 they learned that the opening had been further postponed to October 3rd. The plotters then took the opportunity to row the gunpowder up the Thames from Lambeth and to conceal it in their rented house. They learned by pure chance that a coal merchant called Ellen Bright had vacated a cellar under the Lords. The original plan, to mine their way under the House, proved too difficult - even with Guy’s extensive mining experience that he gained in his time in the army. Thus the cellar under the House was the perfect solution and Percy immediately took pains to secure the lease from a man named John Whynniard.

The conspirators left London in May and went to their homes and to different areas of the country incase being seen together would arouse suspicion. They arranged to meet again in September. However, the opening of Parliament was again postponed, due to lingering elements of the Black Death. The weakest part of the plot was the arrangements for the subsequent Catholic uprising that would sweep the country and provide a Catholic monarch. There was no guarantee that they would be able to raise the support they needed, failing to gather supporters of their cause risked leaving them to stand alone to face the wrath of the nation.

During the preparation, several of the conspirators had been concerned about fellow Catholics who would be present on the appointed day, and inevitably killed. One conspirator, Francis Tresham - who had been introduced to the plot as he was a wealthy Catholic, and could provide money and weapons – is suspected of writing the anonymous letter of warning to Lord Monteagle, a prominent Catholic and Tresham’s own Brother-in-law. Monteagle received the letter on Friday October 26, at his house in Hoxton:

My lord out of the love I bear to some of youre frends I have a care of your preseruasion therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of 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 youre self into youre control where you may expect the event in saftey 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 councel 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.

Monteagle had the note read aloud, possibly in an attempt to warn the plotters the secret was out, and promptly handed it over to Robert Cecil who was the 1st Earl of Salisbury and the Secretary of State. The other conspirators learned of the letter the following day but resolved to go ahead with their plan after Fawkes inspected the undercroft and found that nothing had been touched.

Guy Fawkes was left in charge of executing the plot while the other conspirators fled to Dunchurch in Warwickshire to await news. Once the parliament had been destroyed, the other conspirators planned to incite a revolt in the Midlands.

The anonymous letter led to a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords, including the cellar, during the night of November 4th. At midnight on November 5th Thomas Knyvet (a Justice of the Peace) and a party of armed men, discovered Fawkes guarding a pile of faggots, not far from 36 barrels of gunpowder and posing as "Mr. John Johnson". A watch, slow matches, and touch-paper were found in his possession. Fawkes was arrested. Not for a second denying his intentions during the arrest, Fawkes stated that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament. Later in the morning, before noon, he was again interrogated. He was questioned on the nature of his accomplices, the involvement of Thomas Percy, what letters he had received from overseas, and whether he had spoken with Hugh Owen.

He was taken to the Tower of London where interrogation under torture was forbidden except by the express instruction of the monarch or the Privy Council. In a letter of November 6th, King James I stated:

"The gentler tortours [tortures] are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by steps extended to greater ones], and so God speed your good work."

The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot aroused a wave of relief across the nation at the savior of the king and his sons and inspired in the parliament a mood of loyalty and goodwill which Salisbury cleverly exploited to extract higher subsidies for the king. In his speech to both Houses on the 9th of November, James spoke of the 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 a few Catholics and not of English Catholics as a whole. Moreover he reminded the assembly to rejoice at his survival, since kings were divinely appointed and he owed his escape to a miracle of God.

On learning of the failure of the plot, the conspirators fled towards Huddington Court, near Worcester, a family home of Thomas and Robert Winter. Heavy rain, and bad weather, however, slowed their journey. Most of them were caught by Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Worcestershire, when they arrived at Stourbridge.

The remaining men attempted a revolt in the Midlands. This failed, and came to an end at Holbeach House in Staffordshire, where there was a dramatic shoot-out, ending with the death of Catesby and capture of several principal conspirators. Jesuits and other suspects were then rounded up in locations around Britain, with some being killed by torture during interrogation. Robert Winter managed to remain on the run for two months before he was finally captured at Hagley Park.

The conspirators were tried on January 27, 1606 in Westminster Hall. All of the plotters pleaded not guilty except for Sir Everard Digby who attempted to defend himself on the grounds that the King had gone back on promises of Catholic toleration. Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general, prosecuted, and the Earl of Northampton made a speech refuting the charges laid by Everard Digby. The trial lasted one day, typical of English trials at the time, and the guilty verdict was never in any doubt.

The trial ranked highly as a public spectacle and there are records of 10 shillings being paid for entry - a lot of money in 1606. It is even reputed that the King and Queen attended in disguise. Four of the plotters were executed in St. Paul's Churchyard on 30 January. On January 31, Fawkes, Winter and others implicated in the conspiracy were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster, right next to the scene of the crime, where they were to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes, though weakened by torture, still managed to cheat the executioners. When he was about to be hanged until almost dead, he leapt from the gallows so his neck broke and he died, thus escaping the gruesome later part of the execution. A co- conspirator, Robert Keyes, attempted the same stunt, but unluckily for him the rope broke, so he was drawn fully conscious.

Henry Garnet was executed on 3 May 1606 at St Paul's. His crime was to be the confessor of several members of the Gunpowder Plot and as noted he had opposed the plot. Many spectators thought that his sentence was too severe. Antonia Fraser, a leading British History author wrote of his execution:"With a loud cry of 'hold, hold' they stopped the hangman cutting down the body while Garnet was still alive. Others pulled the priest's legs, which was traditionally done to ensure a speedy death”.

Greater freedom for Catholics to worship as they chose seemed unlikely in 1604 but after the plot in 1605, changing the law in favour of the Catholics became impossible; Catholic Emancipation took another 200 years. Despite this, many important Catholics retained high office in the kingdom during King James's reign, and remained loyal to him.

Interest in the demonic was heightened by the Gunpowder Plot. The king himself had become engaged in the great debate about other-worldly powers in writing his Daemonologie in 1597, before he became King of England. The apparent devilish nature of the gunpowder plot also partly inspired William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Demonic inversions such as the line fair is foul and foul is fair are frequently seen in the play. Another possible reference made in Macbeth was to equivocation (the use of ambiguous expressions in order to mislead), as Henry Garnett’s A Treatise of Equivocation was found on one of the plotters and a resultant fear that Jesuits could evade the truth through equivocation:

Faith, here's an equivocator, that could
Swear in both the scales against either scale;
Who committed treason enough for God's sake,
Yet could not equivocate to heaven
- Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 3

The Gunpowder Plot was commemorated for years after the plot by special sermons and other public acts such as the ringing of church bells. It added to the calendar of Protestant celebrations that contributed to the religious and national life of seventeenth century England. Over the years this has evolved into the bonfire night that we know and love today. Every year on 5th November, people in the UK and some commonwealth countries and regions celebrate the failure (or perhaps nowadays, the attempt) of the plot on what is known as Guy Fawkes Night, Bonfire Night or more recently fireworks night; although the political meaning of the festival has been somewhat forgotten by many.

Furthermore, had the plotters been successful in igniting the 36 barrels of gunpowder that were stored under the Palace of Westminster, the explosion would have reduced most of the buildings in the Old Palace of Westminster complex - including the Abbey - to rubble and would have blown out windows in the surrounding area for about 1km.

The cellars of the Palace of Westminster are still searched by the Yeoman of the Guard every year before the state opening of parliament in a tradition that is as old as the Plot itself.

Historians have considered the possible events that may have followed the successful implementation of the Gunpowder Plot, with the destruction of Parliament and the death of the king. Most have concluded that the violence of the act would have resulted in a more severe backlash towards suspected Catholics. Without the involvement of some form of foreign power, success would have been unlikely as most Englishmen were loyal to the institution of the monarchy regardless of differing religious convictions. England could very well have become a more Puritan absolute monarchy, as were common in many parts of Europe in the seventeenth century, rather than following the path of parliamentary and civil reform that occurred.

It is however, impossible to know exactly what would have emerged from the resulting chaos, or to know which faction would have won out in the end. All we can be certain of, is that without Fawkes, Catesby and the rest of the plotters, we would not have the 5th of November as a date for celebration in the UK, and no fantastic excuse to have a fireworks display every year.

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