The Gunpowder Plot – a Summary

Like all good conspiracy stories, the tale of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is one that combines elements of mystery, intrigue, suspense and of course, deception.  It is the story of a small band of disaffected Catholics who, unhappy with the constraints placed on their religion by Protestant monarchs, undertake to challenge the religious status quo by committing the ultimate act of terrorism – the destruction of both King and Parliament.

The Break From Rome

The malcontent felt by this group of would-be terrorists did not spring up overnight.  In fact, the seeds had been sown some seventy years earlier during the reign of Henry VIII.  During the 1530s Henry, in his desperation to divorce Catherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn, incurred the wrath of Rome by declaring that he, and not the Pope, was the Supreme Head of the Church in England.  This act of defiance on Henry’s part culminated in England’s break from Rome and gave the new Protestant religion, which had been sweeping the Continent, a foothold in England.

Thanks to the legitimacy afforded to it by Henry VIII and subsequent Tudor monarchs (apart from a brief interlude during the reign of the staunchly Catholic Mary I), Protestantism became England’s official religion. Catholics were forced to abandon their allegiance to the Pope and instead accept the reigning monarch as leader of the Church.  Anyone who refused to do this was viewed as a potential traitor to the Crown and was subjected to heavy fines, imprisonment or even death.  In the face of such persecution, many Catholics were forced to practice their faith in secret.  Tensions simmered and an insidious atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion and fear prevailed.  It was against this sinister backdrop that the Gunpowder Plot was hatched.

James I

After the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the throne passed to James VI of Scotland, marking the end of the long Tudor dynasty. Catholics were hopeful that the new king (now known as James I of England) would be sympathetic to their plight. Their optimism was based on the fact that, although he was raised as a Calvinist (a strict form of Protestantism), James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been a devout Catholic.  When James proved himself unwilling to lift the onerous restrictions placed on the old religion, tensions bubbled to the surface.

On May 20th, 1604, a small group of friends and cousins assembled for a meeting at an inn called the Duck and Drake in London.  The group’s ringleader was a nobleman called Robert Catesby. Also in attendance were Tom Wintour, Thomas Percy, Jack Wright and the now-infamous Guy Fawkes.  All five men present (pictured) were from wealthy Catholic families and were vehemently opposed to the new religion.

It was during this meeting that Catesby proposed a plan to ‘strike at the root’ of the Catholic oppressors.  His plan was as audacious as it was simple – to use gunpowder to blow up the Houses of Parliament, thereby killing the new king, other members of the royal family and the sitting government in one fell swoop.  In the inevitably chaotic aftermath, Catesby envisaged an up-rising by the subjugated Catholic nobility, which he hoped would eventually lead to the re-establishment of Catholicism in England.

Robert Catesby

Despite the fact that Guy Fawkes is the name which has subsequently become synonymous with the Gunpowder Plot, it was actually Robert Catesby who was the chief architect and mastermind of the deadly scheme.  Guy was, in fact, an outsider to the group. Although a committed Catholic, he was recruited on the basis of his knowledge of gunpowder – an expertise acquired while fighting as a mercenary soldier in the religious wars in Europe.

This small group of men, which eventually expanded in number to an ill-omened thirteen, earnestly set about the preparations.  A vault on the ground floor of Westminster Palace was leased during the summer of 1605, and barrels of gunpowder were surreptitiously stockpiled over the next few months.  According to Fawkes, by late September, there was sufficient gunpowder hidden in the vault to blow the king ‘all the way back to Scotland’.

The conspirators chose November 5, when the king was due to attend the official opening of Parliament, as the day to put their plan into action.  All would have gone according to plan had it not been for a shadowy figure who delivered an ominous message to a member of the House of Lords, the Catholic peer Lord Mounteagle …

A Letter of Warning

On October 26, Mounteagle received a letter warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament as ‘they shall receive a terrible blow, this parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them’.  The letter ended with a plea to burn the letter once it had been read.  It is unclear who authored this dispatch, but it seems likely to have been one of the plotters, Sir Francis Tresham, who was Mounteagle’s brother-in-law.  Little did he know that his actions in writing this letter would culminate in the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and lead to the deaths of all 13 conspirators.

Mounteagle, sufficiently alarmed by the information contained in the letter, brought it to the attention of other members of the House of Lords, who in turn informed the king.  Although the letter contained no specific details, it was eventually decided that the letter constituted a considerable threat.  James and his councillors did not immediately act – instead they bade their time, convinced that they would have more success capturing the conspirators closer to the appointed day.

Eventually, on the night on November 4, the king’s men swung into action.  In a sudden flurry of activity, the cellars and basements of the Palace of Westminster were searched.  It wasn’t long before they came upon a vault which held a suspiciously large store of firewood.  A quick investigation revealed a total of 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden underneath.  Guy Fawkes, who had the misfortune to be in the cellar at the time of the search, was found to be carrying matches and torchwood.  He was arrested on the spot.

Tortured

Fawkes was imprisoned in the Tower of London and subjected to torture.  By all accounts, he bravely held out until the evening of November 7, when he finally succumbed and revealed all to this interrogators.  A nationwide search ensued for Fawkes’ fellow plotters who had fled to the countryside.  The search culminated in a shoot-out at Holbeach House in Staffordshire, which killed four of the fugitives, including the Catesby and Percy.  The remaining eight plotters were eventually rounded up and imprisoned.

The trial of the surviving men took place on January 27, 1606.  All were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to the gruesome death of hanging, drawing and quartering.  The executions were held a few days later on January 30 & 31.  As they ascended the scaffold, some of the condemned men begged forgiveness while others remained steadfastly unrepentant. Fawkes, who was said to be physically and mentally broken by the torture he had suffered, was the last to face the executioner.  Despite his sentence, his end was mercifully swift; the hangman’s noose broke his neck and he was thus spared the agony of disembowelment.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November

King James, jubilant that so daring an attempt on his life had been averted, ordered the lighting of bonfires throughout London in celebration.  These bonfires became a fixture of the subsequent annual festivities held to commemorate the king’s safe deliverance from the terrorist plot – a tradition which has been observed for over 400 years and immortalised in the rhyme:

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Sinead Fitzgibbon

The Gunpowder Plot: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press, is available in various digital formats

See also Sinead’s articles on Guy Fawkes and James I.

Read Sinead’s blog.