Gunpowder Plot

Contemporary drawing of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators

Catholic plot organized in 1605 by Robert Catesby to blow up King James I and both houses of Parliament at the state opening on November 5. The plot was uncovered and one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, caught red-handed with the explosives. The conspirators were executed and anti-Catholic legislation toughened.

King James had been reared a Scots Presbyterian, but he had never taken to that faith. He resented its rejection of hierarchy and the related notion, put forth by his own tutor, George Buchanan, that political power came from the people, who could revoke it from a bad ruler. James found the Church of England, with its Calvinist theology, yet emphasis on hierarchy, ritual, and order, far more to his taste. He tended to see Puritans as English Presbyterians, “brainsick and heady preachers,” self-righteous, dubiously loyal, naturally anti-authoritarian if not outright rebellious. But in 1603 English Puritans, largely ignorant of his views and frustrated by Elizabeth, projected their own reformist impulses onto their new prince. On his way south, they presented him with the Millenary Petition, signed by 1,000 ministers, which asked for the abolition of certain traditions such as the making of the sign of the cross at baptism, greater freedom of discretion in the use of vestments, more sermons, and stricter enforcement of the Sabbath. In response, James, ever one to enjoy intellectual debate, called a conference of conservative and Puritan divines at Hampton Court Palace in 1604. At the conference, James promised moderate reform and a new, authorized translation of the Bible, which appeared in 1611. But he also rejected more radical change and made clear that he was a high churchman at heart by declaring “No bishop, no King.” In James’s eyes, radical Puritan attacks on the ecclesiastical hierarchy (bishops) were tantamount to attacking the civil hierarchy (monarchy). Like Elizabeth, he believed that radical Puritan “reform” logically implied political disorder. After the conclusion of the conference, James underlined the point by authorizing the conservative Archbishop Richard Bancroft (1544–1610) to expel nonconforming clergy from their livings, depriving about 90 men of their congregations. In future, the king would continue to appease moderate Puritans by offering gradual reform and ecclesiastical preferment, leaving radicals isolated. As a result of James’s divide-and-conquer strategy, most Puritans did not leave the Jacobean Church; instead, they gradually came to dominate its hierarchy and remained an important segment of its membership. Tragically, his son would see this not as an achievement but as a problem.

James tried a similar strategy – toleration for loyal moderates, hostility toward extremists – on his English Catholic subjects. Like the Puritans, this group had high hopes for the new king in 1603; and their most fervent members, too, were disappointed by the result. Like Elizabeth, James had no stomach for religious persecution if he could count on political loyalty. Prior to his accession he had promised the Catholic Henry Howard, earl of Northampton (1540–1614), privately, that he would not “persecute any that will be quiet and give but an outward obedience to the law.” The fact that he immediately began to negotiate a peace with Spain was also a good sign. When James insisted that Protestant British merchants and sailors should not be subject to the Inquisition when trading with Spanish possessions, many expected Spain to demand relaxation of the penal laws against English Catholics in return. But the Spanish negotiators of the Treaty of London made no such demand. Worse, in the aftermath of the Hampton Court Conference the king renewed low-level persecution of Catholics in order to appease Puritan critics in Parliament. Their new king had dashed Catholic expectations.

This helps to explain why in 1605 a group of hot-headed Catholic gentlemen, soldiers, and hangers-on made desperate by Spain’s abandonment of their cause, launched the Gunpowder Plot. Their plan was to blow up the king and both houses of parliament when they met in the House of Lords for its State opening on November 5. Remarkably, the plotters simply rented the undercroft below the House of Lords and filled it with barrels of gunpowder. Fortunately, the court was tipped off when one of the conspirators tried to warn a relative, William Parker, Lord Monteagle (1574/5–1622), who, in turn, approached the Privy Council. On the evening of the 4th a search was made and another conspirator, Guy Fawkes (1570–1606), was caught red-handed in the undercroft with the barrels – only hours before the king’s arrival. Here, in the eyes of many English men and women, was manifest proof of Catholic treachery and God’s providential care for the Protestant nation. For years afterward, they would “remember, remember, the fifth of November” with bonfires and church bells. More immediately, by February 1606, the conspirators were tried and executed. New penal laws prohibited Catholics from living in or near London, practicing law, or holding office. Finally, Catholics were forced to swear an oath acknowledging the king and denouncing the pope’s claim to be able to depose civil rulers.


With his flowing moustache and luxurious beard, Guy Fawkes cut an elegant figure — he looked like anything but a household servant as he lurked in one of the cellars-to-rent below the Houses of Parliament on the afternoon of 4 November 1605, He was wearing a dark hat and cloak, and had strapped his spurs on to his riding boots, ready for a quick escape. But when the Lord Chamberlain’s guards came upon Guy in the candlelit cellar, they believed his story He was a domestic servant, he told them — John Johnson was the cover name he had prepared — and he had been checking on the piles of firewood stacked against the wall. The search party went on their way, not thinking to rummage behind the dry kindling, where, if they had looked, they would have discovered thirty-six large barrels of gunpowder…

The notorious Gunpowder Plot was born of the injustice and disappointment that many English Catholics came to feel at the beginning of the reign of King James I. Their hopes had been high that the son of Mary Queen of Scots, their Catholic champion and martyr, would ease the legal persecution from which they suffered — and James duly had his mother’s body dug up and reburied in Westminster Abbey. Mary lies there to this day, in a splendid tomb alongside Elizabeth — the two cousins, Catholic and Protestant, honoured equally in death.

But James knew he must live with the reality of a nation that defined itself as Protestant, and soon after his arrival in England he summoned a conference at Hampton Court to submit the Church of England to review by the growing number of evangelicals who wanted to weed out the ‘impure’ practices left over from Catholicism. As far as doctrine was concerned, the new King gave these ’Puritans’ less than they wanted, but he did bow to their demands to enforce the anti-Catholic laws that Elizabeth had applied with a relatively light touch.

These laws were fierce. Anyone caught hearing the mass could be fined and sent to jail. Priests — many of whom survived in ‘priest holes’ hidden behind the panelling in the homes of rich Catholics — were liable to be punished by imprisonment or even death. Catholic children could not be baptised. The dying were denied the ceremony of extreme unction, their crucial step to heaven- Catholics could not study at university. If they failed to attend their local Anglican church they were classed as ’recusants’, and became liable to fines of £20 a month. The enforcement of recusancy fines was patchy, but £20 was a quite impossible penalty at a time when a yeoman, or ‘middling, farmer was legally defined as someone whose land brought him forty shillings, or £2, per year.

’Catholics now saw their own country,’ wrote Father William Weston, ‘the country of their birth, turned into a ruthless and unloving land.’

State-sponsored oppression, frustration, hopelessness — from these bitter ingredients stemmed the extravagant scheme of Guy Fawkes and a dozen aggrieved young Catholics to blow up the King, his family, the Royal Council and all the members of the Protestant-dominated Houses of Parliament in one spectacular blast. Modern explosives experts have calculated that Guy’s thirty-six barrels (5,500 pounds) of gunpowder would have caused ‘severe structural damage’ to an area within a radius of five hundred metres. Not only the Houses of Parliament, but Westminster Abbey and much of Whitehall would have been demolished in a terrorist gesture whose imaginative and destructive power stands comparison, for its time, with the planes that al-Qaedas pilots crashed into New York’s World Trade Center on 11 September 2001,

But as the Gunpowder Plotters’ plan for scarcely imaginable slaughter became known in Catholic circles, someone felt they had to blow the whistle:

My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation… [read an anonymous letter sent to a Catholic peer, Lord Monteagle, on 26 October 160$] I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this Parliament… [and] retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety.

Delivered at dusk by a tall stranger to a servant of Monteagle’s outside his house in Hoxton on the north-east outskirts of London, this ‘dark and doubtful letter’ can be seen today in the National Archives, and has inspired fevered debate among scholars: who betrayed the plot? The letter’s authorship has been attributed to almost every one of Guy Fawkes’s confederates — and even to Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, James’s chief minister, who organised the investigation after Monteagle handed over the letter.

’John Johnson’ fooled the first search party on the afternoon of 4 November, but not the second, who, lanterns in hand, prodded their way through the cellars in the early hours of the 5th, the very day Parliament was due to assemble. Once arrested, he made no secret of his intention to blow up King and lords. His only regret, he said, was that his plan had not succeeded. It was the devil and not God’ who had betrayed the plot.

Torture soon extracted from Guy Fawkes that he was a thirty-four-year-old Catholic from York who had fought in the Netherlands on the Spanish side against the Dutch Protestants. Like the letter that betrayed him, his successive confessions can be read today: his signature starts off firm and black, then degenerates to a tremulous and scarcely legible scratching as the rack does its dreadful work. Once Parliament had been destroyed, it turned out, the conspirators were planning to seize the Kings nine-year-old daughter Princess Elizabeth, and install her as their puppet ruler.

Guy and his fellow-plotters suffered the ghastly penalties prescribed for traitors: they were hung, drawn and quartered. When Parliament reassembled, the first order of business was to institute’ a public thanksgiving to Almighty God every year on the fifth day of November’ — the origin of our modern ‘Bonfire Night’. But furious Protestants were not content with executions and prayers.

’This bloody stain and mark will never be washed out of Popish religion,’ declared Sir Thomas Smith, one of the many who called for vengeance. Half century after the fires of Smithfield, the Gunpowder Plot marked a further stage in the demonising of English Catholics, who, in the years that followed, were banned from practising law, serving in the army or navy as officers, or voting in elections. In 1614 one MP suggested Catholics be compelled to wear a yellow hat and shoes so they could be easily identified and ‘hooted at’ by true Englishmen.

This last proposal was, happily, judged to be unEnglish and went no further. But the Gunpowder Plot raises important moral issues to this day. Is violence permissible to a persecuted minority? And if you do strike back against a government that subjects you to state-sponsored terror — why are you the one called a terrorist?

ROBERT CATESBY, (1573-1605)

A wealthy Roman Catholic fanatic was wounded in the Essex revolt of 1601 and heavily fined. In 1602 he was intriguing with Spain and in 1603 he was briefly imprisoned as part of the precautions to anticipate Queen Elizabeth’s death. Placing no faith in James I’s promises of partial toleration, he decided in May 1603 to blow up the King and Parliament, but postponed action. The proclamation against priests of January 1604 decided him to go forward and he took his cousin Thomas. Winter, his friends, Thomas Percy and John Wright, and Guy Fawkes, a professional soldier, who was to be the technician, into his confidence. The plot was 18 months in preparation. Catesby widened the circle of conspirators and among these was Thomas Tresham. The latter’s note to Lord Monteagle led to the discovery of the plot. Catesby was killed resisting arrest in Staffordshire.

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