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Gunpowder Plot

Gunpowder Plot

The 1605 Gunpowder Plot was a failed attempt by pro-Catholic conspirators to blow up the English Parliament on 5 November and kill King James I of England (r. 1603-1625) and the entire nobility along with him. The plot was discovered when one of the conspirators sent an anonymous letter warning a relative who would have been present in the parliament.

At midnight on 4 November, Guy Fawkes was apprehended beneath Westminster Palace before he had a chance to light the 35 barrels of gunpowder stored in the palace’s cellars. Under brutal torture in the Tower of London, Fawkes revealed the names of his fellow conspirators and their plans to cause such chaos that a coup d’etat by forces favourable to the Catholic cause would be possible. Rounded up and also tortured, the guilty parties, including Guy Fawkes, were executed by the gruesome method of being hanged, drawn, and quartered, a fate reserved for those guilty of treason against the Crown. Bonfires were lit on the night of 5 November to celebrate the failure of the plot and this tradition continues today in an occasion on that date variously known as ‘Bonfire Night’, ‘Guy Fawkes’ Night’ or ‘Fireworks Night’.

Catholicism in England

Elizabeth I of England (r. 1558-1603) had encouraged the Protestant religion in her kingdom, and this policy was continued by her successor James I of England, who was also James VI of Scotland (r. 1567-1625). James had been brought up a Protestant, but a further blow to extreme Catholics hoping to restore that faith as the primary religion in England was dealt on 18 August 1604. On that date, a peace treaty was signed in London which finally ended the war between England and Catholic Spain. The last straw was a new wave of laws against practising Catholics, or rather the resumption of such laws that had been in place during Elizabeth’s reign. Restrictions on Catholics included the prohibition of holding mass and an obligation to attend Anglican communion services or face a stiff fine.

Guy Fawkes entered the stage of history with what might only have been a cameo role but it was one which would gain infamy that has lasted for four centuries.

A group of extremists now decided to make one final throw of the dice to try and bring England back towards the Catholic religion. Their plan was nothing short of a mass-murder event, which would obliterate the monarchy and government, creating a political vacuum, which pro-Catholic forces could then exploit to take over the state. The ring leader of the conspiracy was Sir Robert Catesby, a fiercely Catholic nobleman. A gang was carefully assembled consisting of Catesby, Christopher and John Wright, Robert and Thomas Winter (aka Wintour), Thomas Percy, and Thomas Bates. All of these men were Catesby’s relatives except for his servant Bates. Added to the group were two zealot Jesuit priests - Father Garnet and Father Greenaway - in order to give the outlandish project a wafer-thin veneer of Church backing.

The plan was beautifully simple: blow up the entire English Parliament when the king opened the session on 5 November 1605. Present would be the members of parliament, the lords, judges, the king’s council, and the monarch himself. What was required, then, was a massive quantity of gunpowder and an additional member to the gang: a die-hard, battle-hardened Catholic mercenary to light the fuse. Guy Fawkes, real name Guido Fawkes, was the man and he entered the stage of history with what might only have been a cameo role but it was one which would gain infamy that has lasted for four centuries and counting.

The Cellars of Parliament

The conspirators needed to somehow get under the parliament building and plant their gunpowder there for maximum explosive effect. At first, a small house was occupied, and from it, a tunnel was dug towards Westminster Palace, but the gang soon realised that it was actually much easier to get under Westminster Palace than they had imagined. It was possible to rent an empty coal cellar in the depths of the building, and this they did, taking one right under the Lords' chamber. Inside this cellar 35 (or 36) barrels of gunpowder were deposited, hidden as an extra precaution under a massive pile of chopped firewood.

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The king, after a troubled childhood of regents, plots, & one kidnap, was forever on watch for attempts against his life.

Gunpowder was still a relatively new weapon in Europe at the time, and an expert was needed who could prepare suitable fuses to set the barrels off to their most devastating effect. Guy Fawkes was just such a man with his long experience fighting for the Spanish army as a mercenary in the Netherlands. To ensure the blast was even more deadly than using just powder, hundreds of metal bars were added to the barrels, which would rip through the structure of the building. Fawkes was set to guard the powder until the big bang.

The Letter

Everything was going to plan for the conspirators until one of them, one Francis Tresham, and perhaps one or two of the others, began to wonder if it was morally acceptable to blow up good Catholic peers along with everybody else. Almost certainly it was Tresham who decided to write an anonymous letter to his brother-in-law, the Catholic Lord Mounteagle. This was the action upon which the whole scheme collapsed. The letter, delivered to one of Mounteagle’s servants for the attention of his master, was a cryptic warning: "They shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them" (Jones, 280).

Instead of heeding the warning and saving his own skin, Mounteagle showed the letter to Lord Robert Cecil, who in turn showed it to King James. Mounteagle would later receive a generous pension for his actions. The king, after a troubled childhood of regents, plots, and one kidnap, was forever on the watch for attempts against his life - he often wore specially padded clothing as proof against a knife attack - and so he did not need much convincing that the plot was real and required immediate investigation. This was still ten days before the conspirators planned to explode their gunpowder but, keen not to let the ringleaders escape justice, the authorities played it cool and waited until the 4 November to search the palace cellars. The conspirators found out about the letter, but Tresham tried to convince his fellows that he had not sent it. As the days ticked down to the 5th, there was still no reaction from the authorities and so the gang believed the letter had been either misunderstood or dismissed as a hoax. The conspirators then left Tresham and Fawkes with the gunpowder and departed London to prepare for the uprising they planned in the Midlands once Parliament had been destroyed.

The Discovery

On the afternoon of 4 November, the king authorised the search of the palace’s cellars to begin. The coal cellar was approached, and at the door was a man with a lamp, Guy Fawkes (his lamp is today in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum). Asked what he was doing there, Fawkes said that his name was John Johnson (actually the servant of the conspirator Thomas Percy). Fawkes unlocked the cellar and allowed the searchers inside. Seeing the pile of wood and not bothering to check it thoroughly, the searchers moved on elsewhere. Having discovered nothing, the search party duly reported to the king. Mention was made of John Johnson and his pile of wood and, pressed for a description, Fawkes was described as "a very bad and desperate fellow…up to no good" (Jones, 280). James did not like the sound of that, and he ordered another search to be carried out later in the evening, and this time with a number of soldiers present. When the coal cellar was investigated for a second time around midnight on the 4th of November, Guy Fawkes was still hanging around. Once again asked to unlock the cellar, the search party this time dug deep into the woodpile and found the barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was himself searched, and in his pockets were a watch, a slow-burning cord to act as a fuse, and a touchwood to create a flame; it was incriminating evidence indeed.

Torture & Death

Fawkes was taken to an audience with the king in Whitehall, where he admitted why he had been down in the cellars with his gunpowder, although he refused to name his fellow plotters. Fawkes was then taken to the Tower of London and kept in a small room to await further questioning. He would soon be acquainted with the Tower’s fearsome Lieutenant, Sir William Wade, a man with long experience of wheedling out information from his captives by any means he saw fit. In this case, the king specifically gave Wade permission to use methods of torture, starting with the milder ones and ending with the rack. There followed ten days of torture, the evidence of which can be seen by comparing the conspirator’s signature at the beginning and end of his ordeal. Fawkes remained unrepentant, stating that the spread of Protestantism required a "desperate remedy for a desperate disease" (Jones, 279). It is likely that Fawkes first had to endure manacles which restricted his movement, then leg breaks - plates which crushed the legs, and perhaps thumbscrews. Presumably still resisting, Fawkes was then laid out on the rack where his limbs were slowly stretched and his ligaments torn from the bone.

Meanwhile, the king had organised a commission to investigate the plot, find out who was behind it, and organise their apprehension. Fortunately for the monarch, the conspirators proved to be lacking in practical intelligence when it came to an armed insurrection. Catesby had travelled to Holbeche House in Staffordshire where he delivered gunpowder to Sir Everard Digby, who promised to gather 50 armed men for the task of taking over the government. The gunpowder had been allowed to become damp and so to dry it out Catesby spread it before a fire. Unsurprisingly, the fire set off the gunpowder and badly burned the conspirators; the Gunpowder Plotters had got their explosion after all. Some of the conspirators now fled the scene while those who remained, including Catesby, were surrounded by government forces on 8 November. In a wild shoot-out, many of the guilty men were killed, including Catesby, while others were seriously injured. In light of what was to come, those who were killed by a musket ball had been lucky.

Back in the bowels of the Tower of London, Fawkes’ resistance broke, and he did eventually reveal the names of the conspirators. All of these were rounded up, including the two Jesuit priests, and only one, Hugh Owen escaped England and justice. All were taken to the Tower and tortured just as Fawkes had been. Tresham died during his ordeal, but for the rest, worse was soon to follow. First, though, and having confessed their guilt, the conspirators were put on trial in January 1606 in Westminster Hall. All were unrepentant of their proposed crime except Bates. Sentence was passed; the terrible punishment reserved for those found guilty of treason: to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.

The death sentences were carried out over two days on 30 November and 1 December. Each was dragged by their heels behind a horse through the streets of London. Each man was then hanged until a breath short of death. Taken from the scaffold and still alive, each man was then castrated, his bowels were drawn from his body, and he was beheaded. The final act was to cut the body into quarters. Some tried to avoid the latter part of the execution by jumping from the scaffold in an effort to break their own neck. Guy Fawkes succeeded in doing just that, but his lifeless body was, nevertheless, given the full treatment.

Legacy

The Gunpowder Plot failed and fuelled the anti-Catholic and anti-Popery sentiment in England. Much like anti-Communist feeling in the USA after WWII, the plot ensured that Protestants became paranoid about Catholics and made Anglican church leaders determined to repress that faith. Paintings of the event, along with the defeat of the Spanish Armada, were hung in churches and annual services of thanks held.

To celebrate the foiling of the plot, the authorities encouraged commoners to light bonfires on the evening of the 5th of November, and this they did, starting a tradition which continues to this day in England and several other countries. Now called ‘Bonfire Night’, ‘Guy Fawkes’ Night’ or ‘Fireworks Night’, bonfires are lit and fireworks let off each 5 November. There was a long-standing tradition to make an effigy of Guy Fawkes, called simply a ‘guy’, and children would endeavour to make their best effort and ask people for a donation by either presenting their guy in the street or visiting people’s homes and asking for ‘a penny for the guy’. Then the effigy was thrown upon the bonfire in the evening. The tradition of making a guy has become less common nowadays, but Guy Fawkes lives on in other ways, notably in such expressions as ‘a tough guy’ after his long resistance to torture in the Tower of London. Finally, in recent years, a mask resembling Guy Fawkes has become popular, worn by members of certain protest and anti-establishment groups.


Around midnight on Monday 4 November 1605, Sir Thomas Knyvett was ordered to carry out a search of the rooms below the hall in which Parliament, crammed with MPs and Lords, would be opened the following day by King James. There he met a man coming out of a room packed with firewood who gave his name as John Johnson. Knyvett arrested him and searched the wood to find hidden within it 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to blow up the entire Palace of Westminster and everyone in it. Johnson carried fuses and a timer. He was taken straight to the Tower of London to be questioned.

King James’ men had decided to search the Palace because of a letter that Lord Monteagle had received a few days before. Monteagle took the letter straight to the government.

Look at the letter and other documents below and see if you can unravel this Gunpowder plot.

Tasks

History Hook – Starter Activity

1. This is the letter sent to Lord Monteagle a few days before parliament.

  • What two steps does the writer want Lord Monteagle to take?
  • Why does the writer suggest that Lord Monteagle should follow this advice?

2. This is a copy of the examination of John Johnson.

  • Who do you think John Johnson might be?
  • What did Johnson plan to do to parliament?
  • Name one of the other plotters whom Johnson mentions
  • Was Johnson worried about any Catholics who might have been there?

3. This is a proclamation (royal demand) made after the plot was discovered.

  • Why does the government want Thomas Percy to be captured alive?
  • Who else has Thomas Percy tried to blow up apart from the King and Parliament?
  • Why do you think the plotters might have wanted to kill these other people?
  • Read the description of Thomas Percy. Do you think it is enough information for him to be found?

4. Soldiers tracked Thomas Percy to Holbeach House in Staffordshire. This is a statement given by Thomas Wintour, another one of the plotters who was there:

  • Who were the plotters present at the house?
  • What happened when the ‘company beset’ (soldiers attacked) the house?

5. Guy Fawkes/John Johnson has been questioned and given more information. Read this extract and answer the following questions:

  • What was the plotters’ plan for Princess Elizabeth?
  • Does this support the evidence provided in Source 2?
  • Why do you think Fawkes seems to have changed his story?
  • Finally, look at all of the sources again and write a report on the plot including the following:
    • Who was involved?
    • What was the plan?
    • Did it have any weaknesses?
    • What was the outcome?

    Background

    During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, followers of the Roman Catholic religion in England had faced serious difficulties including harsh fines and the risk of imprisonment or violence. Catholic priests, vital to the practice of the religion, were banned and government spies tried hard to round up those who were secretly working in the kingdom.

    When James I came to the throne Catholics in England thought that things would get better for them, but James kept all of Elizabeth’s tough laws against Catholics. Very early in his reign a group of Catholic noblemen decided that the King would have to be killed for things to change.

    On 26th October 1605 Thomas Ward, a servant of the Catholic Lord Monteagle, was given a letter by an ‘unknown man’ to give to his master. When Monteagle read the letter he found it was a warning to stay away from the opening of Parliament, due in a few days. He gave the letter directly to the Privy Council and the King in Whitehall.

    Although the conspirators knew the letter had been passed to the government they decided to go ahead as planned, trusting that their explosives expert was unknown to the authorities. The plot did not succeed.

    Teachers' notes

    This lesson is suitable for History Key stage 3 unit 1: Section 1: Who is the most important person I know about in history? Or unit 22: units 1- 6: The role of the individual for good or ill?

    Additional simplified transcripts are provided to support all pupils as the language used within the documents is often challenging. Teachers could adapt this lesson if they wish to carry out a group-based activity. Small groups could work on printed versions of the different sources and present to the rest of class. They could also work in small groups at a whiteboard and present to the class that way. Alternatively, teachers might wish to approach the topic through the last task (5d) alone.

    Extension activities

    Teachers could use the evidence to construct a role play activity investigating the plot with the key characters: King James, Lord Monteagle, ‘Johnson’, Percy and others.

    After the explosion, the plan was that some of the plotters would lead an uprising in the Midlands. They would kidnap Princess Elizabeth, James’ nine year old daughter, from her household at Coombe Abbey, to use as a figurehead through whom they could rule the country and restore the rights of Catholics. However, their explosives expert was disturbed as he arrived to light the fuse…

    The trial of the eight surviving conspirators was held in the same room they had tried to blow up: Westminster Hall, within the Parliament building. All eight were found guilty and by the end of January 1606, all eight had been executed. The plotters were hung, drawn and quartered. Their heads were then set upon poles as a warning to others. Teachers might wish to discuss with their pupils what would have happened if the plot had succeeded.

    As result of the plot, James I became more popular having survived an attempt on his life. However, it became harder for Catholics to practise their religion or play a part in society. Finally, there is no doubt that Guy Fawkes is remembered incorrectly as the main plotter, a myth perpetuated as generations of children celebrate Bonfire Night.

    Sources

    The documents in this lesson are all taken from SP 14/216, the ‘Gunpowder Plot Book’, a collection in three volumes, of the most significant government documents relating the plot.

    The image of James I and VI used is from KB 27/1522.

    External links

    The Gunpowder Plot
    More background and resources on the plot produced by Parliament.


    Guy Fawkes

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    Guy Fawkes, (born 1570, York, England—died January 31, 1606, London), British soldier and best-known participant in the Gunpowder Plot. Its object was to blow up the palace at Westminster during the state opening of Parliament, while James I and his chief ministers met within, in reprisal for increasing oppression of Roman Catholics in England.

    Who was Guy Fawkes?

    Guy Fawkes was an English conspirator in the 17th-century Gunpowder Plot, an unsuccessful plan to blow up Westminster Palace with King James I and Parliament inside. He joined in this plot in retaliation for James’s increased persecution of Roman Catholics.

    How is Guy Fawkes remembered?

    Prior to the 20th century many British subjects viewed Guy Fawkes as a villainous traitor. Guy Fawkes Day celebrations in the United Kingdom sometimes involve burning his effigy. In the 1980s, however, some began to view Fawkes as a symbol of resistance against state-sponsored oppression.

    How did Guy Fawkes die?

    On the night of November 4–5, 1605, London authorities uncovered the Gunpowder Plot, which implicated Guy Fawkes and four coconspirators. Fawkes was tortured on the rack before being tried for high treason in January 1606. He was found guilty and sentenced to execution by hanging, drawing, and quartering, but his neck was broken after he jumped or fell from the gallows ladder, thus evading the full punishment.

    How is Guy Fawkes Day celebrated?

    In January 1606 the British Parliament mandated the observance of Guy Fawkes Day on November 5 to commemorate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. Celebrated in the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries, the holiday involves activities such as parades, fireworks, bonfires, and food. Children frequently carry straw effigies of Fawkes, which are later tossed into bonfires. (The holiday is also called Bonfire Night.) Children may also ask passersby for “a penny for the guy” and recite rhymes about the plot.

    How has Guy Fawkes been represented in popular media?

    In the 1980s, British writer Alan Moore and illustrator David Lloyd published V for Vendetta, a graphic novel following an anarchist insurgent named V who wears a Guy Fawkes mask while working to overthrow a fictional United Kingdom’s fascist government. The graphic novel later received a film treatment of the same name (2005), which was directed by James McTeigue and written by the Wachowskis. The Guy Fawkes mask has since been worn by many anti-government protesters and is associated with the online hacktivist organization Anonymous.

    Fawkes was a member of a prominent Yorkshire family and a convert to Roman Catholicism. His adventurous spirit, as well as his religious zeal, led him to leave Protestant England (1593) and enlist in the Spanish army in the Netherlands. There he won a reputation for great courage and cool determination. Meanwhile, the instigator of the plot, Robert Catesby, and his small band of Catholics agreed that they needed the help of a military man who would not be as readily recognizable as they were. They dispatched a man to the Netherlands in April 1604 to enlist Fawkes, who, without knowledge of the precise details of the plot, returned to England and joined them.

    The plotters rented a cellar extending under the palace, and Fawkes planted 36 (some sources say fewer) barrels of gunpowder there and camouflaged them with coals and fagots. But the plot was discovered, and Fawkes was arrested (the night of November 4–5, 1605). Only after being tortured on the rack did he reveal the names of his accomplices. Tried and found guilty before a special commission (January 27, 1606), Fawkes was to be executed opposite the Parliament building, but he fell or jumped from the gallows ladder and died as a result of having broken his neck. Nevertheless, he was quartered.

    The British celebration of Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) includes fireworks, masked children begging “a penny for the guy,” and the burning of little effigies of the conspirator.


    Why did the 1605 gunpowder plot fail? 9 big questions about the conspiracy to blow up parliament

    John Cooper and Hannah Greig, historical advisors on the 2017 BBC drama Gunpowder, answer the biggest questions on the Catholic conspiracy to obliterate king and parliament in 1605.

    This competition is now closed

    Published: November 4, 2020 at 6:05 am

    Was Guy Fawkes the brains behind the gunpowder plot?

    Guy Fawkes may have been the man charged with lighting the fuse to the gunpowder in the Palace of Westminster but he wasn’t the leader of the plot – and was far from a lone wolf. There were 13 plotters in all – many drawn from elite English families – and the conspiracy’s masterminds were Robert Catesby and his cousin Thomas Wintour.

    Catesby was already under suspicion, as a Catholic and a supporter of the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion against Elizabeth I in 1601. Fawkes, on the other hand, was unknown to the authorities, and that’s one of the main reasons he was given such a critical role in the plot. Posing as a servant, he was able to gain access to the Palace of Westminster and, with the help of his co-conspirators, cart in the 36 barrels of gunpowder that he intended to explode under King James VI and I’s feet.

    The great irony of Guy Fawkes’s life is that it began in a conventional and respected Protestant family – he was the son of a Church of England official – but ended with an infamous attempt to take out the political establishment in the name of the Catholic faith.

    Fawkes was born in York in 1570, in a house a stone’s throw from York Minster. He might have become a merchant like his grandfather, but when his father died in 1579, Fawkes went to live with his mother’s new husband, a committed Catholic. On reaching adulthood, he sold his small inheritance and went to fight on the continent for the forces of Catholic Spain.

    A school friend, who became a Jesuit priest, described Fawkes as religiously devout, loyal to his friends, and “highly skilled in matters of war” – exactly what the gunpowder plotters were looking for.

    Why did the conspirators select parliament as their target?

    Once the conspirators were agreed that they wanted to wipe out the king and his government, the Houses of Parliament were the obvious target. Catesby’s justification for obliterating parliament was chillingly simple: “In that place have they done us all the mischief, and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment.”

    The ‘mischief’ that Catesby referred to dated back to Queen Elizabeth I’s parliaments, which had passed a series of harsh statutes aimed at forcing Catholics to conform to the Church of England. Catholic recusants (from the Latin recusare, to refuse) were fined, intimidated and imprisoned. Priests and Jesuits dispatched to England in an attempt to maintain the Catholic faith risked torture and execution.

    English Catholics welcomed James I’s accession to the throne in 1603, hoping that it would usher in a period of greater toleration. Yet it was to be a false dawn. Two years on, it was becoming increasingly clear that the new king was prepared to grant Catholics few concessions. This was the background to the plotters’ decision to target the state opening of parliament, when the lords, Commons and the king himself would be assembled together. The fact that Catholic nobles might be caught up in the blast was accepted by Catesby as collateral damage: to him they were “atheists, fools and cowards”.

    How did the plotters penetrate the Palace of Westminster?

    In 1605, the Palace of Westminster was a ramshackle complex of converted royal apartments and dissolved ecclesiastical buildings, very different from today’s high-security buildings. Westminster Hall was crammed with people attending the courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas. Taverns named ‘Heaven’ and ‘Purgatory’ plied their trade a stone’s throw from the Commons and the Lords. In Henry VIII’s day, a brothel openly operated within the precincts of the palace.

    The plotters knew that they had a good chance of passing undetected through this melee. Their initial plan was to occupy a property next to the House of Lords and to tunnel from one cellar to another, but the mining proved too time-consuming. Then they rented a coal cellar underneath the Lords’ chamber. This enabled them to bring in the gunpowder without being challenged.

    A security sweep failed to spot the significance of the pile of firewood and barrels that had accumulated in the cellar. But then the Catholic peer, Baron Monteagle, received a letter from an anonymous source, warning him to stay away from the Palace of Westminster on 5 November, as “they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament”. The letter reached James I, who ordered a second search. Only then was the plot revealed, preventing nearly a tonne of gunpowder from tearing through parliament.

    Listen: Hannah Greig and John Cooper explore the story of the 1605 attempt to blow up the king and parliament, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:

    Did foreign powers offer any assistance to the gunpowder plot?

    The attitude of the Spanish was a key reason for the conspiracy’s failure. English Catholics had looked to Spain for support since the reign of Elizabeth I. In 1569, a rebellion of the northern earls had hoped to depose Elizabeth with Spanish naval backing – although the ships never arrived. Later on, English Catholic naval pilots had sailed with the Spanish Armada.

    But a generation after this, the political landscape had changed. And when, in 1603, Guy Fawkes went to Spain seeking military aid from Philip III, he found that the Spanish were less inclined to offer their support. For them, the accession of James I created an opportunity to end the costly war with England – and, in August 1604, Spanish and English delegations met at Somerset House in London to sign a peace treaty. Two Spanish noblemen, Don Juan de Tassis and the Constable of Castile (both of whom feature in the BBC drama Gunpowder), can be seen in the portrait of the Somerset House conference that hangs in the National Maritime Museum (see below). Spain’s abandonment of English Catholics left the plotters to go it alone.

    If the plot had been successful, would it have delivered England into the hands of a Catholic regime?

    For that to happen, the plotters would have needed to establish a new government, neutralise the Tower of London and secure England’s ports. Their plans to achieve all this were hazy at best.

    Britain was a monarchy, so royal rule would have had to have continued under a new Catholic regime. The king’s son, Henry, Prince of Wales, was a vigorous Protestant, and would in any case probably have died in the explosion. One of the plotters, Thomas Percy, wanted to kidnap Prince Charles (the future Charles I). But Catesby favoured capturing the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth, appointing a protector and marrying the puppet monarch to a Catholic husband.

    The princess’s household was based at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, a swift ride from the Catesby family home at Ashby St Ledgers. Catesby invited the local Catholic gentry to hunt with him on 5 November, hoping they could use this as cover. But when the gunpowder plot failed, his support network melted away. Catesby and Wintour became fugitives, running between one Catholic house and another. They made their last stand at Holbeach House, advancing with swords against the sheriff’s men armed with guns. Catesby and Percy died from the same bullet, while Wintour was captured to face trial.

    How was Guy Fawkes punished for his crimes?

    The burning of effigies of Guy Fawkes on bonfire night might suggest that Fawkes was burnt at the stake. However, for men, the sentence for high treason was to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’, and that’s the grisly fate that awaited Fawkes.

    Prior to his execution, brutal torture was used to extract Fawkes’s confession, including manacles – which were secured tightly around wrists and used to hang the accused by their hands for many hours – and, most likely, the notorious rack, which stretched the body, tearing tendons, ripping joints and fracturing bones.

    It would have been a wretched Fawkes who was tied head-down to a hurdle and drawn to Old Palace Yard outside the Palace of Westminster, along with three fellow plotters. As the last to be executed, he would have witnessed the others being hanged, removed while still alive, and then dying during the physical mutilation that followed. First, the genitals were cut off and burned. The body was then disembowelled and decapitated, and finally quartered, with body parts displayed across the country.

    Fawkes was spared the pain of the final stages because his neck broke as he hanged, bringing instant death on the gallows.

    How alive were the authorities to the threat of Catholic conspiracies?

    The gunpowder plot was the latest in a string of conspiracies aimed at re-establishing Catholic rule in England. For years, radical Catholics had been hoping to co-ordinate an uprising of recusant families with military support from sympathetic foreign powers. Yet few English Catholics had ever supported armed action against the Protestant regime.

    The state had developed powerful weapons against insurgency. Elizabeth I’s principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, recruited an extensive network of informers and agents, penetrating the Catholic underground and infiltrating the continental seminaries where missionary priests were trained. This had enabled him to thwart previous attempts on the monarch’s life, such as the Babington plot of 1586, which aimed to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. After his death, Walsingham’s secret service was maintained by his successor, Robert Cecil, who served both Elizabeth and James I.

    Given the sophistication of the network that Walsingham bequeathed Cecil, it’s perhaps surprising that the gunpowder plot came so close to achieving its objective. After all, Fawkes was only discovered at the 11th hour, allegedly as he hovered over the powder, ready to ignite a fuse.

    How did Catholics practise their faith without attracting unwanted attention?

    The need for Catholicism to be pursued in secret put domestic houses at the very heart of this community. Catholics disguised the symbols and accoutrements associated with their worship, sometimes in plain sight, among everyday furnishings. A dining table might double as an altar, a priest’s vestments could be folded up and buried amid the household linen, and a chalice reserved for mass might be placed on shelves and rendered indistinguishable from ordinary drinking cups. A number of houses famously had ‘priest holes’, secret spaces behind fireplaces, staircases and walls in which not just the sacred vessels but also priests themselves could be hidden.

    So the home – and, by extension, the women who kept those homes – were critical to keeping the faith alive. This can be seen in the life of Anne Vaux (played by Liv Tyler in Gunpowder), a Catholic gentlewoman who was arrested on suspicion of being connected to the gunpowder plot. Like other women of her rank and religion, Vaux played a high-stakes role in maintaining Catholic underground networks, orchestrating meetings, acting as a gatekeeper and, crucially, supporting priests in rented safe houses and in her own home.

    Why do we call 5 November ‘bonfire night’?

    When the gunpowder plot was discovered, Londoners were encouraged to light bonfires in celebration. Before long, 5 November had entered the calendar as a reminder of England’s deliverance. Mingling with the older traditions of fire-making and feasting, it became a day of national rejoicing.

    English settlers in America carried their anti-Catholicism across the Atlantic. Known as Pope’s Day in colonial Boston, 5 November saw rival gangs fighting over effigies of the pontiff, and throwing them into the fire. You can witness something similar today in Lewes in Sussex, where bonfire societies parade through the town and hurl good-natured abuse at a volunteer dressed up as a cardinal.

    But bonfire festivities are changing. As recently as the 1980s, huge numbers of families congregated in neighbours’ back gardens to eat soup and cinder toffee and watch dad set off fireworks, while streets across the land resonated to the sound of children asking for a ‘penny for the guy’. Today, these traditions are rapidly disappearing.

    The American import of Halloween has largely usurped bonfire night, firework sales are more heavily regulated, and villages wishing to host bonfire events have to raise eye-wateringly large sums for insurance, threatening their long-term future.

    Will the next generation be able to recite the old rhyme, ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot?’ And what will the original story of the gunpowder plot mean to Britons in 100 years’ time if we no longer make Guys and build bonfires?

    John Cooper and Hannah Greig are senior lecturers in early modern history at the University of York.


    Gunpowder Plot

    The Gunpowder Plot was one of the most famous attempts to kill a king in British history. A group of men, including one named Guy Fawkes, planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament. They were caught before they could carry out the plot, however. Every year on the anniversary of the plot, people in the United Kingdom celebrate the fact that the plot failed. The celebrations include bonfires and fireworks.

    Reason for the Plot

    The men who planned the Gunpowder Plot were Roman Catholics who were unhappy with the way they were being treated. James I, the first of the Stuart kings of England, came to the throne in 1603. At the time, there were many conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics. James succeeded Elizabeth I, a Protestant, who did not allow Catholics to practice their religion as they wished. Roman Catholics in England expected James to treat them well because his mother was a Catholic. Instead, he ordered all Catholic priests to leave England. The men were furious that their hopes of religious tolerance had been dashed.

    The Conspiracy

    The men plotted to kill not only the king but also the queen, their son Prince Charles, and every member of the government during the state opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605. The leader of the group was a man called Robert Catesby. Cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament were rented out as storage spaces to people such as coal merchants, and the gang leased one of these cellars. They gradually moved in 36 barrels of gunpowder and hid them there. It was enough gunpowder to blow up hundreds of people.

    Failure of the Plot

    The night before the opening of Parliament, soldiers caught Guy Fawkes in the cellar. They arrested him and took him to the Tower of London. After three days of torture, Fawkes told his captors the names of his fellow plotters. They were all arrested for treason—plotting against the king and the country—and were imprisoned in the Tower.

    On January 30–31, 1606, the whole gang was executed as hundreds of people watched. Afterward their heads were cut off and displayed on poles throughout London, to warn others what would happen to them if they plotted against the king. In celebration of his survival, James ordered that the people of England should have a great bonfire on the night of November 5, which is now known as Guy Fawkes Day.


    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.

    History

    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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    FINIS.

    Further reading:

    Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996)

    Wickham, Glynne, Shakespeare’s Dramatic Heritage: Collected Studies in Mediaeval, Tudor and Shakespearean Drama, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969)

    Wickham, Glynne, ‘From Tragedy to Tragi-comedy: ‘King Lear’ as Prologue’ in Shakespeare Survey 26, edited by Kenneth Muir, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973)


    A Legend Is Born

    Later that day, Sir Thomas Knyvett, a minor but trustworthy royal official, oversaw a second search of the buildings around Parliament. The same storeroom likewise attracted his attention, as did the man Knyvett found guarding it. He was not dressed like a watchman instead he was wearing a cloak, boots, and spurs—clothes more suited, it seemed, for making a quick getaway on horseback.

    Knyvett’s men shifted the firewood and found 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden behind it. The man, who gave his name as John Johnson, was found to have “matches” (long fuses) on his person. Knyvett had uncovered an astonishing conspiracy to blow up the members of both Houses of Parliament, the king, most of the royal family, and leading officers of state. The aim was to set up a Roman Catholic regime in Protestant England, with James I’s daughter Elizabeth—who would not be in attendance—as its puppet ruler.

    Arrested and tortured, John Johnson revealed that he was from Yorkshire in northern England and that his real name was Guy Fawkes. He was one of several Catholic conspirators in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot. While not the ringleader himself, Fawkes became the best known member of the most famous conspiracy in English history. His capture has been illustrated in countless schoolbooks, novels, popular works of history, and movies: a tall, bearded figure in boots, dark cloak, and dark, wide-brimmed hat. It is his figure that is still burned in effigy on bonfires around England every year on November 5.


    The Stuarts – The Gunpowder Plot

    A small group of Catholics, Robert Catesby, Guido (Guy) Fawkes, Thomas Winter, John Wright and Thomas Percy decided to blow up the King on the State opening of Parliament. They hoped that this would lead to a Catholic King coming to the throne. Guido (Guy) Fawkes was an explosives expert who had served with the Spanish army in the Netherlands.

    The group rented a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament and stored 20 barrels of gunpowder, supplied by Guido Fawkes. The date for the deed was set for November 5th. They recruited others sympathetic to their cause including Francis Tresham whose brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, was a member of Parliament. Concerned for his brother-in-law’s safety, Tresham sent him a letter advising him not to attend Parliament on November 5th.

    Monteagle alerted the authorities and a search of the Houses of Parliament led to the discovery of Guido Fawkes standing guard over the barrels of gunpowder. He was tortured and revealed the names of the conspirators. Catesby and Percy and two others were killed resisting arrest. The others were tried for treason and executed.

    The Protestant View – The Conspirators were Guilty

    This picture shows the conspirators hatching the plot to blow up the King and parliament. They are grouped close together which shows that they are hatching a secret plot.

    Robert Catesby, Guido (Guy) Fawkes, Thomas Winter, John Wright and Thomas Percy were known to be Catholics.

    Guido Fawkes was an explosives expert. He had only recently returned to England maybe specifically to set the explosives.

    Francis Tresham was only thinking of his brother-in-law’s safety when he sent the letter.

    Gunpowder was not normally kept in the cellars under the Houses of Parliament. It was obviously put there by the conspirators.

    Guido Fawkes revealed the names of the conspirators.

    The Catholic View – The Conspirators were framed by the Protestants

    Many historians today agree with the Catholics of the time that the Gunpowder Plot conspirators were framed by James I’s chief minister, Robert Cecil.

    Cecil hated the Catholics and wanted to show them to be against the country. It is believed that Francis Tresham, who sent the warning note to his brother-in-law, may have been working for Cecil. There is evidence to support this view:

    This picture showing the conspirators, was made by a Dutchman who had never seen the conspirators.

    Cecil is quoted as saying ‘..we cannot hope to have good government while large numbers of people (Catholics) go around obeying foreign rulers (The Pope).’ This shows how much he hated the Catholics and wanted rid of them.

    Lord Monteagle received the warning letter at night. The night he received it was the only night in 1605 that he stayed at home. Could he have been waiting for it?

    All available supplies of gunpowder were kept in the Tower of London.

    The cellar was rented to the conspirators by a close friend of Robert Cecil.

    All of the conspirators were executed except one – Francis Tresham.

    The signature on Guy Fawkes’ confession did not match his normal signature.

    This article is part of our larger resource on the Stuarts culture, society, economics, and warfare. Click here for our comprehensive article on the Stuarts.


    Primary Sources

    (1) Guy Fawkes was arrested on the 4 November, 1605. After being tortured in the Tower of London, Guy Fawkes confessed to planning to blow up Parliament. (17th November 1605)

    Catesby suggested. making a mine under the upper house of Parliament. because religion had been unjustly suppressed there. twenty barrels of gunpowder were moved to the cellar. It was agreed to seize Lady Elizabeth, the king's eldest daughter. and to proclaim her Queen.

    (2) Thomas Wintour was arrested on 8 November, 1605. After being tortured in the Tower of London, Wintour confessed to planning to blow up Parliament. (23rd November 1605)

    Mr. Catesby. said he had a plan to deliver us from all our troubles and - without any foreign help - to replant again the Catholic faith. He said his plan was to blow up the Parliament House with gunpowder. He asked me if I would give my consent. I told him "Yes".

    (3) Everard Digby, letter sent to Robert Cecil while in captivity.

    If harsh measures are taken (against Roman Catholics) within a brief time there will be massacres, rebellions and desperate attempts against the King and State. It is hoped that the King that now is would have been at least free from persecuting, as his promise was before coming into his Realm, and as divers his promises have been since his coming, saying that he would take no soul money nor blood.

    (4) Everard Digby statement in court on 27 January 1606.

    I request that all my property might be preserved for my wife and children. I also request that I be beheaded instead of hanged.

    (5) James Oliphant, A History of England (1920)

    Some of the Roman Catholics, in the hope of bringing about a violent change. tried to blow up King and Parliament with gunpowder. After this it was necessary to adopt sterner measures with the Roman Catholics.

    (6) Philip Sidney, A History of the Gunpowder Plot (1905)

    Guy Fawkes refused to name his friends. he was speedily put to torture. he was compelled to confess. The conspirators met their fate with courage, considering the terrible nature of their punishment. 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.

    (7) Robert Crampton, The Gunpowder Plot (1990)

    If Guy Fawkes case came up before the Court of Appeal today, the. judges would surely. acquit him. First, no one has ever seen the attempted tunnel. Builders excavating the area in 1823 found neither a tunnel nor any rubble. Second, the gunpowder. In 1605, the Government had a monopoly on its manufacture. The Government did not display the gunpowder and nobody saw it in the cellars. Third, these cellars were rented by the government to a known Catholic agitator. Fourth, the Tresham letter. Graphologists (handwriting experts) agree that it was not written by Francis Tresham.

    (8) The Weekly News (31st January 1606)

    Last of all came the great devil of all, Guy Fawkes, alias Johnson, who should have put fire to the powder. His body being weak with the torture and sickness he was scarce able to go up the ladder, yet with much ado, by the help of the hangman, went high enough to break his neck by the fall. He made no speech, but with his crosses and idle ceremonies made his end upon the gallows and the block, to the great joy of all the beholders that the land was ended of so wicked a villainy.

    (9) Camilla Turner, The Daily Telegraph (5th November, 2014)

    The traditional death for traitors in 17th-century England was to be hanged from the gallows, then drawn and quartered in public. But, despite his role in the Gunpowder Plot - which the perpetrators hoped would kill King James and as many members of parliament as possible - it was not to be Fawkes's fate.

    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. He died from a broken neck.
    His body was subsequently quartered, and his remains were sent to "the four corners of the kingdom" as a warning to others.


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