Date: 5 November 1605
Location: Houses of Parliament, London, England
Reason: Religious differences, assassination attempt against King James I of England
Participants: Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes, Francis Tresham and others
Outcome: Failure for the plotters, plotters executed
Events Leading to the Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot, also known as Guy Fawkes Night, Fireworks Night, or simply 5 November, was an English Catholic plot against King James I (r. 1603-25), who was a Protestant. He had ascended the English throne in place of Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), who was also a Protestant, and his persecution of Catholics was arguably stronger than Elizabeth’s was, sparking the need for drastic action in the minds of the plotters.
Historian Ronald Hutton argues that English Catholics initially had high hopes that James I would end the Elizabethan persecution of them. He had encouraged these ideas initially (to win further support for his accession as the first Stuart monarch), but soon reverted to the Elizabethan-style persecution of Catholics because “the weight of English public opinion had become so hostile to Catholics and the fines levied on them were so lucrative.” As a result, those who were indeed Catholic radicals, tried to blow him and his entire Parliament blown up.
The plotters were led by a Catholic called Robert Catesby. His father had been persecuted in Elizabeth I’s reign for refusing to conform to the Church of England. In total, the plotters numbered 13: it was certainly an unlucky number for all of them in the end: the reason I mentioned three in the summary above is because (arguably) they are the three most significant of the thirteen. Nevertheless, the names of the thirteen plotters involved were as follows: Thomas Bates, Robert Catesby, Sir Everard Digby, Guy Fawkes, John Grant, Robert Keyes, Thomas Percy, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham, Robert & Thomas Wintour, and John & Christopher Wright.
Catesby (and some of the other plotters) put some money together to rent a cellar which was directly underneath the House of Lords building, and transported a total of 36 barrels of gunpowder on boats across the River Thames to store in the cellar. Guy Fawkes was put in charge of the explosives because he had ten years’ experience in the military from his time fighting for Catholic Spain in the Protestant Netherlands during the Dutch Revolt (1566-1648).
5 November 1605
However, the plan did not go to action. Lord Monteagle (one of the Lords who was due to be sitting in James’ Parliament on 5 November), was also the brother-in-law of Francis Tresham. As the 5 November approached, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter (which, as Fawkes would confess under torture) was written by (or, rather, attributed to) Francis Tresham, warning his brother-in-law not to attend Parliament on 5 November, as the English political establishment would receive a ‘terrible blow’.
Sensing danger, Monteagle alerted the government, but it was decided that the government wanted to catch the plotters red-handed, so decided not to search the vaults under the Parliament chamber until the night of 4 November.
At approximately 11:00pm, the search party entered the rented cellar and it was a man who was also a justice of the peace (Sir Thomas Knyvet) who discovered a man guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder, a pile of firewood and a fuse. That man was, of course, Guy Fawkes.
Guy Fawkes was immediately arrested and questioned, under the use of torture (including the infamous rack), in order that he also name his co-conspirators. All of the thirteen plotters were eventually tracked down, and all received the same punishment: hung, drawn, and quartered.
A record from the trail noted that each of them were to be drawn backwards from prison by a horse tail, hanged, cut down while still alive, “have his Privy parts cut off and burned before his face, as being unworthily begotten and being unfit to leave any generation after him. His Bowels and inlaid Parts taken out and burnt…after to have his head cut off.” Then, and only then, were their bodies to be quartered.
Fawkes’ trial was set for 31 January 1606, along with Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rookwood and Thomas Wintour. Fawkes had been drawn, but on his way up to the gallows, he jumped from a ladder, breaking his neck and dying. His body was never quartered, but was still chopped up into four different pieces and sent to “the four corners of the kingdom”, as a warning to other potential traitors.
Surprisingly, the immediate political consequences were not huge. Although tough new laws were rushed through Parliament against Catholicism, there was no widespread persecution of Catholics in England, and the peace with Spain held out. The longer-term consequences were more serious, though. Anti-Catholic feeling directly from the Gunpowder Plot played into the hands of anti-Catholic propaganda in the later seventeenth century in England.
If the plot had not been betrayed, it would have been the most serious terrorist attack of the seventeenth century, and not just blown up Parliament, but the entire centre of Westminster. Ronald Hutton argues that “The appropriate comparison is not with [9/11], but with the impact of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.”
Obviously the most famous legacy of the Gunpowder Plot is Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night), which was established by Parliament in 1606, and has been celebrated ever since. It is celebrated in Britain on 5 November every year, and sometimes effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned on the bonfires, while fireworks are let off to symbolise the explosions that would have occurred, had the plotters not been discovered.
For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.
Ronald Hutton, A Brief History of Britain, 1485-1660: The Tudor & Stuart Dynasties (2010)
Simon Jenkins, A Short History of England (2011)
David Starkey, Crown & Country: The Kings and Queens of England, A History (2011)