The Great Gunpowder Plot

The Great Gunpowder Plot

Every year on the 5th of November we celebrate Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night or Plot Night depending on which part of the UK you live in. Basically it amounts to the same thing, that is, that we commemorate the fact that in 1605 a plot by a group of individuals, including Guy Fawkes, who wished to blow up the Houses of Parliament was foiled. Here we take a look at the facts surrounding the Gunpowder Plot and the individuals involved.

Why Did the Plot Come About?

James I of England came to the throne in 1603. He was a protestant king who was acknowledged as the supreme head of the Church of England. Rome and Catholicism was in the past with England practicing their own religion. Catholics were disapproved of by the state , while being a follower of the Catholic religion was made extremely difficult.

It had been hoped that when James came to the throne that as his mother Mary Queen of Scots was Catholic he might make life easier for followers of Rome. This unfortunately was not the case as James I listened to advisors who encouraged him to bring in stiffer penalties for Catholics. This was to placate radical Protestants and also the Puritans of the time who wished to rid Protestantism of any link whatsoever to Rome.

Catholics became more and more discontented and even attempted twice to kill James I, plots that were encouraged by Catholic leaders throughout the rest of Europe. Ultimately this led to a plot that would see five men plan an attack whereby they would blow up the House of Lords and everyone in it.

Who was Involved?

We tend to think that Guy Fawkes was the main instigator of the gunpowder plot but he was far from alone in the plan as it was actually the creation of Warwickshire gentleman Robert Catesby. Catesby along with Jack Wright, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes met at The Duck and Drake Inn to hatch their plan. Catesby was from a strong Catholic background. His own father had been in prison for sheltering priests, while Catesby even left university minus a degree so that he did not have to sign the oath of alleigance to the Protestant faith.

The five men planned to blow up the House of Lords on the 5th November 1605 during the opening of parliament ceremony at which the King would of course be present. If they succeeded in killing the king the plan was to put Elizabeth his daughter, who was Catholic, on the throne restoring England to the Catholic faith and ridding it of Protestantism.

Guy Fawkes was to have a prominent role in the plan as he posed as a servant working in the House of Lords enabling the men to gather a huge store of gunpowder in a cellar directly under the chamber. Had they been successful many important figures would have been killed including the king.

The Great Gunpowder Plot

How Was the Plot Uncovered?

All good plots need a tight circle of protagonists with tight lips in order to succeed with their task undetected. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on the way you see it, in the case of the Gunpowder Plot there was a chink in the armour. One of the plotters was the brother-in-law of Lord Monteagle and did not wish to make his sister a widow so sent Monteagle an anonymous letter advising him not to attend the opening of parliament.

Lord Monteagle gave the letter to Robert Cecil who was known as the spymaster of King James's court, while Cecil decided to bide his time with the information he had aquired letting the plotters believe their plan was reaching fruition. Cecil, on November 4th ordered a complete search of the houses of parliament in order to determine what was going on. It was during this search that the gunpowder was discovered in the cellar, while Guy Fawkes was found wearing his disguise and was arrested.

Information by Torture

Guy Fawkes was taken to The Tower of London following his arrest where he was tortured for two solid days. We can only imagine the blood thirsty events that took place over the course of the two days that culminated in Fawkes's confession. Over these two days his accomplices managed to escape, while with nowhere to turn they ended up fighting their final battle against the kings men at Holbeche House in Staffordshire.

Robert Catesby was fatally wounded during the shoot out, while the other plotters and their followers were arrested and taken back to London to face trial. Many of them were tortured in order to gain information and confessions. Guy Fawkes plus many of his accomplices was executed by being hung, drawn and quartered on the 30th and 31st of January 1606, a truly grisly death.

The Aftermath

The problem with the Gunpowder Plot that lead to its downfall was simply the fact that although the explosion would have killed the king and many enemies of the Catholics it also would have killed many supporters of the Catholic cause who also sat in Parliament. Ultimately this lead to the letter that was sent to warn Monteagle, as one of the conspirators did not want his friend to become one of the victims.

Some say the thirty six barrels of gunpowder would not have ignited anyway as it was so old, something we will never know as the plot was discovered before they attempted to ignite it. That very night all over England bonfires were lit to celebrate the fact that the king had been saved, while even to this very day the monarch only ever enters the parliament building once a year to attend the state opening of parliament.

The plot did in fact have the opposite affect to that which the conspirators wanted as life for Catholics became even more difficult. The right for Catholics to vote was abolished by James I, while restrictions on what Catholics could do in public life were severe. It was the mid 1800's before these restrictions were lifted bringing two hundred years of discrimination to an end.

The celebration of bonfire night on which we build a bonfire and burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on the top still goes on today although for most of us it is a night to enjoy friend and family gatherings to watch firework displays rather than any thought of James I or Guy Fawkes.

Who Was Guy Fawkes?

Guy Fawkes was the only son of Edward and Edith Fawkes and was born on April 13th 1570 at Stonegate in Yorkshire. In 1593 it is stated that Fawkes joined the Spanish army in Flanders, while he caught the eye of his superior officers who promoted him to a position of command during the Spanish campaign to take over Calais. Fawkes was revered as a man of honour who was certainly devoutly religious and devoted to the Catholic faith.

In 1600 Guy Fawkes left the army and travelled to Spain even adopting the name of Guido rather than Guy. Here he had contact with Phillip of Spain enlightening the king as to the position of Catholics in England, while he also met up with an old school friend Christopher Wright. It is said even then Fawkes and Wright were planning an invasion of England by the Spanish on the death of Elizabeth I. The Spanish however were not up for yet another war as they had not yet recovered from the shame of the Spanish Armada where they were sorely defeated by the English.

Fawkes then travelled to Brussels where he met Thomas Wintour one of his co-conspirators. Fawkes confessed later that the plot had been discussed at this meeting by himself and Wintour although when confessions are extracted by torturous means they cannot be taken as fact. In May 1604 the plot was finalised and blessed by a Jesuit priest, while as the saying goes, the rest is history.

A Poem

Remember remember the fifth of November

Gunpowder treason and plot

I see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot

This nursery rhyme has been recited for centuries and hails back from the time of KIng James I. The poem's recitation was encouraged in order to remind people of what had taken place on November 5th 1605 so that further attempts would be discouraged. Reminding people of what had befallen the conspirators and the aftermath served to keep Catholic uprisings at bay for many years to come.