The Gunpowder Plot

We all know the gunpowder treason and plot, that in 1605 Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the houses of Parliament, but how much do you know of the complete conspiracy that was three years in the making. 

Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot by Henry Perronet Briggs, 1823

Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot by Henry Perronet Briggs, 1823

At the time of Queen Elizabeth I 's death in 1603, Elizabeth had bore no children, so James, son of Mary Queen of Scots ascended to the throne of England, despite already being King of Scotland from a young age.

James came into rule at a difficult time in England where Elizabeth had implemented many measures of Catholic oppression, firmly furthering the work of her father (Henry VIII) in instilling Protestantism at the religion of the crown.  James continued the religious approach of Elizabeth, but was considerably more lenient in his approach, often exiling non-converts rather than executing them, however once he lost the council of Robert Cecil, he began truly asserting his belief of divine and supreme authority of the crown and Catholic suppression. His treatment of the Catholics was looked unfavourably upon by the other leaders of Europe at the time, in particular the Spanish which they just secured peace with.

The gunpowder plot was not the first attempt to remove James from the throne, as there was two attempts made in his first year as King of England in 1603 known as the 'main plot' and the 'bye' plot. The plots eventually proved unsuccessful and led to the arrest and imprisonment of the involved conspirators including Sir Walter Raleigh.

While Fawkes was the conspirator that was caught red handed, Robert Catesby was the mastermind of the plot. Catesby was a Catholic whose family had been persecuted under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I for failing to conform to the Queen's religion. Thomas Wintour, John Wright and Thomas Percy were also involved in the initial planning of the plot. Fawkes was the explosive expert of the group, skills which he acquired while fighting for Spain the Eighty Years War against the Dutch Republic.

Percy made the first step in the plot and used his connection with the Earl of Northumberland to get a job as one of the King's bodyguards, and secure a house near parliament. This also gave Fawkes the opportunity to pose as Percy's servant under the pseudonym 'John Johnson'. At the same time Catesby secures a place directly across the river where they initially began storing the gunpowder.

Over the months leading up to the plot the group brought more people into the conspiracy to provide support, logistics, and finance, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Christopher Wright were all supporters of the cause.

The plotters began tunnelling towards parliament from Percy's house. Once they reached the House of Lords they commenced bringing the gunpowder from Catesby's house. After Parliament had been delayed until November due to plague fears, the group used this time to bring all of the gunpowder barrels into play, as well as recruiting the final members of the plot including Ambrose Rookwood and Francis Tresham. Percy had rented an underground vault at the Palace of Westminster which happened to sit directly underneath the first floor in the House of Lords, this ensured they wouldn’t have to dig anymore.

The plot really came to the government's attention when Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter from one of the conspirators advising him not to attend parliament on that day and detailed the events to come, Lord Monteagle just so happened to be the brother-in-law of one of the conspirators (Tresham), Monteagle was a Catholic but remained loyal to the crown. The Wright Brothers were close with the Monteagle family and gave word to Catesby that Tresham had betrayed them. Catesby and Wintour confronted Tresham, but Tresham convinced them he was not involved with the letter. It was no surprise that Monteagle alerted the government straight away.

The first search of the houses of parliament led them to find a bundle of firewood (which was concealing the gunpowder) where they discovered Fawkes who claimed to be Percy's servant at the time, they left him be and reported their findings.

The King ordered a more thorough search and when they returned so had Fawkes, this time they arrested him and found matches on him, which led them to search the firewood where they found the 36 barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was taken to the King early in the morning where he continued to claim he was John Johnson, so the King authorised confession by torture.

Once news of Fawkes arrest had spread, the other conspirators urgently made their way out of London.  When they reach the midlands in Warwickshire, they attempt to drum up support for an uprising which proved unsuccessful, however Catesby convinced everyone to make their last stand in the midlands.

All of the remaining plotters made it to the safe house in Staffordshire, where they were surrounded by 200 of the Sheriff's men. Catesby, Percy and the Wright brothers died in the shootout, and the rest of the conspirators are captured alive after being wounded.

King James ordered the torture of Fawkes to uncover the full extent of the plot and other conspirators that were involved, Fawkes eventually gave in on November 9 and revealed the Catholic plot. Thomas Wintour was also subjected to torture, however he incriminated all of the other plotters with the exception of his brother. The subsequent trial found the 8 remaining plotters all guilty of treason.

Although King James had the brutal execution of being hung, drawn and quartered planned for Fawkes, he jumped from a ladder on his way down into gallows, breaking his neck and dying, he was still quartered none the less. All of the conspirators shared the same fate.

Fawkes and Catesby's efforts were immediately in vein as the Catholic movement suffered extreme persecution under the rule of James as a direct result of the attempted plot, where oppressive new laws were introduced to restrict the rights of Catholics including the elimination of the Catholics right to vote.

Anti-Catholicism sentiment remained prevalent for sometime, where the rights of Catholics were not increased upon until the reign of George III in the latter part of the 18th century, the sentiment however remained until the early 20th century. 

Whether Fawkes will be remembered as a terrorist committing the greatest act of treason in British history or as a patriot who stood up to a government that oppressed religious freedom, that I leave up to you.