The Gunpowder Plot
There has been tension between Protestants and Catholics in Britain ever since Henry VIII split the Church of England away from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 and declared himself Supreme Governor. Throughout the reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts, maintaining the Protestant succession was a priority, to the extent that on two occasions foreign rulers (William of Orange in 1688 and George I in 1714) were invited to take the throne to avoid succession by Catholic heirs.
At times the tension has spilled over into violence, notably with riots and executions during the reign of Mary I as she attempted to restore Catholicism and Anglican clerics objected. Her sister Elizabeth turned the country back to Anglicanism, but was fairly tolerant toward Catholics as long as they didn’t try to reimpose their religion.
When Elizabeth died childless in 1603, her chosen successor was James VI of Scotland, the grandson of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister, and the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. He had been raised Protestant, and so had his wife, Anne of Denmark. James, who became James I of England on his accession, was less tolerant than Elizabeth toward Catholics. In the first year of his reign two plots against him were discovered. The Bye Plot was intended to kidnap the king and force a repeal of anti-Catholic legislation; the Main Plot, however, was a more serious matter, involving deposing James and replacing him with his Catholic cousin Arbella Stuart. The plots were disclosed by informers, some of the plotters were excuted while others were imprisoned, and much harsher anti-Catholic measures were instituted, including an edict in February 1604 that Catholic clergy should leave the country.
Barely three months later a group of Catholics started to plan an audacious act – to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament when the king would be present along with the entire government. Their plan for the succession was to declare the king’s nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth (who would not be present at the Opening of Parliament) to be queen and to ensure that she ruled as a Catholic monarch with aid from Catholic countries in Europe.
The leader of the group was Sir Robert Catesby, a Catholic who had taken part in the Essex rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601 but escaped with a fine. He had hoped that James VI, with his Catholic mother, would be more tolerant toward Catholics than Elizabeth had been, but James was so worried about the increasing belligerance of Catholics in northern Europe after the Reformation that he was not inclined to be tolerant. After the Bye and Main plots he exiled Catholic priests from England and reimposed fines on recusant Catholics, which included Robert Catesby’s family.
Catesby gathered a small group of like-minded conspirators including his brother-in-law Thomas Wintour, Guy Fawkes (a soldier with experience in handling explosives) Jack Wright (a Yorkshire acquaintance of Fawkes), and Sir Thomas Percy (a relative of the Earl of Northumberland, a nominal Protestant who was a strong Catholic sympathiser). They were later joined by Robert Keyes, Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Christopher Wright, relatives of the original plotters, and Thomas Bates, a servant of Catesby’s. Thomas Percy obtained leases on properties near the Houses of Parliament, including the undercroft below the House of Lords; he also planned the kidnap of Princess Elizabeth in the north of England along with incitement of rebellions in the midlands and north after the assassination. Guy Fawkes posed as his servant with the pseudonym John Johnson.
Once the conspirators had access to the undercroft, they started moving barrels of gunpowder into it and stacking them under the House of Lords. They laid hands on 36 barrels in total. Fawkes, with his experience in handling explosives, had the responsibility to make sure that the gunpowder remained in good condition during storage since the Opening of Parliament had been postponed from October to November and since the cellars under the Houses of Parliament tended to be damp. Some of the gunpowder had in fact deteriorated because of the delay and needed to be replaced. He also had the task of igniting the gunpowder and escaping from the building by boat, after which he would travel to Europe in the hopes of drumming up support for the new Catholic regime even though it had been built on regicide.
In August and September 1605 three more conspirators joined the group: Francis Tresham, Ambrose Rookwood, and Everard Digby. Catesby was running out of money and needed these wealthy men to contribute funds and also to organise the northern rebellion and the kidnapping of Princess Elizabeth, and possibly Henry Prince of Wales if he had not accompanied his parents to Parliament.
The plot was discovered in late October when Lord Monteagle, a relative by marriage of Francis Tresham, received a letter warning him to stay away from the Opening of Parliament for his own safety. Opinion is divided over whether the letter came from Francis Tresham or whether Lord Monteagle, having found out about the plot from another source, forged the letter himself. He showed the letter to Sir Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State, who authorised a search of the area underneath the Houses of Parliament.
During the night of 4 November, Fawkes was discovered in the undercroft, guarding the gunpowder. His associates were already on their way to the midlands in order to kidnap the princess and start the rebellion. Fawkes was arrested and taken into custody; he was tortured several times in order to get the names of his fellow conspirators. By this time the other conspirators were in the midlands, and when they heard that Fawkes had been arrested they took refuge in Holbeche House in Staffordshire, where the Sheriff of Worcester caught up with them on 8 November. Some of them had been injured by an explosion when they had tried to dry out some gunpowder and it exploded, ironically doing themselves more harm with gunpowder than they’d ever done to the king. Catesby and Percy were killed during the arrest, but several others were taken back to London to stand trial.
The surviving plotters – Guy Fawkes, Everard Digby (the only one to plead guilty), Robert Wintour, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes (Francis Tresham had died of natural causes in the meantime) - went to trial in January 1606, and were found guilty of treason. They were hanged, drawn and quartered. The bodies of Percy and Catesby were exhumed and their heads were removed so they could be displayed in London.
As a result of the plot, James I instituted yet more stringent laws against Catholics. They were denied the vote and barred from serving as officers in the armed forces and from practising law, and penalties against Catholic recusants were made more severe. James went on to reign for another 20 years, dying in 1625 and being succeeded by his second son, Charles. There were suspicions that the later Stuart kings were Catholic sympathisers, and this led to the overthrow of Charles’s son James II in 1688. After James’s daughters Mary (along with her husband William of Orange) and Anne had followed him on the throne but produced no heirs to follow them, Parliament invited George, Elector of Hanover, the Protestant great grandson of James I, to become king. George was the son of Sophia of Hanover, the daughter of Frederick V, Elector Palatine, and his wife Elizabeth – the very same Elizabeth who, as a nine-year-old child, would have been titular queen if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded. Instead of being the Catholic monarch hoped for by Robert Catesby, she was the ancestor of the Protestant line of British monarchs that continues today.
Another legacy of the Gunpowder Plot that continues today is the Bonfire Night/Guy Fawkes Night celebration on 5 November. It traditionally involves burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire and letting off fireworks. Nowadays the bonfires are usually organised by local authorities, and some of the celebrations are very elaborate, but individual firework parties are still popular.
Photo of the Houses of Parliament by Flickr member Kol Tregaskes and posted under Creative Commons licence.
Illustration of Guy Fawkes from Wikipedia and in the public domain.
Photo of Guy Fawkes night celebration by Flickr member trueclearlight and posted under Creative Commons licence.
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