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.
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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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Gunpowder Plot" https://englishhistory.net/stuarts/the-gunpowder-plot/, February 16, 2017