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The Gunpowder Plot

60 second histories
by: Squaducation date: 05 Nov

The Gunpowder Plot

  -  5th November 1605 -  



Remember, Remember; The Fifth of November, the gunpowder, treason and plot; I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!” This was an English Folk Verse from around 1870. It is true too. It never has been forgotten. Every year bonfires are built, Guys are placed on top of them and burned, fireworks go up and great fun is enjoyed by all. What is all the fuss about? What is the real reason for the festivities and is the plot as simple as it first appears? Somewhere in all of this can be seen the devious ideas and plans of Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury, the equivalent of the head of MI5 today.


The story all good teachers tell their class is a classic tale. James I of England (James VI of Scotland) had come to the throne in England on the death of Elizabeth. The latter monarch, a Protestant, had become increasingly hard on the Catholics after the many plots against her, some of them led by her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, as well as the attempted Spanish invasion or “Crusade”, as some would view it, in 1588. Catholicism had been suppressed by the state and the Monarch was the head of the church after Henry VIII’s split from Rome and Act of Supremacy in 1535. Catholics had to say masses in secret and were forced to attend Protestant services. To say that there had been religious turmoil in England would be an understatement. It had been a liturgical rollercoaster. James had come to the throne with a vague promise to be more tolerant. His wife was a Catholic and he abolished some of the fines for non-attendance at church. Quickly that began to change in 1605 as concerns were raised, especially by the Puritan wing that Catholics were becoming too powerful and were even supported by overseas Catholic monarchies in Europe. 


Two plots had already failed when Thomas Catesby and Thomas Percy, two sympathisers well known to the Government, met to discuss a new idea. This was to arrange a massive explosion at the opening of Parliament killing all the assembled people. They would then put James’ daughter, Elizabeth, on the throne and would bring England back into the Catholic fold. They needed a man with experience in explosives and this is where Guy Fawkes came in. He had been working in the Netherlands for the Spanish against the local population there and was considered a great expert in this area.


They supposedly tried to tunnel under Parliament but water kept coming in so this plan was aborted. They then rented a cellar underneath the Palace of Westminster and transported 36 barrels of Gunpowder inside. Everything was going according to plan. Then a letter was sent to a Catholic sympathiser in the Lords, Lord Monteagle. This letter referred to the Lords receiving a “terrible blow” and advised him not to attend the opening of Parliament. This letter was passed on to the authorities and a search was made of the cellars. Here they found a man calling himself John Johnson, one of the most common names at the time. 


On his arrest this man, in reality Guy Fawkes, was tortured for two days. You can see his signature on his confession. It is unrecognisable from his normal one. He gave the security services names of the other plotters who had now fled to Holbeche Hall in Staffordshire. These men were surrounded and in a shoot out Catesby and Percy were killed – by the same musket ball – and the rest were put on a massive show trial back in London. On January 30th and 31st eight people, including Fawkes, were hanged, drawn and quartered. It is said that Fawkes jumped off the platform killing himself straight away. Those killed at Holbeche Hall were even exhumed and decapitated. In a celebration of his survival James ordered that the people of England should have a great bonfire on the night of the 5th. On top of this was traditionally placed an effigy of the Pope rather than Guy Fawkes. The fireworks and Guys came later. 


James I had been paranoid about plots anyway. His father, Lord Darnley, first husband of Queen Mary, had been murdered in a conspiracy. He was not prepared to take any risks. After such a near miss James was to prove even less tolerant and more and more laws were passed cracking down on Catholics restricting their roles in public life. It was over 200 years until these were lifted. 


On the face of it this all seems rather simple and straightforward. However if you look behind some of the facts you begin to see a much murkier picture. We know that Robert Cecil loathed Catholics and saw them as a real threat and was very concerned by James’ initial willingness to show tolerance. His father, Sir William Cecil, 1stBaron Burghley, was the chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I for most of her reign and twice her Secretary of State. Robert would have grown up at a time of Catholic plots and shared his father’s concerns. By catching the Catholics red-handed and late on in a dramatic 11th hour search not only would Cecil be a hero but also the Catholics would be despised and James’ tolerance would evaporate more quickly than ice on the sun.


The first question is how did the plotters get so much gunpowder? The Government had a monopoly on Gunpowder. It is of course possible that it was purloined from an illegal source, possibly from the Netherlands. However the first barrels of Gunpowder went off and were useless and new barrels had to be brought in late on. Did the Government help in this? The records kept for gunpowder are very sketchy for this particular period. How did the conspirators get the gunpowder to the cellar underneath the Palace of Westminster without raising suspicions? Taking it by boat up the Thames would have made it damp and useless. Did they really carry it in under the noses of the authorities? It is possible that it was done one barrel at a time with the network of lanes and the number of people coming and going making it feasible but Cecil was a man who knew everything, often before it had even happened.


Secondly the cellar they rented belonged to a man called John Whynniard. This man was a friend of Cecil. It was an ideal place to put the gunpowder - being right underneath the place where the Lords and King were to meet. It has been suggested that Robert Catesby leased this in his own name. This would have been surprising, as his name was certainly known as a possible Catholic plotter. There were many of these undercrofts at the time and it was not uncommon to store building materials and food in them. What is rather odd is the confession of the other tunnel that the plotters originally tried to dig. This was never presented by the prosecution and only mentioned in one of the plotters, Thomas Winter’s, confession. Fawkes makes no mention of this tunnel until his fifth interrogation. It was never found.


Thirdly the letter to Monteagle was also very convenient for Cecil and provided the clue to the plot’s existence. Monteagle was the cousin of one of the plotters – Francis Tresham. The letter was addressed to Monteagle but read out aloud by his servant? Why would that be? Was it to provide a witness for Monteagle that this letter had been delivered? This letter stated, “Out of the love I bear to some of your friends I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament…For although there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say that shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament.” This was delivered on the night of 26th October and immediately passed on to Cecil. Why did he wait so long to show this to the King and search the cellars? Nine days? The letter was anonymous. Some historians have suggested that this was sent by Cecil himself to give him the evidence he needed to search the cellars. By waiting a little extra time he was letting the plot ripen nicely. If it were discovered too early the impact would be lessened. Even in the seventeenth century people loved the 11thhour drama. Tresham for his part strenuously denied ever writing the letter.


The fourth oddity is the search itself. There was a search earlier in the day when Fawkes was found, but not arrested. In the first search they found no trace of the gunpowder. It was not until nearly midnight on the 4thNovember that another search was made and Fawkes was found with a fuse and the barrels were discovered until a pile of wood. 


The plot had been discovered! What a relief that must have been! 


Tresham, once arrested, was locked in the Tower. He was a key member of the plot who could have told them a great deal – including information about the letter. Instead he was kept by himself in a cell and died on 23rdDecember 1605 having been found poisoned. How did this happen? It is possible he took the poison in with him. However he was a very valuable witness. Was it that someone did not want him to talk?


John Whynniard, the owner of the cellar, also died soon afterwards. The soldier who shot both Catesby and Percy, the leaders, at Holbeche House was given a large pension for life (10p a day – a very tidy sum in the early seventeenth century) when their arrest and torture was surely more desirable. Did Cecil want them silenced? Holbeche House was surrounded by soldiers before Fawkes had confessed to both where and whom they were. Fawkes’ confession and that of Thomas Wintour are the only two confessions printed in full and it is probable that neither of them is written out in their own handwriting. They certainly would play no part in a courtroom today.


There are many who see the fingerprints of Cecil all over this plot. Some argue that he may have initiated it, others that he found out early and helped keep it going when it looked as if it might stall when the opening of Parliament was delayed due to outbreaks of the plague in London. The King, worried about catching it, left for the countryside, delaying the state opening of Parliament. Ultimately there is not enough evidence to say conclusively one way or another. It may just have been a great piece of opportunism on the part of Cecil; an event that fell into his lap and helped him achieve his desired aim of discrediting the Catholics. 


According to the ITV programme, The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend, which built a full size replica of the House of Lords, the explosion would have killed everyone within a 100m radius of the blast. The King’s head was blown clean off his shoulders. The programme also disproves the theory that if the gunpowder had partly gone off, which some claim, it would have done no damage. Fawkes had used double the amount needed and it would still have created a very large explosion.


The Observance of 5th November Act 1605 was passed and remained in force until 1859. James I was very pleased with himself at surviving the plot and immediately made the lives of Catholics far worse. As for Cecil, his plan, if it was one, worked. However in 1612 his health took a turn for the worse. He went to take the waters at Bath in the spring of that year but died of cancer on 24th May 1612 at Marlborough. It’s strange that something as beautiful as fireworks can come from something as brutal as an attempted bombing and subsequent torturing and executions.

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