History of the Gunpowder Plot

There is no escaping the fact that Guy Fawkes and his comrades would today be called terrorists, even though at the time, the term had not been coined. When we began writing, the terrorism with which we had all grown up – again Catholic versus Protestant, this time in Northern Ireland – seemed, as it still seems, to be drawing to a close.

There has been little time to pause for breath. Today we once again face terrorism, in an even more appalling form. In developing Remember! Remember!, we made no conscious attempt to draw any comparisons with contemporary events – the most recent of which occurred after the show was written – and yet parallels occur. Our understanding of modern terrorism inevitably shapes our opinions of the Gunpowder Plot. By the same token, we can only hope that an understanding of the events of four hundred years ago – of history in general – will be helpful in dealing with the threats we face today…

March 24th 1603 saw the end of a forty-five year period of stability for England; the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Since 1558, England had had a single leader and a single religion – the Church of England. Elizabeth's defence of her faith had been staunch and determined. Many Catholic martyrs had been created at her behest, and in response Pope Pius V had issued a bull that was interpreted as ordering the assassination of Elizabeth.

By the end of Elizabeth's reign, the nation may have been tiring of the repression of Catholics, but at the beginning, when she succeeded her half-sister Mary – "Bloody" Mary – there was a mood for revenge against Catholics; Mary had been burning Protestants with enthusiasm throughout her reign.

It's hard to believe that such entrenched views on either side could have arisen in England in the few years since the Reformation. Indeed, by the time of the Gunpowder Plot, it was barely seventy years since Elizabeth and Mary's father, Henry VIII, had, by his own command, replaced the Pope as supreme head of the church in England. Even then, the English church did not become distinctly Protestant until the 1550s, under the brief reign of Henry’s only son, Edward VI.

But throughout that time, Catholicism had never disappeared; emerging at it’s strongest during the five years of Mary’s rule. In the years that immediately followed, Elizabeth's oppression may have been believed necessary for the security of the state, but with her death came the hope amongst Catholics, and even some Protestants, of better times to come.

Elizabeth was childless, and was succeeded by her distant cousin, James. For a King of England, James had two important attributes in his favour. He already had experience of the job – having been King of Scotland for thirty-six years – and he was a Protestant. And so James VI of Scotland became James I of England, and England (having finally been unified with Wales in 1543) joined with Scotland. Great Britain became for the first time a political entity. (Although despite having a single monarch, the two nations did not officially become one until 1707.)

James' succession was supported and guided by Elizabeth's minister Robert Cecil (later the first Earl of Salisbury), who soon became James' closest advisor. The hopes of a better life for Catholics were initially encouraged by James, and it was probably more out of political and financial necessity than out of ideology that he later found it useful to continue with a similar regime towards Catholics as there had been under Elizabeth.

Plots against the government and the monarch were by no means uncommon around the turn of the seventeenth century. The Babington Conspiracy, the Throckmorton Plot and the Essex Revolt may have had better chances of success than the Gunpowder Plot, but none has stuck in the minds of the people of England so clearly.

The Gunpowder Plot was conceived by thirteen Catholic gentlemen, bound together not just by their religion, but also by ties of blood. Ten of the thirteen came from just three extended families.

They were led by Robert Catesby. Amongst the plotters were his cousins Francis Tresham, Robert Wintour, Thomas Wintour and John Grant, and his servant Thomas Bates. Others were Jack and Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rookwood. Everard Digby was brave enough (or, perhaps, foolhardy enough) to join the plot when it was almost over, but it is the name of Guy Fawkes that will always be remembered.

Fawkes was both English and Catholic, and as a soldier he fought in Europe on the side of England’s greatest enemy, Spain. He was recruited into the plot for reasons of his technical expertise. He was the man who was to light the fuse beneath the Palace of Westminster as King James attended the State Opening of Parliament on November 5th 1605. The image of Fawkes preparing to light the fuse, deep in those cellars, is perhaps the one that most of us bring to mind when we think of the Gunpowder Plot, along with that of him being burned at the stake, which, in fact, never happened.

It is not clear exactly how the plot was betrayed. The King, assisted by Cecil, had many spies, any one of whom could have betrayed Catesby and his comrades. There is one document, which still survives, that certainly contributed to their fall: the Monteagle Letter. The letter was sent to Lord Monteagle, a covertly Catholic member of the government, veiledly warning him of the danger. The letter was anonymous and though there are many theories as to who sent it, the truth has never been discovered for certain. It can be no coincidence, however, that Lord Monteagle's wife, Elizabeth, was the sister of the plotter Francis Tresham and a cousin of Robert Catesby.

After Fawkes was arrested, the other plotters were soon rounded up. Fawkes certainly made a confession implicating them, but again it may be that Cecil's spies had already discovered their identities. Catesby and his remaining colleagues had ridden north to the Midlands, which was the heartland of Catholic support in England, and also where they were planning to capture James' daughter Elizabeth, who would have been the sole survivor amongst the Royal Family.

Catesby and his comrades made their last stand at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, where the King's men finally caught up with them. Catesby, the Wrights and Percy were killed. The others were arrested and taken to London. (Holbeche House remains in use today and holes in the walls can still be seen from the musket shots fired during the battle.)

The surviving plotters were executed on 30th and 31st of January 1606. The method was the usual one for traitors; they were hanged, drawn and quartered.

Along with the thirteen plotters, there were others who got caught in the net. Anne Vaux was another cousin of Catesby. Although she played no part in the plot, she was a Catholic and often allowed Mass to be held within her home. She was arrested soon after the other plotters and, unusually for a woman, sent to the Tower of London. In that she kept her life and was soon released, she was luckier than many others.

Nicholas Owen was a Catholic who built priest-holes; the nooks and hideaways in many great houses of the day in which Catholic priests would hide from the authorities. He was rounded up at the same time as the plotters – although he probably knew nothing of the plot – and would have been executed with them, had he not died in prison. Officially, he committed suicide, but it seems likely that he died under torture.

Father Henry Garnet was a Jesuit priest who knew many of the plotters and was executed some months later for the crimes that they, and not he, had committed. He knew of the conspiracy from another priest, Father Tesimond, to whom Catesby had confessed. Although he did not condone the plot, he did nothing to prevent it, and this was enough to condemn him to death. Along with Fawkes, Garnet became the figurehead for the plot, the archetype of a deceiving Papist, and is even referred to obliquely by Shakespeare in Macbeth, written around 1606.

While the Gunpowder Plot may punch above its weight in terms of historical significance, it does mark the overture to a century during which the government of Britain changed beyond recognition. It would have been hard for subsequent generations to understand how Catesby, Fawkes and the others could regard the King and his Parliament together as a single enemy.

It was just forty-four years later that Charles I, James' son, was beheaded on the orders of Parliament.

And it was exactly eighty-three years later, on November 5th 1688, that William III landed in England to depose, at the invitation of several leading parliamentarians, James' grandson and namesake, James II, on the grounds that he was that most unsuitable of English Kings, a Catholic.