The Gunpowder Plot: Overview
by David Nash Ford
"Remember, remember the fifth of November.
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot."
This poetic little rhyme, still popular among children today, continues to remind us why, on the night of November 5th, bonfires surmounted by cloth manikins or "Guys" are set alight in every town and village in Britain amongst a blaze of celebratory fireworks:
The scene was the early 17th century Lambeth home of one John Wright deep in the suburbs of the City of London. Three British Catholic gentlemen met in secret to discuss their troubles. King James VI of Scotland had only recently taken on the English throne as James I but, despite promises of a relaxation in the anti-catholic laws, it now appeared that the new King would be even more severe in their persecution than his predecessor had been.
Being no stranger to plots and intrigue, Robert Catesby, a notorious Northamptonshire catholic, now felt the time was right to strike a blow for his religion. He had called his cousin, Thomas Wintour, to the house of his friend, Wright, in order to lay before the them both his plan to blow up the King and the House of Lords at the next Opening of Parliament. With the monarch, the Prince of Wales and most of his leading ministers dead, they would seize the young Prince Charles and the Princess Elizabeth and raise a general revolt to return Catholicism to the land.
In May 1604, Thomas Wintour enlisted the help of a Yorkshire mercenary named Guy Fawkes who had distinguished himself on the continent in the Spanish Army. With his vast experience of dangerous situations, Fawkes was to be the man of action in a group which was growing quickly as Catesby persuaded relatives, friends and colleagues to enter the conspiracy and help finance his plans. Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Ambrose Rokewood, Robert Keyes, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and Catesby's servant, Thomas Bates all joined in the hazardous plot.
Originally the Catesby rented a house near to the Palace of Westminster and the group began to dig a tunnel out under the Houses of Parliament. However progress was slow for these gentlemen who were not used to such hard labour. Eventually, in March 1605, Thomas Percy was able to use his connections at the Royal Court to rent a cellar right under the House of Lords! The tunnel was quickly abandoned and, posing as Percy's servant, one "John Johnson," Fawkes was able to fill the underground storehouse with some thirty-six barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath coal and wooden sticks, a store of fuel for the winter. Everything was set in place: all the conspirators had to do now was wait.
Perhaps they had prepared too early though, for doubts began to creep into the minds of some of the plotters, worried about fellow catholics who would be present in Parliament on the appointed day, the 5th November. Only ten days before the Opening of Parliament, Lord Monteagle, an apparently reformed catholic, was sitting down to dinner in his Hoxton home when an important letter arrived for him. It read:
"My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care for your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance of this Parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow, the Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them.. This counsel is not to be contemned, because it may do you good and can do you know harm, for the danger is past as soon as you have burnt the latter: and I hope God will give you the grace to make gooduse of it, to whose holy protection I commend you."
The authorship of the letter has never been certainly identified, but Lord Monteagle was Francis Tresham's brother-in-law.
Monteagle immediately showed the letter to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State. Though rather slow to act, the Privy Council eventually had the vaults beneath the Lords searched on the 4th November, first by the Earl of Suffolk and late the same evening by Sir Thomas Knyvett. Composed to the end, Fawkes coolly let the officials into Percy's cellar. Of course, the gunpowder was quickly discovered and Guy Fawkes was overpowered.
On hearing that their plans had been foiled, Robert Catesby and Thomas Wintour fled to the Midlands where they met up with the rest of their party in Warwickshire, but failed to rally any support. They managed to travel amongst the houses of friends and sympathisers for three days before finally being captured in a bloody raid on Holbeche House in Staffordshire. Catesby, Percy and the two Wright brothers were killed, while a wounded Thomas Wintour and Ambrose Rokewood were taken away to London. Others were captured a few days later (though Robert Wintour was at large for some two months). All the conspirators, save for Tresham were executed for their crimes.
Francis Tresham died while still a prisoner in the Tower of London and it has often been suggested that his death was arranged to cover up his complicity in the uncovering of the plot. Whether through genuine second thoughts or external pressures, Tresham may have warned his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, of the plot some time before the arrival of the now-famous letter and together they agreed upon this means of scuppering the plan, yet still giving the conspirators enough time to escape. There is certainly much more to the famous "Gunpowder Plot" than first meets the eye and its mysteries endure to this day.
How were these known trouble-makers able to so easily penetrate the inner sanctum of English Government? And why did it take so long for the cellars to be searched? Is it possible that the Earl of Salisbury had actually instigated the plot in order to frighten the King into recognising the Catholic threat? A popular theory sees Guy Fawkes as an agent provocateur with other plotters, like Tresham, acting as double agents. It seems more likely, however, that Salisbury's agents merely infiltrated an existing conspiracy. He then left the plot's unveiling until the last minute for added dramatic effect. In fact, the King may never have been in any real danger.
More Detail on the Gunpowder Plot