Gunpowder Plot

From New World Encyclopedia

A contemporaneous sketch of the conspirators

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (C.E.) was a failed attempt by a group of provincial English Catholics to kill the Protestant King James I of England, his family, and most of the Protestant aristocracy in one fell swoop by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening. The conspirators had further planned to abduct any of the royal children not present in Parliament and to incite a revolt in the Midlands.

The Gunpowder Plot was one of a series of unsuccessful assassination attempts against James I, and followed the Main Plot and Bye Plot of 1603. Many believe the Gunpowder Plot to have been part of the Counter-Reformation.

The aims of the conspirators were to perpetrate a heinous crime that would invoke a total revolution in the government of England leading to the installation of a Catholic monarch. Instead, the failure of this intended treasonous act of regicide, that is, the murder of royalty, put many loyal Catholics in position to receive even greater religious persecution. Before this period Catholicism had been associated with Spain and the evils of the Inquisition, but after the plot, Catholic became synonymous with treasonous.

On November 5 each year, people in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland, Canada, Saint Kitts, Nevis, and formerly Australia celebrate the failure of the plot on what is known as Guy Fawkes Night (also known as Bonfire Night or Fireworks Night).


The conspirators were angered by King James' refusal to give equal rights to Catholics. The plot was intended to begin a rebellion during which James' nine-year-old daughter (Princess Elizabeth) could be installed as a Catholic head of state.

The plot was overseen from May 1604 by Robert Catesby. Other plotters included Thomas Winter, Robert Winter, Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy (also spelled Percye), John Grant, Ambrose Rokewood, Robert Keyes, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and Catesby's servant, Thomas Bates. The explosives were prepared by Guy Fawkes, an explosives expert with considerable military experience who had been introduced to Catesby by a man named Hugh Owen.

The details of the plot were well known to the principal Jesuit of England, Father Henry Garnet as he had learned of it from Oswald Tesimond, a fellow Jesuit who, with the permission of his penitent Robert Catesby, had discussed the plot with him. As the details of the plot were known through confession, Garnet felt bound not to reveal them to the authorities. Despite his admonitions and protestations the plot went ahead. In the aftermath of the plot's failure, Garnet was executed for treason even though he had opposed the plot.


In May 1604, Percy leased lodgings adjacent to the house of Lords as the plotters idea was to mine their way under the foundations of the house of Lords to lay the gunpowder. The main idea was to kill James, but many other important targets were to be present. Guy Fawkes as "John Johnson" was put in charge of this building and he pretended to be Percy’s servant while Catesby's house in Lambeth was used to store the gunpowder with the picks and implements for mining. However when the plague came again to London in the summer of 1604 and proved to be particularly severe, the opening of parliament was suspended to 1605. By Christmas Eve they had still not reached parliament and just as they recommenced work early in 1605 they learned that the opening had been further postponed to October 3. The plotters then took the opportunity to row the gunpowder up the Thames Riverfrom Lambeth and to conceal it in their rented house. They learned by pure chance that a coal merchant named Ellen Bright had vacated a cellar under the Lords and Percy immediately took pains to secure the lease.

Fawkes assisted in filling the room with gunpowder which was concealed beneath a wood store in the undercrofts of the House of Lords building, in a cellar leased from John Whynniard. By March 1605 they had filled the undercroft beneath the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder concealed under a store of winter fuel. The barrels contained 1800 pounds of gunpowder. Had they been successfully ignited, the explosion could have reduced many of the buildings in the Old Palace of Westminster complex (housing Parliament), including Westminster Abbey, to rubble and would have blown out windows in the surrounding area of about a one kilometer (.6 mile) radius.

The Conspirators left London in May and went to their homes or to different areas of the country so that being seen together would not arouse suspicion. They arranged to meet again in September. However, the opening of Parliament was again postponed. The weakest part of the plot was the arrangements for the subsequent rebellion that would sweep the country and provide a Catholic monarch. Due to a need of money and arms, Francis Tresham was eventually included in the plot and it was probably he who betrayed his fellow conspirators by writing to his brother-in-law Lord Mounteagle. An anonymous letter dropped certain hints about the plot that were less than subtle. The letter read, "I advise you to devise some excuse not to attend this parliament, for they shall receive a terrible blow, and yet shall not see who hurts them."

According to the confession made by Fawkes on November 5, 1605, he left Dover sometime around Easter 1605 for Calais, France. He then traveled to St. Omer and on to Brussels, where he met with Hugh Owen, and Sir William Stanley. Next, he made a pilgrimage in Brabant. He returned to England at the end of August or early September, again by way of Calais.

Guy Fawkes was left in charge of executing the plot, while the other conspirators fled to Dunchurch in Warwickshire in the English Midlands to await news. Once the parliament had been destroyed, the other conspirators planned to incite a revolt in the Midlands. The broader context of the plot was a continued political and religious competition between Protestants and Catholics. It was this competition that led some to suggest that separation of church from state was the best system. Those who fled religious persecution in Europe by migrating to North America later enshrined separation of church from state into the founding documents of the United States.


During the preparation, several of the conspirators had been concerned about fellow Catholics who would be present on the appointed day and inevitably killed. One conspirator, possibly Francis Tresham, wrote a letter of warning to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, a prominent Catholic. Lord Monteagle received it on Saturday, October 26. The other conspirators learned of the letter the following day, but resolved to go ahead with their plan, especially after Fawkes inspected the undercroft and found nothing had been touched. Meanwhile, however, Monteagle had shown the letter to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, the Secretary of State.

The tip-off led to a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords, including the undercroft, during the early morning of November 5 (according to the Gregorian Calendar). Thomas Knyvet, a Justice of the Peace, and a party of armed men, discovered Fawkes posing as "Mr. John Johnson." He was discovered possessing a watch, slow matches and touchpaper. The barrels of gunpowder were discovered and Fawkes was arrested. Far from denying his intentions during the arrest, Fawkes stated that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament.


Fawkes was brought into the king's bedchamber at one o'clock in the morning, where the ministers had hastily assembled. He maintained an attitude of defiance, making no secret of his intentions. When the king asked why he would kill him, Fawkes replied that the pope had excommunicated him, adding that "dangerous diseases require [...] desperate [remedies]." He also expressed to the Scottish courtiers who surrounded him that one of his objects was to blow the Scots back into Scotland.

Later in the morning, before noon, he was again interrogated. He was questioned on the nature of his accomplices, the involvement of Thomas Percy, what letters he had received from overseas, and whether he had spoken with Hugh Owen.

Top: "Guido" signed under torture
Bottom: Signature 8 days later

He was taken to the Tower of London and interrogated under torture. Torture was forbidden except by the express instruction of the monarch or the Privy Council. In a letter of November 6, King James I stated:

The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by increase to the worst], and so God speed your goode worke.

Fawkes initially resisted torture, but verbally confessed on November 8. He revealed the names of his co-conspirators, and recounted the full details of the plot on November 9. On November 10, he made a signed confession, although his signature was written in a trembling state, having been under torture on the rack.

Trial and executions

On hearing of the failure of the plot, the conspirators fled towards Huddington Court. Heavy rain, however, slowed their travels. Many of them were caught by Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Worcestershire, when they arrived in Stourbridge.

The remaining men attempted a revolt in the Midlands. This failed, and came to an end at Holbeach House in Staffordshire, where there was a dramatic shoot-out ending with the death of Catesby and capture of several principal conspirators. Jesuits and others were then rounded up in other locations in Britain, with some being killed during interrogation. Robert Wintour managed to remain on the run for two months before he was captured at Hagley Park.

The conspirators were tried on January 27, 1606, in Westminster Hall. All of the plotters pleaded not guilty except for Sir Everard Digby who attempted to defend himself on the grounds that the King had gone back on promises of Catholic toleration. Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general, prosecuted, and the Earl of Northampton made a speech refuting the charges laid by Everard Digby. The trial lasted one day (English criminal trials generally did not exceed a single day's duration) and the verdict was never in doubt. The trial ranked highly as a public spectacle and there are records of up to 10 shillings being paid for entry. It is even reputed that the king and queen attended in secret. Four of the plotters were executed in St. Paul's Churchyard on January 30. On January 31, Fawkes, Winter, and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster, in front of the scene of the intended crime, where they were hanged, drawn, and quartered.


According to historian Lady Antonia Fraser, the gunpowder was taken to the Tower of London Magazine. It would have been reissued or sold for recycling if in good condition. Ordnance records for the Tower state that 18 hundredweight of it was "decayed." This could imply that it was rendered harmless due to having separated into its component chemical parts, as happens with gunpowder when left to sit for too long—if Fawkes had ignited the gunpowder, during the opening, it would only have resulted in a weak splutter. Alternatively, "decayed" may refer to the powder being damp and sticking together, making it unfit for use in firearms. In this case the explosive capabilities of the barrels would not be greatly affected.

A test using decayed gunpowder carried out in for an ITV program in 2005, which enacted the explosion established that the impact of gunpowder's compression in barrels would have counteracted any deterioration in quality. In addition, mathematical calculations showed that Fawkes, who was skilled at the use of gunpowder, used double the amount of gunpowder needed. So even if some had deteriorated to the point of uselessness (something judged highly unlikely by the experts) the amount of usable powder left could still have blown up the chamber and killed all in it.

A sample of the gunpowder may have survived. In March 2002, workers investigating archives of John Evelyn at the British Library found a box containing various samples of gunpowder and several notes that suggested they were related to the Gunpowder Plot:

  1. "Gunpowder 1605 in a paper inscribed by John Evelyn. Powder with which that villain Faux would have blown up the parliament."
  2. "Gunpowder. Large package is supposed to be Guy Fawkes' gunpowder."
  3. "But there was none left! WEH 1952."

The program was shown in the United Kingdom on ITV November 1, 2005, at 9:45pm

Historical impact

The plot backfired spectacularly upon England's Catholics. It halted any moves towards Catholic Emancipation: They would have to wait another 200 years until they received approximately equal rights. Some scholars argue that, in London, interest in evil, Satanism, and terror heightened by the Gunpowder Plot partly inspired William Shakespeare's Macbeth.


Bonfires are lit every November 5 to commemorate the plot.

The fifth of November is variously called Firework Night, Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night. An Act of Parliament (3 James I, cap 1) was passed to appoint 5th November in each year as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance." The Act remained in force until 1859. On November 5, 1605, it is said the populace of London celebrated the defeat of the plot by fires and street festivities. Similar celebrations must have taken place on the anniversary and, over the years, became a tradition; in many places a holiday was observed. However, it is not celebrated in Northern Ireland.

It is still the custom in Britain on, or around, 5th November to let off fireworks. For weeks beforehand, children make guys—supposed effigies of Fawkes—usually formed from old clothes stuffed with newspaper, and equipped with a grotesque mask, to be burnt on the November 5 bonfire. The word "guy" came thus in the nineteenth century to mean a weirdly dressed person, and hence in the twentieth century in the U.S. to mean, in slang usage, any male person.

Institutions and towns may hold fireworks displays and bonfire parties, and the same is done, despite the danger of fireworks, on a smaller scale in back gardens throughout the country. In some areas, such as Lewes and Battle in Sussex, there are extensive processions and a great bonfire. Children exhibit effigies of Guy Fawkes in the street to collect money for fireworks.

The Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before the State Opening, which since 1928 has been held in November. Ostensibly, to ensure no latter-day Guy Fawkes is concealed in the cellars, this is retained as a picturesque custom rather than a serious anti-terrorist precaution. It is said that for superstitious reasons no State Opening will be held on November 5, but this is untrue. The State Opening was on November 5 in, for instance, 1957.

The cellar in which Fawkes watched over his gunpowder was demolished in 1822. The area was further damaged in the 1834 fire and destroyed in the subsequent rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster. The lantern Guy Fawkes carried in 1605 is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. A key, supposed to have been taken from him, is in Speaker's House, Palace of Westminster. These two artifacts were exhibited in a major exhibition held in Westminster Hall from July to November 2005.

Conspiracy theories

Many people at the time believed in various alternative theories to explain the working of the plot. As is the case today, such dramatic events generated various conspiracy theories. Some thought that Cecil's agents had infiltrated the plot early on but allowed it to continue shaping its outcome for political gain and to aid Catholic persecution. Some even believed that Cecil himself had arranged the plot, although these interpretations of the plot lack evidence and motive. They were thoroughly refuted in S. R. Gardiner’s book What Gunpowder Plot Was, in 1897. However they still retain some currency today partly because they captured the popular imagination and partly because they are impossible to disprove. It is interesting that at the time of publication of the above mentioned book, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury was prime minister.

Modern plot analysis

A study on an ITV program broadcast on November 1, 2005, re-enacted the plot, by blowing up an exact replica of the seventeenth century House of Lords filled with test dummies, using the exact amount of gunpowder the conspirators hid in the underground of the building. The dramatic experiment, conducted on the Advantica Spadeadam test site, proved unambiguously that the explosion would have killed all those attending the State Opening of Parliament in the Lords chamber.

The power of the explosion was such that seven-foot deep solid concrete walls (made deliberately to replicate how archives suggest the walls in the old House of Lords were constructed) were reduced to rubble. Measuring devices placed in the chamber to calculate the force of the blast were themselves destroyed by the blast, while the skull of the dummy representing King James, which had been placed on a throne inside the chamber surrounded by courtiers, peers, and bishops, was found a large distance away from the site. According to the findings of the program, no one within 100 meters (330 feet) of the blast would have survived, while all the stained glass windows in Westminster Abbey would have been shattered, as would all windows within a large distance of the Palace. The power of the explosion would have been seen from miles away. Even if only half the gunpowder had gone off, everyone in the House of Lords and the surrounding area would have been killed instantly.

The program also disproved claims that some deterioration in the quality of the gunpowder would have prevented the explosion. A portion of deliberately deteriorated gunpowder, at such a low quality as to make it unusable in firearms, when placed in a heap and detonated, still managed to create a large explosion. The impact of even deteriorated gunpowder would have been magnified by the impact of its compression in wooden barrels. Thus, the compression would have overcome any deterioration in the quality of the contents, creating a cannon effect, with the powder first blowing up from the top of the barrel before, a millisecond later, blowing out.

The impact of the test explosion in the specially constructed chamber visually surprised even gunpowder experts. The entire concrete chamber was demolished, as if made from wood, at the moment of the explosion. Plans to examine the test dummies to see if they could have survived were abandoned due to the force of the blast and the annihilation caused by the explosion.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Fraser, Antonia. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: Anchor, 1997. ISBN 0385471904
  • Hogge, Alice. God's Secret Agents : Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. ISBN 0060542276
  • Williamson, Hugh Ross. The Gunpowder Plot. Long Prairie, MN: Neumann Press; 2nd edition, 1996. ISBN 091184533X

External links

All links retrieved June 21, 2024.


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