IN EARLIER CENTURIES OFTEN CALLED THE GUNPOWDER TREASON PLOT OR THE JUSUIT TREASON, WAS A FAILED ASSASINATION ATTEMPT AGAINST KING JAMES I OF ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND BY A GROUP OF PROVINCIAL ENGLISH CATHOLICS LED BY ROBERT CATESBY.
The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament on 5 November 1605, as the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James’s nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was to be installed as the Catholic head of state. Catesby may have embarked on the scheme after hopes of securing greater religious tolerance under King James had faded, leaving many English Catholics disappointed. His fellow plotters were John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby andFrancis Tresham. Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting in the Spanish Netherlands in suppression of the Dutch Revolt, was given charge of the explosives.
The plot was revealed to the authorities in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, on 26 October 1605. During a search of the House of Lords at about midnight on 4 November 1605, Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder—enough to reduce the House of Lords to rubble—and arrested. Most of the conspirators fled from London as they learned of the plot’s discovery, trying to enlist support along the way. Several made a stand against the pursuing Sheriff of Worcester and his men at Holbeche House; in the ensuing battle Catesby was one of those shot and killed. At their trial on 27 January 1606, eight of the survivors, including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
The conspirators’ principal aim was to kill King James, but many other important targets would also be present at the State Opening, including the monarch’s nearest relatives and members of the Privy Council. The senior judges of the English legal system, most of the Protestant aristocracy, and the bishops of the Church of England would all have attended in their capacity as members of the House of Lords, along with the members of the House of Commons. Another important objective was the kidnapping of the King’s daughter, third in the line of succession, Princess Elizabeth. Housed at Coombe Abbey near Coventry, the Princess lived only ten miles north of Warwick—convenient for the plotters, most of whom lived in the Midlands. Once the King and his Parliament were dead, the plotters intended to install Elizabeth on the English throne as a titular Queen.
Robert Catesby (1573–1605), a man of “ancient, historic and distinguished lineage”, was the inspiration behind the plot. He was described by contemporaries as “a good-looking man, about six feet tall, athletic and a good swordsman”.
The first meeting between the five conspirators took place on 20 May 1604, probably at the Duck and Drake Inn, just off the Strand, Thomas Wintour’s usual residence when staying in London. Catesby, Thomas Wintour, and John Wright were in attendance, joined by Guy Fawkes and Thomas Percy. Alone in a private room, the five plotters swore an oath of secrecy on a prayer book.
Following their oath, the plotters left London and returned to their homes. The adjournment of Parliament gave them, they thought, until February 1605 to finalise their plans. On 9 June, Percy’s patron, the Earl of Northumberland, appointed him to the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, a mounted troop of 50 bodyguards to the King. This role gave Percy reason to seek a base in London, and a small property near the Prince’s Chamber owned by Henry Ferrers, a tenant of John Whynniard, was chosen. Percy arranged for the use of the house through Northumberland’s agents, Dudley Carleton and John Hippisley. Fawkes, using the pseudonym “John Johnson”, took charge of the building, posing as Percy’s servant.
The conspirators returned to London in October 1604, when Robert Keyes, a “desperate man, ruined and indebted” was admitted to the group. His responsibility was to take charge of Catesby’s house in Lambeth, where the gunpowder and other supplies were to be stored.
It was announced on 24 December that the re-opening of Parliament would be delayed. Concern over the plague meant that rather than sitting in February, as the plotters had originally planned for, Parliament would not sit again until 3 October 1605.
By the time the plotters reconvened at the start of the old style new year on Lady Day, 25 March, three more had been admitted to their ranks; Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Christopher Wright.
In addition, 25 March was the day on which the plotters purchased the lease to the undercroft they had supposedly tunnelled near to, owned by John Whynniard. The Palace of Westminster in the early 17th century was a warren of buildings clustered around the medieval chambers, chapels, and halls of the former royal palace that housed both Parliament and the various royal law courts. The old palace was easily accessible; merchants, lawyers, and others, lived and worked in the lodgings, shops, and taverns within its precincts. Whynniard’s building was along a right-angle to the House of Lords, alongside a passageway called Parliament Place, which itself led to Parliament Stairs and the River Thames. Undercrofts were common features at the time, used to house a variety of materials including food and firewood. Whynniard’s undercroft, on the ground floor, was directly beneath the first-floor House of Lords, and may once have been part of the palace’s medieval kitchen. Unused and filthy, its location was ideal for what the group planned to do.
According to Fawkes, 20 barrels of gunpowder were brought in at first, followed by 16 more on 20 July. The supply of gunpowder was theoretically controlled by the government, but it was easily obtained from illicit sources. On 28 July, the ever-present threat of the plague again delayed the opening of Parliament, this time until Tuesday 5 November. Fawkes left the country for a short time.
On Saturday 26 October, Monteagle (Tresham’s brother-in-law) received an anonymous letter while at his house in Hoxton. Having broken the seal, he handed the letter to a servant who read it aloud:
My Lord, 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 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 this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.
The letter was shown to the King on Friday 1 November following his arrival back in London. Upon reading it, James immediately seized upon the word “blow” and felt that it hinted at “some strategem of fire and powder”, perhaps an explosion exceeding in violence the one that killed his father, Lord Darnley, at Kirk o’ Field in 1567. Keen not to seem too intriguing, and wanting to allow the King to take the credit for unveiling the conspiracy, Salisbury feigned ignorance.
On Sunday 3 November Percy, Catesby and Wintour had a final meeting, where Percy told his colleagues that they should “abide the uttermost triall”, and reminded them of their ship waiting at anchor on the Thames. By 4 November Digby was ensconced with a “hunting party” at Dunchurch, ready to abduct Princess Elizabeth.
That same evening Catesby, likely accompanied by John Wright and Bates, set off for the Midlands. Fawkes visited Keyes, and was given a pocket watch left by Percy, to time the fuse, and an hour later Rookwood received several engraved swords from a local cutler.
Late that night, the search party, headed by Thomas Knyvet, returned to the undercroft. They again found Fawkes, dressed in a cloak and hat, and wearing boots and spurs. He was arrested, whereupon he gave his name as John Johnson. He was carrying a lantern now held in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and a search of his person revealed a pocket watch, several slow matches and touchwood. The barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden under piles of faggots and coal. Fawkes was taken to the King early on the morning of 5 November.
On 6 November, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Popham (a man with a deep-seated hatred of Catholics) questioned Rookwood’s servants. By the evening he had learnt the names of several of those involved in the conspiracy: Catesby, Rookwood, Keyes, Wynter [sic], John and Christopher Wright, and Grant. “Johnson” meanwhile persisted with his story, and along with the gunpowder he was found with, was moved to the Tower of London, where the King had decided that “Johnson” would be tortured. The use of torture was forbidden, except by royal prerogative or a body such as the Privy Council or Star Chamber. In a letter of 6 November James wrote: “The gentler tortours [tortures] are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur [and thus by steps extended to greater ones], and so God speed your good work. “Johnson” may have been placed in manacles and hung from the wall, but he was almost certainly subjected to the horrors of the rack. On 7 November his resolve was broken; he confessed late that day, and again over the following two days.
Sir Edward Coke (pronounced “Cook”) was in charge of the interrogations. Over a period of about ten weeks, in the Lieutenant’s Lodgings at the Tower of London (now known as the Queen’s House) he questioned those who had been implicated in the plot. For the first round of interrogations, no real proof exists that these people were tortured, although on several occasions Salisbury certainly suggested that they should be. Coke later revealed that the threat of torture was in most cases enough to elicit a confession from those caught up in the aftermath of the plot.
Each of the condemned, said Coke, would be drawn backwards to his death, by a horse, his head near the ground. He was to be “put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both”. His genitals would be cut off and burnt before his eyes, and his bowels and heart then removed. Then he would be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of his body displayed so that they might become “prey for the fowls of the air”.
Although Catesby and Percy escaped the executioner, their bodies were exhumed and decapitated, and their heads exhibited on spikes outside the House of Lords. On a cold 30 January, Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Thomas Bates, were tied to hurdles—wooden panels—and dragged through the crowded streets of London to St Paul’s Churchyard. Digby, the first to mount the scaffold, asked the spectators for forgiveness, and refused the attentions of a Protestant clergyman. He was stripped of his clothing, and wearing only a shirt, climbed the ladder to place his head through the noose. He was quickly cut down, and while still fully conscious was castrated, disembowelled, and then quartered, along with the three other prisoners. The following day, Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, and Guy Fawkes were hanged, drawn and quartered, opposite the building they had planned to blow up, in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. Keyes did not wait for the hangman’s command and jumped from the gallows, but he survived the drop and was led to the quartering block. Although weakened by his torture, Fawkes managed to jump from the gallows and break his neck, thus avoiding the agony of the gruesome latter part of his execution.
In January 1606, during the first sitting of Parliament since the plot, the Observance of 5th November Act 1605 was passed, making services and sermons commemorating the event an annual feature of English life; the act remained in force until 1859. The tradition of marking the day with the ringing of church bells and bonfires started soon after the Plot’s discovery, and fireworks were included in some of the earliest celebrations. In Britain, the 5th of November is variously called Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night, or Guy Fawkes Night.