History of the Gunpowder Plot
& Origin of Guy Fawkes Day
November 5th marks the anniversary
of the Gunpowder Plot, a conspiracy to blow up the English Parliament
and King James I in
1605. On that day, the king prepared to open Parliament.
After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had had a rough
time under her reign had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more
tolerant of their religion. Alas, he was not, and this angered a number of young
men who decided that violent action was the answer.
The group included Robert
Catesby, John Wright, and Thomas Winter, the
originators, Christopher Wright, Robert Winter, Robert Keyes, Guy Fawkes, a
soldier who had been serving in Flanders, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Sir Everard
Digby, Francis Tresham, Ambrose Rookwood, and Thomas Bates.
Robert Catesby suggested to some close friends that the thing to do was to
blow up the Houses of Parliament. In doing so, they would kill the King, maybe
even the Prince of Wales, and the Members of Parliament who were making life
difficult for the Catholics. To carry out their plan, the conspirators got hold
of 36 barrels of gunpowder, overlaid with iron bars and firewood, were secretly
stored in a cellar under the House of Lords hired by Thomas Percy.
It was intended to be the beginning of a great uprising of English Catholics,
who were distressed by the increased severity of penal laws against the practice
of their religion. But the conspirators, who had began plotting in early 1604,
had expanded their number to a point where secrecy was impossible. As the group
worked on the plot, it became clear that some innocent people would be hurt or
killed in the attack. Some of the plotters started having second thoughts. One
of the group members even sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord
Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November 5th.
This mysterious letter was received by Lord
Monteagle, a brother-in-law of Tresham, on October 26, urging him not to attend Parliament on the opening day.
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. The unlucky Fawkes was taken in chains to the Tower of London and beheaded at
dawn. He was hanged, drawn and quartered. After Guy was hanged, he was drawn
(drug) through the streets of London behind a horse cart. At a public venue, he
was then chop into 'quarters'.
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.
Among the others who were executed was Henry Garnett, the superior of the
English Jesuits, who had known of the conspiracy. While the plot was the work of
a small number of men, it provoked hostility against all English Catholics and
led to an increase in the harshness of laws against them.
It's unclear if the conspirators would ever have been able to pull off their
plan to blow up the Parliament even if they had not been betrayed - some people
think the gunpowder they were planning to use was so old as to be useless. Since
Guy Fawkes and his colleagues got caught before trying to ignite the powder,
we'll never know for certain.
These days, Guy Fawkes Day is also known as Bonfire Night. The event is
commemorated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a