The Gunpowder Plot; the Conspirators, from a contemporary print now in the National Portrait Gallery
The Gunpowder Plot; the Conspirators, from a contemporary print now in the National Portrait Gallery

Main and Bye plots
The accession in England of the King of Scotland was marked by the discovery of two conspiracies known respectively as the Main and Bye plots. The object of the Bye plot was to capture the person of the new king and compel him to make concessions to the Romanists. The object of the Main plot was apparently to substitute Arabella Stuart for her cousin. Neither could ever have had the remotest chance of success, and the real interest of the Main plot lies in the fact that Cecil succeeded in procuring Walter Raleigh's condemnation as a participator in it.

That crafty politician had not openly been on hostile terms with Raleigh, but feared his rivalry, and therefore compassed his removal from the political world, Raleigh was reprieved at the last moment, and was shut up for a dozen years in the Tower; where he passed his time writing a History of the World, making chemical experiments, and dreaming of Eldorado. Cecil was comfortably secured as the king's right-hand man.

James was the more readily accepted in England, because each of the religious sections hoped for alliance with him. As King of Scotland he bad indubitably intrigued with the Catholics abroad, and the Romanists hoped that when he was secure upon the throne the penal laws would at least be relaxed, even if the king remained professedly a Protestant. On the other hand, James had been brought up by teachers of the school of John Knox; and English Nonconformists dreamed that he would sympathise with their grievances. They had not realised his conviction that "Presbyterianism consorteth with monarchy as well as God with the Devil”.

Millenary Petition
Both Nonconformists and Romanists were promptly disillusioned. During his progress from the North James was presented with what was allied the Millenary Petition, signed by a thousand of the clergy, praying for a relaxation of the ecclesiastical rules as to vestments and ceremonies, in favour of the Nonconformist views. The petition was answered by the falling of the Hampton Court Conference. In effect the king presided over an assembly of bishops to whom four of the Nonconformist clergy were permitted to present their case. In all but minor points the Conference, and the king personally, flatly rejected the Nonconformist petition.

New canons were promulgated which enforced the regulations upon the clergy more strictly than before, and some hundreds were driven to resign their livings; although the great majority were able to reconcile their consciences to the practices enjoined, such as the use of the Sign of the Cross in Baptism and of the ring in the Marriage Service.

The vehemence of the language of the king, who had not forgotten how Andrew Melville had addressed him as "God's silly vassal," was a warning to the Puritans that they had nothing to hope for from the new regime even more emphatic than the formal results of the Conference. Nevertheless, when Parliament met, it was obvious that the sympathies of the representative chamber were with the Puritans.

On the other hand, James had many reasons for wishing to conciliate the Romanists. He was not only sensibly anxious to terminate the perpetually hostile relations with Spain, but was possessed with a fear of that Power very much greater than the circumstances at all warranted. Moreover, the penal legislation of Elizabeth's later years was of an extremely oppressive character, excusable only on the plea that Romanism was an insidious political danger.

Unfortunately, colour was perpetually given to the popular suspicion of the Romanists by reports of plots, sometimes fictitious but sometimes real, for which not the body of Roman Catholics but a few zealots were responsible. The Main and Bye plots upset the king's pacific intentions; and before he had been a year on the throne all Romanist priests were banished from the kingdom.

The Gunpowder Plot
The relaxation of the fines imposed on the laity for absenting themselves from the English church service led to a great increase in this practice, which was known as Recusancy; whereby so much uneasiness was caused that after another twelve months the laws were again enforced with their old rigour. Again the zealots plunged into a crazy scheme for blowing up the king and the Houses of Parliament and raising the country.

At the moment when the execution of the plot was at hand, one of the conspirators gave a hint to a kinsman of his who was a peer; and he also conveyed to his fellow conspirators a warning to escape while there was yet time. The hint was taken, but the warning was not acted upon. The authorities caught Guy Fawkes in the cellars under the Houses of Parliament surrounded by barrels of gunpowder.

The rest of the plotters were also captured and killed. Nothing could have happened more fatal to the cause of the Romanists. Popular terror and hatred were recused to the utmost pitch by the unparalleled nature of the crime which had been contemplated; and for a century to come, even for two centuries, a rumour of a "popish plot" was all that was required to create a popular frenzy. And every government which displayed a disposition to relax the attitude of suspicious severity towards Romanist practices itself became the object of acute popular suspicion if not of angry hostility.

The wisest fool in Christendom
King Henry of France is credited with having summarised the character of King James of England by describing him as "the wisest fool in Christendom." He was well versed in political theory, and was particularly well informed as to European affairs, besides being endowed with a very subtle intellect.

Unfortunately, he was in love with his own subtlety, and his passion for craftiness habitually prevented him from thinking or acting straightforwardly; while he was wholly deficient in that supreme quality of the Tudors, the capacity for gauging other men's brains and characters, and for reading the temper of the people over whom he ruled.

The aims that James set before himself were often wise, but in his methods he neglected to take count of popular feeling. With an unbounded belief in his own intellectual capacity, he was extremely opinionated and at the same time very easily led; while those by whom he was led were, at least after Robert Cecil's death, the very worst type of advisers - not statesmen but personal favourites. Hence everything he attempted to do was spoilt in the execution.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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