Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was an attempt to kill James I, King of England. Catholic conspirators led by Robert Catesby placed kegs of gunpowder in the cellars of the Parliament Buildings on the night of November 4, 1605. They planned to ignite the gunpowder when James, his eldest son, Prince Henry, and Queen Ann attended the opening of Parliament the following day. One of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was deputed to stay with the gunpowder and ignite it at the opportune moment.

However, word of the conspiracy leaked out, and royal officials captured Fawkes with the gunpowder. Fawkes, and several other of the conspirators, were put to death.

When James VI of Scotland came to the English throne as James I, the country was highly polarised along religious lines. The English Reformation begun by Henry VIII had created a climate of religious intolerance, and radicals of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant camps had high hopes that the new king would champion their cause. Both sides were destined for disappointment; James was inclined towards neither camp.

Hampton Court Conference
During the course of his journey south from Scotland, James was presented with the Millenary Petition, signed by a thousand clergymen. The Petition called for the relaxation of ecclesiastical rules in favour of Nonconformist (i.e. Puritan) views. The king called the Hampton Court Conference to hear arguments on the points raised by the Petition. At Hampton Court, the claims of the Nonconformists were rejected almost without exception. Round one to the Roman Catholics?

Not only were the rules governing clergy not changed, but new laws were also passed which enforced those regulations even more strictly. Many clergymen resigned their livings rather than toe the line. Despite James' lack of support for the Puritans, Parliament itself was highly sympathetic to the Puritan cause.

The Main and Bye Plots
James was disposed to be tolerant of the Catholic cause; certainly, he favoured an end to hostilities with Catholic Spain. Unfortunately for the Catholics, however, two half-baked radical plots turned the king against them. The Main Plot planned to depose James and set his cousin Arabella Stuart on the throne. The Bye Plot was even more far-fetched; the conspirators hoped to kidnap James and force him to repeal anti-Catholic legislation. The ultimate result of these plots was that James banished all Catholic priests from the kingdom.

The site of Guy Fawkes' birthplace in York
The site of Guy Fawkes'
birthplace in York

Laws were in place which fined lay people for missing church service. Those (usually Catholics) who refused to attend service were called recusants. James initially favoured a relaxation of these laws, but it quickly became apparent that a great many people desired to skip church service! The laws were once more rigorously enforced.

The Plot
A group of Catholic extremists led by Sir Robert Catesby decided that the only hope for their cause lay in killing the king and raising the country in revolt. They hoped that in the confusion following the death of the king and his heir, along with many of the peers of the realm in the House of Lords, that they would be able to put a sympathetic king on the throne and foster a climate of freedom for Catholics. They believed, probably wrongly, that there was adequate public support for their cause.

The Conspirators
The initial plot was hatched by five men, Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Thomas Wintour, John Wright and Guy Fawkes. Of these, the undoubted leader was Robert Catesby, son of Sir William Catesby, a prominent Catholic leader in the reign of Elizabeth I. Of these men the first four had noble connections, but Fawkes was nothing more than a disaffected soldier.

At first the men hired lodgings near the Parliament buildings and attempted to tunnel into the cellars of Parliament. The tunnel scheme was quickly abandoned, however, either because of water from the Thames seeping into the tunnel, or because the going proved too difficult. Instead, Thomas Percy used his influence to gain access to cellars beneath Parliament, and into these cellars they secretly brought 36 barrels of gunpowder, which they carefully hid.

The opening of Parliament was put off, but Catesby used the time to draw more men into the circle of conspirators, including Jesuit leaders, while Fawkes made trips to the Low Countries for fresh powder to replace that which was beginning to spoil.

The Monteagle Letter
On October 26, 1605, the whole conspiracy began to unravel. A mysterious letter was sent to Lord Monteagle, a former Catholic supporter, warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament set for November 5. Monteagle, however, at once passed the letter on to Robert Cecil, the king's chief secretary. The conspirators found out about the letter; indeed they blamed one another for writing it. But still, they did not cancel their plans, convinced that the government knew nothing. On the night of November 4, Guy Fawkes was found in the cellars with the gunpowder.

Fawkes was forced under torture to reveal the names of his fellow conspirators, most of whom were rounded up by the authorities near Holbeche House in Staffordshire. Robert Catesby, Percy, and Wright were shot and killed while attempting to evade arrest, but on January 27, 1606, Fawkes and seven others were brought to trial before Sir Edward Coke.

Cecil, for his part, tried to blame the Jesuits for the plot, as that would generate support for his anti-Catholic policies. On January 30 four of the conspirators were put to death in St. Paul's churchyard. The following day the remaining four were executed at the Old Palace Yard, Westminster. All eight men were hung, drawn, and quartered, that being the standard punishment for those convicted of treason. Catesby and his fellows who had died at Holbeche House were exhumed and their heads placed on pikes for public display.

Cecil's conniving?
Persistent rumour has implicated Robert Cecil directly in the Gunpowder Plot. The story goes that Cecil manufactured the plot in an attempt to discredit the Catholic cause. If that was indeed the case, it was a master stroke. Public opinion weighed in heavily against the Catholics, though most recusants were not in sympathy with the conspirators.

In the climate of fear and paranoia following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Cecil and his supporters were able to pass restrictive anti-Catholic legislation. Also, fear of Catholic plots was a constant theme throughout the Stuart years.

The Gunpowder Plot is remembered each year on Guy Fawkes Night, November 5, when human effigies called "guys" are joyfully burned on bonfires across England.

The Early Stuarts
Places to see associated with the Gunpowder Plot (historic attractions to see tagged with 'Gunpowder Plot')