The Gunpowder Plot



Lord Monteagle received a startling letter on the evening of 26 October 1605. An anonymous correspondent advised the English nobleman against attending the upcoming session of parliament, due to begin a few days later. The letter warned: “They shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them”. It was a chilling message. Monteagle raced from his home in Hoxton to Whitehall where he passed the letter to Robert Cecil, the secretary of state and second most powerful man in the land. Cecil’s investigations led to a cellar under the Palace of Westminster and the discovery of the most audacious terrorist attack ever attempted on British soil.

It was a plot that had its origins back in the reign of Elizabeth I. Henry VIII and Edward VI laid the foundations of the English Reformation, but Elizabeth took it a stage further, ensuring the country was firmly Protestant. As the 16th century drew to a close the country’s remaining Catholics faced increasing levels of persecution. Fierce regulations included the death penalty for those found to be sheltering priests. It was a grim time to be a catholic in England.

Hopes rested on the mortality of Elizabeth and the likely choice for the Virgin Queen’s successor, James VI of Scotland. Though himself a Protestant, James was the son of Catholic martyr Mary Queen of Scots and his own wife was a Catholic as well. Furthermore, prior to his succession to the English throne he had hinted that his reign would bring greater toleration for the country’s Catholic minority.

When he came to replace Elizabeth in 1603 James did indeed limit the restrictions on Catholicism in England. However within a year he had reversed this policy after opposition from English Protestants. Furious at being let down, a small group of young Catholics began plotting a violent act of revenge. The head of this band was Robert Catesby, a rebellious member of the minority gentry.

In May 1604 they gathered in London and started to hatch out their plan. The idea they settled upon was to ignite a huge cache of gunpowder underneath Westminster on the opening session of parliament.  The resulting explosion would then wipe out almost the entire English establishment: the royal family, the MPs, the lords and the leading bishops. Guy Fawkes, a Catholic volunteer who had been fighting in the Low Countries, was the man selected to prepare the gunpowder and light the fuse.

The plotters rented a cellar below the Palace of Westminster and filled it with gunpowder, ready for the state opening of parliament on 5 November 1605. All seemed to be going to plan but then, with just over a week to go, Lord Monteagle received a tip-off. Armed with this information, Robert Cecil liaised with King James who apparently suggested that the cellars under Westminster be searched. On the night of 4-5 November Fawkes was apprehended there red-handed alongside 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Despite Fawkes arrest, Catesby opted to incite an armed insurrection in the Midlands but found few willing to support his cause. The rebel leader was gunned down alongside a few of his remaining supporters on 8 November. Those who weren’t killed were despatched to the Tower of London where they, alongside Guy Fawkes, were brutally executed in January 1606.

The Gunpowder Plot had failed utterly, to the delight of the Protestant English. On 5 November bonfires were lit in celebration, a practice that continues to this day. For the catholic minority the attempt at mass murder had disastrous consequences. “The long-term contribution of the gunpowder plot was to provide another reason for Protestants to dislike and be scared of Catholics,” explains James Sharpe, author of Remember, Remember the Fifth of November (Profile, 2005).

“Protestant propaganda had for a long time been saying ‘the Catholics are out to get us’ and the Gunpowder Plot just demonstrated that.”

King James responded to the attempt on his life relatively calmly, without the bloody reprisals that might have been expected. Nevertheless the Gunpowder Plot did lead to a worsening of Catholic/Protestant relations, which were not normalised until 19th Century. The celebrations of 5 November became not just a commemoration of lives preserved but also an opportunity to vent anti-Catholic feelings. As much as anything else, it was England’s deliverance from Catholics that the revellers chose to remember.

 

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