The greatest terror plot

We all know the story of Guy Fawkes and how he was caught as he tried to blow up the House of Lords with gunpowder. But it took more than one man on a single night to nearly change the course of British history.

Thirteen conspirators conceived a terrorist plot on an unprecedented scale. They would blow up Parliament, which would wipe out the King and the whole establishment and trigger a popular uprising. Plotter Thomas Wintour's confession reveals all.


The plotters gather

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Meet the plotters: Leader Catesby, Wright the swordsman, Percy the insider, Wintour the diplomat and Fawkes the bomb maker. Richard Lintern narrates.

Transcript (PDF 248k)

A circle of young, dashing and disenchanted Catholic gentlemen meet regularly to discuss the future of England.

Unlike the majority of Catholics who were loyal to the Crown, they hope to overthrow the Protestant monarchy. Some of them take part in the failed rebellion by the Earl of Essex against the government of Elizabeth I. They are imprisoned but later released after paying heavy fines.

Who was the Earl of Essex?

24 March 1603

A new Protestant monarch

James I

James I of England did not reverse the anti-Catholic laws following his coronation.

When Elizabeth I dies, her third cousin, James VI of Scotland, becomes also King James I of England.

He announces plans to unite his two realms but faces strong opposition both north and south of the border. Although James is a Protestant he is the son of the late Catholic, Mary Queen of Scots. Catholics are hopeful that her son will be more sympathetic to their plight.

How James VI of Scotland became King of England

January-February 1604

Catesby starts planning the Gunpowder Plot

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Robert Catesby reveals his grand plan to Thomas Wintour in this dramatisation from BBC Two's Gunpowder 5/11: The Greatest Terror Plot.

Transcript (PDF 149k)

James I orders Catholic priests to leave the country. He continues the practice of fining Catholics who won’t attend the Church of England services.

In February, ringleader Robert Catesby, his cousin Thomas Wintour and John Wright meet in London and start their plans. Wintour travels to Flanders, under Spanish rule at the time, to seek Spain’s support.

[Catesby] had bethought him of a way... to deliver us from all our bonds, and without any foreign help to replant again the Catholic religion.

Thomas Wintour's written confession

April 1604

Guy Fawkes is recruited as the explosives expert

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Thomas Wintour recruits Guy Fawkes in Flanders.

Transcript (PDF 150k)

After years as bitter rivals Spain wants peace with England and will not aid the plotters.

While he’s in Flanders, Thomas Wintour meets Guy Fawkes, who went to school with the plotter John Wright. Fawkes, who goes by the Italian name of Guido, is fighting for the Spanish army in Flanders and is an explosives expert. He is an English nationalist who hates the Scots and any talk of union. The two men sail back to England. Meanwhile the King and Parliament introduce legislation refusing Catholics the right to receive rent or make wills.

20 May 1604

The plotters swear an oath of secrecy

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The plotters, who are all devout men, swear an oath to each other on a religious primer.

Transcript (PDF 148k)

Thomas Wintour and Guy Fawkes meet ringleader Robert Catesby and his friend and fellow plotter John Wright in a London pub.

At the Duck and Drake Inn they are joined by Wright's brother-in-law Thomas Percy. Together these plotters create a core of five. They swear an oath of secrecy on a religious primer.

June-October 1604

Thomas Percy secures a house near Parliament

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Guy Fawkes poses as Thomas Percy's servant John Johnson.

Transcript (PDF 201k)

Thomas Percy secures a position as a royal bodyguard thanks to his patron, the Earl of Northumberland, and moves to a house not far from Parliament.

Guy Fawkes poses as Percy’s servant using the pseudonym John Johnson. This means he is free to roam around Parliament. Ringleader Catesby has a house across the river, in Lambeth, where they start to store gunpowder. The house is looked after by new plotter Robert Keyes. He is a distant cousin of Wintour and Wright and a Catholic convert. As the opening of Parliament is postponed until February 1605, the plotters go their separate ways that summer and don’t meet again until October.

What did Parliament look like in 1605?

December 1604

A tunnel is dug towards Parliament

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The plotters attempt to dig a tunnel under the House of Lords.

Transcript (PDF 149k)

The plotters begin tunnelling towards the House of Lords from the house that Thomas Percy had secured, coming and going at night to avoid detection.

They are helped by Catesby’s servant, Thomas Bates, and John Wright’s brother Kit. The group agree that King James's daughter Elizabeth would be kidnapped to act as a puppet queen after they’ve blown up Parliament. The opening of Parliament is delayed again to October 1605 due to fears of the plague.

What became of Princess Elizabeth?

February 1605

The gunpowder is smuggled to Westminster

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How did the plotters manage to pack explosives under the House of Lords? Follow the gunpowder trail. Richard Lintern narrates.

Transcript (PDF 209k)

The plotters' tunnel reaches the main foundations of the House of Lords. Digging slows down as they fear the noise may alert guards.

The gunpowder that was in storage across the river in Catesby’s house is transported to Percy’s house where the entrance of the tunnel is. The plotters receive funding from Thomas Wintour’s brother Robert. Their brother-in-law John Grant joins the plot. He’s put in charge of preparing horses and weapons for a Midlands uprising.

The Cellar was to be let, viewing the commodity thereof for our own purpose, Percy went and hired the same for yeerly rent.

Guy Fawkes' confession, extracted under torture

25 March 1605

A vault is rented under the House of Lords

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The plotters secure a vault directly under the House of Lords.

Transcript (PDF 149k)

Thomas Percy is able to rent a vault that is directly under the House of Lords so the plotters no longer need to carry on tunnelling.

Instead, Guy Fawkes starts moving the barrels of gunpowder and kindling to the vault, always at night, and conceals them.

Summer 1605

The plotters bring in extra money men

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Two new recruits join the plotters.

Transcript (PDF 149k)

The conspirators need extra funds and enlist wealthy Catholic Ambrose Rookwood as well as Francis Tresham, Catesby's cousin, who has come into money.

Meanwhile, Sir Everard Digby, a Catholic convert, is brought in to lead the planned uprising in the Midlands. The head of the Jesuit mission in England, Father Henry Garnett, learns about the conspiracy through the confessional. He is horrified and tries to convince Catesby not to act. The opening of parliament is delayed yet again, until November.

Who are the Jesuits?

26 October 1605

Lord Monteagle receives a letter of warning

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Lord Monteagle receives a letter warning him not to go to Parliament.

Transcript (PDF 149k)

Francis Tresham’s brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, receives an unsigned letter warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament on 5 November.

He is one of the many Catholics who are loyal to the crown. He shows the letter to the King's chief minister Robert Cecil. One of Monteagle’s servants alerts the plotters about this.

The Monteagle letter in full

I say they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.

Unsigned letter received by Lord Monteagle on 26 October 1605

30 October 1605

The plotters continue despite the new risk

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Robert Catesby accuses Francis Tresham of sending the letter to Lord Monteagle.

Transcript (PDF 224k)

Robert Catesby suspects his cousin Francis Tresham of sending the letter. He confronts him and calls him a traitor.

Tresham denies the allegations but urges Catesby to now abandon the plot. Catesby gets Guy Fawkes to check on the cellar. Nothing has been moved. The plotters are reassured.

1-3 November 1605

King James I is shown the letter and orders an investigation

Letter sent to Lord Monteagle in 1605

The letter sent to Lord Monteagle warns of a 'terrible blowe this parliament' will receive.

King James is shown the Monteagle letter by his chief minister Robert Cecil.

The King suspects the words ‘terrible blowe’ hint at the use of gunpowder and orders an investigation. The Privy Council discuss how they can search the parliament building without warning off the conspirators. Catesby is unaware of this and decides the plot should go ahead.

4 November 1605

The king's men search Parliament's vaults


Guy Fawkes

A search party discovers Guy Fawkes loitering near the vault

A covert search of the Parliament vaults takes place. The search party spot a large amount of firewood in a cellar.

The attendant, Guy Fawkes, under the alias John Johnson, tells them that it belongs to his master, royal bodyguard Thomas Percy.

5 November 1605

Guy Fawkes is arrested and questioned


Guy Fawkes signature

Guy Fawkes' typical signature (above) and following torture (below). He adopted the Italian version of his name 'Guido'.

The king orders a second search. Just after midnight, Fawkes is found dressed for departure and in possession of fuses and matches. He’s arrested.

A more thorough search of the cellar now reveals 36 gunpowder barrels. Fawkes is dragged to King James for interrogation. He still maintains he’s called John Johnson and denies any knowledge of the barrels. The King authorises the use of torture to extract a confession.

Who captured Guy Fawkes?

Johnson [Fawkes] … had placed Thirty-six Barrels of Gunpowder in the Vault under the House, with a Purpose to blow King, and the whole Company.

Journal of the House of Commons, 5 November 1605

6-7 November 1605

The plotters flee to the Midlands

Mary Evans

A map of the Midlands from the early 17th century

The plotters flee to Dunchurch in the Midlands on 5 November and steal horses from Warwick that evening.

Most of the plotters in London, including Thomas Wintour and Thomas Percy, flee to Dunchurch in Warwickshire.

They move across the Midlands trying to raise men but the planned uprising comes to nothing. The plotters seize horses from Warwick, but Princess Elizabeth is then whisked from a manor nearby to safety in Coventry. Catesby decides to make a last stand in the Midlands and persuades the key plotters to join him.

The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him... and so by degrees proceeding to the worst, and so God speed your goode worke.

King James I on Guy Fawkes

8 November, 1605

Catesby and Percy die in a shoot-out

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Robert Catesby and his fellow plotters vow to die for their cause.

Transcript (PDF 149k)

The remaining plotters meet at Holbeche House in Staffordshire.

The gunpowder they had with them was damp and they try to dry it by the fire. It explodes and John Grant, Thomas Wintour’s cousin, is blinded. The house is surrounded by 200 of the Sheriff of Worcestershire’s men. Catesby, Percy and the Wright brothers die in the subsequent gun fight. The rest are wounded but captured alive. They are taken to the Tower of London for interrogation.

November-December 1605

The surviving plotters make their confessions

The Tower of London, HRP

Ambrose Rookwood

Plotter Ambrose Rookwood was held at Martin Tower during his imprisonment where he carved his name.

Fawkes makes a confession under torture on 9 November.

It is trumped by a later fuller confession by Thomas Wintour during interrogation at the Tower of London. Thomas Wintour incriminates all the other plotters apart from his brother Robert. Thomas Percy’s patron, the Earl of Northumberland, is arrested, but with Percy dead there is no-one to implicate or clear him. He will remain imprisoned for the next 16 years.

How inmates were tortured in the Tower of London

27 January 1606

The eight remaining plotters are found guilty of treason

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The conspirators receive their sentence following their trial.

Transcript (PDF 204k)

The eight surviving conspirators attend a show trial at Westminster Hall, the very place which they had intended to blow up.

Sir Everard Digby, who had been in charge of the Midlands uprising, is the only one to plead guilty. Attorney General Sir Edward Coke directs the prosecution of the other seven. He is keen to place the blame on the Jesuits, not on Catholics as a whole. All eight men are found guilty of treason.

Explore the history of treason

These are the greatest treasons that ever were plotted in England, and concern the greatest King that ever was of England.

Sir Edward Coke, 27 January 1606

30-31 January 1606

The plotters are hanged, drawn and quartered

AKG Images

Execution of gunpowder plotters AKG

The executions were held in public as a warning to any others contemplating treason.

The executions were held in public as a warning to any others contemplating treason.

Robert Wintour, Sir Digby, John Grant and Thomas Bates are executed outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The next day, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Robert Keyes and Ambrose Rookwood are hanged, drawn and quartered next to the House of Lords instead, a change of venue which shows the executions are for treason against the state, not for religious belief.

Guy Fawkes… made his end upon the gallows and the block, to the great joy of all the beholders that the land was ended of so wicked a villainy.

The Weekly News, 31 January 1606