The Gunpowder Plot

In 1605, a group of disaffected Catholics plotted to assassinate King James I by blowing up the House of Lords. They hoped to restore Protestant England to Catholicism and end the persecution of their faith.

The 'Gunpowder Plot' was foiled at the eleventh hour, an event still celebrated annually on 5 November and named for the most famous of the conspirators - Guy Fawkes Night. But who was Guy Fawkes and what are we remembering?

Photo: Unattributed engraving of Guy Fawkes and fellow conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, 1605 (Mary Evans Picture Library)

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"Remember, remember, the 5th of November; Gunpowder, treason and plot; I see no reason why gunpowder, treason; should ever be forgot."

And it hasn't. Four centuries later we still celebrate the capture of Guy Fawkes, under the House of Lords, with 36 barrels of gunpowder, matches and fuses, about to blow up King James I and his parliament. But why did Catholics such as Fawkes plan to blow up the king and how was the plot foiled?

Persecution of Catholics

When James I became king in 1603, Britain was a Protestant country following decades of tension and violence between Catholics and the new religion. The monarch was the head of the church, with no loyalty to the pope in Rome. Catholicism was a religion not just disapproved of by the state but actively suppressed.

Persecution of Catholics had become more and more severe during the reign of Elizabeth I, particularly after the attempted invasion in 1588 by the Catholic Spanish Armada, which had been supported by the pope. By the time of Elizabeth's death, Catholic priests were forced to say Mass in secret in private houses and Catholics were required to attend Protestant services. Those that didn't were fined as 'recusants'.

But on the accession of James I, hopes for a better future were high. His wife was a Catholic, as had been his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. All the early signs were encouraging, as reforms were made, even extending as far as the abolition of recusancy fines.

But by 1605, under pressure from advisors such as his 'spymaster' Sir Robert Cecil, and in an effort to placate more extreme Protestants such as the Puritans, James once again increased penalties on those who still practised the Catholic religion.

Discontent grew to the extent that some Catholics were willing to take extreme measures, sponsored and supported by the Catholic monarchies of Europe. Two plots against James had already failed by the time five men met in a London inn to discuss a new plan.

The plotters and their plan

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, as it became known, was the brainchild of Robert Catesby, a well-to-do gentleman of Warwickshire. Together with Guy Fawkes and three other plotters, they formulated a plan to strike at the opening of parliament on 5 November. With the king dead, they would put James' daughter, Elizabeth, on the throne, returning Britain to the Catholic fold.

Fawkes posed as a servant called John Johnson, and began sourcing gunpowder. The plotters rented a cellar under the House of Lords and packed it with enough explosive to kill the king and the most powerful men in the land as they sat in the room above.

The 'Monteagle Letter' betrays the plotters

As the plot neared fruition, something happened which would prove its downfall. Lord Monteagle, the brother-in-law of one of the plotters, received an anonymous letter which warned against attending Parliament for the opening.

Monteagle passed the letter to Robert Cecil, who decided to wait before taking action. The plotters had no cause to believe their plan was in danger.

Guy Fawkes is arrested

On 4 November 1605, Cecil ordered searches of the whole of the Houses of Parliament, and Fawkes was arrested. He was found dressed for a swift exit with spurs on his boots.

Fawkes endured two days of torture in the Tower of London before confessing all. It was enough to buy the remaining plotters time to escape.

Some of them desperately attempted to instigate the planned Catholic uprising, but to no avail. The plotters made their final stand at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, where several, including Catesby, died in a shoot-out with the king's men. The survivors were taken back to London for trial.

Torture and execution

Over the course of the next few weeks, the surviving plotters and many others were interrogated. On 30 and 31 January 1606, eight people, including Fawkes, were executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered. Three more were executed in the following months. Even those who had perished at Holbeche House were exhumed and decapitated.

The legacy of the Gunpowder Plot

In the aftermath of the plot, James I was in no mood for tolerance. New laws were passed removing Catholics' right to vote and restricting their role in public life. It would be another 200 years before these restrictions were fully lifted.

While religious differences between Catholics and Protestants have largely been forgotten on mainland Britain, we continue to celebrate the deliverance of James I and the execution of his would-be assassins - most notably Fawkes - every 5 November.

The power of this single image - the burning of a 'guy' atop a bonfire - has ensured the plot endures in the national memory.