Every year on 5th November, the skies above Britain are awash with colour as thousands of fireworks let out their brief, explosive bursts of light.
Bonfires burn and Brits young and old recall the rhyme, “Remember, remember, the fifth of November, gunpowder, treason and plot”.
The Gunpowder Plot reads like your quintessential Hollywood blockbuster; a treacherous cabal intent on destroying the seat of English political power and murdering a king.
The early 17th century was a turbulent time in both British and European history. The reformation and subsequent conflicts had caused significant tensions between Catholics and Protestants across the continent. In England in the mid-1500s, Henry VIII further destabilised the situation with the Act of Supremacy, which severed ties with the Papacy and recognised him as the ‘Supreme Head of the Church of England’.
With a Protestant king now ruling England, Catholics grew weary and Protestants grew suspicious of their neighbours; tensions appeared to be reaching boiling point. A period of relative peace occurred in England, however, under the watchful rule of Elizabeth I.
All good things must come to an end though, and when Elizabeth I died childless in 1603, King James VI of Scotland acceded the English throne to become James VI & I. It was with this coronation that discontent and rebellion began to fester among England’s Catholic population.
James VI & I did little to appease his marginalised subjects and refused to implement new laws intended to respect the right of Catholics. Additionally, James I further deteriorated this relationship when he ordered Catholic priests across England to leave the country.
Discontent among English Catholics grew with each passing day, and it was not long until plots and schemes began to arise.
Plans set in motion
While the Gunpowder Plot is known to many as a defining moment in English – and British – history. It wasn’t the only plot against England’s belligerent new monarch.
In 1603, a plot by priests was uncovered in which they intended to kidnap James I. On this occasion, the plot was foiled after fellow Catholics exposed and turned in the clergymen.
That same year the ‘Main Plot’ was also uncovered. Here, the conspirators planned to assassinate James and install his Catholic cousin on the English throne.
It isn’t until 1604, two years after James’ coronation, that we see the Gunpowder Plot beginning to take shape. Led by Robert Catesby, a host of Catholic dissidents including Tom Wintour, Jack Wright, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes hatched their ambitious plan.
More would come to join the conspiracy in the weeks and months following, some of which were prominent English noblemen. It was in a corner of the Duck and Drake pub in London that Robert Catesby proposed an audacious bid to blow up the Palace of Westminster, which held the Houses of Parliament.
If successful, the act of blowing up parliament alone would have sent shockwaves through English society. However, Catesby planned to go one step further. The conspirators would blow up Parliament during the official state opening – when the King, the heir and prominent nobles would all be present.
Afterwards, the plan would see the conspirators lead an uprising of English Catholics and kidnap James’ daughter, Elizabeth. Once installed as Queen, Elizabeth would be duly married off to an appropriate Catholic monarch.
- The undercroft and cellars beneath the Palace of Westminster.
In the cellars below the Palace of Westminster, the conspirators crept and scurried, piling barrels of gunpowder throughout the substructure. It was from here that 36 barrels of gunpowder would erupt and usher in a new era in British history.
During this stage of the plot, Fawkes was key. Working under an alias he served as a caretaker of a cellar located beneath the House of Lords. It was here that the cabal began to stockpile their gunpowder in anticipation of the grand finale, where Fawkes would light fuses before escaping across the Thames.
A plot uncovered
The Gunpowder Plot is said to have been uncovered after Lord Monteagle received an anonymous message advising him to stay away from Parliament.
Monteagle, a Catholic himself, swiftly handed the supposed letter over to James I’s foremost minister, Robert Cecil. It is here that the plot begins to unravel for Catesby et al.
The Monteagle letter is, to this day, a point of serious contention. While no-one is certain who wrote the letter, a number of historians have speculated that Cecil – and the authorities – may have had forewarning of the plot.
It is suggested that Cecil allowed the plot to take shape in order to uncover as many conspirators as possible, while historians also believe the plot was used as a means to increase anti-Catholic sentiment.
Searches were made “above and below” of Parliament on the orders of the Privy Council, and were led by Lord Chamberlain Thomas Howard, the 1st Earl of Suffolk.
Subsequent searches found Fawkes in the substructure of Parliament in the early hours of the night, armed with matches and a lantern (which can be seen on display in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).
- The execution of Guy Fawkes by Claes Janszoon Visscher.
Fawkes was summarily arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he is believed to have been tortured before confessing. During the torture, Fawkes identified a number of co-conspirators, many of whom were now on the run.
Catesby, for example, was killed alongside three other conspirators while attempting to escape authorities. His early demise didn’t stop him from being targeted in the aftermath. His body was exhumed, decapitated and his head was put on display.
In total, eight conspirators were imprisoned in the Tower before being executed for treason. On a cold January day in 1606, Fawkes was hanged, drawn and quartered in the Old Palace Yard. With him that day were Robert Keyes, Thomas Wintour and Ambrose Rookwood.
- Guy Fawkes Night festivities at Windsor Castle by Paul Sandby, c. 1776
When news spread of the plot’s failure in November 1605, it is said Londoners lit bonfires throughout the city in celebration. Additionally, in January the following year, shortly before the execution of the remaining conspirators, an Act of Parliament was passed to highlight 5th November as a day of thanksgiving.
In years following, effigies were added to bonfires across the UK and its colonies. Modern effigies are of Guy Fawkes himself. However, effigies of the Pope were burned for a time amid continued anti-Catholic sentiment.