We see no reason, why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!
This is a rhyme that has immortalized Guy Fawkes’ attempt to blow up parliament in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Every year, we celebrate bonfire night with fireworks, sparklers and majestic displays. With many forgetting the story behind it.
The Gunpowder Plot was a plan to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on the November 5th1605. The 17th Century was a time period that saw a lot of Catholic persecution, the aim on the Gunpowder Plot, which was organised by Robert Catesby was to bring about an end to the Catholic persecution at the hands of the English Government, and to restore Catholic leadership. The main aim of the Gunpowder Plot was to kill King James I and kidnap his daughter, Elizabeth. The plan was that, once King James I had been killed, they would install Elizabeth as his successor, with Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland as her regent.
The plot was the brainchild of Robert Catesby, a staunch Catholic, who had already taken part in a rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I in 1601 (The Essex Rebellion). In 1603, whilst Catesby was on a mission to Spain, where he was urging King Phillip III of Spain to attempt an Invasion on England, he met Thomas Wintour, who then became not only an emissary, but another conspirator of the soon to be gunpowder plot. It is understood that in February of 1604, Catesby invited Thomas Wintour to his house and there they discussed Catesby’s plan to re-establish Catholicism in England by blowing up the House of Lords. In addition to Catesby and Wintour, there was John Wright, who was another devout Catholic and took part in the Essex Rebellion alongside Catesby.
Whilst Wintour was travelling Flanders, he met Guy Fawkes, who too was a devout Catholic and a part of the delegation who attended Spanish Court, urging for a Spanish Invasion. Guy Fawkes and Catesby returned to England from Spain with the news that any Spanish support was highly unlikely. A few weeks after their return, Thomas Percy joined the group of Conspirators. Thomas Percy held a position that allowed him to get close to King James I. He had sought employment with his kinsman, the Earl of Northumberland. During this time, he had become an agent in communications between the Earl of Northumberland and King James I. This gave Thomas Percy and the fellow conspirators access to King James I and his activities.
The first meeting to discuss the finer details of the Gunpowder Plot took place on the 20th of May in 1604, in attendance were Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, John Wright, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes. During this meeting, they swore an oath of secrecy on a prayer book. As parliament had been adjourned, the plotters were under the impression that they had until February 1605 to finalize their plan.
On June the 9th, Thomas Percy was appointed to the Honorable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms by the Earl of Northumberland. This gave Thomas Percy the opportunity to seek accommodation in London, and a small house close to the Prince’s Chamber was chosen. In addition to this property, Catesby’s property in Lambeth across the River Thames was leased. It was this property where they stored the Gunpowder and other supplies which they rowed across the Thames each night.
During this period, King James continued to persecute Catholics by pushing anti Catholic policies and legislation through parliament. In October 1604, Robert Keyes joined the group of conspirators, he was tasked with looking after Catesby’s house in Lambeth. Thomas Bates was shortly recruited into the plot after he had accidentally become aware of it.
The plan to blow up parliament faced an unexpected delay. Due to the plague scare, parliament did not open on February 1605, instead Parliament would not sit until October 3rd, 1605. The prosecution argued that it was during this time, the group of conspirators dug a tunnel beneath the Houses of Parliament. However, there is no evidence to say that this is the truth and it is believed to be a fabrication as no evidence of a tunnel has ever been found.
By the 25th of March, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Christopher Wright had joined the group of plotters, the latter two had also been a part of the Essex Rebellion and all three were devout Catholics. Also, on this date, the group of plotters leased an undercroft owned by Thomas Whynniard as it was directly beneath the first floor of the House of Lords. According to Guy Fawkes, 20 barrels of gunpowder were stored in the undercroft, followed by a further 16. Due to the continued threat of the Plague, parliament deferred sitting until Tuesday 5th of November.
In late 1605 we see John Grant, Francis Tresham and Sir Everard Digby joined the conspirators. The details of the plot were finalized in October. The plot consisted of Guy Fawkes lighting the fuse and then escaping across the River Thames, whilst simultaneously the others would revolt in the midlands and ensure the capture of King James I’s daughter Elizabeth. Guy Fawkes would also leave the country and explain what happened to Catholic Powers in Europe.
On October 26th Lord Monteagle who was Francis Tresham’s brother in law was approached by his servant with a letter addressed to him. The letter was warning Monteagle to find a way to excuse himself from parliament that day as ‘God and man have concurred to punish the wickedness of this time’. In other words, one could argue that the author of the letter was hinting that something was to happen that night. After reading the letter, Monteagle rode to Whitehall and handed the letter to Cecil the Earl of Salisbury who then informed the Earl of Worcester and Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham. However, all of these men kept the information from the King. Thomas Ward managed to get word to Catesby and inform him of the betrayal.
King James I was shown the letter on the 1st of November, after reading it’s contents, the King felt something was going to happen that involved fire and powder. A week later, Lord Chamberlain Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk undertook a search of the Houses of Parliament. In accordance to the accounts from Parliament, during their search they came across a man (Guy Fawkes) amongst a large pile of firewood in the undercroft.
Guy Fawkes was subsequently arrested and gave his name and John Johnson. When news of his arrest spread, the plotters fled to the Northwest. During the course of the investigation Sir John Popham – a man who had a deep hatred for Catholics – led the investigation and learned a few names. In addition to this, King James I ordered that Guy Fawkes, who was currently being held on the Tower of London, was subjected to the rack.
Fast forwarding, Catesby and his remaining plotters sought sanctuary in Holbeche House in Staffordshire where they faced a ‘last stand’ – Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Digby, Robert and John Wintour and Thomas Bates left the house before the Sheriff arrived, the only ones that remained were Catesby, Grant, the Wright brother Rookwood and Percy. Richard Walsh besieged Holbeche on the 8th of November, the men that remained in the house were killed in the standoff. Those that left were soon arrested.
Catesby and Percy’s bodies were exhumed, and their heads were decapitated and put on spikes on display outside the Houses of Parliament. The remaining conspirators were all hanged, drawn and quartered. However, Guy Fawkes leapt from the gallows and broke his neck avoided the excruciating pain that followed the final part of his execution.
Every year for the past 414 years we have celebrated this failed plot by lighting a bonfire display with an effigy of Guy Fawkes.