In November 1605, the infamous Gunpowder Plot took place in which some Catholics, most famously Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up James I, the first of the Stuart kings of England. The story is remembered each November 5th when ‘Guys’ are burned in a celebration known as "Bonfire Night".
The story appears to be very simple.
Catholics in England had expected James to be more tolerant of them. In fact, he had proved to be the opposite and had ordered all Catholic priests to leave England. This so angered some Catholics that they decided to kill James and put his daughter Elizabeth on the throne ensuring that she was a Catholic. This led to a plot to kill not only the king of England, James, but also everyone sitting in the Houses of Parliament at the same time as James was there when he opened Parliament on November 5th, 1605.
Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, having rented out a house right by the Houses of Parliament, managed to get 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar of the House of Lords.
The other conspirators were:
Robert and Thomas Wintour,
Christopher and John Wright,
John Grant and the man who is said to have organised the whole plot
The most famous picture of some the conspirators
The explosive expert, Guy Fawkes, had been left in the cellars to set off the fuse. He was only caught when a group of guards decided to check the cellars at the last moment.
Fawkes was arrested and sent to the Tower of London where he was tortured and eventually gave away the names of the fellow conspirators.
Of those involved, some were shot as they were chased by the law such as Percy and Catesby. Others were captured, sent to the Tower and, after a brief trial, eventually hung, drawn and quartered, with Fawkes, in January 1606.
The signature of Guy Fawkes on his confession
In celebration of his survival, James ordered that the people of England should have a great bonfire in the night on November 5th. This fire was traditionally topped off with an effigy of the pope rather than Guy Fawkes. His place at the top of the fire came in later as did fireworks. The East Sussex county town of Lewes still has the pope alongside Guy Fawkes when it comes to the effigies being burned.
But is there more to this plot than just a small number of angry Catholics wanting to make a statement against the king, James? Some believe that the whole plot was a government conspiracy to convince James that Catholics could not be trusted. At the very least, some curious things happened when the story is looked at in detail.
What is odd?
We do know that James’ chief minister, Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, hated Catholics and saw them as a constant source of trouble. Cecil also feared that there was a chance that James would be lenient with them during his reign and this he could not tolerate.
We know that James was terrified of a violent death; his childhood in Scotland had been fraught with danger including being kidnapped as a boy. What better way to get James to severely persecute the Catholics in England than to get him to believe that they had tried to kill him in this very violent manner?
The government had a monopoly on gunpowder in this country and it was stored in places like the Tower of London. How did the conspirators get hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder without drawing attention to themselves? Did they get help from the government?
How was the gunpowder moved across London from the Tower of London to Westminster (at least two miles distant) without anyone seeing it? The River Thames would not have been used as it could have lead to the gunpowder becoming damp and useless. Thirty six barrels would have been a sizeable quantity to move without causing suspicion.
Why were men who were known to be Catholics allowed to rent out a house so near to the Houses of Parliament? How did they move 36 barrels from that house to the cellar of the Houses of Parliament without anyone noticing along with hay, straw etc?
Why, for the first time in history, was there a search of Parliament's cellars that conveniently found "John Johnson" (as Guy Fawkes called himself) before he lit the fuse?
Why was the soldier who killed Catesby and Percy at Holbeech House in the Midlands, given such a large pension for life (10p a day for life) when their arrest and torture was more desirable so that the names of any other conspirators might be found out?
Some historians have pointed out these issues and claimed that the plotters were pawns in the hands of Robert Cecil and that he orchestrated the whole affair in his bid to get James to ban Catholics altogether.
There are, however, counter-arguments to many of the above points.
Gunpowder may have been a government monopoly but just as today, there was a black market for it. The conspirators would have had the money to pay for this and it could have been smuggled in from Catholic France, for example. The south coast was riddled with smugglers havens. Fawkes could have used his contacts with Spain to acquire it. In many senses, this would not have been a difficult problem.
Moving the gunpowder from the Tower to Westminster could have been done over a number of days, barrel by barrel, journey by journey. This would have attracted less attention though it did increase the chance of being caught as more journeys were being made. One theory put forward is that it was stored at a house owned by Catesby in Lambeth and moved barrel by barrel up the Thames at night to Westminster. dangerous and risky but the conspirators were motivated men and it could have happened.
The conspirators used false names so hiring out property near to the Houses of Parliament would not have been that difficult. Thomas Percy had contacts in Parliament and these were almost certainly used to get the house there and later the cellar where the gunpowder was actually put.
The soldier who shot Percy and Catesby was in a firefight in which he may have been shot and killed himself. Why risk your own life against such desperate people? Was the 10p a day for life merely a generous reward for services to a grateful king?
Also, if Fawkes and company had been set-up by, why did he not say so at his execution when he could have said something? Possibly he was not in a fit enough state to say anything; also who would have believed him as he had been castigated as the evil conspirator to kill the king? It may be that the conspirators simply acted alone and then got caught.
The confession of Fawkes does not mention at all any claim that he was a dupe of the government. He himself stated that he was first approached by Thomas Wintour in Europe about the plot in 1604 and that he met the others when he returned to London.
The only full confession about the plot from start to finish came from Thomas Wintour. He, too, makes no mention about being set-up etc.
Two issues do cloud the story, however.
The first is the so-called Monteagle Letter.
One of the plotters was a man called Francis Tresham. Lord Monteagle was his cousin.
On the evening of October 26th, a mysterious man brought a letter to Monteagle’s home just outside of London. The letter was a clear warning for Monteagle not to turn up at the Houses of Parliament on the 5th November. In modern English the letter stated that Parliament would receive a terrible blow on that day and that those killed would not see who had done it to them. The letter was addressed to Monteagle but it was read out aloud by his servant. Why? Was Monteagle looking for a witness that he had received this letter?
Monteagle went straight to Robert Cecil and informed him of what had happened. Cecil ordered a search of the cellars of Parliament on the night of November 4th. Those guards found Guy Fawkes. A second search the next day, ordered by James I, also found the explosives and Guy who was found to be in possession of matches. he was arrested.
The other issue also involves Tresham.
Here was an important member of the gang who could know a great deal about other conspirators who were not actually yet caught. Once arrested, he was locked in the Tower of London – England’s most feared and secure prison. Tresham was locked in a cell by himself. He died on December 23rd 1605, and he was found to have been poisoned. How did he get the poison? Did he knowingly take it? Or did someone want to silence him before he talked? It is possible that Tresham had the poison on him and took it rather than suffer the butchery of being hung, drawn and quartered. If someone else had access to him, and fed him poisoned food or whatever, he would have been a very important person as only the most important would have had access to this valuable prisoner.
We may never know the answers to the questions. There are some who support the government conspiracy line – others think it may simply have been an ambitious plan by a small number of Catholics that went very badly wrong for them all.