November 5, 2005


The Gunpowder Plot (Pauline Croft, September 2005, History Today)

When at last Queen Elizabeth died, on 24 March 1603, most English catholics openly rejoiced. In April 1603 the king left Edinburgh to travel south, and on his journey he was petitioned by catholics for a toleration. In July at Hampton Court, just before his coronation, James received some leading catholic gentry who brought a petition for toleration. The king declined to go so far, but he told them he would suspend the monthly recusancy fines so long as the catholic community continued to support both king and state.

So far everything had gone fairly well for the catholics. Then in June and July 1603 came the revelation of the Bye and Main plots. The Bye plot, so called because it was the lesser in importance, was a crazy attempt led by a priest named William Watson to hold the king to ransom until he declared a catholic toleration. The Main plot was more drastic, and less religious: it aimed to get rid of the Scottish king and his ‘cubs’, instead placing his English-born cousin Lady Arbella Stuart on the throne. Both plots were hopelessly incompetent, but showed how quickly disenchantment with James had set in.

Some catholics were quick to think of aggressive action. Among them were several young men who had been implicated in 1601 in the abortive revolt of the earl of Essex, when they had shown themselves to be valiant fighters. Robert Catesby, son of a wealthy catholic family from Warwickshire, was the charismatic leader of a tightly-knit circle, which included Francis Tresham and the brothers Jack and Kit Wright, all noted swordsmen who fought in the rebellion. The Wrights were at school at St Peter’s, York, with Guy Fawkes, who left England in 1592 to fight in the armies of catholic Spain against the rebel Dutch. They were brothers-in-law to Thomas Percy, a catholic employed by his kinsman the earl of Northumberland. Catesby was related to Robert and Thomas Wintour, whose Worcestershire home was known as a priests’ refuge. In late autumn 1601 Tom Wintour journeyed to Spain on behalf of Catesby, Tresham and the others left leaderless after the downfall of Essex. He offered support to Spain in case of a future invasion of England to aid catholics, but got little more than vague promises of financial assistance.

Guy Fawkes also travelled to Spain and in July 1603 wrote a memorandum, still in the Spanish archives, which insisted that James was intent on driving all catholics out of England. Fawkes was fiercely anti-Scottish, believing that the natural hostility between the English and the Scots would make it impossible to reconcile the two nations for long. He warned the Spanish court that any peace overtures from James should be treated as subterfuges and ignored. Fawkes was too late, for in spring 1603 Spain rather grudgingly sent an envoy to congratulate the king on his accession. [...]

On the evening of 5 November 1605, with Fawkes in custody and the plot foiled, there was a great outburst of bell-ringing, and the inhabitants of London lit bonfires to celebrate the providential deliverance of the king and his nobility. An act was passed in 1606 for an annual public thanksgiving with appropriate sermons, a religious occasion rather than a rambunctious social event. It was only in the later 17th century that effigies of the Pope were burned on the bonfires, and ‘the guy’ appeared in the 18th century.

The long-lasting impact of the Gunpowder Plot was related above all to the grand scale of the intended atrocity. Unlike earlier assassination plots against Queen Elizabeth, the gunpowder plot would have killed
hundreds if not thousands, not only in the House of Lords but in the great fire which would surely have swept through the decrepit palace and beyond. Moreover the story was so chillingly dramatic, and recently it chimes with the concerns of our own post-9/11 world.

We mentioned the torture of Fawkes previously, but another striking parallel is how detached from reality the plotters were. Even had they been as successful as the 9-11 crew they'd have produced similarly abysmal results for their cause, though given the times the bloodshed would have been much less discriminate. Antonia Fraser's book, Faith and Treason is quite good on the whole subject.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 5, 2005 6:31 AM