05 February 2013

Guy Fawkes and Parliament, 1605

English Catholics had endured religious discrimination since 1570, when the Pope had excommunicated Queen Elizabeth, releasing her subjects from allegiance to her. Even worse for Catholics, the Spanish Armada of 1588 confirmed to the Tudors that all Catholics were potential traitors. Catholic recusants were steeply fined, or worse.

So 1603 was going to be an important turning point. After 45 years on the English throne, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I seemed to be about to name King James VI of Scotland to succeed her as King of England. Despite his mother, the executed Mary Queen of Scots, being Catholic, James had been raised as a Protestant. So why did he marry Queen Anne of Denmark, a woman who later converted to Catholicism? The secretly-Catholic Earl of Northumberland sent one of his staff to Scotland, to assess how English Catholics might fare under the new king.

Certainly the new king did end the hated recusancy fines and did give important posts to the Earl of Northumberland. English Catholics breathed a sigh of relief. But not for long. Rather than tolerate a new era of religious tolerance, the bitterly disappointed Catholics decided to take action.

Participants in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and to kill King James I
November 1605

Some plotters from the Midlands got together in mid 1604. Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright, Thomas Percy and Guy Fawkes met in a London pub. Fawkes had been recruited in Flanders, where he had been serving honourably in the Spanish Army, as he was an expert on gunpowder. They discussed their plan to blow up Parliament House, and shortly afterwards leased a small house in the heart of Westminster, installing Fawkes (with a fake name) as a servant to Thomas Percy.

Catesby recruited Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham and Sir Everard Digby. Both Rookwood and Digby were wealthy and owned large numbers of horses, essential for the plan. Tresham was Catesby's cousin through marriage, and was brother-in-law to two Catholic peers, Lords Stourton and Monteagle. Eventually there were 13 plotters.

With Parliament due to open on 5th November 1605, the plotters had to collect and install 36 barrels of gunpowder below the House of Lords, intending to blow up King James and all the Parliamentarians when the king opened the new session. So why did it go so terribly wrong?

Apparently English spies reported back to King James' first minister Robert Cecil Earl of Salisbury, and made the link between Fawkes and Catesby. According to Neil Jones, the government could have intervened at that stage, but they bided their time to get propaganda value for the great “discovery” on the day of the intended explosion.

Fawkes was to light the fuse and escape to continental Europe. To coincide with the explosion, Digby planned to lead a rising in the Midlands and kidnap King James's daughter, to install her as a puppet queen. In Catholic Europe, Fawkes was to argue the plotters' case to various governments, hopefully to secure their support.

Everything seemed ready. But at the end of October, an anonymous letter was delivered to the Catholic Lord Monteagle, suggesting that he stay away from the Parliament’s opening day. Who sent it? Neil Jones suggested two possibilities: a] that one of the plotters, Monteagle’s brother in law Francis Tresham, was actually a Stuart spy and b] that the letter was a fake, written by the king’s main minister to set up the plotters for certain failure. In either case, the letter should have been a clue to the plotters, but they went ahead with their plans. Catesby, Wright and Bates set off for the Midlands, unperturbed.

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl Salisbury ordered Westminster to be searched. The search found Fawkes and his gunpowder underground, so the plotter was immediately arrested. The other plotters escaped from London for the Midlands, as quickly as they could.

In the Midlands, the plotters raided Warwick Castle. But the end came quickly when the local High Sheriff rode in with his soldiers and killed Catesby, the Wrights and Percy; and captured Thomas Wintour, Rookwood and Grant. Under torture the survivors implicated the Jesuits in the gunpowder plot, and ordinary Catholic homes everywhere were subject to destruction.

In late January 1606 the trials began, and naturally Westminster Hall was packed out. Under instructions from Earl Salisbury, the Attorney General laid the blame squarely on the Jesuits, before ordering the punishment for traitors: they’d be hanged, drawn and quartered. Their body parts would be publicly displayed.

All were found guilty of high treason. Digby, Robert Wintour, Bates and Grant were executed in Jan, with Thomas Wintour, Rookwood, Keyes and Fawkes soon after. Only Tresham was spared a trial and a hideous execution, leading Neil Jones to again suspect that Tresham was indeed a double agent. Percy, the Earl of Northumberland was imprisoned in the Tower until 1621.

Every Catholic in the nation felt the wrath of Parliament and the distrust of their Protestant neighbours. New laws were passed preventing them from voting, and from working in the most sensitive professions: the law and the armed services. They paid a hefty price throughout the remainder of the 17th century, including perhaps in the abdication/expulsion of King James II in 1688.

In the meantime, 5th of November became a night of thanksgiving in churches, sermons, fireworks and throwing the “guy” (an effigy of Guy Fawkes) onto bonfires throughout Protestant Britain every year, and thence to colonies across the British Empire. Throwing the guy on the bonfire was the yearly highlight of my entire childhood, even though Guy Fawkes didn't devise or lead the plot to assassinate King James I.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
Of course we have been brought up with 'history' lessons on the Gunpowder Plot but never, until now, have we understood fully all of the various ramifications. It is all most intriguing and certainly suggests spies and counter agents.

The town of Lewes, close to us in Brighton, celebrates November 5th. in a very extravagant way which has become quite famous throughout the south of England. We are uncertain as to why.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

the Lewes story seems to have very little to do with Guy Fawkes and the plot to blow up Parliament.

On one hand, the Sussex Martyrs of the mid 16th century were Protestants who were burned at the stake as heretics on Queen Mary's instructions. The flaming Lewes crosses are still carried in their memory.

On the other hand, 19th century Lewes seemed to enjoy an evening of scenes of booze, anti-Catholic violence and class warfare. Hopefully Sussex citizens are a bit better hehaved now.

Andrew said...

Hels, between you and the BBC Witness podcasts, I am learnin' rather a lot. It is funny how you know about things, but you don't know the background. Whatever will you come up with next? A fifteenth century king found under a Leicester car park? How improbable.

Hels said...


Funny that you should mention King Richard III :) I know nothing much about European history before the first day of Stuart rule, but I get much stronger as we move to the Civil War and beyond.

Still, I have a post coming up that discusses King Richard III. The post was written ages ago, but the timing, as it turns out, is perfect :)

Student of History said...

I read what you said about anti-Catholic fever - every Catholic in the nation felt Parliament's horror and the distrust of Protestants everywhere.

Probably that seems a bit of overkill. But as you said about Lewes, under a different and earlier queen, heaps of Protestant heretics s had been burned at the stake.

Hels said...


Pope Pius V excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I for schism and urged the population to rise up against her Protestant Church. From that point on, there was a total fear of Catholic insurrection.. a fear that never reduced. Fear grew when James I came south from Scotland, with the blowing up of Parliament, when James II converted to Catholicism, with later Jacobite Rebellions etc. It seemed to go on and on.

Was the fear of Catholicism out of proportion to the real Catholic threat? It is a question that haunted the 17th and 18th centuries.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is fascinating to watch these battles of religion and politics as they played themselves out in the literature of the period, even in (or especially in) the comic plays. Anti-Catholic sentiment is for the most part manifest, and there seemed to be a license to ridicule religion that I find surprising considering that early date.

Hels said...


Anti-Catholic sentiment was truly very very strong, but not, I think, to ridicule religion.

The Stuarts were perfectly happy for Italy, Spain and France to remain strongly Catholic, as long as Britain could be devoutly Protestant without interference from abroad. They were in constant fear of muscular Catholicism taking over - violently or otherwise.

I personally think the paranoia was a bit overdone, but the Gunpowder Plot proved that behind all paranoia, there is often an element of truth.

Viola said...

We were in London last year on Guy Fawkes Night, but it seemed rather dull! Maybe it's better in the country - I'd like to see the celebrations at Lewes!

Thank you for the interesting article - I love to read about this and your article made it much clearer.

Hels said...


Thank you.

It seems to me that the second half of the 17th century was the true start of modernity in Europe, especially Britain. I love reading about the philosophical developments, the wars of religion, architectural movements, The Grand Tour, Huguenots etc etc

The Gunpowder plot was of course earlier, but its impact seemed to be ever-lasting.