22 April 2017

Guy Fawkes and his 12 Catholic co-conspirators

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot.”

Even though in childhood I really did not understand why we remember the infamous gunpowder plot, it was always my favourite night of the year. Every father in Australia, even those who normally did not organise fun activities with their children during the year, part­icipated in the bonfire building. Only in the late 1970s was the pub­lic sale of fireworks banned across Australia, to prevent injuries and bushfires. The ban ruined Guy Fawkes Night here.

Guy Fawkes Night aka Bonfire Night was and is the anniversary of the foiling of the Gun­powder Plot on 5th November 1605. The plot was centred around a group of Roman Catholic revolutionaries, furious at the persecution of their co-religionists in England. After 45 years of persecution during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the plotters had hoped their struggles would end once King James I took the throne in 1603. Certainly James was a Protestant, but the Catholics knew that James had had a Catholic mother, Mary Queen of Scots. And James had himself  made informal overtures to Catholic powers like Spain, Savoy and Tuscany.

In 1603, in Hampton Court, James was known to be receiving some leading Catholic gentry who brought a petition for toleration. And the treaty negotiations between Spain, England and Flanders were concluded in Aug 1604, but there was still no mention of toleration for the English Catholics.

Disenchantment quickly with King James set inRobert Catesby and a group of his Catholic friends created a plan to kill the king, Prince of Wales and all the parliamentary ministers who had oppressed Catholics. The plotters wanted to blow up the Palace of West­minster during the state-opening of parliament when everyone would be there.

Guy Fawkes

Apart from the plot leader Robert Catesby, the other members of the group were Thomas Bates, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher and John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen and John Grant. Each plotter had a specific role. For example the Wright brothers travelled to Holland to recruit Guy Fawkes. And they visited the King of Spain to ask for his support in the expected revolt that would follow the killing of King James I. Thomas Percy (who had contacts at the court of King James), hired a cellar beneath the House of Lords.

Sir Everard Digby and his servants would wait at the Red Lion Inn. As soon as he learned of the plot’s success, Catesby would leave London for the Midlands where the men would mastermind the next stage of the plot - the Catholic Rising. Thomas Percy helped fund the group and secured the leases to certain properties in London. When the plotters successfully kidnapped King James' daughter, Princess Elizabeth. Percy would remain in London and capture her brother, Prince Henry.

Guy Fawkes was an explosives expert, called in by the others to set the fuse. Fawkes was a Protestant Englishman who converted to Catholicism following his father’s death. He left England to join the mercenaries fighting for the Spanish against the Protestant Dutch. By renting a house near the palace, Fawkes could smuggle 36 barrels of gunpowder under Westminster and prepared to blow it to oblivion. Modern scientists have calculated that the blast have obliterated an area 500 ms wide.

Towards the end of the planning, some of the plotters worried about killing parliamentarians who had actually supported Catholicism. But the scheme was only revealed when an anonymous letter was sent to Lord Monteagle (1575–1622) in the House of Lords, warning him not to go into Parliament. I am assuming the plotters did not want to kill Lord Monteagle since he was married into many Roman Catholic fam­il­ies, including being the brother-in-law of Francis Tresham, one of the plotters. In fact we need to note that ten of the plotters (except for Guy Fawkes, Sir Everard Digby and Thomas Bates) were all related to one another, either by means of blood or through marriage.

The timing of this warning to Lord Monteagle was perfect - Fawkes was caught red-handed in the cellars by the guards. After his cap­ture he was tortured till he gave up his fellow plotters. All of them died, either shot on the run OR put on trial for high treason, convicted and then hung, drawn and quartered in Jan 1606. As Fawkes awaited his punishment on the gallows, he leapt from the platform to avoid having his testicles cut off, and broke his neck. Fawkes was only 35 when he died.

From left: Thomas Bates; Robert Wintour; Christopher Wright; John Wright; Thomas Percy; Guy Fawkes; Robert Catesby; Thomas Wintour
engraving, artist unknown, c1605

James gave thanks that God had delivered all of them. Then religious services, emotional sermons and bell ringing were heard across the country, celebrating England's deliverance by divine providence from a fiendish Catholic scheme.

Soon Bonfire Night was celebrated by the lighting of bon­fires, the burning of guys/effigies of Guy Fawkes and the explos­ion of fireworks. The celebration was designated in law by King James I a few months after the plot failed and remained on the statute books until 1859. Also by way of symbolic commemor­ation, the yeoman of the guard searches the (modern) cellars of the Houses of Parliament in time for the state-opening each November.

Only one memorial came as a shock to me. The 13-strong group of plotters included brothers John and Christopher Wright, from the village of Welwicks in Yorkshire. There is now a Coreten steel statue dedicated in 2013 to Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby, John and Christopher Wright, installed at the village entrance near the Wright brothers’ home. It is very tall (2.4m)! Since the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot is still marked in Welwicks each year by Bonfire Night, the statue was probably built as a stark reminder of the reality of a historical specific event.

I have some last questions. Since the gunpowder plot of 1605 was seen as a dangerous challenge by the Catholic Church to Protestant Eng­land, why was the focus of the plotting limited to Guy Fawkes? Why was the role of the other 12 plotters largely excluded? And what about all the other well-connected people who aided the plotters with money, supplies and advice? Did the near-catastrophe in West­minster give some insight into how Catholics were suffering, leading to less severe penal laws against the practice of Cathol­icism in England? Does the reigning monarch only ent­er Parliament once a year even today, because of some lingering fear that remains since 1605?

To analyse the 13 major plotters and four other minor participants, see The Co-Conspirators.


Andrew said...

The animal world here rejoiced in the end of Bonfire Night. While I remember bon fires and being great social occasions, especially in the country, some very bad things happened on such nights. Your concluding questions are interesting.

Student of History said...

All they wanted was toleration for the English Catholics, for goodness sake.

bazza said...

Sadly, the sale of fireworks to any adult is still legal in the UK although the strong trend is toward public displays.
You raise a good point point about why Guy Fawkes is the one we all know of. I think it's because he was the first one caught and his story is quite romantic (in the mysterious, adventurous sense). I had not realised about his eventual way of death.
I think searching of the Palace of Westminster before the State Opening of Parliament has ceased to be merely symbolic these days - even though the original cellar was destroyed when the medieval building burnt down in 1834!
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s deficient Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

bazza said...

TO STUDENT OF HISTORY: If the plot had succeeded, do you think 'toleration' for the Catholics would have been the result?

Hels said...


I grew up on the edge of suburban Melbourne when the houses and schools were built on old market gardens. Tom thumbs and penny bungers were cheap, while Catherine Wheels were expensive, so my brothers and I used to make our pocket money last as best we could. No problem really - every family in Ormond and McKinnon got their fathers to collectively build the bonfire and singlehandedly set off the fireworks in the parklands behind the houses.

We heard about naughty children lighting fireworks in peoples' letter boxes and sticking explosive penny bungers up cats' bums, but that must have been in other suburbs.

Hels said...


I think that King James I was particularly insensitive to the needs of his new country's Catholic minority. This was strange; he did everything leading up to his taking the crown in England, and soon after, to strengthen his ties to other Catholic countries. He could have allowed Catholic prayer easily, while still banning Catholics from entering Parliament, had he wanted. Or any other legitimate limit to Catholic power.

Hels said...


that top portrait, plus every story I heard about Guy Fawkes in the 1950s and 60s, really did look and sound romantic, adventurous and brave. He was a young, handsome man, bringing his expertise to help oppressed people and reminding Australians of Ned Kelly.

Hels said...


re your comment about what might have happened, had the plot succeeded. The plotters themselves had the next carefully planned steps in motion, assuming that the plot would move into Stage 2 and so on.

If it had, and the king had been killed, there may well have been civil war. Admittedly until the First Civil War (1642–46) and the Second Civil War (1648–49), we probably believed that civil war would have been unthinkable in Britain. But history has proven us wrong before :(

Louise Kettle said...

Upon his coronation in 1603 King James failed to reverse the anti-Catholic laws. Instead he began to order Catholic priests to leave the country and increased oppression further by introducing legislation which refused Catholics the right to receive rent or make wills.

Louise Kettle
The Conversation
4th Nov 2016

Hels said...


I didn't realise that the plight of the Catholics was probably marginally worse under James I than under Elizabeth I.

CherryPie said...

I live not to far away from Coughton Court home of the Throckmortons at the time of the Gunpowder plot. Coughton Court was used as a base by the conspirators. The Throckmortons were not directly implicated in the plot because the house had been rented out to Digby whilst Thomas Throckmortons permanent address at the time was elsewhere.

You might enjoy this post that I wrote which gives some additional background to the plot.


Hels said...


Many thanks. I had not known about the 1593 Act that restricted the recusants’ mobility to a 5 mile radius from their homes. It gets worse and worse :(

I did know that brave priests had to study on the Continent and were then smuggled back to the Catholic family that needed priestly services. One guided tour I went on years ago took the students to a stately home's priest secret bolt-hole. But it was so dark and cramped, I wouldn't go into the space.

Mike@Bit About Britain said...

Great post. Complicated topic. The persecution of Catholics in England was as much about power and politics as anything - though Fox's Book of Martyrs was extremely popular and helped fan the flames (bad joke intended). James's approach was very different to Elizabeth's - far less inclined to be conciliatory - an approach which got his son into trouble! You mention civil war - the prospect may have been unlikely in England in the early 17th cent, but it was only just over a century since the Wars of the Roses had torn the country apart, so that memory was relatively fresh.

CherryPie said...

Little Morton Hall and Boscobel House are very near to where I live, they both have the type of priest hole that you mention. When I was at school they used to put a child volunteer in the hole to see what it was like. I was never brave enough to volunteer either.

Unfortunately due to the health and safety regulations even the brave children do not get the opportunity to try it anymore.

Hels said...


I read Fox's "A general account of the attempts made by the papists to overturn the Protestant government of England from the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the reign of George II". He was relentless about the atrocities of the brutal and murderous Spanish, wasn't he?

I am sure the royal family, government, church and army officers read of these atrocities, but where would ordinary working families in England have known about Catholic treachery?

Hels said...


I am so glad you mentioned Little Morton Hall. They had a subterranean priest passage that was no longer available for inspection, but had once emerged outside the house via the moat. This suggests that the Moretons had been devout Catholics.

What I know for certain is that the Moreton family picked the wrong side during the English Civil War. As supporters of the Royalist cause, they lost part of their estate to the Parliamentarians and the chapel was deconsecrated.

Hels said...

Cherie's Place blog described the very impressive Montacute House and the Phelips family. As it turned out, Edward Phelips' fame as a lawyer and parliamentarian became highly relevant to this post when he became opening prosecutor during the trial of the Gunpowder Plotters.