The Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Plot was launched on 20 May 1604 in a pub, the Duck and Drake, just off the Strand in London.

The meeting was convened by Robert Catesby, a Midlands gentlemen and the leader of the Plot.  Also at the meeting were Thomas Wintour (Catesby’s cousin), John Wright (Catesby’s oldest friend), Thomas Percy (Wright’s brother-in-law) and Guy Fawkes.

At the meeting, Catesby outlined his plan:  To use gunpowder to wipe out the entire Protestant ruling class which included:

The King and Queen
Princes Henry and Charles (next two in line to the throne)
The Lords and Commons
The (Protestant) Archbishops
The Judiciary

If successful, the biggest regime change since the Norman Conquest would have been achieved and Catholicism returned to England.

Guy Fawkes had been recruited to the plot because of his expertise with gunpowder.  He went to the same school in York as John Wright and given they are of similar age they could have attended at the same time.  Fawkes was a soldier – a sapper – one who specialised in siege warfare and in particular the process of undermining, whereby an enemy’s defences were mined and then blown up to allow the attackers to breach the defences.  He would know the best places to lay the gunpowder for maximum effect.  Fawkes was Catholic and had previously visited Spain to beg the King to invade England and reinstate Catholicism.

At the time of the plotters first meeting, the State opening of Parliament was due to take place in February 1605, giving them 8 months to prepare.  However an outbreak of plague delayed the opening and it was rescheduled to November 1605.

With the delay to Parliament reopening, Catesby expanded the plot.  In addition to the destruction of the English governing class attending Parliament, Catesby now planned a full-blown uprising in the Midlands and to ensure permanent regime change, to also kidnap Princess Elizabeth, James’ eldest daughter and place her on the throne as a puppet monarch, eventually securing a catholic England by marrying her perhaps to a member of the Hapsburg dynasty – the European Catholic superpower of the day.

All this meant more planning, and more money was required.  Catesby recruited more conspirators:  John Grant, Robert Wintour, John Keys, Thomas Bates (Catesby’s servant), Everard Digby and Abbrose Rockwood. 

One of the plotters, Thomas Percy, through this family connections with the Duke of Northumberland, managed to obtain a position as Gentlemen Pensioner – a bodyguard – at the Palace of Westminster.  Percy established himself in Westminster with Fawkes playing the role of his manservant ‘John Johnson’.

In the summer of 1605, Fawkes acquired 10,000 lbs of gunpowder.  (Given building techniques and materials of the day it is thought that this could have destroyed everything within a quarter mile and left a crater 50 feet deep.)  Percy, using his position, rented space directly beneath the House of Lords.  The gunpowder was transferred there and hidden under brushwood.  However over the summer, the powder deteriorated and extra had to be obtained.

In October 1605, due to running low on cash, Catesby recruited the final member to the plot:  Frances Tresham, a wealthy landowner and Catesby’s cousin.

By the end of October, everything was in place.

On 26 October, Lord Monteagle received a letter advising him to stay away from the opening of Parliament, which would receive a ‘terrible blow’.  Monteagle, who was Tresham’s Brother-in-Law, presented the letter to Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, Secretary of State and the most powerful man in England after the King. 

By 1 November, the letter had been shown to the King.  James pounced on the word ‘blow’ (which was understandable given that his father had been assassinated in an explosion many years before) and ordered a search of Parliament.  Finding nothing James ordered a more extensive search.

Late on the evening of Monday 4th November 1605, the search party found a man wearing a cloak and wearing spurs on his boots in the undercroft, with a lamp and some matches and 36 barrels of gunpowder.  Giving his name as John Johnson, he was detained and taken to the King in the early hours of 5th November.

The King ordered that Fawkes be taken to the Tower of London and authorised the use of torture to obtain information and a confession.  James even took the time to detail the method of Fawkes’ torture:

The gentler tortours [tortures] are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur [and thus by steps extended to the bottom depths], and so God speed your good work.

Fawkes was racked, an agonising method of torture where the victim’s limbs are slowly pulled apart.  He held out for two days before confessing.  An amazing feat given the unimaginable pain he would have been in.  His resistance meant that he gave the others time to escape.

Many of the other plotters used that time Fawkes had bought them to flee to the Midlands and ended up at Holbeche House, in South Staffordshire.  The Sheriff of Worcestershire’s men arrived on the 8th of November to surround the house.  A gunfight ensured, killing some (including Catesby).  The others were rounded up and arrested for trial.

There was only one verdict:  Guilty.  And one punishment:  Execution.

Execution was by hanging, drawing and quartering:  the victim was hung by the neck almost to the point of death before they were loosed down before being disembowled, beheaded and the body cut into four parts.  The head then being placed on a spike in a prominent place such as on London Bridge.

Guy Fawkes met this fate on 31 January 1606.  Some accounts claim that he jumped from the gallows to break his neck to spare the pain of the rest of the execution.  However, given his injuries from the rack it is more likely that his legs were so damaged that they simply could not support his weight.

In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act making the commemoration of the plot a feature of English life.  The act remained in force until 1859.

Further Reading

The Gunpowder Plot on Wikipedia
The Gunpowder Plot pages on the UK Parliament website

Fraser, Antonia, The Gunpowder Plot – Terror & Faith in 1605 London 1996
Chapman, Brigid, Night of the Fires – Bonfire in Sussex from the Plot to the Present Day London 1994
Lipscomb, Suzannah, The King is Dead – The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIII London 2015