By Tim Lambert
The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by a group of Catholics to murder King James I and the members of parliament. The plot was foiled and its failure is celebrated every year in England on 5 November when bonfires and fireworks are lit.
In the late 16th century most people in England were Protestants but there was a significant minority of Catholics. The Catholics faced persecution although it was mainly priests who were executed as they were regarded as foreign agents. However ordinary Catholics faced severe fines for not attending Church of England services.
In 1570 the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth I and declared that her people no longer had a duty to obey her. However most Catholics remained loyal to Elizabeth but the Pope's actions made Protestants more suspicious of them.
Queen Elizabeth died in March 1603 and she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who now became King James I of England as well. Catholics hoped that James treat them after all his wife, a Danish woman was a Catholic. They were soon to be disappointed. At first James stopped the fines for non-attendance at Church of England services. However 2 failed Catholic plots in 1603 alienated the king and he reinstated the fines in 1604. Nevertheless most Catholics remained loyal to James and would not take part in any violence.
There were however a small number who would. Among them were Robert Catesby (born 1573) and his friend Thomas Percy. Also Thomas Winter and John Wright. The most notorious of the plotters was a soldier named Guy Fawkes (born in Yorkshire in 1570). The five men met in May 1604. They discussed a plan to blow up parliament using gunpowder.
In March Thomas Percy began renting a house next to the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes was made caretaker of the house. It included a cellar underneath the House of Lords. In the cellar the plotters hid barrels of gunpowder. The barrels were hidden by firewood. Meanwhile other men were drawn into the plot. Parliament was due to meet on 5 November 1605 and the plotters planned to ignite the gunpowder then. Meanwhile other men were drawn into the conspiracy.
However on 26 October 1605 William Parker, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him not to be present in parliament when it met. Monteagle took the letter to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, one of the king's ministers. The government now knew that a plot existed. On 4 November 1605 they searched the parliament buildings including the cellar under the House of Lords. They discovered a suspiciously large amount of firewood. A second search was conducted around midnight and this time they found Guy Fawkes.
At first Guy Fawkes bravely refused to talk but he was tortured and eventually confessed.
Meanwhile the other conspirators fled to Holbeach House in Warwickshire. On 8 November 1605 the sheriff then stormed the house with a party of armed men. Five conspirators were killed in the fighting. Four were captured and five others were still at large but they were soon arrested.
One conspirator died in prison while awaiting trial. The others were put on trial in January 1606. All of the eight plotters were found guilty of treason and were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. (This was the punishment in England for treason. The person was drawn on a hurdle pulled by a horse to the place of execution. They were hanged (strangled by being suspended by a rope) but when they were still alive and sometimes conscious they were cut down. The executioner cut open their stomach and 'drew out' their entrails. Finally the person was beheaded and his body was cut into quarters).
The sentences were carried out at the end of January 1606. Fortunately Guy Fawkes jumped of the scaffold with the noose around his neck. He broke his neck and so did not have to suffer 'drawing' (being disemboweled).
Inevitably the Gunpowder Plot led to a hardening of attitudes towards Catholics. On the other hand 5 November became a great English celebration. Ever afterwards bonfires were lit on that night and fireworks were lit. It also became traditional to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes. It used to be traditional to ring church bells on Bonfire night but this custom has died out.
More about the darkside of history
Life in the 17th Century
A history of 17th Century England