The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot;
For I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Traditional Nursery Rhyme
On this day in 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar under the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was there carrying out part of what is now known as the Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to assassinate King James I of England and VI of Scotland. The thwarting of the Plot is commemorated every year on Bonfire Night.
The plotters, who were led by Robert Catesby, were Catholics, who having suffered years of persecution under Elizabeth I had hoped James, who became king in 1603, would be better deposed to them. While initial signs were good, following an earlier failed plot and the need to satisfy the Puritans in his Parliament, in February 1604 the king publicly announced his 'utter detestation' of Catholicism. Consequently, Catholic hopes were not met and the Gunpowder plotters began to draw their plans.
The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England's Parliament on 5 November 1605, at which James and many other important figures would be present. It would be a prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James's nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, would be installed at the Catholic head of state.
The plotters leased a small house in the heart of Westminster, installing Fawkes as caretaker under the alias of John Johnson. In March 1605 the group took out another lease on a ground-floor cellar close by the house. The cellar lay directly beneath the House of Lords and over the following months, 36 barrels of gunpowder were moved in, enough to completely destroy the chamber above, if ignited. Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting in the Spanish military, was given charge of the explosives.
The plot was however revealed when an anonymous letter was sent on the 26th October to William Parker, Baron Monteagle, warning him to avoid the house on the 5th November. He took it to Cecil, Earl of Salisbury who was already aware of certain stirrings, but did not yet know the exact nature of the plot, or who exactly was involved. He therefore elected to wait to see how events would unfold. Searches of the House was ordered on the 5th; the first found a suspiciously large amount of firewood in one of the cellars. The second, at around midnight, found Fawkes and his gunpowder.
Fawkes was arrested immediately, although he gave only his alias. Another plotter, Thomas Percy, had already been linked with the cellar and house, and a warrant for his arrest was also issued. Fawkes was interrogated, however little had been learned by the following day and so James I gave permission to use torture, gradually 'proceeding to the worst'. It took several days to illicit any useful information, however on the 8th November, most of the other plotters were caught, while Catesby, Percy and two others were killed fighting in an attempt to evade capture. The last remaining plotter, Robert Wintour, was captured in the New Year.
At their trial on 27th January 1606, eight of the surviving plotters, including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which was carried out on the 30th and 31st.
The immediate impact on ordinary Catholics would be immense and last several centuries. New laws were passed preventing them from practising law, serving as officers in the military, or standing or voting in local or Parliamentary elections. At the same time, it didn't help the cause of the English Puritans (who James associated with the Scottish Presbyterians) and the banning of religious petitions that had taken effect at the Hampton Court Conference the previous year in 1604. Instead, in the short term it reinforced James' view that as monarch he would rule the church through the bishops, while in the longer term it led to the persecution of English Puritans which contributed to the Mayflower voyage.
The longer-term impact on the Catholics was that they became the scapegoat for many tragic events, including the Great Fire of London of 1666. While penal laws started to be dismantled from around 1766 , it would not be until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 that the most substantial restrictions would be lifted, including the right to vote. It was not until 2011 that the law barring a British monarch from marrying a Catholic was lifted, while the monarch cannot be a Catholic to this day
The conversion of James II of England and VII of Scotland to Catholicism in around 1668 and the prospect of a Catholic monarchy in England led directly to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William of Orange was invited to take the thrones. This in turn led to the Jacobite Risings, which took place between 1689 and 1746 and were Britain’s last civil wars. The Jacobite Risings were the subject of our big build of 2017, designed to coincide with Scotland’s Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology. You can see more on our portfolio page!
These scenes were built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
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