412 years ago today, on 5th November 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught in the act of lighting the fuse on an enormous stash of gunpowder hidden beneath the Palace of Westminster. It was the day of the State Opening of Parliament, and King James I and the vast majority of members of both Houses of Parliament were in attendance. Fawkes, and his co-conspirators, were planning nothing less than the total destruction of English government.
The Gunpowder Plot, as it has become known, was the product of seventy years of religious turmoil in England. The reigns of Henry VIII and his children, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, saw England go back and forth between Catholic and Protestant methods of religion. Elizabeth’s long reign helped to secure the predominance, both in government and among the population, of Protestantism. Catholics came to be viewed with suspicion, and as traitors for acknowledging the Pope as a higher authority than the monarch.
But England had been Catholic since 596, and even Elizabeth’s 45-year rule could not wholly overturn that. Laws against Catholics gradually mounted, restricting their rights, and assigning the death penalty to Catholic clergy and those who sheltered them. Catholicism came to be seen by most in England as fundamentally opposed to the very nature of English life, creating a marginalised and persecuted community with little love for the country they inhabited. Things did not improve when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne as James I, disappointing many Catholics who had hoped the new king might better protect them.
It was against this background that Robert Catesby, John Wright and his brother Christopher, the brothers Robert and Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham and Sir Everard Digby, plotted to assassinate James and, with the help of Spanish troops, rise in rebellion to place James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne as a Catholic monarch.
The plotters saw their opportunity in the State Opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605, which the king and most members of both Houses of Parliament would be attending. Fawkes, who had spent ten years fighting as a mercenary in Europe, was given the task of acquiring the gunpowder that would be the plotters’ weapon of choice. Fawkes managed to gather together 36 barrels of powder – enough of the substance to level the Palace of Westminster entirely and kill all within.
In the months leading up to 5th November the plotters made their preparations. They bought the lease to an undercroft that ran beneath the palace, claiming that it was being used as a wood storehouse, and between March and October gradually moved the gunpowder there by means of a tunnel that ran from an adjoining building.
It was in October that one of the plotters – which is not known for certain but it was probable that it was Francis Tresham – sent an anonymous letter to William Parker, Baron Monteagle, warning him not to attend parliament on the 5th November. Monteagle was Tresham’s brother-in-law, which is why Tresham is commonly believed to have been the sender of the letter. Monteagle had a servant read the letter aloud. The letter has survived, and reads:
“My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament; for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.”
The letter was at once reported and eventually shown to the king. James himself seized upon the word “blow”, and perhaps remembering the fate of his father – Lord Darnley, who had been murdered when his house had been blown up – suggested that the letter’s sender and his cohorts would try to blow up the palace on 5th November. On 4th, government troops performed a sweep of the palace. They found what looked like a wood store and a man they took for a servant, who told them that he was in the service of Thomas Percy. They had found Guy Fawkes making his final preparations, but failed to realise that truth.
Had James not insisted on a more thorough search, the plot might have succeeded. But the king was disturbed that the search had turned up nothing, and on 5th November a second sweep was performed. And this time, Fawkes was discovered in the act of lighting the fuse on the barrels. He was arrested, and gave his name as John Johnson. Three days of torture later and Fawkes told his captors everything. The other plotters fled, some of them making a stand at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. 200 soldiers attacked them there, killing or capturing all of them. Those who were taken prisoner were executed in January 1606, bringing the Gunpowder Plot to an end.