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date: 01 July 2022

The Gunpowder Plotfree

The Gunpowder Plotfree

  • Mark Nicholls

The tradition

Remember, Remember, fifth of November, gunpowder, treason, and plot.

Many in Britain today do indeed remember the Gunpowder Plot. They recognize the name Guy Fawkes, and they have at least some general understanding of what he was about, in the cellars of the House of Lords, on the night of 4–5 November 1605. This enduring recognition is curious, for Fawkes ended his life on the gallows, while the plot in which he participated failed miserably. There have been other conspiracies to bring explosives into Westminster, some of them successful. Yet in all these cases the perpetrators, and their deeds, are now forgotten. In contrast, as W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman put it, the Gunpowder Plot remains 'by far the best plot in History, and the day and month of it (though not, of course, the year) are well known to be utterly even maddeningly MEMORABLE' (1066 and All That, 1999 edn, 70). It is surely reasonable to ask: why?

That question is more easily asked than answered. Detailed studies have shown that the plot was reinvented, generation by generation, to convey a message appropriate to the religious and political ends of the establishment or the prejudices of popular culture. Bonfire commemorations witnessed by the letter-writer John Chamberlain on the evening of 5 November 1605 were rekindled in street opposition to court Catholicism during the 1630s, in the shadow cast by the Popish Plot during the 1670s, at the time of the Gordon riots, and all along that rocky path to Catholic emancipation through the early nineteenth century. More recently the open integration of Roman Catholicism within British society has taken the passion out of things; the spectacle of bonfires and fireworks has become an enjoyable end in itself. For the most part today's celebrations are anodyne if colourful affairs, free of any deep-laid malice. For the most part. Annual commemorations at Lewes in Sussex, flavoured by fundamentalist protestant belief, still hark back to an earlier day in their intensity and fervour.

The plotters

What has all the fuss been about? Who were the gunpowder plotters? What were the forces that drove them on? It was Robert Catesby, a Northamptonshire gentleman, who first devised a plan to blow up the House of Lords on the occasion of the state opening of parliament, thus killing King James VI and I, his elder son Henry Frederick, prince of Wales, and his chief ministers, among them the influential secretary, Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury. Early in 1604 Catesby entrusted the secret to his cousin Thomas Winter and to John Wright, a Yorkshireman from the East Riding. After discussion this trio agreed to bring in two further associates: Thomas Percy, Wright's brother-in-law, who was fourth cousin and estate officer to Henry Percy, ninth earl of Northumberland, and Guy Fawkes, a soldier, recruited by Winter in Flanders. Fawkes they considered particularly suitable: he was dedicated to the cause, a skilled mining engineer with experience fighting under Spanish forces in the Low Countries and, because he had not lived in England for some ten years, he was unknown in the small world that was Jacobean London. That was important to them, for reasons that will become apparent.

These five men may be regarded as the inner ring of the conspiracy. From May 1604, when Percy and Fawkes were first enlisted, until November 1605 a further eight recruits were brought into the plot, either—as with Christopher Wright [see under Wright, John], John's brother, and Catesby's servant Thomas Bate—to help with tunnelling work, or—as in the cases of Ambrose Rookwood of Stanningfield in Suffolk and Francis Tresham of Northamptonshire—to provide money for the purchase of gunpowder and weapons. Furthermore, a small number of Jesuit priests, including the superior, Henry Garnett, and Oswald Tesimond, were to some extent informed of what was planned. However, many of these secondary conspirators remained ignorant of all the inner ring's secrets. Consequently, when at length they fell into the government's hands, they had a limited amount to tell. This ignorance had lasting consequences, which, again, must be considered in due course.

Still more peripherally, several Catholic gentlemen in the midlands were induced to take part in a revolt after 5 November. Some were led to believe that the king had been killed, others that the Catholics of the north and west would rise with them. In the event Lancashire and Wales did not stir, and the so-called midland rebellion lasted less than three days, before Catesby, Percy, and both Wrights were killed in a skirmish at Holbeach House in Staffordshire. Several surviving rebels, men like the Worcestershire landowner Stephen Littleton and another Winter brother, John, were indeed condemned for high treason, but the fact that they were tried and executed at Stafford or Worcester testifies to the fact that their crimes were those of rebellion in their own counties—treason still, but far removed from Westminster, and from gunpowder.

But whether one considers the inner ring alone, or views the entire spectrum of participants, it is not difficult to identify some common characteristics. Here is a small, closely knit group. Catesby and his colleagues were of an age—they were nearly all in their early thirties. Many of them, moreover, had disreputable histories: Winter, the Wrights, and Catesby had supported Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex, in Queen Elizabeth's time, and had fought for Essex during his disastrous rebellion in 1601. Catesby had been arrested shortly before Elizabeth's death, so as to neutralize a potential mischief-maker. Thomas Bate apart (and even he was more retainer than servant) they were gentlemen of the middle rank, some wealthy, others not, but all sharing the same background, ambition, and, crucially, devotion to their faith.

Most significantly, not one nobleman was directly involved. Convinced that so deep-seated a conspiracy must have enjoyed the backing of at least one or two peers, the authorities, the attorney-general, Sir Edward Coke, prominent among them, spent days questioning the surviving plotters, working on them to name prominent ringleaders, or some well-connected figurehead. No such name emerged, but these investigations did reveal that two Catholic barons—Henry Mordaunt, fourth Baron Mordaunt, and Edward Stourton, tenth Baron Stourton—had received warnings to absent themselves from parliament. Both were eventually tried, and imprisoned at the king's pleasure.

Thomas Percy (1560–1605)

by Crispijn de Passe the elder, c. 1605

The influential earl of Northumberland fell under suspicion because he had made his cousin a gentleman pensioner, a member, that is, of the king's bodyguard. Worse still, Thomas Percy had held a private conversation with his cousin on 4 November. Although it was never proved that the earl had either known of the plot or received a warning he too was tried in Star Chamber in June 1606. The charge against Northumberland was not treason, but rather a persuasive accumulation of ‘contempts’. For all that, he remained a prisoner in the tower for fifteen years. Those about him endured the injustice of guilt by association. His brother Sir Alan Percy, lieutenant of the gentleman pensioners under Northumberland's captaincy, and his former secretary, the promising diplomat Dudley Carleton, were both imprisoned, and suffered checks to their public careers.

The treason

This search for noble involvement becomes important when considering the actions and aims of the plotters. The facts are these. In May 1604 Thomas Percy, using his position of gentleman pensioner as a cover, rented a house adjacent to the old palace of Westminster, and their first plan was to drive a tunnel from there through the foundations of the parliament house, stack the tunnel with powder, and explode the mine. With the opening of the new session of parliament set for February, work began late in 1604. Fawkes stood lookout, while John Grant, another one-time Essex rebel, and Christopher Wright helped with the excavations.

Despite the extra manpower, however, work was slowed by the thickness of the foundations, and the plotters were falling behind schedule when their luck turned. Outbreaks of plague necessitated the postponement of the new parliamentary session until November. Then, in the new year, a ground-floor vault beneath the House of Lords fell vacant. Percy again took the lease, while Fawkes, the unknown face, posed as his servant.

Gunpowder was stockpiled at a house rented by Catesby in Lambeth, in the care of another new recruit, Robert Keyes. This gunpowder was eventually ferried at night across the Thames, and concealed under firewood in the cellar because, as the pragmatic Thomas Winter told his interrogators later, 'we were willing to have all our dainger in one place' (Salisbury–Cecil MS 113/54). Eighteen hundredweight of 'corne powder decaied' was discovered on 5 November and removed to the tower (Roger, 125). 'Decaied' the powder might have been, but the sheer quantity, placed directly below its victims, would have ensured a devastating blast from which few trapped within the small, crowded chamber would have escaped. Adding to the horrors of collapsing masonry and falling beams, seventeenth-century gunpowder had by modern standards a low saltpetre content, making it more oxygen-deficient, and giving it a much higher carbon content. When such a mix burns, the combustion produces large quantities of deadly carbon monoxide. Survivors trapped in the rubble would have been caught in an atmosphere that killed within minutes. So, no doubt, Fawkes calculated, and Fawkes had the expertise to know. Their immediate work completed, the plotters dispersed, Fawkes back to Flanders, the others to their estates. The gunpowder lay in the cellar, all summer long.

The conspirators could not, however, simply sit and wait. Much remained to be done. Only in the summer of 1605 did Catesby bring into the plot the wealthy men—Rookwood, Tresham, and a young Rutland landowner, Sir Everard Digby—and he brought them in precisely because it was then that he needed money. Slaughtering the king, perhaps most of the king's chief ministers, and possibly Prince Henry, was hardly going to be sufficient. Assuming that the blow succeeded, what then? Through hundreds of examinations, spread over three months, investigators sought to establish a precise picture of the plotters' intentions. They were ultimately frustrated by two considerations. First, three of the inner ring were killed at Holbeach. That left Fawkes, perhaps the least well informed of the five, and Thomas Winter, whose detailed confession forms one of the most vivid first-hand accounts of a conspiracy to be found in English history. But it is Winter's story alone, and where he is vague one cannot turn to his colleagues for enlightenment. Second, certain decisions were never taken, the plotters believing it prudent to survey the carnage wrought by the explosion before attempting to negotiate with survivors. True, they agreed in principle to preserve as many of their friends among the nobility as 'were Catholick or so disposed' (Salisbury–Cecil MS 113/54), but Catesby's low opinion of the English nobility led him to declare more truthfully that he would rather see every peer of the realm blown to perdition than have the plot miscarry. They were, he suggested, nothing but a pack of 'atheistes fooles and cowards' (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/126).

In so far as they had a plan, it was to kidnap the king's eldest daughter, the nine-year-old

Princess Elizabeth (1596–1662)

by Gerrit van Honthorst, 1642

© The National Gallery, London

Princess Elizabeth, then in the care of John Harington, Lord Harington, at Combe Abbey, near Coventry, within striking distance of the plotters' midland power base. Catesby arranged a hunting meet of the midland gentry on Dunsmore Heath, also near Coventry, for 5 November. Following the recent peace treaty with Spain there was talk of raising a Catholic regiment to fight alongside Spanish troops in Flanders—it was put about that the hunt might double as a recruiting exercise. Catesby also stockpiled armour and weapons at nearby Ashby St Ledgers in Northamptonshire, his family home. The idea was that the plotters should stay in London long enough to witness the explosion, and then ride swiftly to Dunsmore to lead a triumphant Catholic army on Combe. In the event the plotters tried something similar after the plot miscarried, but when Catesby failed to convince his audience that king and ministers were indeed dead, the majority, horrified by the prospect of rebellion, vanished as fast as they could into the November night. The midland rebels never seem to have numbered more than eighty, and at Holbeach on the morning of 8 November only fourteen remained. As Digby lamented, with typical naïvety: 'not one man cam in to take [our] parte thoughe [we] expected for verie many' (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/135).

A young princess could only have been a cipher, and it is understandable that the king's ministers should have pressed both Winter and Fawkes, and anyone else likely to know, to name the person who would rule through her. The idea that Catesby and his friends might do so themselves was considered absurd; they were not of sufficiently high standing. Hence the suspicion that fell on members of the nobility, particularly on Northumberland. It was Northumberland's misfortune, and a commentary on the prevailing frustration, that no one left alive could prove him 'clere as the day, or darke as the night' (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/225).

The English Catholics

At first sight the fanatical determination of the plotters, in a time of peace with the leading Catholic powers of Europe, seems inexplicable. Why were these men so focused upon their murderous deed? The traditional explanation is that, following years of Elizabethan persecution, English Catholics had looked to King James, the son of the Catholic Mary Stuart, to relax the persecution of priests, and forego the heavy fines for recusancy (non-attendance at services of the established church). Finding, so this version goes, that James, although he promised much, swiftly reneged on promises and reimposed the penal laws, a small group of desperate Catholics attempted a drastic remedy. It was Anthony Copley, a rather scatterbrained Catholic gentleman–poet convicted for his part in the Bye plot of 1603, who put the famous words into James's mouth, once the king had come peacefully to his new throne. 'Na Na, gud fayth,' says James, 'wee's not need the papists now!' (TNA: PRO, SP 14/2/51).

This is all superficially plausible, but the world is not so simple. As with any persecuted minority, English Catholicism embraced many shades of opinion, many variations in precise belief. Discussion of Catholicism in an Elizabethan context has until quite recently focused on the wealthy gentry of sixteenth-century England who adhered so resolutely to the primacy of the pope that they rejected any token attendance at services of the established church, refused to compromise, that is, with a regime desperate for compromise. Men and women of this rank and conscience bore the brunt of Elizabethan persecution: from these families, the likes of Vaux and Tresham, Catesby and Littleton, came the participants in the Gunpowder Plot and those who provided safe houses, among them Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby. However, Catholicism in 1603 survived in other forms: those too poor to be targeted by recusancy legislation; the wealthy church papists bent on retaining estates and fortunes through token conformity; and even crypto-Catholics in that select and pre-eminent executive body, the king's privy council, men like Edward Somerset, fourth earl of Worcester, and Henry Howard, earl of Northampton. Many were disposed to see what the Stuarts had to offer. James had opened a dialogue with the pope himself, and recusancy fines were not collected throughout 1603 and for much of 1604.

The English Catholic clergy were also plagued by vicious internal disputes. When one priest, William Watson, hatched a plot in 1603 to kidnap the king, his conspiracy was frustrated not by any protestant spy but by other Catholics, who hated Watson, regarding him as a threat to their own plans. For years there had been bitter strife between those Catholics, Watson prominent among them, who wished to preserve a normal, episcopal hierarchy in England, and those, notably the Jesuits and their followers, who considered that conditions in England demanded an extraordinary form of underground government headed by an ‘archpriest’. Eventually the latter party carried the day, but only at the expense of harmony and shared purpose.

Most Catholics in 1603 believed that they had suffered enough; few had felt comfortable when faced with the choice of supporting either an excommunicated English queen or various Spanish-inspired attempts at invasion or sedition. Many hoped that better days had now arrived. When it became clear that, although James was unwilling to grant toleration of religion, which would have been an exceptionally daring thing to do in any seventeenth-century state, he was ready to allow people to follow their own beliefs in private in return for an outward conformity, even this limited policy won, both in the short and long terms, a good deal of Catholic support for the Stuart monarchy.

Yet the gunpowder plotters pressed ahead with their scheme at a time when the Catholics were better treated than they had been for decades past. An explanation is to be found in the divisions among Catholics. There were some, a tiny minority, who concluded that James's advances were empty gestures. This minority had given up hope of the king before his succession, appreciating that James, himself a protestant, and indebted to a protestant establishment, could never give them their hearts' desire, a Catholic England. For those who felt that way, any effective relaxation of the penal laws could only encourage Catholics to compromise with the authorities, laying fresh temptations in the paths of right-thinking people, hitherto united by persecution. While many Catholics might view the new regime as preferable to the old, there were others who saw nothing but 'new and more grievous vexations … yet more and more heavy whips wherewith to scourge us' (Condition of Catholics, 25). These men and women were clear on one point: force alone could bring down James's heretical regime. For years Catholic conspirators had demanded Spanish intervention in England. Even in 1603 they were still at it—Fawkes was sent to Spain that summer to seek Philip III's support for another empresa. However, the accession of James I saw only the opening of peace negotiations between England and Spain, which in August 1604 resulted in the treaty of London, and that peace made no mention of English Catholics. As Catesby and his increasingly xenophobic friends saw things, the inconstant Spaniard had failed Catholic England. Philip III's choice of peace signified an end to hopes of help from the continent; Englishmen would henceforth have to endure—or act—on their own. This is a consideration of the first importance in understanding the genesis of the Gunpowder Plot.

The abiding mysteries

Of course, the plot failed.

William Parker, thirteenth Baron Morley and fifth or first Baron Monteagle (1574/55–1622)

attrib. John de Critz the elder, c. 1615

The Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum, TL-17738, © Denver Art Museum 2004

According to the official account, published soon after the event in the so-called King's Book, an anonymous letter—probably written by the least enthusiastic conspirator, Francis Tresham—was delivered to the Catholic peer William Parker, Lord Monteagle, warning him to stay away from parliament. Monteagle, anxious to put a shady past behind him, took the letter to the king's ministers, who showed it to James on his return from a hunting expedition to Royston. James, so the story goes, saw the threat, and ordered an investigation. Upon a thorough search of the Westminster cellars, conducted by the keeper of Whitehall Palace, Sir Thomas Knyvett, Guy Fawkes was discovered with the gunpowder. Then the government's work began, and on the night following, amid general relief and euphoria, the citizens of London were permitted to light bonfires, so long as 'this testemonye of joy be carefull done without any danger or disorder' (CLRO, journal of common council, vol. 27, fol. 4). So a tradition was born.

However, despite three months of investigations, involving literally hundreds of examinations, king and council still concluded that the plotters had withheld important secrets. James, a timorous man, carried that suspicion with him until the day he died. One comes back to the question 'Why remember the Gunpowder Plot?' Of course the ongoing vicissitudes of politics, religion, and popular culture play their part in explaining its enduring fame, but they should not obscure simpler forces, which work on the audience of history in the same way that a powerful and well-constructed play works on a crowded theatre. Here are strong characters—heroes manifestly flawed, and villains touched with saving grace. Here too are the lurid attractions of a particularly conspiratorial conspiracy, with oaths of secrecy, and furtive meetings, and all the cloak-and-dagger paraphernalia associated with such skullduggery. Here too there is a sense of some abiding mystery, not just about secrets that still rest hidden after four hundred years, but also about the radically different course British history might have taken in the interim had the plot succeeded. Would the monarchy of Elizabeth Stuart, an alternative Elizabeth II, have taken a continental course? Would it have collapsed as civil war broke out? Would parliament have survived as an instrument of legislation, especially in a Europe where representative assemblies were increasingly ignored? Would Britain have returned to the Catholic fold, with all the religious, political, and cultural consequences that would entail? History is full of might-have-beens, and this one, to which we return every 5 November, haunts us more than most.


  • Gunpowder Plot book, TNA: PRO, SP 14/2/51; SP 14/16; SP 14/216
  • Hatfield House, Salisbury–Cecil MSS
  • M. Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot (1991)
  • His majesties speach in this last session of parliament … together with a discourse of the maner of the discovery of this late intended treason, joyned with the examination of some of the prisoners (1605) [known as the King's Book]
  • A. J. Loomie, ‘Guy Fawkes in Spain: the “Spanish treason” in Spanish documents’, BIHR, special suppl., 9 (1971) [whole issue]
  • S. R. Gardiner, What Gunpowder Plot was (1897)
  • D. Jardine, Criminal trials, 2 vols. (1832–5)
  • J. Wormald, ‘Gunpowder, treason and Scots’, Journal of British Studies, 24 (1985), 141–68
  • The Gunpowder Plot: the narrative of Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway, ed. and trans. F. Edwards (1973)
  • The condition of Catholics under James I: Father Gerard's narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, ed. J. Morris (1871)
  • N. A. M. Rodger, ‘Ordnance records and the Gunpowder Plot’, BIHR, 53 (1980), 124–5
  • S. Middelboe, ‘Guy certainly was not joking’, New Civil Engineer, 5 (1987), 32–4
  • A. Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot: terror and faith in 1605 (1996)
  • A. Walsham, Church papists: Catholicism, conformity, and confessional polemic in early modern England (1999)
  • D. Cressy, Bonfires and bells: national memory and the protestant calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (1989), 68–90
  • D. Cressy, ‘The fifth of November remembered’, Myths of the English, ed. R. Porter (1992), 68–90
  • R. Hutton, The stations of the sun: a history of the ritual year in Britain (1996), chap. 39


  • C. de Passe the elder, engraving, 1605, NPG; Thomas Percy [see illus.]
  • attrib. J. de Critz the elder, portrait, 1615, Denver Art Musuem, Colorado; William Parker, thirteenth Baron Morley and fifth or first Baron Monteagle [see illus.]
  • G. van Honthorst, portrait, 1642, National Gallery, London; Princess Elizabeth [see illus.]
  • group portrait, line engraving (The Gunpowder Plot conspirators, 1605), NPG [see illus.]
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