Remember, remember the fifth of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason why gunpowder and treason

Should ever be forgot

 That’s the rhyme I learned as a child, when I always looked forward to what we knew as Firework Night.  At school, I was taught that we celebrated to mark the anniversary of the time when a group of saboteurs, led by Guy Fawkes, tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament.  That all sounds fairly simple and I’d be surprised if most of us hadn’t shared that sentiment of getting rid of the government at some time or other.  Was that really all there was to it?

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The short answer is no, it was far more complex, as most of these things are.  To understand what was going on, we need to have some understanding of the political and sociological climate at the time.

The Gunpowder Plot was uncovered in November 1605, finally and completely on 5 November 1605.  James VI of Scotland had become James I of England and Ireland on 24 March 1603, a Roman Catholic king in a predominately Protestant (largely, but not exclusively, Church of England) country.  Although Protestant, the religious unrest that had stated when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic church persisted.  James succeeded Queen Elizabeth on her death.

Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s half sister, had been a Catholic, and was nicknamed Bloody Mary because of the atrocities against protestants during her reign.  Elizabeth was a protestant, although less intransigent in her views about religion, but nonetheless, it had not been a happy time for Catholics.  James was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had, in her day, been involved in uprisings against Queen Elizabeth I, James I’s predecessor.  Guilt by association rules, ok.

James was considered the only viable choice to succeed Elizabeth, who had died childless, thus putting an end to the Tudor dynasty.  No doubt there were others born out of wedlock who would have had a claim to the throne, but James was already a ruling monarch.  Possession is nine tenths of the law.


Notwithstanding that Elizabeth herself was more accepting of religious tolerance, the same cannot be said of her privy council, consequently, in the last 10 years or so of her reign, Catholic persecution intensified.  By the time Elizabeth died, Catholics had to take mass in private, and were required to attend Protestant services.  Not popular.

The Catholics expected James to be more tolerant of them; and to start with, things went well.  However, one of James’ trusted advisors was Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, Secretary of State and James’ so-called Spymaster (he was one of the judges at the trials of Sir Walter Raleigh and Lord Cobham, in their alleged attempts to remove James from the throne).  Cecil had served under Elizabeth, as had his father before him; he was in a powerful position.  Much of what Cecil had done was to the good of the people, but there was a Protestant backlash, particularly for those in favour of even more reform, such as the Puritans and Calvinists, against the lessening of penalties, etc, towards the Catholics.  Cecil believed it was necessary to do something to placate them: he was probably right, because within 40 years, the country was in the grip of a civil war.  Not purely religion based but religion certainly played its part.

Thus, Cecil advised James to, once again, increase the penalties towards the overtly practising Catholics.


Against this backdrop was the constant plotting against each other of the ruling families in Europe, perhaps because it took the heat off their intra-family fights and plots (they didn’t have family counsellors in those days), and they were usually happy to assist anyone who came up with a half decent plan to de-throne another monarch with a view to getting hold of that throne.  Two such plots to de-throne James had already been thwarted by 1605.

There were constant rumblings in the country to put a different monarch on the throne, reform the way that whichever religious faction was out of favour was being treated, etc, etc.

Enter stage left, Robert Catesby from Warwickshire, a fairly well off, and a recusant Catholic (ie he refused to attend Anglican church services).  He recruited a group of men, including the infamous Guy Fawkes, to help him with a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament when James was present at the State opening.  The idea was to kill James and replace him with his daughter Elizabeth, another Catholic; anyone else who was killed or injured would have been collateral damage.  I don’t know how involved in the whole thing Elizabeth was, it seems a bit harsh to want to see your own father dead, but that sort of thing was common back then.

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The plotters rented a house near to the Houses of Parliament, which had a basement that was underneath it.  (You’d have to visit to understand, the whole of Whitehall area had an underground system beneath Whitehall Palace and the Palace of Westminster – the Houses of Parliament.  Allegedly, the two were also linked.  It was, still is, like a rabbit warren. It wouldn’t have taken much to find a way underneath the Houses of Westminster.

A certain Lord Monteagle, who was the brother-in-law of one of the plotters, received an anonymous letter telling him not to attend parliament for the State Opening (I wonder whether his sister was the author?).  Monteagle passed the letter onto Cecil. Being the shrewd politician that he was, Cecil didn’t take action straight away, he decided to wait until he had the “bang to rights” so the plotters had no reason to suspect that they had been discovered.

On 4 November, the day before the State Opening was due to take place, Cecil gave the order for parliament to be searched, standard procedure nowadays, but not so then.  During the search, Guy Fawkes was found and arrested.  He was taken to the Tower of London and tortured for two days before he told all.  That was pretty impressive for what he would have undergone, in those torture was torture, all hot irons in your delicate bits and pieces and other things that I really don’t want to dwell on too much.

Those two days gave his colleagues time to make their escape.  They made their way to Holbeche House in Staffordshire, where a number of them were killed in a gunfight with the King’s men.  Those who were still alive were arrested and returned to London for questioning, or interrogation, depending on your perspective.

The questioning lasted for three weeks, until Cecil was sure that he had extracted everything they knew.  Over two days in January 1606, eight of the plotters, including Guy Fawkes, were hanged, drawn and quartered.  (They’d hang someone until they were nearly dead, then remove their entrails, and then chop them into four.  If they were lucky, they died before that bit happened.)  Three more plotters were arrested and executed over the coming three months.  Those who had died had at Holbeche were exhumed and posthumously beheaded.

Far from making life easier for Catholics, in the aftermath of this plot, James feared for his life and throne more than ever and, consequently, a number of new laws were passed to restrict the roles of Catholics in public life and taking away their right to vote.  These laws were still in place two hundred years later.  So much for love thy neighbour.


© Susan Shirley 2015


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