The Gunpowder Plot

Remember, Remember the 5th of November

On 5th November 1605, a plot was discovered involving a group of religious zealots to blow up the Houses of Parliament and in doing so, assassinate the King. The group was led by Robert Catesby who was a devout Roman Catholic. During the reign of Elizabeth I, life for Catholics had become virtually impossible. In 1585 Catholics paid steep fines if they refused to attend the Protestant Church of England. Many priests practiced in secret but huge penalties were the result if discovered. Catesby’s family were proud Catholics and had fought against the imposed sanctions, with his father William imprisoned for his faith. Robert Catesby was himself imprisoned several times during Elizabeth’s reign for his religious conviction, however, each stint in prison only furthered his desire for a regime change.

James I of England (VI of Scotland) had come to throne only two years earlier after Elizabeth I’s death. He seemed more tolerant of Catholic’s than Elizabeth had been. Nevertheless, for Catesby, this was not good enough. Catesby concocted a plan and arranged a group of co-conspirators which included his cousins Thomas and Robert Wintour, brothers John and Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy who was part of the powerful Northumberland family and Guy Fawkes, who came from York which was a staunchly Catholic city. Catesby’s plot was to place large amounts of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament and light it at the State Opening of Parliament in which the King would be in attendance. This plan should not have been possible, but with Thomas Percy’s connections, he was able to rent the house next to the Palace of Westminster and a tunnel was dug under Parliament and the gunpowder placed there. Catesby had lodgings across the river in Lambeth, and so the gunpowder was stored there and rowed over during the night.

Robert Catesby

The plan could have been successful for the plotters, had it not been for a note. One of the later recruited conspirators, Francis Tresham is believed to be the author of an anonymous note to Lord Monteagle warning him to keep away from parliament on the state opening. Monteagle was the brother in law of Tresham and a Catholic. On receiving the note, Monteagle alerted key officials and the King was informed. An order was placed to search the basements which is where in the early hours of the morning of 5th November the 36 barrels of gunpowder were found and Guy Fawkes guarding them ready for lighting. Despite knowing about the anonymous note, Catesby was determined that the plan should go ahead and ignored pleas against it.

Guy Fawkes was arrested and interrogated, however gave nothing away and stated he was ‘John Johnson’ a code name he had been using. Upon hearing of ‘Johnson’s’ arrest, many of the plotters fled the city. In London, under torture, Guy Fawkes reluctantly informed his captors of the intended plan and Catesby’s name was provided. An arrest warrant was issued. Catesby and several of the other conspirators including the Wright brothers, Percy and Thomas Wintour were discovered at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. Catesby refused to be arrested and died holding his crucifix along with Percy and several others.

The remaining plotters were not so lucky. They were arrested and taken to London, where in January 1606, stood trial alongside Guy Fawkes. They were found guilty and their public execution was arranged to be in front of the buildings they plotted to destroy. Fawkes was the last to be hung, drawn and quartered, having to watch the others publicly endure this in front of an angry public crowd. Weakened by months of torture, Fawkes struggled up the scaffold, whether through falling or deliberate, Fawkes broke his neck on the noose, preventing further torture of being hung, drawn and quartered. His body was dismembered and the parts sent around the country as a warning to future popish plotters.

The legacy of Catesby’s plan lives on over 400 years later with the celebration of ‘bonfire night’ or ‘Guy Fawkes night’ on November 5th. This began in 1605, and was encouraged to be recognised by the King as a day to celebrate the lives that were saved. Guy Fawkes being the known name owing to being discovered with the gunpowder, and Catesby’s name, not remembered in history. The name Guy has gained a new meaning over time, owing to the 5th November celebrations involving burning the effigy of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire, this over time became burning a ‘guy’ to which became slang for man and more recently used to describe both men and women. Professor James Sharpe of the university of York has stated that Guy Fawkes was ‘the last honest man to enter parliament’.

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