The Gunpowder Plot of 1605

The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by British Catholics to kill the Protestant King of England, James I, his family, the government and all the members of Parliament during the opening of Parliament on the 5th of November 1605.

The conspiracy was planned by Robert Catesby and executed by explosives expert Guy Fawkes (actually Guido Fawkes or Guido Faux). The other known conspirators were Thomas Wintour (Winter) and his brother Robert, Christopher Wright and his brother John, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and Robert Catesby’s servant Thomas Bates.

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The Gunpowder Plot. Guy Fawkes interrocated by James I and his council in the kings bed chamber, Whitehall.

The Gunpowder Plot.

Is of course the most memorable of those events which gave something like reality to other suspicions which were baseless. There is little necessity for repeating the whole tangled story, and indeed there have grown around it so many doubtful excrescences, and the secrecy with which examinations were at that time conducted was so favorable to false reports being issued from political motives, that only the main narrative can be indicated without long explanations. The Catholics, who had expected some toleration for the exercise of their religion, were rendered desperate by the severities enforced against them. Fine, imprisonment, and persecution had been their constant experience, and there were hundreds of suffering gentlemen in the country who were moody and disaffected. Few, however, were so ready for a mad and monstrous enterprise as Robert Catesby, a bold, determined, and reckless man, who had been engaged with Essex in his last treasonable attempt, had intrigued with France and Spain, and was now ready for almost any conspiracy, no matter how dangerous. It was he who imagined a scheme for destroying at one blow king, lords, and commons, but what he and his party were to gain by the success of such a hideous crime does not appear.

Even those to whom he first mentioned his design were at first too much overcome with horror to assist him in it, but the representation of the sufferings of their co-religionists appears to have persuaded them to join him in the attempt. The first of these was Thomas Winter, a gentleman of Worcestershire, who would not agree to the plot till he had sought the mediation of the King of Spain who was then negotiating with James. He went over to the Netherlands,where he learned from the Spanish ambassador that no clause for the toleration of the Romanists could be obtained in the treaty. From that moment he determined to join Catesby, and accidentally meeting at Ostend an old friend and associate whom he knew to be a man of iron nerve and determined courage, enlisted him in the same cause and brought him back with him to England.

This man was Guido Fawkes, who has sometimes been represented as a mercenary, consenting to join the conspiracy for a reward, but who was really a gentleman whose unshaken bravery was heightened to a pitch of indifference to personal safety or personal suffering by the intensity of his fanaticism. Having met Catesby in London they were joined by two others, Thomas Percy the relative and steward of the Duke of Northumberland, and John Wright Percy’s brother-in law and the best swordsman in England, both of whom were furious at James’s broken promises.

These men met at a lonely house in the fields beyond Clement’s Inn, and there each solemnly swore on the sacrament to keep secrecy and not to desist from the enterprise till the rest should give him leave. Then Percy disclosed his purpose to blow up the parliament house with gunpowder the next time the king should go to the House of Lords. Most of us know some of the strange details of this wild and monstrous attempt: how it was at first intended to bore and mine through the wall of a house abutting on the back of the parliament house, how the wall was of such a thickness that further aid was secured, and two more men were admitted to the plot—Robert Kay, who had the custody of the house at Lambeth, where wood, faggots, and gunpowder were stored, and Christopher Wright, a younger brother of John Wright, who was already in the conspiracy. These made seven— “all which seven,” said Fawkes in his examination, “were gentlemen of name and blood, and not any was employed in or about this action (no, not so much as in digging and delving), that was not a gentleman; and while the others wrought I stood sentinel to descry any man that came near, and when any man came near to the place, upon warning given by me they ceased until they had again notice from me to proceed;and we seven lay in the house and had shot and powder, and we all resolved to die in that place before we yielded or were taken.”

But the accident of the coal-dealer who rented the vault under the parliament house removing his business, and wanting a tenant for his cellar, changed their plans (just as they were approaching completion), till the repeated prorogation of parliament. The conspirators grew uneasy, all but Fawkes, who seems to have become a mere monomaniac, permitting no other matter to occupy his thoughts than this set and deadly purpose. Others were meanwhile admitted to the plot: John Grant of Warwickshire, Robert Winter, the brother of Thomas Winter, Thomas Bates (Catesby’s servant), Sir Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, and Francis Tresham. All was ready; these later members had money and fleet horses. The consultations were held at White Webbs, a house near Enfield, a wild and solitary place. The parliament was again prorogued till the 5th of November, and on that day the deed was to be done. There were thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in the cellar. Fawkes was to fire the train communicating with the mine by means of a slow match, which would give him time to escape. A ship hired with Tresham’s money was in the Thames, in which he was to proceed to Flanders.

The conduct of Tresham from the moment of his joining the plot gave Cates by constant uneasiness. He was anxious by some means to warn the Lord Mounteagle, his close friend, so that he might not be involved in the tragedy. Sir Everard Digby and others of the conspirators also desired to take some means of preventing their particular friends from attending the parliament on that day. We know what followed: Lord Mounteagle, having sat down to supper in his mansion at Hoxton, had a letter delivered to him, said to have been left by an unknown messenger, and containing a mysterious warning. He carried the letter to Whitehall and showed it to Cecil, the king being out at Royston hunting the hare. On the king’s return the Lords Cecil and Suffolk, who had already penetrated the mystery, handed the mysterious letter to his majesty, who either guessing or being partly prompted to discover the import of the warning,afterwards received the full credit of that wonderful foresight which could interpret its meaning. This was on the 31st of October, and as it was determined to wait until the night before the meeting of parliament before frustrating the plot, it may be imagined that a coward like James needed some strong stimulus to his vanity to enable him to bear the suspense.

On Sunday, the 3d of November, the conspirators were warned through a man in the service of Lord Mounteagle. They were desperately alarmed, but yet so infatuated that none of them, not even Tresham, would fly—he, perhaps, because he knew that he had brought discovery upon his accomplices. Fawkes was still calm and unmoved. On the Monday afternoon Suffolk, as lord-chamberlain, accompanied by Lord Mounteagle, went down to the house. From the parliament chamber they went into the vaults pretending to be looking for some of the king’s stuffs. They threw open the door of the powder cellar, and there, standing in a corner, saw “a very tall and desperate fellow.” This was Guido Fawkes, who, in answer to an apparently careless inquiry as to who he was, said that he was servant to Mr. Percy, and looking after his master’s coals. When the visitors had gone,Fawkes went to inform his confederates, and then returned to the cellar. About two o’clock the next morning he undid the door and looked about him. So secretly and effectually had the counterplot been conducted, that before he could step back he was seized and pinioned by a party of soldiers under command of Sir Thomas Knevett, a magistrate of Westminster. There was no time for him to light a match, or they would all have been blown up together. Behind the door was a dark lantern. In his pocket was a watch—a rare possession in those days,— some touch wood, tinder, and slow matches. The prisoner was carried to Whitehall, and there in the royal bedchamber was interrogated by the king and council, the former doubtless in no little perturbation, for though the man was bound, his voice was bold, his countenance defiant if not menacing. He answered their inquiries with fearless scorn, declaring his name to be John Johnson, and that he was servant to Mr. Percy. He avowed his purpose, and regretted that he had not accomplished it, but refused to name any accomplices. The king asked him how he could have the heart to destroy his children and so many innocent souls that must have suffered. He replied, “Dangerous diseases require desperate remedies.” One of the Scottish courtiers inquired why he had collected so many barrels of powder. “One of my objects,” he retorted, “was to blow Scotchmen back to Scotland.”

He was taken to the Tower, and there subjected to the question by various grades of torture, comparatively slight at first, but at last terrible, as his failing and uncompleted signature attests. He would at first confess nothing, but the other conspirators disclosed their guilt by fleeing or taking up arms. The story was soon known, but Fawkes, firm to the last, did not name his accomplices till the government knew who they were already. He was tortured horribly, and at last put his hand to a confession which after all revealed no secret with which the council was not acquainted.

Such is the outline of this notorious plot; the account which was officially made known, beginning with the handing of the mysterious letter to the king, says:— (His maiestie’s speach in this last session … as neere his very words as could be gathered. Together with a discourse of the manner of the discovery of this late intended treason, ioyned with the examination, &c. &c. Imprinted at London by Robert Barker, printer to the king’s most excellent maiestie, anno 1605) “The king no sooner read the letter but, after a little pause and then reading it over a gain, he delivered his judgement of it in such sort, as he thought it was not to be contemned, for that the style of it seemed to be more quick and pithie than is vsuall to be in any Pasquil or Libell (the superfluities of idle brains).”

The Earl of Salisbury knew James well, and played on this notion by objections which strengthened it. He quoted the sentence, ‘”For the danger is past as soon as you have burnt this letter,’ saying it was likely to be speech of a foole; for if the danger passed so quickly the warning could be of little worth. Againe, ‘that they should receive a terrible blow at their parliament, and yet should not see who hurt them.’ This, the king replied, pointed to theuse of gunpowder. He ‘therefore wished that before his going to parliament, the under room of the parliament house should be well and narrowly searched. ‘Whereupon it was at last concluded, ‘that nothing should be left unsearched in those houses.’ And yet for the better colour and stay of rumour in case nothing were found, it was thought meet, that upon a pretence of Whyneard’s missing some of the king’s stuffe or hangings which he had in keeping, all those roumes should be narrowly ripped for them. And to this purpose was Sir Thomas Kneuet (a gentleman of his maiesties priuie chamber) employed, being a justice of the peace in Westminster, and one of whose ancient fidelitie both the late queene and our now sovereigne have had large proofe, who, according to the trust committed vnto him, went about the midnight next after, to the parliament house, accompanied with such a small number as was fit for that errand. But before his entrie in the house, finding Thomas Percye’s alleadged man standing without the doores, his cloathes and boots on at so dead a time of the night, he resolued to apprehend him, as hee did, and thereafter went forward to the searching of the house, where after he had caused to be ouer turned some of the billets and coales, he first found one of the small barrels of powder, and after all the rest to the number of thirty-sixe barrels, great and small. And there after searching the fellow whom he had taken, found three matches, and all other instruments fit for blowing vp the powder, ready upon him, which made him instantly confess his own guiltiness, declaring also veto him, that if he had happened to be within the house when he took him, as he was immediately before (at the ending of his work) he would not haue failed to have blowen him up, house and all.

“Thus after Sir Thomas had caused (him) to be surely bound and well guarded by the company he had brought with him, he himself returned backe to the king’s palace, and gaue warning of his successe to the lord chamberlaine and Earle of Salisburie, who immediately warning the rest of the councel that lay in the house, as soon as they could get themselves ready, came, with their fellow counselors to the king’s bed-chamber, being at that time near foure of the clocke in the morning. And at the first entrie of the king’s chamber doore, the lord chamberlain, being not any longer able to conceale his ioy for the preuenting of so great a danger, told the king in a confused haste, that all was found and discovered, and the traitor in hands and fast bounds.

“Then order being first taken for sending for the rest of the counsell that lay in the towne, the prisoner himself was brought into the house, where, in respect of the strangnesse of the accident no man was stayed from the sight or speaking with him. And within a while after, the counsell did examine him, who,seeming to put on a Romane resolution, did both to the counsell, and to every other person that spake with him that day, appeare so constant and setled upon his grounds, as we all thought wee had found some newe Muthts Scaeuola borne in England. For notwithstanding the horour of the fact, the guilt of his conscience, his suddain surprising, the terrour which should haue been stroken in him by comming into the presence of so graue a counsell,and the restlesse and confused questions that euery man all that day did vex him with; yet was his countenanceso farre from being deiected, as he often smiled in a scornful manner, not onely auowing the fact, but repenting onely with the said Scaeuola his failing in the execution thereof, whereof (hee said) the diuell and not God was the discoverer. Answering quickly to everyman’s obiection, scoffing at any idle questions which were propounded vnto him, and iesting with such as hee thought had no authoritie to examine him. All that day could the counsell get nothing out of him touching his complices, refusing to answere to any such questions which hee thought might discouer the plot, and laying all the blame upon himselfe; whereunto he said he was mooued onely for religion and consciencesake, denying theking tobehis lawful soueraigne, or the anoynted of God in respect hee was an here ticke, and giuing himself no other name than John Johnson, servant to Thomas Percy. But the next morning being carried to the Tower, he did not there remaine aboue two or three dayes, being twise or thrise in that space re-examined, and the rack only offred and shewed vnto him, when the maske of his Romaine fortitude did visibly begin to weare and slide off his face. And then did he begin to confess part of the truth and thereafter to open the whole matter.”

Source: Pictures and Royal Portraits illustrative of English and Scottish History by Thomas Archer. London 1878.


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