by guest author Bruce Robinson
Guy Fawkes, fireworks night and the Gunpowder plot were all once deeply entrenched in English history and culture. However, since the historic attempt to destroy the House of Lords and murder King James I, the 5th of November has become watered down to become more of a celebration of the death of the conspirator Guy Fawkes.
Today, fireworks night appears to be just an excuse for letting off a few anti-climatic fireworks and inviting a friends round for a disappointing bar-b-que.
The failed Gunpowder plot may have happened over 400 years ago, but story behind it is just as powerful today as it was then.
What led to the Gunpowder Plot?
The year 1603 marked the end of an era. After 45 years on the English throne, Elizabeth I was dying, and because she didn’t bare any children she hadn’t provided an heir to the throne. All the signs suggested that her successor would be James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary Queen of Scots. Incidentally, Mary Queen of Scots was executed in 1587 on Elizabeth I's orders.
Rumours suggested that James was more warmly disposed to Catholics than the dying Queen Elizabeth. His wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, was a Catholic, and James himself was making sympathetic noises. The crypto-Catholic Earl of Northumberland sent Thomas Percy, to act as his agent in Scotland. Percy's reports back optimistically suggested that Catholics might enjoy protection in James' England.
The early signs were encouraging. Upon his accession as James I of England (VI of Scotland), the new king ended recusancy fines and awarded important posts to the Earl of Northumberland and Henry Howard, another Catholic sympathiser. This relaxation led to considerable growth in the number of visible Catholics.
The situation deteriorated further at the Hampton Court Conference of January 1604. Trying to accommodate as many views as possible, James I expressed hostility against the Catholics in order to satisfy the Puritans. In February he publicly announced his 'utter detestation' of Catholicism and within days all priests and Jesuits had been expelled and recusancy fines reintroduced.
Although bitterly disappointed, most English Catholics prepared to swallow the imposition of the fines, and live their double lives as best they could. But this passive approach did not suit all.
Robert Catesby was a devout Catholic and familiar with the price of faith. His father had been imprisoned for harbouring a priest, and he himself had had to leave university without a degree, to avoid taking the Protestant Oath of Supremacy. Yet he possessed immense personal magnetism, crucial in recruiting and leading his small band of conspirators.
The Gunpowder Plot plotters
With Parliament successively postponed to 5 November 1605, over the following year the number of plotters gradually increased to ten. Robert Keyes, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Kit Wright were all relatives, by blood or marriage, to one or more of the original five conspirators. As one of Catesby's servants, Thomas Bates' loyalty was equally firm.
In March 1605 the group took out a lease on a ground-floor cellar close by the house they had rented from John Whynniard. The cellar lay directly underneath the House of Lords, and over the following months 36 barrels of gunpowder were moved in, enough to blow everything and everyone in the vicinity sky high, if ignited.
Over the next two months Catesby recruited Ambrose Rookwood, as well as Francis Tresham and Sir Everard Digby. Both Rookwood and Digby were wealthy and owned large numbers of horses, essential for the planned uprising. Tresham was Catesby's cousin through marriage, and was brother-in-law to two Catholic peers, Lords Stourton and Monteagle.
Back in London in October, with only weeks to go, the final details were planned. Fawkes was to light the fuse and escape to continental Europe. To coincide with the explosion, Digby would lead a rising in the Midlands and kidnap King James's daughter, Princess Elizabeth, ready to install her as a puppet queen. In Europe, Fawkes would be arguing the plotters' case to continental governments, to secure their passive acceptance, even support.
"My Lord out of the loue i beare; to some of youere frends i haue a caer of youer preseruacion therfor i would aduyse yowe as yowe tender youer lyf to deuyse some excuse to shift of youer attendance at this parleament for god and man hathe concurred to punishe the wickednes of this tyme and thinke not slightlye of this aduertisement but retyre youre self into youre contri wheare yowe maye expect the euent in safti for thowghe theare be no apparance of anni stir yet i saye they shall receyue a terrible blowe this parleament and yet they shall not sei who hurts them this cowncel is not to be contemned because it maye do yowe good and can do yowe no harme for the dangere is passed as soon as yowe have burnt the letter and i hope god will give yowe the grace to make good use of it to whose holy proteccion I commend yowe."
(Addressed)"To the ryght honorable the lord Monteagle."
Thomas Ward, one of Monteagle's servants, had warned the plotters of the letter. Undaunted, they returned to London, and on 4 November Percy visited his patron, Northumberland, to sniff out any potential danger. Smelling nothing, they pressed on with the plan, and Catesby, Wright and Bates set off for the Midlands. All seemed well.
It wasn't. The waiting over, Salisbury ordered Westminster to be searched. The first search spotted a suspiciously large amount of firewood in a certain cellar. The second, at around midnight, found Fawkes. Immediately arrested, he gave only his alias, but Percy's name had already been linked with the cellar and house, and a warrant for his arrest was immediately issued.
These six plotters - Catesby, Rookwood, the Wright brothers, Percy and Bates - rode on towards Warwickshire. As the first bonfires of thanksgiving for the discovery of the plot were being lit in London, 'John Johnson' was being interrogated.
By 6 November his silence had prompted James I to give permission to use torture, gradually 'proceeding to the worst'. Even this, however, failed to extract any useful information for two more days.
In the Midlands, the plotters raided Warwick Castle. By now they were wanted men and, with their stolen horses, they rode to Holbeche House in Staffordshire, which they thought would be more easily defended. On arrival, they discovered that their gunpowder was soaked, and laid it in front of the fire to dry. They should have known better: the ensuing explosion blinded John Grant, rendering him useless for the inevitable confrontation.
This came quickly, in the form of 200 men led by Sir Richard Walsh, the High Sheriff of Worcestershire. They arrived at Holbeche House in the morning of 8 November. The battle was short. Catesby, the Wrights and Percy died from their wounds; Thomas Wintour, Rookwood and Grant were captured. Five others remained at large.
Tried for high treason
To further capitalise on the widespread sense of shock, the 'King's Book' - containing James's own account of what had happened, as well as the confessions of Fawkes and Thomas Wintour - was rushed through, appearing in late November.
Francis Tresham died of illness in the Tower in December, and Robert Wintour was captured in the New Year. On 27 January 1606 the trials began. Westminster Hall was crowded as spectators listened to Sir Edward Coke's speech. Under instructions from Salisbury, the Attorney General lay principal responsibility on the Jesuits, before describing the traditional punishment for traitors: hanging, drawing and quartering. They would be hanged until half-dead, upon which their genitals would be cut off and burned in front of them. Still alive, their bowels and heart would be removed. Finally they would be decapitated and dismembered; their body parts would be publicly displayed, eaten by the birds as they decomposed.
Yet the repercussions rumbled on. Some small fry were tortured in the Tower and, tainted by Percy, the Earl of Northumberland was imprisoned there until 1621. However, Monteagle's letter - now kept in the Public Records Office - rewarded him with an annuity of around £700 per year.
It was ordinary Catholics, however, who suffered the longest as a result of the Gunpowder Plot. New laws were passed preventing them from practising law, serving as officers in the Army or Navy, or voting in local or Parliamentary elections. Furthermore, as a community they would be blackened for the rest of the century, blamed for the Great Fire of London and unfairly fingered in the Popish Plot of 1678. Thirteen plotters certainly proved an unlucky number for British Catholics: stigmatised for centuries, it was not until 1829 that they were again allowed to vote.
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Based on an article from http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/gunpowder_robinson_01.shtml and http://www.gutenberg.org/files/29777/29777-h/29777-h.htm and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2081135/New-Years-Eve-London-fireworks-display-ushers-2012.html and http://www.fanpop.com/spots/women-in-history/images/29203770/title/elizabeth-photo and http://talesofcuriosity.com/v/GunPowder/ and http://www.firstschoolyears.com/history/events/gunpowder/gunpowder.htm and http://kids.britannica.com/elementary/art-107414/This-wood-engraving-from-the-1800s-shows-Guy-Fawkes-being and http://www.explore-parliament.net/nssMovies/11/1121/1121_.htm