November 5, 1605 – an attempt to assassinate King James I and the members of Parliament – known as the Gunpowder Plot – was thwarted as conspirator Guy Fawkes was arrested in a storage cellar underneath Parliament surrounded by several barrels of gunpowder.
The 16th Century was a time of political and religious upheaval in England. Up until the 1530’s, England was a Catholic country, and its King, Henry VIII, a devoted Catholic subject. In 1531, however, Henry split from the Catholic Church when Pope Clement VII refused to grant him an annulment of his marriage with Queen Catherine (Henry wanted to dump her and marry Anne Boleyn). By 1534 Parliament, at Henry’s direction, had created the new Church of England (with the King of England, Henry, at its head), finalizing England’s complete separate from the Catholic Church.
Henry’s new Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church) rightfully viewed the Catholic community, both in England and abroad, as a threat, and so began a campaign against Catholicism in England. The Catholic Church, which owned up to 1/3 of all the land in England, had its property taken by the English government. All Catholic monasteries were closed and their buildings taken and sold. Uprisings by Catholics all across England were brutally put down.
Upon Henry’s death in 1647, his 13 year old son Edward became King, but the country was really governed by his uncle and guardian, Edward Seymour. Seymour moved England even more in a Protestant direction, directing that Catholic churches be stripped of their possessions and that only the official English Book of Prayer be used in churches.
Still, many influential Catholics remained in England, and when young Edward died in 1553, they used their influence to have Henry’s oldest daughter, Mary, a devout Catholic, crowned as Queen. Mary’s mission was to return England to Catholicism, and she tried to do so with a vengeance. Priests were invited back and churches were rebuilt, and Protestants who complained were executed- nearly 300 were burned at the stake for heresy (gaining Mary the nickname “Bloody Mary”).
Before the switch back to Catholicism could be completed, however, Mary died in 1558. Her sister, Elizabeth, a Protestant, became Queen. When the Pope refused to recognize Elizabeth as Queen, Catholics became enemies of the state, and Elizabeth acted accordingly. Parliament reversed all laws passed under Mary and reaffirmed Elizabeth as the Head of the Church of England. Catholics had to practice their rites in secret or risk arrest. Attendance at the official state church became mandatory, enforced by fines. Catholic priests who were captured in the country were executed. By the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, Catholics had become a long suffering, oppressed minority in England.
Nevertheless, many underground Catholics remained in England, including some wealthy country nobles. These Catholics hoped that Elizabeth’s successor, her nephew James I, a Protestant, would relax the persecution of Catholics, but James showed no intentions to do so. By 1604, new laws designed to further criminalize Catholics had been introduced in Parliament, and it seemed as if the persecution would increase, rather than end. As a result, several influential Catholics decided to take matters into their own hands. Many Catholics at the time believed that God permitted the assassination of “tyrants,” and to many Catholics in England, James qualified.
Leading the plot against James was Robert Catesby, a wealthy country gentlemen, and nobleman Thomas Percy, cousin to the Earl of Northumberland. Catesby led a group of conspirators in a plan to kill James and most of Parliament by literally blowing up the Parliament building during the ceremony reopening Parliament, when King James and the entire government of England would be present. In the chaos they would then kidnap James daughter, Elizabeth,, who they then hoped to install on the throne as a Catholic queen. During 1604 Catesby recruited allies to his cause, including a number of secret Catholic noblemen. One conspirator was an English mercenary and devout Catholic, Guy Fawkes.
In March of 1605 the plotters were able to rent a storage room directly under the House of Lords meeting room in Parliament, giving them the perfect location to plant their explosives. Most buildings at the time had warrens of tunnels and storage cellars under them, privately owned and available for rent, and Parliament was no exception. Concepts of security at the time were also different – nobody apparently even considered the possibility that such underground areas could be used for such purposes. They also rented rooms in a building across the River Thames from Parliament as a base to gather their gunpowder and supplies, and from where they could be quietly rowed across the river to their storage basement under Parliament in secret.
By the end of July the plotters had gathered nearly 40 barrels of gunpowder, which they secreted in the storage room. In October they finalized their plan. The opening of Parliament had been set for November 5. Fawkes would hide in the basement on the 4th, stay behind to light the fuse on the 5th when Parliament was in session, and then row back across the Thames. Additional conspirators in the country would simultaneously execute the plan to kidnap Princess Elizabeth.
And then, someone snitched. One of the worries of those with knowledge of the plan (including wives of the plotters) was that several Catholics would be in attendance in Parliament on the day of the planned assassination, and would therefore be in mortal danger as well. On October 26, 1605, one such Catholic Parliament member, Lord Monteagle, received an anonymous letter advising him to make some excuse to not attend Parliament out of fear for his safety. Monteagle promptly rode to London and handed the letter over to Lord Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, one of King James’ most trusted advisers.
King James was shown the letter on November 1, and Cecil assured him that a complete search of Parliament would be undertaken before the ceremony. On the day of November 4, the search went down to the cellar, and there the searches found a pile of firewood and Guy Fawkes. Fawkes claimed to be a servant and that the firewood belonged to his master. Fawkes was allowed to leave as the searchers left and reported what they had found to their superiors.
That report raised suspicion, however, and later that night the cellar was searched again. Fawkes was found there again, but this time they also found 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden under a pile of wood and coal. Fawkes, who gave his name as “John Johnson,” had matches in his pocket. Not surprisingly, he was arrested. The plot had been foiled.
As news of Fawkes’ arrest spread, the other plotters fled London in a panic. While Fawkes maintained that he had acted alone, investigators quickly learned the names of the other conspirators from questioning the servants of suspected plotters. These were hunted down in the countryside- some, like Catesby and Percy, were shot and killed, while the others were arrested. Fawkes spent a couple of days being tortured on the rack until he finally broke down and confessed.
The execution for such plotters was not pretty. They were to be hanged until nearly dead, then taken from the noose while still conscious, castrated, disemboweled, and quartered (having each limb hacked off with an axe, one by one) before finally being beheaded. Fawkes was able to avoid the worst part of this, however; just before he was to be hanged, he jumped from the gallows and managed to break his neck. Catesby and Percy, who had already been shot and killed, had their bodies exhumed; their heads were cut off from their corpses and stuck on spikes which were placed outside of the House of Lords.
Not surprisingly, the Gunpowder Plot caused a backlash against English Catholics. It would be 200 years before Catholics received full rights under English law. Surprisingly, James ended up actually being more lenient to Catholics during his reign than his predecessor had been, likely because the failure of the plot actual succeeded in helping secure his Protestant rule.
Today, November 5 is celebrated in England as “Guy Fawkes Day.” Go figure.