The Gunpowder Plot

When Mary, Queen of Scots fled to England in 1567, her thirteen-month-old son James was crowned king of Scotland. With his Catholic mother in England, James was brought up as a Protestant.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603 without children, Mary's son, was next in line to the throne. As James was a Protestant, Parliament was also in favour of him becoming king. The Roman Catholics in England were upset that there was going to be another Protestant monarch. They also became very angry when James passed a law that imposed heavy fines on people who did not attend Protestant church services.

In May 1604, Robert Catesby devised the Gunpowder Plot, a scheme to kill James and as many Members of Parliament as possible. At a meeting at the Duck and Drake Inn Catesby explained his plan to Guy Fawkes, Thomas Percy, John Wright and Thomas Wintour. All the men agreed under oath to join the conspiracy. Over the next few months Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, Thomas Bates and Christopher Wright also agreed to take part in the overthrow of the king.

After the death of James in the explosion, Robert Catesby planned to make the king's young daughter, Elizabeth, queen. In time, Catesby hoped to arrange Elizabeth's marriage to a Catholic nobleman. It was Everard Digby's task to kidnap Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey.

Catesby's plan involved blowing up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November. This date was chosen because the king was due to open Parliament on that day. At first the group tried to tunnel under Parliament. This plan changed when Thomas Percy was able to hire a cellar under the House of Lords. The plotters then filled the cellar with barrels of gunpowder. Guy Fawkes, because of his munitions experience in the Netherlands, was given the task of creating the explosion.

Francis Tresham was worried that the explosion would kill his friend and brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle. On 26th October, Tresham sent Lord Monteagle a letter warning him not to attend Parliament on 5th November.

Lord Monteagle became suspicious and passed the letter to Robert Cecil, the king's chief minister. Cecil quickly organised a thorough search of the Houses of Parliament. While searching the cellars below the House of Lords they found the gunpowder and Guy Fawkes, one of the men involved in the plot. He was tortured and he eventually gave the names of his fellow conspirators.

Crispen van de Passe, The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators (c.1606)
Crispen van de Passe, The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators (c.1606)

The conspirators left London and agreed to meet at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. News of their hiding place reached the Sheriff of Worcester and on 8th November the house was surrounded by troops. The men refused to surrender and gunfire broke out. Over the next few minutes, Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Christopher Wright and John Wright were killed.

Everard Digby was the only one of the conspirators to plead guilty. He gave several reasons for his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. This included his Roman Catholic beliefs, his friendship with Robert Catesby and the king's broken promises in regard to religious toleration.

Francis Tresham was arrested on 12th November. In the Tower of London he wrote a full confession about his involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. However, many people believed he was working as a double agent for Robert Cecil.

Everard Digby, Robert Wintour and Thomas Bates, were executed on 30th January, 1606. Digby was hanged for only a short period and was still alive when he was disembowelled. The following day Guy Fawkes and Thomas Wintour were hanged, drawn and quartered.

In recent years some historians have begun to question the traditional story of the Gunpowder Plot. Some have argued that the conspiracy was really devised by Robert Cecil and Lord Monteagle. This version claims that Cecil blackmailed Robert Catesby into organising the plot. It is argued that Cecil's aim was to make people in England hate Catholics. For example, people were so angry after they found out about the plot, that they agreed to Cecil's plans to pass a series of laws persecuting Catholics.

It has also been pointed out that James I gave Lord Monteagle an annuity of £500 for life, plus lands worth a further £200 per year. Rumours soon began circulating that Monteagle had arranged for Francis Tresham to be poisoned while being held captive in the Tower of London.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Guy Fawkes was arrested on the 4 November, 1605. After being tortured in the Tower of London, Guy Fawkes confessed to planning to blow up Parliament. (17 November 1605)

Catesby suggested... making a mine under the upper house of Parliament... because religion had been unjustly suppressed there... twenty barrels of gunpowder were moved to the cellar... It was agreed to seize Lady Elizabeth, the king's eldest daughter... and to proclaim her Queen.

(2) Thomas Wintour was arrested on 8 November, 1605. After being tortured in the Tower of London, Wintour confessed to planning to blow up Parliament. (23 November 1605)

Mr. Catesby... said he had a plan to deliver us from all our troubles and - without any foreign help - to replant again the Catholic faith... He said his plan was to blow up the Parliament House with gunpowder... He asked me if I would give my consent. I told him "Yes".

(3) Everard Digby, letter sent to Robert Cecil while in captivity.

If harsh measures are taken (against Roman Catholics) within a brief time there will be massacres, rebellions and desperate attempts against the King and State. It is hoped that the King that now is would have been at least free from persecuting, as his promise was before coming into his Realm, and as divers his promises have been since his coming, saying that he would take no soul money nor blood.

(4) Everard Digby statement in court on 27 January 1606.

I request that all my property might be preserved for my wife and children... I also request that I be beheaded instead of hanged.

(5) James Oliphant, A History of England (1920)

Some of the Roman Catholics, in the hope of bringing about a violent change... tried to blow up King and Parliament with gunpowder... After this it was necessary to adopt sterner measures with the Roman Catholics.

(6) Philip Sidney, A History of the Gunpowder Plot (1905)

Guy Fawkes refused to name his friends... he was speedily put to torture... he was compelled to confess... The conspirators met their fate with courage, considering the terrible nature of their punishment. Tied to separate hurdles, they were dragged, lying bound on their backs, through the muddy streets to the place of execution, there to be first hanged, cut down alive, drawn, and then quartered.

(7) R. Crampton, The Gunpowder Plot (1990)

If Guy Fawkes case came up before the Court of Appeal today, the... judges would surely... acquit him... First, no one has ever seen the attempted tunnel. Builders excavating the area in 1823 found neither a tunnel nor any rubble. Second, the gunpowder. In 1605, the Government had a monopoly on its manufacture... The Government did not display the gunpowder and nobody saw it in the cellars. Third, these cellars were rented by the government to a known Catholic agitator... Fourth, the Tresham letter. Graphologists (handwriting experts) agree that it was not written by Francis Tresham.

Engraving of the execution of those found guilty of the Gunpowder Plot (1606)
Engraving of the execution of those found guilty of the Gunpowder Plot (1606)