…the gunpowder, treason and plot! On November 5, 1605, one of the more absurd royal assassination attempts was thwarted when Guy Fawkes was discovered packing the basement of Parliament with gunpowder. His (and the other conspirators’) intent was to blow up the building during the State Opening, killing King James I, several members of the royal family, members of the Privy Council, members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and pretty much everyone else who meant anything in terms of maintaining control, law, and order in Britain. They also hoped to place James’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne in his place.
Where did it all go wrong? Was it, perhaps, doomed from the start, being planned by Robert Catesby, whose previous experience with armed rebellion was when he took part in the Earl of Essex’s failed rebellion in 1601? He got off the hook for that by paying a fine equivalent to over £6 million today. Still, he kept making trouble, urging King Philip of Spain to launch an invasion of England (because those have, historically, gone so well for Spain) and plotting with Thomas Wintour to reestablish Catholicism in England. Wintour agreed to join the conspiracy and recruited Guy Fawkes, a devoted Catholic who had served as a soldier in the Southern Netherlands and was recommended for a captaincy in 1603. Other conspirators were drawn from families and friends close to the initial plotters.
The conspirators used the Parliamentary recess to recruit more members, because what every secret conspiracy needs is many, many people involved. Especially people considered to be untrustworthy or unenthusiastic about joining: one of the plotters roped his servant, Thomas Bates, into the plot after Bates accidentally found out about it.
An outbreak of plague delayed the re-opening of Parliament until fall 1605. In March, the plotters leased an undercroft at Westminster, where Parliament met, which didn’t exactly have great security in place. They also started amassing barrels of gunpowder, obtaining it illegally through black market sources. They stored it in the undercroft throughout the summer, but by the end of August it had decayed, necessitating the illegal purchase of more. How these people hadn’t been caught yet is something of a mystery.
The details of the plot were finalized in October, just ahead of the planned November 5 opening of Parliament. Fawkes would light the fuse in the undercroft and then escape across the Thames while the people of the Midlands would magically rise in revolt and capture nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth. The conspirators’ wives, who were evidently far more intelligent than the men they’d married, started to get nervous about the plot, which, among other things, had failed to take into account that a number of Catholics would probably be killed in the explosion along with the hated Protestants. Nobody seems to have been overly concerned with the fact that the plot would essentially plunge the entire country into complete anarchy.
At least one of the conspirators wrote an anonymous letter to a friend, warning him to stay away from the State Opening. That friend, Monteagle, promptly handed the letter over to authorities, who decided to sit on it for the time being, but word of the letter got back to Catesby, who confronted a new member of the conspiracy, certain he was the writer. That member insisted he wasn’t behind the letter, but he did urge Catesby to abandon the plot. Even the conspirators were starting to lose faith.
The letter was finally shown to the King on November 1, and he immediately deduced what was planned for him. The Privy Council sent the Lord Chamberlain to search the Houses of Parliament; the first search, on November 4, turned up nothing as the barrels of gunpowder were hidden under piles of firewood. King James insisted they search the building more thoroughly, so the search party returned and stumbled across Fawkes, who was immediately arrested and taken before the king. The gunpowder was also found.
Once word of Fawkes’s arrest leaked out, most of the plotters who remained in London fled the city. Only Wintour remained behind to see what was up. Once he realized the whole plot had been uncovered, he, too, fled north.
Fawkes refused to reveal anything during his initial interrogation, other than the fact that he planned to blow up Parliament and kill the King. He was sent to the Tower of London and tortured for more information. By November 7, his resolve was broken and Fawkes started confessing to everything he knew.
The other conspirators, meanwhile, had suicidally decided they could still have their armed insurrection. They were swiftly disabused of this notion, however, when they failed to gain support from anybody they met, including their own families. Completing his circle of stupidity, Catesby and three of the other conspirators attempted to dry out some of their gunpowder by spreading it to dry in front of an open fire. An errant spark ignited the gunpowder, blinding one and burning Catesby. The conspirators staying with Catesby were attacked by the Sheriff of Worcester and his men on November 8. Catesby and four others were killed; Wintour and three others were arrested.
When interrogated, Wintour sang like a bird, revealing information that even Fawkes didn’t have. Eight conspirators, including Wintour and Fawkes, were tried and found guilty of treason. Wintour and three others were executed on January 30, followed by the rest the next day. They were all hung, drawn, and quartered immediately opposite the very building they had planned to blow up. Catesby and the other plotter who had died up north were exhumed and decapitated, their heads exhibited on spikes outside the House of Lords.
Enjoy your Bonfire Night, everybody!