Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot

Gunpowder Plot origin

The Gunpowder Plot was a plan to kill King James. On November the 5th, 1604, thirteen men plotted together to blow up the Palace of Westminster in London on the day when the most powerful men in England were set to meet Parliament. The police learned about the strategy through an anonymous letter, and the revolutionaries were stopped just in time.

The first man they struck at the scene was Guy Fawkes, who was guarding barrels of gunpowder in the basement under the palace. If you are an American, you probably know about Guy Fawkes in the film V for Vendetta, and you most likely associate him with anarchy. This association has been pushed even more in recent years with the usage of Guy Fawkes masks by the Anonymous organization.

If you’re from the UK, you already know about Guy Fawkes Night, which is celebrated every November 5th with a bonfire and fireworks. Virtually everyone has heard of the famous Gunpowder Plot, but few people know the details about Guy Fawkes lifetime or the motivations behind why he and his friends wanted to blow up Parliament in the first location. 

Even though this is a biography of his life, Guy Fawkes is a really small part of this larger story. So as to fully comprehend the motives behind the Gunpowder Plot, we need to explain the conflicts between English Catholics and Protestants at the time.

For a large portion of human history, the most powerful religion in the world was the Roman Catholic Church. If a country was Catholic, its citizens looked up into the reigning Pope as their religious leader, and in the minds of some, this authority was more important than their loyalty to their actual King of Queen since whoever has access to God has access to your mortal soul. In lots of ways, the Protestant Reformation was a method to remove all the power being held by the Popes and Bishops.

Because you see, Catholics are taught that if you want your sins to be forgiven, you need to tell a priest every bad thing you have ever done in confession. But even so, everyone had the knowledge that these men held all the deepest darkest secrets of the congregation.

The confession was not just encouraged. And even the smallest sin left unsaid could mean you are going to Hell. In addition to that, Catholic mass was said in Latin, so everyone needed to study the language. For the uneducated peasants, they needed to rely on a translation from their priest.

Basically, the religion is set up in such a way where priests and the Pope were given a huge amount of power over their congregation. In 1558, Elizabeth declared that there must be a”settlement”, which declared that all English citizens must convert to Protestantism.

Gunpowder Plot
Gunpowder Plot

Bishops that were formerly apart of the Catholic Church must renounce their devotion to the Pope if they wanted to live. It was now compulsory for every English person to visit Protestant church services every Sunday, and they were taking attendance.

After hearing this, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth from the Catholic Church. In 1570, he controlled a papal bull that encouraged all Catholics to depose her- Basically, don’t be loyal to their Queen. You can probably see why this was debatable.

Catholics were now seen as enemy agents. People in the lower classes were quick to convert to Protestantism. They couldn’t afford to pay the hefty fines, and many of the illiterate peasants could not talk or read Latin, anyway. So it was an easy choice to make, and a symbol they were loyal to their Queen.

However, for the educated people of the upper course, this wasn’t such a simple conversion. For one thing, this was taking away the freedom to choose their faith, and there were plenty of folks who still genuinely believe that the Catholic Church was the one true church.

These people were known as”recusants”, which comes from the Latin word recuse, which means”to deny”. For these folks who broke the law and continued to practice their Catholic religion, they thought they were fighting for their immortal souls. Since so much of the faith rely on a priest to say mass and give confession, recusant Catholics started to hide priests in their home.

This was completely prohibited, and harboring a priest was punishable by death. If it was known at a family was Catholic, the royal guard would appear unannounced at all times of the day and night to ransack their houses, searching for hidden priests.

Upper-class Catholic families who refused to attend Protestant mass continued to pay expensive fines, to the point where they had been losing all of their family inheritance. Many English Catholics have been forced to move to Flanders, which was a safe zone.

After Elizabeth I’s death, the Scottish King James VI took over the throne and became King James I of England. Catholic taxpayers had no idea how his reign would be any different than Elizabeth’s and they waited to see what would happen next.

The Life of Guy Fawkes There is not so much known about Guy Fawkes’ youth, either, except that he was born in 1570 in York, England to Edward and Edith Fawkes. His family had been Protestant, and his dad even worked for The Church of England. They were law-abiding Protestants who went to church every Sunday.

His mother came from a long line of Catholics, but she chose to give up her religion in favor of adapting. Guy Fawke’s dad died when he was 8 years old, and his mother was a widow for many years before she decided to marry a Catholic man.

They began practicing the religion in secret, and they baptized Guy and his siblings in a secret ceremony at the St. Michael le Belfrey Church. He attended St. Peter’s School in York, which had a lot of recusant Catholic teachers and students. He was able to attend mass in the homes of people that were hiding priests.

As a young, he chose to keep on practicing that Catholic religion, and he became passionate about trying to help protect it. Sooner or later, Guy Fawkes is said to have gotten married and had a son. There are recordings from 1590 a man named Guy Fawkes married a woman named Maria Pulleyn, along with a birth certificate of their son, Thomas Fawkes.

When he was 21 years old, he would have been old enough to take out his inheritance. That same year, there are records of a rental of a 3-and-a-half-acre bit of land and home signed by Guy Fawkes, including a stamp with the image of a falcon, which was on his family

Joined the duty of Anthony Brown:

He had a very normal life. He entered the service of Anthony Brown, 1st Viscount of Montagu as a footman. At that time, working in the service of a Lord was thought of as a very respectable job among the lower class, particularly in contrast to being a farmer. But for whatever reason, Brown did not like Guy Fawkes, so he fired him.

Back then, your reputation was everything, and it should have been difficult for him to get another job without a good letter of recommendation. He managed to work for Brown’s grandson following Anthony Brown’s death.

From the documents, it would seem that he struggled to maintain steady employment. So at 21 years old, he left England and proceed to Flanders. He fought together with the Spanish army, to do his part in the Eighty Year War. At that time, Spain was considered to be the protectors of their Catholic faith, and throughout the war, they were fending off Dutch Protestantism in the Netherlands.

While fighting with the Spanish, he chose to go by the name”Guido”. He was described by one of his compatriots to be”of excellent good organic parts, very resolute and universally learned”, and was”hunted by all the most distinguished in the Archduke’s camp for nobility and virtue”. People say he was very tall and muscular.

He had reddish-brown hair and beard and was basically described as being the perfect soldier. Despite having these descriptions, nobody understands what Guy Fawkes truly looks like, since there was never a portrait painted of his likeness.

gunpowder plot
gunpowder plot

We just have the caricatures that depicted him following his death, and these were largely drawn in such a manner that made him look like a villain. In most images, he has black hair and a beard with an upturned mustache. While he wasn’t a Lord himself, Percy was able to take it upon himself to request an audience with the King.

Wanting to gain popularity with his new English subjects, James was obscure and made sure not to make any promises. It was still very early in his reign, and he wasn’t sure yet what he should do about the tensions between Protestants and Catholics.

He told Percy to not worry because he personally had no ill will towards Catholics. Percy believed that King James was going to provide some type of relief and that he might be getting ready to repeal Queen Elizabeth I’s laws. Percy was really happy about this and returned to tell his friends and family that they no longer had to worry about being persecuted for their religion any longer.

Some even hoped that maybe James would convert to Catholicism, and the entire country would revert back to practicing the one true church. James temporarily stopped collecting fees that recusant Catholics were required to pay for skipping Protestant support.

He also didn’t push for his guard to hunt Catholic houses for harboring priests. However, the laws made by Elizabeth I was still in place. He had not repealed them, because he was waiting to see what the response would be from his Protestant Parliament.

In the summer of 1604, the members of Parliament eventually noticed that Catholics weren’t being persecuted anymore, and they started to push King James to come down hard on them. The way they felt about Catholics was very like Communists from the Cold War.

Many believed that if they weren’t stamped out, they would lead to an uprising. So, James brought back the exact laws the Elizabeth I’d put in place. Suddenly, Catholic homes were being hunted once more, and they were being treated like criminals.

They felt betrayed by King James, and it was enough to create some want to kill him. Despite the fact that Guy Fawkes is the person who is most remembered for the Gunpowder Plot, the ring leader was actually a guy named Robert Catesby.

He started making plans in 1603 and recruited a guy named Thomas Winter. Catesby and Winter rode to Spain since they had partners who were Catholic. Spain was also designated as the guards of their Catholic faith. Since Catholics in England were being persecuted once more, they begged for help from the Spanish to prevent King James from murdering their people.

However, the Spanish were not interested in becoming involved. They found John Wright and Thomas Percy. Winter had gone to college with Guy Fawkes, and he looked like the perfect candidate to help them with the plot. After all, Fawkes had plenty of experience fighting in Spain, and he knew a lot about gunpowder.

He was smart and knew how to remain cool under pressure. The team has been biding their time, trying to figure out the finer details of the plan as time went on. Thomas Percy had the resources to buy a property in London which was very close to The Palace of Westminster.

Guy Fawkes started to live with him, posing as a footman called”John Johnson”. In this manner, they would never seem out of the ordinary to anyone who witnessed them around town. At that moment, it wasn’t uncommon for men to purchase gunpowder, especially if they intended to sail abroad. They needed the powder to use their guns and cannons to defend themselves from pirates.

The only trouble was purchasing small quantities over an extended time period, as not to raise suspicions. Guy Fawkes would use his connections to gradually gather a cache of gunpowder barrels that were leftover from ships entering the harbor, and bringing them back to Thomas Percy. At the moment, the Palace of Westminster had a set of smaller buildings.

Lords and other members of the upper class would come and go from those buildings on a regular basis without being stopped by security. The rules were very relaxed, and it was really easy for Thomas Percy to rent a storage area in the basement under the Palace, asserting that it was because of his cousin, The Earl of Northumberland, to store his firewood for winter.

The afternoon of Parliament kept getting postponed, and the group of conspirators climbed from 5 to 13 men. Unfortunately for them, however, the extended time combined with the larger amount of individuals who were being told about the plot meant that it was much more likely that the secret was going to get out.

Robert Cecil Role in Gunpowder Plot:

A Catholic man named Lord Monteagle was planning to be present at Parliament. A masked man handed a letter to one of Monteagle servants, and it was presented to him instantly. It said; “My God, from the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your own preservation, therefore I’d advise you when you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this parliament. for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow.” Even though it was late at night, Lord Monteagle immediately told his servants to ready the horses, so that he could send the letter to Robert Cecil, the Spy Master and Secretary of State to King James.

Gunpowder Plot
Gunpowder Plot

Historians have debated over the theories of who actually wrote that anonymous letter. It could have been one of the 13 conspirators. It might have even been Lord Monteagle himself, composing a bogus letter after hearing letters throughout the Catholic recusant grapevine.

He was awarded 500 lbs annually because of his loyalty to the crown. Back then, that was a small fortune. Even more, the historian thinks it was Robert Cecil. He was the spymaster, after all, and some believe that he knew about the Gunpowder Plot for a long time, and orchestrated the entire scene to make himself seem like the hero.

On the 4th of November, there was an extensive search of the Palace of Westminster. At first, they didn’t find anything that worried them, and they were beginning to feel that the letter was a hoax. But after that day, it had been brought to the royal guard’s attention that there were cellars underneath the palace which hadn’t been searched yet.

A royal official named Sir Thomas Knyvett was told that one of them was being used for storing firewood, so he leads a group of imperial guards to search the area. When they arrived, they found Guy Fawkes guarding the firewood. Instead of wearing the clothes of a watchman, Fawkes was dressed in his riding boots, spurs, hat, and cloak, as though he was getting ready to jump on a horse at any time.

They moved the timber piles aside to show 36 barrels of gunpowder. The royal guards searched him and found a box of matches that were long. Fawkes was immediately detained. He interviewed him, asking if he had any sorrow. He genuinely wanted to understand how anybody could be so callous to be prepared to kill so many people- even the young kids who would have been present at Parliament. Fawkes said that his only regret was that the plan failed.

He was suspended by manacles and then put on the rack so that his arms and legs were stretched and hauled out of their sockets. He finally caved and gave his confession. At the before-and-after of his signature, we could see that he could hardly write his own name, after enduring so much pain. While Guy Fawkes was being tortured, the rest of the conspirators were on the run.

Robert Catesby started to announce to the villages that King James was dead, and he called for Catholics to grow up to reclaim their rightful place in the kingdom. They rode from town to city, but instead of the huge army he expected, there were only about 40 guys who decided to follow him. Paradoxically, Catesby and his guys accidentally blew themselves up with their own gunpowder they’d brought with them.

Without Guy Fawkes there to help them with his expertise, they thought that so as to dry out the moist, they ought to sprinkle their gunpowder before an open fireplace. It exploded, of course, and one of the guys had gone blind.

The rest were now burned and injured. One of the guys asked Robert Catesby what they were going to do next. He replied, “We mean here to die.” On November the 8th, the sheriff of Warwickshire showed up with a small army of 200 men. Robert Catesby was shot but crawled to the local chapel. He was later discovered on the floor of the church, hugging a statue of the Virgin Mary.

This meant that a man was dragged through the streets before he was hanged in the gallows. But just before he was about to choke to death, they would let him go. As he gasped for breath, they would dig a knife into his stomach, and pull out his entrails. Then, they chopped off his arms and legs while he was still living. Then, the four quarters of their body were taken to the four corners of England.

As Guy Fawkes stood in front of the crowd, King James declared that these Catholic traitors were trying to blow up the entire island of England. This would have been physically impossible, of course, but it was enough to make people extremely angry.

They were screaming and booing, calling him a traitor. Before they could torture him, Guy Fawkes jumped, breaking his own neck. Even though he was no alive to feel the pain, they still went through with cutting his body apart into bits.

And if it were not for the anonymous letter, Guy Fawkes might have really succeeded at light the fuse. If the barrels of gunpowder had exploded, it would have been strong enough to bring down the palace, and nearby buildings. It would have killed the King and the princes, in addition to some of the most powerful noblemen in the country.

This could have left the throne to James’ daughter, Princess Elizabeth. They had hoped that since she was so young, she would be easy to control as a sort of puppet. Many consider that Robert Catesby would have gotten more Catholics to follow him, and this would have erupted into an English civil war.

Following this event, Parliament passed the Thanksgiving Act of 1606, which was a law that English citizens must pray and give thanks to God that the terrorists didn’t kill the King. People usually celebrate by constructing a massive bonfire and burning a life-sized dummy of Guy Fawkes. There is also a fireworks show, to signify that the explosions which never happened. Since then, everyone has always remembered the Fifth of November.

you can also read Gunpowder Plot Facts.

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  1. Very interesting and informative post, thanks. The controversial debate about exactly what and who was involved and how much the government knew,that is the involvement of Robert Cecil and the authenticity of the warning letter are absolutely fascinating.

    A reconstruction of the plot showed how close to success and regocide they came and the terrifying amount of death and destruction which would have resulted. It would have been as great a shock and fright as the dreadful events of 9/11 in its scale for the time. 300 plus people would have been killed outright inside the Parliament, the buildings all around would have gone and anyone in them and damage would have reached five miles or more. What they didn’t seem to have planned properly was their next move.

    A small group of horsemen gathered to ride to Coomb Abbey and kidnap Princess Elizabeth and to make her a puppet Queen, but they didn’t have any guarantee that enough Catholics would join them and it all sounded very haphazard. It was warning the man whom they hoped would be Lord Protector and the others which got them all killed, because the government were alerted, on the very eve the plot was about to take place. It was after midnight on 5th that Mr Johnson was arrested, brought before King James and then sent off to be tortured and the others chased into Warwickshire.

    By the time Fawlkes talked everyone was in custody or dead in the raids on their homes. The leader Robert Catesby went out in a blaze of glory and that was it. The rest of the 13 main conspirators were rounded up, executed and a number of innocent people were imprisoned or executed over the following months. I believe Cecil was up to his neck in this and his motivation was to get in with James who didn’t trust him and to basically persuade him to enforce harsher laws on Catholics. Well he had his way.

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