Few events in early seventeenth century English history are quite as iconic as the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605. On the face of it, we’ve got everything; ruthlessly dedicated conspirators, spies, agent-provacteurs, religious unrest, shoot-outs and a series of really unplesant executions. The despicable plot, discovered just in the nick of time, would taint English Catholics for centuries to come. In fact, they wouldn’t recover anything like a reasonable level of political and employment rights until 1829.
There’s still a great deal of debate over the Gunpowder Plot – possibly not as much as over the events of 9/11, but in both cases there are still a range of questions left unanswered. If 9/11 was indeed the false-flag attack claimed by the conspiracy theory proponents then arguably the best place to hide such a staggeringly huge plot would be in plain sight. No need to arrest those shouting about shadow government/NWO agendas when the power of the media can silence them just as effectively, if not more so. After all, if the authorities arrest them then maybe there was something in the story. Much better to allow the media to discredit them and it’s more effective in the long run.
The events of autumn 1605 still polarise people along religious and political lines. What I’ll try to do in this post is set out the issues that are generally agreed upon, before listing those where questions still remain to be answered. First off, it’s almost certainly true that if the gunpowder in the cellar had detonated, the destruction would have been complete. A recent TV documentary produced and shown on ITV here in the UK built a replica of the 1605 Parliament chamber and detonated 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath it. For the results see:
Secondly, a man answering to the name of ‘John Johnson’ (but later shown to be Guido Fawkes, Catholic mercenary), was discovered in the cellars of the House of Commons in charge of 36 barrels of gunpowder, a laid fuse and a lantern. Thirdly, it is also true that King James I‘s initial tolerance for the English Catholics had almost completely evaporated since his accession to the throne in 1603. On the face of it, James was having to juggle the pleas of the Catholic minority to worship as they pleased free from the hated recusancy fines (levied on those who refused to attend Protestant church services) with the demands of the Protestant clergy and nobility. Fourthly, it is also true that by early 1605 the royal point of view had begun to swing against the Catholics. Many of them swallowed their pride and prepared to live double lives again but it is likely that others began to wonder if the time had come for more direct action.
How the plot was allegedly formulated, funded and organised is way outside the scope of a blog post, so I’m going to restrict myself to the following observations. Many of these can be challenged and if so I’ve tried to list the appropriate counter point.
1. How was it that known Catholics were able to rent a cellar under the Parliament Chamber without more frequent checks being made on what they were up to? If the plot was an agent provacteur scheme set up by Sir Robert Cecil (James I’s Secret Service boss and rabid anti-Catholic) then this would explain things.
2. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder? Most if not all gunpowder was stored under close guard at the Tower of London, so how did the plotters get hold of so much unless they were allowed to? Well, Fawkes was a mercenary and not without contacts abroad. Smuggling the powder into London would not have been beyond a group of determined men. Alright – but how did they get it down into the cellar without someone asking questions? Difficult but not impossible. One barrel per day?
3. The person who rented the cellar to the plotters was found dead the following morning. Single pistol shot to the head. Suspicious and a straight line for the conspiracy theorist. On the face of it it does look like a loose end being tidied up.
4. Why was the decision made to search the cellars on that one night and just in time to catch Fawkes ready to light the blue touch paper and leg it? Yes, it looks iffy but the letter to Lord Monteagle from his cousin the plotter Francis Tresham might well explain it. Tresham sent the letter annonymously to warn Monteagle from attending Parliament on the 5th:
My lord out of the love I bear to some of youre frends I have a care of your preseruasion therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this parliament for god and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time and think not slightly of this advertisement but retire youre self into youre control where you may expect the event in saftey for though there be no appearance of any stir yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them this councel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter and I hope god will give you the grace to make good use of it to whose holy protection I commend you.
Either Tresham was acting out of concern for his cousin or he was in fact a plant – put there by Cecil to give the game away at just the right time.
5. Most of the surviving plotters were tracked down at Holbeche House in Staffordshire and all were killed or wounded in the ensuing fight. Chief plotters Thomas Percy and Robert Catesby were shot dead though – the soldier who did the deed receiving a pension of 10p a day for life. More tying up of loose ends or simply a reward for a job well done? There is an interesting but unsubstantiated comment from Cecil to the effect of ‘make sure those two don’t see the light of day eh?’
6. Francis Tresham, the man who sent the letter to Lord Monteagle, died in the Tower of London in circunstances which are still unclear today. Not for him the rack and the agony of being hung drawn and quartered. Nevertheless, he may well have been dealt with more quietly but no less effectively.
In the end you pays your money and takes your choice.
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.