Every Fifth of November with bonfires and fireworks Britain commemorates the failed “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 and the demise of Guy Fawkes and his associates.
Writing in Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution (2014), the third volume in his brilliant series, Peter Ackroyd recounts the grisly story of what happened after the plot was discovered. Fawkes was the fall Guy for a disaffected gentleman named Robert Catesby, who had converted to Catholicism and “in whom the Roman fire burned ever more brightly… It was he, rather than Guy Fawkes, who led what became known as the ‘powder plot’.”
The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of England’s Parliament on 5 November 1605, as the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James’s nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, was to be installed as the Catholic head of state. Catesby may have embarked on the scheme after hopes of securing greater religious tolerance under King James had faded, leaving many English Catholics disappointed.
Robert Catesby (1573-1605), a descendant of one of Richard III’s councillors executed after the Battle of Bosworth Field, was the inspiration behind the plot. Described by contemporaries as “a good-looking man, about six feet tall, athletic and a good swordsman,” he had taken part in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion against Queen Elizabeth I in 1601, during which he was wounded and captured. Astonishingly, the Queen allowed him to escape with his life after fining him 4,000 marks.
The plot was discovered either because too many people knew about it, or because a relative of one of the conspirators would have been in Parliament when it was carried out and he alerted him to that fact, or because it was a government set up – a theory roundly refuted by the historian Mark Nicholls in his book Investigating Gunpowder plot (1991).
According to contemporary records, the first search of the buildings in and around Parliament took place on Monday 4 November, just as the plotters were busy making their final preparations. They saw a large pile of firewood in the undercroft beneath the House of Lords, attended by someone they assumed to be a serving man (Fawkes), who told them that the firewood belonged to his master, Thomas Percy. The searchers left to report their findings and the mention of Percy’s name aroused suspicion as he was already known to the authorities as a Catholic agitator.
Later that night, the search party returned and again found Fawkes, this time dressed in a cloak and hat and wearing boots and spurs. He was arrested, whereupon he gave his name as John Johnson. (He was carrying a lantern now held in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum and a search of his person revealed a pocket watch, several slow matches and touchwood.) Barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden under piles of faggots and coal. Despite interrogating Fawkes, it took the authorities two more days to learn the extent of the plot and to apprehend the other conspirators.
Ironically, as Peter Ackroyd recounts, having escaped northward, “The principal fugitives then took refuge in Holbeche House, on the borders of Staffordshire, where a lighted coal or stray spark ignited the gunpowder they were carrying with them. Two or three were injured, and were inclined to see in the accident a sign of divine displeasure.” Robert Catesby was among those shot dead by the sheriff of Worcester, who had pursued them. Those conspirators who survived were brought back to London for trial on 27 January 1606. Needless to say, they suffered a gruesome death.
During the first sitting of Parliament after the plot, the “Observance of 5th November Act 1605” (repealed in 1859) was passed, making services and sermons commemorating the event an annual feature of English life. The tradition of marking the day with church bells and bonfires started soon after the Plot’s discovery, and fireworks were included in some of the earliest celebrations.
In 2005, in the ITV programme “The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding the Legend”, a full-size replica of the House of Lords was built and blown up with barrels of gunpowder. The experiment demonstrated that the explosion, if the gunpowder was in good order, would have killed all those in the building. No one within 330 feet (100m) of the blast could have survived, and all of the stained glass windows in Westminster Abbey would have been shattered, as would all the windows in the vicinity of the Palace.
“Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.”