5 November 1605: The gunpowder plot goes up in smoke
The scheme is foiled and the conspirators arrested
The gunpowder plot was a long time in the making. The first meeting of the conspirators, who planned to blow up the House of Lords, kill James VI and I and replace him with his nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth under Catholic guidance, took place as early as May 1604.
By the following summer, the plotters had rented an undercroft beneath the Houses of Parliament and had filled it with several dozen barrels of gunpowder. But then there was a hitch. Because of the plague, the opening of parliament was delayed until 5 November. That would be the moment of decision.
On the day before parliament opened, the most infamous of the plotters, the Yorkshireman Guy Fawkes, was in place in the undercroft when there was the first sign of trouble. Alarmed by a warning one plotter had sent to his brother-in-law, a group of James I’s men had decided to search the building. Showing impressive sang-froid, Fawkes insisted that he was a servant guarding his master’s firewood, and they seemed to believe him.
But then, in the small hours of the following morning, the king’s men unexpectedly returned. This time they discovered Fawkes, calling himself John Johnson, in a large cloak and hat, carrying a pocket watch, lantern and matches. Beneath his so-called firewood were at least 30 barrels of gunpowder.
When Fawkes’ captors asked what he was doing, he said defiantly that he wanted to “blow you Scotch beggars back to your native mountains”. For the next two days, even under torture, he refused to name his co-conspirators. But the king’s interrogators broke him eventually. Hanged almost three months later, Fawkes was reincarnated every bonfire night for centuries to come.
Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries…
5 November 1459
Hundred Years’ War veteran Sir John Fastolf (left) died. He had fought at Agincourt and was later governor of Maine and Anjou and lieutenant of Normandy. In 1424 he fought at Verneuil where he captured the Duke of Alencon. In 1429 he was in command at the ‘Battle of the Herrings’ when he fought off a French attack on a supply convoy but later that year he was accused of cowardice following Joan of Arc‘s victory over the English at Patay.
5 November 1611
Sir Thomas Bodley asked Sir John Bennet, one of England’s leading judges, to act as fundraiser and overseer of the building work for Oxford University’s Bodleian Library. Bennet proved to be a highly efficient and effective fundraiser and by 1619 he had collected over £5,000 for the project. However he was later disgraced after being accused of taking bribes as a judge and fined £20,000.
5 November 1660
Death of Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle. The daughter of the 9th Earl of Northumberland and a spectacular beauty, Lucy was the lover of George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham in the 1620s, an associate of the Earl of Strafford, and a confidante of Queen Henrietta Maria. Nevertheless, she took a moderately parliamentarian stand during the Civil War and some sources name her as one of those who warned John Pym that the king planned to arrest him and four other MPs in January 1642.
5 November 1757
Frederick the Great of Prussia defeats the French and Austrians at the Battle of Rossbach.
5 November 1688: William of Orange invades England
The Protestant prince’s fleet lands in Devon, ready for revolution
At the beginning of November 1688, one of the greatest invasion fleets in English history was sailing towards the Devon coast. With 40,000 men aboard 463 ships, William of Orange was in deadly earnest. To his admirers, the Dutch prince’s slogan, “For Liberty and the Protestant Religion”, captured the tone. Here was a Protestant prince who would topple the hated James II and VII, secure the Anglican faith and save England from Catholic absolutism.
Although William himself was suffering from acute seasickness, his fleet made a splendid sight; his men lined up with bands playing as they sailed past Dover. The next day, the 4th, was William’s birthday. But the 5th, celebrated by Protestants as the anniversary of the gunpowder plot, started badly. The sky was hazy and visibility poor, and William’s pilot steered too far to the west. Before they knew it, they were heading past Torbay, where they had planned to land. Now they were in a mess. The wind was too strong for them to turn back, but the next port was Plymouth, where James had already posted a garrison – and all the time the king’s fleet was on their heels.
Then, suddenly, the breeze changed. After the defeat of the Spanish Armada a century earlier, men had talked of the ‘Protestant wind’, and God was clearly on the Protestant side once again. With the sun shining and the wind blowing from the south, William was able to turn back to Torbay after all. By the time he stepped ashore at what is now Brixham, the quay was crowded with well-wishers. There was no resistance. The Glorious Revolution was under way.