This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine
Lord Monteagle received a startling letter on the evening of 26 October 1605. An anonymous correspondent advised the English nobleman against attending the upcoming session of parliament, due to begin a few days later. The letter warned: “They shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.”
It was a chilling message. Monteagle raced from his home in Hoxton to Whitehall where he passed the letter to Robert Cecil, the secretary of state and second most powerful man in the land. Cecil’s investigations led to a cellar under the Palace of Westminster and the discovery of the most audacious terrorist attack ever attempted on British soil.
It was a plot that had its origins back in the reign of Elizabeth I. Henry VIII and Edward VI laid the foundations of the English Reformation, but Elizabeth took it a stage further, ensuring the country was firmly Protestant. As the 16th century drew to a close, the country’s remaining Catholics faced increasing levels of persecution. Fierce regulations included the death penalty for those found to be sheltering priests. It was a grim time to be a Catholic in England.
Hopes rested on the mortality of Elizabeth and the likely choice for the Virgin Queen’s successor, James VI of Scotland. Though himself a Protestant, James was the son of Catholic martyr Mary Queen of Scots and his own wife was a Catholic as well. Furthermore, prior to his succession to the English throne he had hinted that his reign would bring greater toleration for the country’s Catholic minority.
When he came to replace Elizabeth in 1603 James did indeed limit the restrictions on Catholicism in England. However within a year he had reversed this policy after opposition from English Protestants. Furious at being let down, a small group of young Catholics began plotting a violent act of revenge. The head of this band was Robert Catesby, a rebellious member of the minor gentry.
In May 1604 they gathered in London and started to hatch out their plan. The idea they settled upon was to ignite a huge cache of gunpowder underneath Westminster on the opening session of parliament. The resulting explosion would then wipe out almost the entire English establishment: the royal family, the MPs, the lords and the leading bishops. Guy Fawkes, a Catholic volunteer who had been fighting in the Low Countries, was the man selected to prepare the gunpowder and light the fuse.
The plotters rented a cellar below the Palace of Westminster and filled it with gunpowder, ready for the state opening of parliament on 5 November 1605. All seemed to be going to plan but then, with just over a week to go, Lord Monteagle received a tip-off. Armed with this information, Robert Cecil liaised with King James who apparently suggested that the cellars under Westminster be searched. On the night of 4–5 November Fawkes was apprehended there red-handed alongside 36 barrels of gunpowder.
Despite Fawkes’s arrest, Catesby opted to incite an armed insurrection in the Midlands but found few willing to support his cause. The rebel leader was gunned down alongside a few of his remaining supporters on 8 November. Those who weren’t killed were despatched to the Tower of London where they, alongside Fawkes, were brutally executed in January 1606.
The Gunpowder Plot had failed utterly, to the delight of the Protestant English. On 5 November bonfires were lit in celebration, a practice that continues to this day. For the Catholic minority the attempt at mass murder had disastrous consequences. “The long-term contribution of the gunpowder plot was to provide another reason for Protestants to dislike and be scared of Catholics,” explains James Sharpe, author of Remember, Remember the Fifth of November (Profile, 2005). “Protestant propaganda had for a long time been saying ‘the Catholics are out to get us’ and the Gunpowder Plot just demonstrated that.”
King James responded to the attempt on his life relatively calmly, without the bloody reprisals that might have been expected. Nevertheless the Gunpowder Plot did lead to a worsening of Catholic/Protestant relations, which were not normalised until the 19th century. The celebrations of 5 November became not just a commemoration of lives preserved but also an opportunity to vent anti-Catholic feelings. As much as anything else, it was England’s deliverance from Catholics that the revellers chose to remember.
9 places associated with the gunpowder plot
Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire
Where priests were concealed
England’s Catholics were under a great deal of pressure towards the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. A raft of measures, including crippling fines for non-attendance at Protestant services, made life very difficult indeed. Some accepted defeat and joined the Anglican fold but others resolved to continue observing what they believed to be the true faith.
Catholic priests who had trained on the continent were smuggled into England where they could facilitate worship. They were sheltered in Catholic safehouses, which were often equipped with priest’s holes that could be used as hiding places when inspectors arrived. The punishment for the priests and those who harboured them could be death so it was vital that secrecy was maintained.
Built in the 15th century, Baddesley Clinton became an important place of refuge for Catholics. Though it belonged to the Ferrers family, it was rented by the Vaux sisters who were committed to shielding priests. Members of the Jesuit order (a controversial Catholic missionary group) are believed to have met at Baddesley Clinton in 1592 and escaped detection by hiding in a tunnel when government officers turned up. The English Jesuit leader Henry Garnett was among their number.
Baddesley Clinton remained with the Ferrers until the late 20th century when it was taken over by the National Trust. Three priest’s holes survive from its days as a Catholic refuge.
Tel: 01564 783294
Banqueting House, London
Where a promising new king lived
Disillusioned by Elizabeth I, England’s Catholics expected better things under her successor, James VI of Scotland. Born in 1566 James had acceded to the Scottish throne when barely a year old and managed to hang on to his crown, despite several intrigues against him.
As Henry VII’s great-great grandson James was the leading contender to replace Elizabeth I when the queen died childless in 1603.
James VI did indeed become James I of England and on the surface this was a promising development for Catholics. James was the son of a Catholic martyr (Mary Queen of Scots), while his wife (Anne of Denmark) was a Catholic as well. During his time in Scotland James had been relatively accepting of Catholics and made noises to the effect that this lenience would follow him south. “Great hope [there] is of toleration,” wrote Henry Garnett when James took the throne.
After arriving in London, James was installed in the Palace of Whitehall, then the principal residence of English monarchs. Later in his reign James had Inigo Jones design him a new palace but this burnt down in 1698 leaving only the magnificent Banqueting House. Today in the care of Historic Royal Palaces, the building testifies to Jones’s architectural genius and also contains a marvellous ceiling by the artist Peter Paul Rubens.
Tel: 0844 482 7777
Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
Where a plotter was employed
James I’s reign had begun well for Catholics. One of his earliest acts had been to halt the collection of fines from those who refused to attend the established church. That though was as far as the new king was prepared to go. James had no intention of granting Catholics religious freedom and when prompted by Protestant critics, he relented and restored the financial penalties. Once again Catholic liberation seemed a very distant dream. To compound matters James began negotiating a peace deal with Catholic Spain, putting pay to the possibility of a military overthrow of Protestant rule.
Their hopes dashed, some of England’s most committed Catholics turned their thoughts to violence. In May 1604, the Warwickshire gentleman Robert Catesby met with four friends in London where they began to develop a murderous scheme to be rid of James and his ministers.
One of Catesby’s co-conspirators was Thomas Percy, a relative of the Ninth Earl of Northumberland, who was then in the earl’s employ as constable of Alnwick Castle. Percy had good reason to be angry with King James. It was he who had met with James prior to Elizabeth’s death and received assurances of better treatment for Catholics. Already a wild character, who had once been jailed for killing a man, Percy was keen to mete out the ultimate punishment to the heretical king.
The Gunpowder Plot took Thomas away from Northumberland but the Percy family remained at the castle and still does so today. This year they celebrate 700 years at Alnwick, which is currently the second largest inhabited castle in England. It was built in stages since the 14th century and is undoubtedly one of the finest fortresses in the land.
Tel: 01665 511100
Guy Fawkes Inn, York
Where a failed regicide may have been born
This charming old inn is the reputed birthplace of a man who is still burned on bonfires 400 years after his death. Guy Fawkes arrived in the world in 1570 and was baptised at St Michael le Belfrey church in York. He was born into Protestantism but his mother’s second marriage was to a Catholic and it is likely that this event prompted her son’s conversion as well.
The young Fawkes became a soldier. Like many other Catholics seeking military experience he went to fight in the Low Countries for Spain against Dutch Protestants. There he gained valuable experience in munitions and it is partly because of these skills that he was recruited by the plotters. Having been out of the country for several years Fawkes was also relatively unknown in London, meaning he could move freely in the city without arousing too much suspicion.
Thomas Percy rented a small property close to the Houses of Parliament in May 1604. Here Fawkes was installed under the assumed name of John Johnson to oversee the project. The plotters’ initial idea was to dig a mine from their property’s cellar underneath the Palace of Westminster. This, however, proved to be laborious work and so the conspirators were delighted when they discovered that a vault right underneath the Lords Chamber was available to rent. Percy managed to lease the vault. It was here that the gunpowder would be stored in advance of the opening of parliament.
Tel: 01904 623716
The Palace of Westminster, London
Where a massacre was averted
The initial group of conspirators numbered five but by October 1605 it had grown to 13. Additional members provided funds and connections. There was however a risk that the wider the plot grew, the more likely it was to be found out.
The last of the band to be recruited was Francis Tresham, a wealthy Catholic gentleman whose riches were sought after by Catesby. Tresham though was far from convinced by the plan and tried to persuade the plotters to abandon their enterprise. Many also believe that he sent the anonymous letter to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, on 26 October warning him that something was afoot.
Monteagle took the note to Robert Cecil, the secretary of state. Cecil oversaw a powerful intelligence network and it is possible that he knew of the plot already. In fact theories persist that he himself had penned the letter in order to test Monteagle’s loyalty.
In any case the information passing into Cecil’s hands was a worrying development indeed for the conspirators. One of the plotters, Thomas Winter, got wind of the Monteagle letter and told Catesby the news but the ringleader refused to be dissuaded and decided to continue with the plan, despite the increased risks.
Cecil took the message to King James but nothing was done with the information initially, perhaps so that the conspirators could be allowed to incriminate themselves further. Then on 4 November the Earl of Suffolk, who was responsible for the arrangements for the new parliamentary session, made an inspection of the vaults where they found Fawkes together with a great deal of firewood that was covering the gunpowder. Lord Monteagle was also in the search party and was surprised to find that the vault was rented by Thomas Percy, who he knew to be a Catholic. King James ordered a second search at midnight. This time Fawkes was arrested and the firewood was removed to uncover the gunpowder barrels.
The Houses of Parliament were saved. In 1834 a great fire destroyed most of the buildings, except for Westminster Hall. Charles Barry redesigned the Palace of Westminster in the following decades and it is now open to visitors either through arrangement or by paid admission during the summer months.
Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
Where Catesby gathered horses during his desperate flight
News of Fawkes’s arrest spread quickly, causing the flight of Catesby and the other plotters away from London. Had their scheme gone as planned, the conspirators hoped to ignite a Catholic uprising in the Midlands, with King James’s nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth as a potential new queen. Even though Fawkes was in custody, Catesby resolved to go ahead with his planned insurrection.
On the night of 5 November Catesby stopped off at Warwick Castle to steal horses and then spent the next couple of days with a dwindling group of followers, seeking support. Yet the Catholic hierarchy showed little interest in the revolt. With their dreams in tatters, Catesby’s men arrived at Holbeche House in Staffordshire on 7 November where they resolved to make their final stand.
This last hurrah began badly when some excess gunpowder exploded while it was being dried out near a fire, injuring several of the group. Then on the morning of 8 November, 200 men led by the Sheriff of Worcestershire arrived at Holbeche and surrounded the house. Catesby and a few others charged outside to meet them and were shot down. It is said that the same bullet that killed Thomas Percy also went through the body of Catesby. As the leader of the plot was dying he reportedly staggered to the house’s chapel and clutched an image of the Virgin Mary.
When Catesby visited Warwick Castle, the medieval fortress was in a state of some disrepair. Over the subsequent centuries it underwent several phases of restoration including much recent work. In the last few years the castle has repositioned itself as a major heritage attraction boasting a ghoulish dungeon and a princess tower.
Tel: 0871 265 2000
Hagley Hall, Worcestershire
Where a plotter was tracked down
Not all of the gunpowder conspirators met their end with Catesby. One leading plotter, Thomas Winter, was injured in the melee and taken to London as a captive for questioning.
His brother Robert ran from Holbeche on the night of 7 November and then spent two months in hiding around Worcestershire before he was apprehended at Hagley. He too was hauled off to London where he awaited his fate.
Hagley has been in the hands of the Lyttelton family since the mid-16th century. The current building was largely constructed in the Georgian era under the auspices of George Lyttelton, a one-time chancellor of the exchequer. It is a splendid Palladian mansion, elegantly furnished and complemented by landscaped gardens.
Tel: 01562 882408
Coughton Court, Warwickshire
Where Henry Garnett heard of the failure
Coughton Court is a stately Tudor house currently owned by the National Trust but still inhabited by the Throckmorton family who have resided here since 1409. The Throckmortons are said to be the oldest Catholic family in England and unusually they have managed to keep hold of many of their religious treasures, some of which are now on display.
In 1605 the court was being rented by Sir Everard Digby, one of the gunpowder plotters. On 6 November he was on the move with Catesby when word got to the house of Fawkes’s arrest. Among those assembled there were Digby’s wife and Henry Garnett, England’s leading Jesuit. Garnett had known of the plot and had advised against it but all the same he found himself implicated and a wanted man.
Garnett left Coughton in late November, ending up in Hindlip Hall near Worcester. There he was captured on 27 January 1606, as part of a round-up of Jesuits, and taken to the Tower of London.
Tel: 01789 762435
The Tower of London, London
Where Fawkes spent his final days
It was William the Conqueror who started work on London’s famous tower in the late 11th century. Over its history it has held numerous celebrity prisoners such as Walter Ralegh, Thomas More and the Kray twins. One of the most notorious inmates was Guy Fawkes who arrived here shortly after he had been caught with the barrels of gunpowder.
Initially Fawkes refused to betray his fellow conspirators but after a few days he relented and provided his interrogators with the information they wanted. James I had personally authorised the use of “the gentler tortures” and an examination of Fawkes’s signature on his first and second confessions suggests he had been badly shaken by the experience.
Other plotters who were subsequently rounded-up also found themselves in the Tower. Here they languished awaiting trial. Francis Tresham, who some believe sent the Monteagle letter, sickened and died in December before he could take the stand. Eight others, including Fawkes, went on trial on 27 January 1606, charged with high treason.
Held in Westminster Hall, the trial was a sensational event for which spectators had to pay good money to attend. All of the defendants except for Everard Digby pleaded innocent but there was very little chance any would be let off. Guilty verdicts were announced for the eight men and the executions were carried out on 30 and 31 January at St Paul’s Churchyard and Old Palace Yard, Westminster. As befitted traitors, Fawkes and his colleagues were hung, drawn and quartered.
Henry Garnett was captured too late for the main trial. He was nonetheless subjected to the same procedure and received a similar fate on 3 May 1606. The remains of plotters were attached to spikes on London Bridge as a stark warning to future conspirators.
Tel: 0844 482 7777
Words by Rob Attar. Historical advisor: Professor James Sharpe, University of York.