The letter that betrayed the gunpowder plotters
Who wrote the words that prevented Guy Fawkes from lighting the fuse? Daniel Hahn rereads the letter that betrayed the 1605 plotters...
"My Lord out of the love I bear to some of your friends I have a care of your preservation 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 yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety 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 council 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 burned the letter and I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it to whose holy protection I commend you."
It’s not much to look at – a scrap of paper with a few quick lines, unsigned. It’s nothing grand or formal, there’s no seal or signature flourish; just 160 words or so, handwritten, on a yellowed page, a little smaller than A4. But though it’s barely known today, document SP 14 / 216 (2) has, arguably, more mystery and more immediacy than anything else in the vast National Archives collection, and is the trigger for one of the most engaging hypotheticals in British history: what if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded?
The Monteagle Letter takes its popular name from William Parker, Lord Monteagle, the man who on 26 October 1605 had his dinner interrupted by a servant bearing this mysterious missive. The letter spoke of “a great blow” that Parliament would receive, and advised Monteagle to absent himself; it referred to “the love that I bear to some of your friends”. It rejoiced in the thought that the bloodshed was deserved, and planned not just by man but also by God.
Monteagle was a Catholic, or had been once; the priest Oswald Tesimond described him as “a Catholic at least according to his innermost convictions”. He had this same summer written a letter to chief plotter Robert Catesby expressing his discontent at the standing of Catholics under the new regime. Besides this, Monteagle had very lately been imprisoned for his involvement in the Essex Rebellion. Although his status in court had lately been on the ascendant, he was perpetually under suspicion, so he greatly appreciated the chance to prove his loyalty to the King. He didn’t lose a moment, leaving his fellow diners and rushing the letter to Whitehall, to Secretary of State Robert Cecil.
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The King was out of town on a hunt, but on his return a few days later Cecil passed the letter on to him. The “divinely illuminated” James brilliantly deduced (from the word “blow” and the reference to burning) that the letter was warning of a plot to blow up Parliament. Cecil had surely worked out the barely hidden meaning long before, but was never one to miss an opportunity to flatter the vain King and so complimented him most enthusiastically on his God-sent inspiration and his incisive intelligence. And of course they were correct: there was indeed a plot to blow up Parliament, on 5 November. Cecil ordered a search of the rooms under the Parliament chamber – revealing 36 barrels of gunpowder and a startled Guy Fawkes. This much, at least, we know. The rest, as they say, is history; but of course history is never so simple.
With his network of informers intercepting correspondence across the Continent, it may be that Cecil knew of the plot long before Monteagle rushed into his audience clutching the tip-off. But if Cecil didn’t know, or didn’t know for sure, if he had any doubts at all – then this old page now in the National Archives can be credited with preventing an extraordinary coup, an incomprehensibly audacious, ambitious attempt to eliminate monarchy and government and all establishment, and replace it with … who knows? A Catholic England?
So to the letter itself. The writing has certainly been disguised. The hand is clumsy, but deliberately so – it’s easy enough to see places where it has been altered to hide the writer’s natural style. The prose and the vocabulary, meanwhile, are sophisticated. If we were meant to be fooled by the hand into thinking this the work of some barely literate servant, the words belie this.
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Prime suspect for writing the letter has always been Francis Tresham, the plotters’ last recruit, enrolled mainly for his recently inherited wealth. From the moment he joined the inner circle of plotters, Tresham had expressed his doubts about the justification for such massive loss of life, questioning whether, for instance, the Catholics in Parliament shouldn’t be saved. And Tresham’s sister Elizabeth was married to Lord Monteagle; does the wording in the letter – “some of your friends” – refer to Monteagle’s wife? Circumstantial evidence aplenty, then. And indeed, suspicion fell on Tresham from the start. Catesby and another plotter Thomas Wintour summoned him to meet them at once; these two dedicated men were quite prepared to kill their friend for his betrayal.
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And yet somehow Tresham was able to win them round. Whatever he said, whatever oaths he swore, Catesby and Wintour left the meeting convinced that Tresham was no traitor. And Catesby was not a man easily fooled. Maybe it wasn’t Tresham, then? After the failure of the plot Tresham spent weeks in the Tower of London signing statements, writing letters to Cecil, insisting that he’d opposed the plot all along and even offering assistance with the investigation – and yet never does he mention the letter. Odd, isn’t it? And besides, the tone of the letter does seem convinced by the righteousness of the plot and doesn’t sound like the voice of a waverer. But if not Tresham, then who?
There are at least as many possibilities as there were plotters. And no wonder there was a weak link. With so many men involved in the Gunpowder Plot – an unfortunate 13 – it would have been impressive if there had not been at least one Judas. And we mustn’t assume that the letter was necessarily the work of one of them. Couldn’t a devious Monteagle have written it himself? If he’d suspected something was afoot and feared he would be implicated (he knew many of the conspirators, after all), such a letter would be a fine way of preventing the plot, demonstrating his innocence, and proving his allegiance to the King, at a stroke. He did after all do extremely well out of the whole situation – earning the gratitude and trust of James and Cecil, along with a generous pension, and even a poem by Ben Jonson in his honour.
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Many historians have suggested something more Machiavellian still, that a well-informed Cecil wrote the letter himself (or had one of his many shady functionaries do it). This would be an excellent way of officially “discovering” the plot without having to reveal any of his sources – let the plotters entangle themselves in their scheme while you remain in apparent ignorance, and then swoop in and save the day – there’s even a contemporary woodcut of the letter being delivered from God by an eagle. Just the sort of political theatre that came easily to Robert Cecil.
As an added bonus it’s a useful way of testing Monteagle too – have the letter delivered, and if it’s not back in your hand by nightfall you know the man is no friend of the King’s. And yet… And yet there are countless other possibilities. Was it Catesby’s cousin Anne Vaux? Or consipirator Thomas Percy (as Monteagle suggested)? Or Monteagle’s sister, Mary? And so many other questions, too…
Among those who enjoy these things, the argument will continue to rage. In another four centuries we’ll still be questioning what it is we’re dealing with – a tip-off to blow the plotters’ cover, a planted excuse to officially discover an open secret, an attempt to save a friend, a test of loyalty? We’re sure that the letter exists, we know what it says, when it was delivered and to whom. And all the rest? Well, the rest is mystery. Historians have the luxury of doubt, of argument and counter-argument, which is what makes it such fun after all.
Daniel Hahn OBE is a British writer, editor and translator. He is the author of many non-fiction works, including The Tower Menagerie: The Amazing True Story of the Royal Collection of Wild Beasts (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
This article was first published in the November 2005 issue of BBC History Magazine
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