The 1605 gunpowder plot to assassinate King James I and destroy the English parliament might seem to be a pretty unlikely sort of conspiracy: the action of a handful of desperate men with next to no chance of success. Catholics were under constant surveillance from the security services, their houses raided and their priests imprisoned and executed. The ringleader Robert Catesby, played by Kit Harington in the BBC drama Gunpowder, was already a marked man for his involvement in the Essex rebellion in 1601 [a rebellion led by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, against the regime of Elizabeth I]. A lot depended on Guy Fawkes, who was outside the inner core of the plotters and was a convert rather than a cradle Catholic. How could such a small band, with its own internal tensions and suspicions, hope to bring down the government when so many previous conspiracies had failed?
And yet the gunpowder plot came frighteningly close to dismembering the entire structure of monarchy, church and state in one spectacular strike. Government propagandists worked hard to conceal this fact, assimilating the plot into a long list of failed Catholic uprisings since Pope Pius V had excommunicated Elizabeth I. But it could all have been so different, and James’s government knew it. The significance of the barrels stacked in the cellar under the House of Lords was missed in the first security sweep of the palace. It wasn’t until a second search that 18 hundredweight of gunpowder was discovered under a pile of firewood. According to the Jesuit priest Oswald Tesimond, who had been at school with Guy Fawkes and wrote an account of the plot, Fawkes was arrested carrying three fuses to prime the powder. A shaded lantern with a candle stood ready to supply the flame.
Destruction and devastation
If the plot had run as intended, the destruction of life and property would have been devastating. Modern estimates of a detonation on this scale (calculations by the University of Aberystwyth’s Centre for Explosion Studies, and a television recreation of the explosion by Richard Hammond) suggest that the House of Lords, the nearby House of Commons and Westminster Hall would all have been destroyed.
Since 5 November would have been the start of a new session of parliament, the king and queen would have been at Westminster to receive the nobility and bishops in the Painted Chamber. With them would have been Henry, Prince of Wales, 11 years old and already identified as a strong Protestant. MPs would have clustered at the back or in the corridor leading into the Lords, listening to the king’s speech and waiting to elect their speaker. The opening of parliament was a moment of solemn theatre when the entire establishment of church and state – royal family, nobility, senior churchmen, knights and burgesses, principal officers of the crown and prominent courtiers – came together in one tightly packed space. For anyone intent on destroying the Protestant state, it was an opportunity like no other.
The gunpowder plotters of 1605. What might have happened had the conspiracy been successful? (Print Collector/Getty Images)
The Palace of Westminster was not just a home for parliament. It was also the epicentre of royal administration, where the courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas sat and the revenues of the crown were audited in the Exchequer. Westminster had been abandoned as a royal residence following a fire in Henry VIII’s reign, freeing its medieval fabric to be divided into a labyrinthine network of offices. Hundreds of royal officials worked and lived at Westminster, which was also far more accessible to the public than it is today.
The opening of parliament was a chance to see the royal family in procession, still a novelty after 40 years under a childless queen. Many spectators would have been caught in the blast, injured by flying glass or trapped under rubble as nearby buildings collapsed. Another casualty of the explosion would almost certainly have been Westminster Abbey, facing the House of Lords across Old Palace Yard. The Henry VII Chapel would have been most exposed, its delicate fan-vaults collapsing onto the tomb of Elizabeth I lying below.
A counter-factual history would have Fawkes slipping away from his cellar (he was arrested in his spurs, implying he intended to escape rather than to die a martyr) to watch the explosion from a safe distance. With the king and his key ministers all dead or dying, English government would have ceased to exist. The small garrison in the Tower, and the lord lieutenants who acted as military commanders in the counties, would have lost their entire chain of command. Without a monarch or a parliament that could act in the king’s name, there would have been no one to give orders and no means of authorising legitimate government.
A state of national paralysis?
In this state of national paralysis, the plotters had to act fast. Catesby had prepared a rendezvous with local Catholic gentry close to his family home in Northamptonshire, under cover of a day’s hunting. Their target was King James’s daughter Elizabeth, nine years old and under the guardianship of the Protestant Lord Harington at Coombe Abbey. Harington moved the princess to nearby Coventry when he heard about the plot, but his small retinue would have been quickly overwhelmed by Catesby’s armed band. Proclamations would have been issued announcing the rule of Queen Elizabeth II and the restoration of the Catholic faith. Such a young ruler would need a Protector: conveniently Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland was both a Catholic sympathiser and a kinsman of the plotter Thomas Percy.
Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James I. Nine years old at the time of the plot, Elizabeth was a key target of the plotters, says John Cooper. Portrait by an unknown artist, 1613. (VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
Two totally different scenarios could then have played out. Everything pivoted on the person of Prince Charles, Duke of York. At just four years old, Charles was the next heir to Prince Henry. The gunpowder plotters were unsure how to factor Charles into their plans, probably because they couldn’t be certain whether he would have been present at the opening of parliament. Charles was not a robust child (he had only just learned to walk), and might not have been capable of attending a long and tiring day of royal ceremony. If he escaped the explosion at Westminster, then Charles would be king by inheritance. Thomas Percy was deputed to kidnap him from his household in London.
With the Prince of Wales dead and both Charles and Elizabeth in the hands of the rebels, loyalists to the monarchy would have had no figurehead around whom to rally. But if Charles had been moved to safety, to Scotland or to his mother’s native Denmark, then the Protestant establishment might have been able to regroup. Faced with the demand to proclaim Elizabeth as queen, many towns would probably have played for time until their corporations could establish which side was likely to win, just as they had done in 1553 during the attempted Protestant coup to put Lady Jane Grey on the English throne.
What next? A religious civil war, like those which had crippled France during the later 16th century? The break-up of the union of the crowns of England and Scotland, barely two years old and wholly dependent on the person of James VI and I? Instead of the Flight of the Earls from Ulster [when a large proportion of Ulster’s Gaelic aristocracy fled Ireland for the continent], a resurgence of Catholic forces in Ireland and the overwhelming of the Protestant plantations? All of this is speculation; but sometimes taking a counterfactual perspective can reveal the deep forces underlying the accidents of history.
Dr John Cooper is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of York, and was a historical advisor to the BBC’s drama series Gunpowder.
This article was first published on History Extra in November 2017