Today is the anniversary of the discovery of Gunpowder Plot conspirator, Guy Fawkes, and 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar beneath the Palace of Westminster on the night of 4th/5th November 1605. The plotters were planning to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the opening of Parliament and assassinate the king, his government and leading bishops and nobles.
But why and what has this event in James I's reign got to do with Tudor history?
Well, a lot, because the Gunpowder Plot had its roots in Elizabeth I's reign.
Find out more about the Gunpowder Plot, and those involved, in today's talk.
Book recommendation: "God's Traitors" by Jessie Childs.
TV: Gunpowder, miniseries with Kit Harington
Also on this day in Tudor history, Sunday 5th November 1514, eighteen-year-old Mary Tudor, sister of King Henry VIII and daughter of the late King Henry VII, was crowned Queen of France at Saint-Denis. Mary had become Queen of France on her marriage to King Louis XII on 9th October 1514. Find out more about Mary’s coronation in last year’s video:
Also on this day in history:
- 1520 – Death of Sir Robert Poyntz, courtier, landowner and Vice-Chamberlain and Chancellor of the Household to Queen Catherine of Aragon. He was around seventy when he died.
- 1530 – Death of Sir John More, lawyer, judge and father of Sir Thomas More. More served as Serjeant-at-Law, Justice of Assize, Justice of the Common Pleas, and also served on the King's Bench from 1520 until his death.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
That is the traditional rhyme that is said on 5th November in the UK, although at the moment the last words are changed to God save the Queen!
This rhyme and the traditions associated with what is commonly called Bonfire Night are a reminder of what happened on the night of 4th/5th November 1605 and what nearly happened to England’s king.
For on 5th November 1605, early in the reign of King James I, Elizabeth I’s successor, gunpowder plotter Guy Fawkes was caught redhanded with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in the cellars beneath Westminster. The idea had been to blow up the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament on the 5th November, and to assassinate King James I and the gathered members of Parliament. It was an act of terrorism against the king and government, but fortunately was uncovered in time.
Why am I talking about a plot in 1605 when the Tudor period ended with Queen Elizabeth I’s death in March 1603?
Well, because, as I explained in my video on Guy Fawkes last year, this plot had its roots in the reign of Elizabeth I. Although Elizabeth had begun her reign wanting religious tolerance and having “no desire,” as she explained, “to make windows into men's souls”. She and her government had felt compelled to act following Pope Pius V’s publication of a bull of excommunication against the queen in 1570. The pope absolved Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects from any oaths they’d made to her, their allegiance to her, and called on them to disobey her orders, mandates and laws, threatening excommunication for those who carried on obeying her. Elizabeth had been branded a usurper and pretender, and the pope was encouraging rebellion against her and support for those seeking to remove her. It put English Catholics in an impossible situation and made Jesuits priests, those seeking to convert English people to Catholicism, dangerous to the queen and her government. And there were Catholic plots against Elizabeth, as a result, for example the Ridolfi Plot. Elizabeth took action, bringing in an act against Jesuits, which resulted in the executions of Jesuit priests and those who harboured them. England became a dangerous place for Catholics.
When James VI of Scotland came to the throne in 1603, there were hopes that he’d be sympathetic to the Catholic cause, after all, although he was a Protestant, he was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who’d been a staunch Catholic, and he was married to a Catholic. And things did start well, with James limiting the restrictions on Catholics, but then, after opposition from Protestants, James reversed his policy less than a year after implementing it. The Catholics’ hopes were dashed and they felt betrayed.
One party of young Catholics, headed by Robert Catesby, a popular and rebellious young man at court, decided to seek revenge through rebellion. They met in London in May 1604 and hatched a plan to blow up the Palace of Westminster on the opening session of Parliament, thus killing the King, the Royal family, the Lords, and the leading bishops. This would be the first step in their rebellion which sought to replace James I with his daughter, nine year-old Princess Elizabeth, as a Catholic queen.
One of the plotters, Thomas Percy, a member of the King’s Bodyguard, was able to lease lodgings that were situated adjacent to the House of Lords, and the idea was that the plotters would dig down underneath the foundations of the House of Lords and place gunpowder there. Guy Fawkes (also known as Guido Fawkes), a man who had been fighting for the Spanish in the Low Countries, was the man chosen to put the plan into operation by preparing the gunpowder and lighting the fuse, and he posed as Percy’s servant, calling himself John Johnson so that he could stay in the property.
The Black Plague of summer 1604 meant that the plan had to be changed due to the opening of Parliament being delayed. However, this delay worked in the mens’ favour because during this time, they learned of a vacant ground-floor undercroft directly under the House of Lords Chamber. Thomas Percy was able to secure the lease of this undercroft. Guy Fawkes and other members of the group set about filling this space with 36 barrels of gunpowder, which had the potential to completely level the Palace of Westminster.
Everything seemed fine, and the plot looked as if it would be successful, until Lord Monteagle received an anonymous tip-off just over a week before the state opening of Parliament was due to take place. The letter, thought to be from Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law, Sir Francis Tresham, who had recently become a member of the plot, gave enough details for Lord Monteagle to go to Robert Cecil. Cecil took the news to the King, who ordered the cellars beneath Westminster to be searched. It was on the night of the 4th/5th November that this search took place and Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder were found.
Guy Fawkes was arrested and tortured for information, but despite this failure, Catesby still attempted to incite armed rebellion in the Midland. It, too, was a failure and Catesby, along with a few of his co-conspirators, was killed in a shoot-out on 8th November. Those who weren’t killed were arrested, tried and then hanged, drawn and quartered in January 1606.
On 5th November 1605, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s narrow escape by lighting bonfires around the city, and it is that celebration that is remembered in the UK every year on 5th November, along with the fireworks which have their origins in Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder. In fact, this celebration to give thanks for the deliverance of the King was made compulsory in the United Kingdom until 1859.
Things will be different this year due to Covid restrictions, but usually Bonfire Night is celebrated with fireworks, sparklers, bonfires, toffee apples, a hot pork roll, jacket potato, a hot chocolate, a slice of parkin, and perhaps some apple bobbing for fun and collecting "a penny for the Guy" (and then burning the Guy on the bonfire. Some towns, such as Lewes in Sussex, have special processions and festivals put on by Bonfire Societies who make effigies, often of political characters, which are then burned.
If you want to know more about how Catholics suffered in Elizabeth’s reign then I’d highly recommend Jessie Childs’ book “God’s Traitors”, and I’d also recommend, if you can stomach the violence in it, Kit Harington’s “Gunpowder” mini-series. It wasn’t a documentary, it’s a dramatic retelling of the Gunpowder Plot, and isn’t completely accurate, but it does give you an insight into the actions of Robert Catesby and his fellow plotters.