Even though I live in Spain now, a country that obviously doesn't mark the day in any way, I always think about the Gunpowder Plot because I grew up just two miles from Coughton Court, the seat of the Throckmorton family who were very much involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Robert Catesby and Francis Tresham were grandsons of Sir Robert Throckmorton of Coughton Court and nephews of Thomas Throckmorton, and Robert and Thomas Wintour were also Throckmorton relations. Here are links to read more about Coughton Court and its links to the plot:
It's well worth a visit if you're going to nearby Stratford-upon-Avon.
Back to the Gunpowder Plot...
On the night of 4th/5th November 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in the cellars beneath Westminster. The idea was to blow up the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament on the 5th November, and to assassinate King James I.
Although the plot happened in the Stuart period, in the reign of King James I, it actually had its origins in Elizabeth’s reign. Elizabeth had continued the work of Henry VIII, and Edward VI and made England a Protestant country. By the end of her reign, England was a dangerous place for Catholics, with the threat of persecution and even death hanging over them. As Elizabeth’s health deteriorated, the Catholics pinned their hopes on James VI of Scotland, who was married to a Catholic, and who was the son of the late Catholic queen, Mary, Queen of Scots. Although he himself was a Protestant, the Catholics felt sure that he would be sympathetic to their cause.
Did you watch the BBC 3-part series "Gunpowder", starring Kit Harington? I did. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although it wasn't exactly true to history, I loved the way that it focused on Robert Catesby, who has tended to be forgotten by history. What did you think of the series?
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The series is fantastic, very realistic, with some dramatic license, but you can see how horrible the executions were and the death sentence of being crushed to death for refusing to plead is just as bad. Four women are recorded as having this sentence. It could be slow as the objective was to get you to change your mind or quick in cases that were hopeless. There is an illustration that demonstrates the process and the scene in Gunpowder reconstructed it exactly. Father John Gerrard actually escaped from the Tower in 1593, not 1605, by making his way hand over hand along a rope and into a boat and away. He returned to England and somehow managed to get away again by hiding. Father Henry Garnet was martyred in the usual gruesome manner and had nothing to do with the plot. He may have known something, but he maintained he did not, even under torture. The torture scene is spot on as this too has been taken from a contemporary illustration. When people think of the rack they think of the traditional laying down on the rack and stretching, but a rack took many forms. In Spain, being suspended with your arms up your back was a form of racking and by the late 16th century, suspension from the ceiling and racked upright was less likely to pull your arms out of your sockets so it could be applied for longer and was deemed to have better results. I saw one comment on the BBC site, that the priest was “only hung from the ceiling by his arms” as if that somehow made it less painful. It was probably just as bad, if not worse.
What these men planned was terrible, to kill the King who was appointed by God, although not in their eyes as he was the wrong religion and worse, a Scot, plus the Prince of Wales, Henry, and some 160 members of Parliament. It would have succeeded, frighteningly so. They had enough gunpowder to destroy Parliament, blow everyone to bits, blow up several houses all around and put out windows up to five miles away. The men could easily escape in the chaos and the nobles who were left, told to stay away come to the rescue and place Princess Elizabeth on the throne as planned as a puppet Queen. Prince Charles was considered too young and it was believed his development was slow. He was also possibly going to be present in Parliament. The problem was not money but a lack of military support from Spain. Sir William Stanley had an army, but it was possible it was not enough. The majority of Catholics wanted a quiet life, not a revolution. They may not have supported these fanatics.
James had given a promise which was misinterpreted as better times ahead, but thanks to the plotting of Robert Cecil, he went back on these promises and was to pass stricter laws at this Parliament in 1605. He had already issued a Proclamation which more or less said all Catholics could conform or leave England. The desperate men who made this conspiracy were from families crippled by fines and forced out of any say in the running of the country. The Throgmorton family had been involved in a plot to get rid of Elizabeth I and Robert Catesby and Thomas Tresham had been connected to the Essex plot. They were desperate for a new start, which was denied them and Robert Catesby had lost his wife and son and become unhinged by grief and zeal. He was more committed and driven, even when the plot looked as if they were going to be twarted or they needed more money. It was Catesby who was definitely the driving force.
In one sense it was fitting that Robert Catesby had the more heroic death and my eyes are still looking at Kit Harrington as the man himself. The drama may have shocked, but it should shock as people need to be aware that they are celebrating men and women facing horrible execution and how dangerous the conspiracy was. It was comparable with an ISIS attack. The people who fight for ISIS are driven by religious zeal no matter how we tell ourselves it is not true Islam. They believe they follow pure Islamic belief and they are true martyrs. The men of the Gunpowder plot had the same mindset. This was a blow for truth and freedom and they were prepared for death. They were not mad, they were not even evil, they were well educated, but they had seen enough persecution and this was the last chance to change things. They saw their fate as martydom and we have to understand this before celebrating the failure of the plot.
While I don’t mind watching fireworks I hope people behave safely and would like to see more controls both on public sale and on safety at displays. If you are out tonight, stay safe and please keep young children and pets indoors.