Tudors and Stuarts - M. B. Synge

What Gunpowder Plot Was (1605)

The memory of Gunpowder Plot has been kept alive by boys and girls for more than three hundred years, and the story is so well known that it would hardly be worth telling again, except for the information we can gather from it about several matters that affected the lives of our forefathers.

Those who have read the history of the Tudor period will know that all through the sixteenth century a struggle went on between Catholics and Protestants, and that in Elizabeth's reign the Protestants gained the upper hand, made the Church of England a Protestant Church, and passed severe laws against the Catholics. In the rest of Europe the conflict was not yet decided, and the greatest "wars of religion" had still to be fought. Frederick, the Elector Palatine, and leader of the German Protestants, was a son-in-law of James I, but the English king gave him little support. For thirty years (1618-1648) half the Continent was devastated through war, and many thousands of lives were lost before Protestants and Catholics settled down in peace. Even long after the Thirty Years' War, the fear that "Popery" would be revived in England was one of the strongest influences affecting our national history, as we shall see.

Persecution on account of religion has now almost ceased. But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was still the practice for the rulers of each nation to decide what the State religion should be, and to compel every person to conform to the religion of the national Church. If the rulers were Catholics, the practice of the Protestant religion was put down; if they were Protestant, then the Catholics were persecuted. The idea of allowing or tolerating more than one religion in the same country was hardly thought of. The history of England in the seventeenth century was very largely occupied by disputes between rival branches of the Protestant Church, ending in some sort of toleration for all except Catholics. It took more than another century for Catholics to gain toleration in England.

Frederick, Elector of Palantine


Persecution takes many forms. One of the mildest forms is the exclusion of men and women from certain offices and positions on account of their religious belief. A stronger form of persecution is to fine and imprison people for conducting their religious services in public. A still stronger form of persecution is to banish, or imprison, or put to death all who refuse to attend the services of the national Church. The worst persecution of all is the torture and execution of people who are suspected of not believing in the doctrines of the Church, although they may be willing to attend its services.

All these forms of persecution have been practised in England. In the reigns of Elizabeth and James I the laws against the Catholics included all but the worst form of persecution. Except in the case of specially favoured persons, Catholics were not allowed to hold any office in the State. The public performance of the mass could be punished by heavy fines, and even by death. A priest caught conducting his services in England could be hung, drawn, and quartered for treason. Even to hear mass in secret made any person liable to a fine and imprisonment for a year, whilst to assert that the Pope had any power in England was an act of treason.

Catholics could not even stay at home and be quiet. They were compelled to attend the national Church service. If they had sufficient property they could be fined 20 a month until they complied with the law. Less wealthy people were liable to lose two-thirds of their lands, and even poor people could be fined and imprisoned.

How, it may be asked, after forty years of such treatment, did any Catholics manage, to survive?

Just as there was no regular police system to detect and catch criminals, so there was no regular means of enforcing the laws against the Catholics. Except when some special alarm was raised, the laws were left to be carried out by the local magistrates, who were the country gentry and landowners. In many parts, especially in the north and west, and on the borders of Wales, there were numbers of Catholic noblemen and gentlemen whose neighbours did not care to put the laws in force against them.

Hence for generations, in scores of country mansions, the Catholic religion was secretly, and sometimes openly, preserved. Priests were kept as chaplains, and in times of danger they could easily be hidden in secret chambers. Occasionally there would be an outburst of priest-hunting. Rascals, who cared nothing for religion, would join Protestant fanatics who thought they were obeying the commands of the Old Testament against idolaters, and go in bands to search the houses of suspected Catholics, destroying furniture and carrying off valuables and clothing.

The Catholics were thus in the position of criminals, liable at times to be seized and imprisoned, whilst their priests were in danger of being hanged. Only where some great Catholic nobleman could keep out the mischievous rabble did the Catholics manage to live in peace. It is fairly safe to assume that wherever to-day we find a Catholic community in our villages, they have maintained themselves ever since the days when the Catholic squires kept their chapels and priests, hidden away from their neighbours, through nearly two centuries of bitter persecution and we can find many such villages in Derbyshire, Yorkshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, and Lancashire.

When James I became king it was an anxious time for both Catholics and Protestants. All Elizabeth's laws against Catholics were still in force, and the Puritans, who were growing in numbers and strength, were eager to crush out Catholicism in England. James had not quite made up his mind what he meant to do. Before he gained the throne he had had friendly talks with several leading Catholics, and had certainly led them to expect that he would not continue to persecute. Personally he was in favour of some scheme of toleration, or even of joining Protestants and Catholics in some sort of common religion.

The Catholics hoped much from the new king. The extreme Protestants, on the other hand, felt very doubtful. His mother had been a Catholic; his wife was secretly a Catholic; but as the Scottish Church was a Presbyterian Church, and therefore thoroughly Protestant, the Puritans hoped James would favour the extreme Protestant section in England.

Before he had been on the throne a year, James had offended both the Puritans and the Catholics. He offended the Puritans by refusing to allow any further reforms in the Church. He disappointed the Catholics by denying his promises and allowing the fines against them to be collected. When this was followed by persecution, when priest-hunting began again, and when Jesuits and priests were banished, the anger of the Catholics was aroused.

In our own times, whenever a law is felt to be unjust, there are means whereby those who suffer can make known their grievances, and get them removed without doing violence. Freedom of speech, the right to hold public meetings, the freedom of the Press, and the influence that can be brought to bear upon members of Parliament, all make in our days any resort to violence both wicked and foolish. In those times even the right of petitioning the king was hardly allowed, for we know that ten Puritans who signed the famous Millenary Petition were thrown into prison. When men cannot gain their ends by open means, they generally resort to secret plots. In the Middle Ages, and even until modern times, secret plots to capture or overturn the government were common in every country in Europe. In 1604 a few reckless Catholics began to look about for a remedy, for they were in despair of gaining toleration for their religion from a king who had broken his word and from a House of Commons that hated the Catholics.

First a certain priest, William Watson, formed a very foolish plot to seize the king at Greenwich and compel him to grant toleration. The plot was revealed to James. Watson and another priest were hanged and for about a year the Catholics were looked upon with favour by James, because they had refused to agree with Watson's plot. But as the persecution soon began again, another plot was set on foot. This was the famous Gunpowder Plot.

The chief facts to notice about the plot are, that it was not a widespread conspiracy, but was confined to a few persons; that these were mostly gentlemen of means and of good family; that the proposal to blow up Parliament was only a means to gain possession of the government and to set up a new Catholic government; and that the memory of the plot helped to keep alive the bitter hatred of the Catholics for generations afterwards.

Gunpowder conspirators


The story of the plot itself is simple. Robert Catesby, a Warwickshire squire, had been mixed up in Essex's rebellion in Elizabeth's reign. He had been imprisoned and all but ruined by the heavy fines imposed on him. He had become a fanatical Catholic; he was a bold soldier, and inspired courage and confidence amongst his friends. He gathered about him a small band of friends. Thomas and Robert Winter were among the first to join him; the former was a soldier and a scholar, who, after fighting against Spain, had become a Catholic, and had been on a mission to Spain to get help for the English Catholics.

Thomas Percy, a violent and arrogant man, the steward of the Duke of Northumberland, to whom he was distantly related, was another who early joined in the plot. He was one of those to whom James had promised some sort of toleration, and in his disappointment he had declared to Catesby that he would kill the king. Catesby persuaded him to wait and join in a greater adventure.

Guy Fawkes was at first not one of the principal conspirators. He was the son of a lawyer at York. Becoming a Catholic, he served in the Spanish army in Flanders. When, in 1604, Catesby and Winter wanted a trustworthy soldier to help them to carry out their plot, he was chosen, and engaged to serve them faithfully.

The intention was to blow up the king, lords, and commons assembled in the Houses of Parliament, as soon as they met for the second session, which was expected to be in February, 1605. This was to be the signal for a great Catholic rising. One of the princes was to be seized and proclaimed king, with a council of Catholic noblemen to govern the country. The second part of the plot was the more important, but all the preparation they were ever able to make was to arrange for an assembly of about eighty Catholic gentlemen at Dunchurch, in Warwickshire, under pretence of holding a hunting match.

The first part of the plot almost succeeded. About March, 1604, five conspirators, including Catesby, Thomas Percy, and Guy Fawkes, met in a lonely house behind St. Clement's, London, swore an oath of secrecy, and took the sacrament from a Jesuit priest, who knew nothing of the plot. They hired a house close to the Parliament House, but they did not get possession until December. Then they began to dig a mine underneath the Houses, storing their materials in another hired house placed in charge of a new member of the plot. It was slow work. No labourers could be engaged. All the gentlemen worked with their hands, and the rubbish which they dug out was buried in the garden at night. Fawkes kept watch as a sentinel.

At Christmas they learnt that Parliament was not to meet until October. In March, whilst working at their mine, they heard a loud rumbling noise. Their fears were changed to hopes when they learnt that it came from an adjoining cellar, which ran right under the Parliament House, and that it was possible to hire this and so gain access to the very spot they wanted to reach. Percy immediately got a lease of the cellar, and shortly twenty or thirty barrels of gunpowder were carried into it and covered with billets of wood and faggots.

There were still nearly six months to wait. The conspirators were in want of money to secure horses and arms and to enlist supporters for the rising that was to follow. They therefore introduced to the conspiracy some wealthy young Catholics, including Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham.

During the summer there were disturbances among the Catholics on the Welsh border. There was wild talk of an insurrection. Priests were found preaching to large congregations, in spite of the law. The sheriff of Herefordshire had a conflict with a large body of Catholics, and under the old penal laws three men were executed for attempting to convert their neighbours.

Meanwhile the plot was ripening, when, happily, it was betrayed to the Government. Francis Tresham, and others too, felt that they ought to warn the Catholic noblemen who were members of Parliament. Tresham sent a warning to his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle. Everybody has heard of the curious letter which Lord Monteagle received, just as he was going to supper at his house at Hoxton, from a mysterious tall gentleman:—

"My lord, out of the love i beare to some of youere frends i have a caer of youer preservation therefor i would advyse yowe as yowe tender youer lyf to devys some excuse to shift of youer attendance at this parleament . . . for thowghe theare be no apparance of anni stir yet i say e they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament and yet they shall not seie who hurts them."

Lord Monteagle sent the letter to Cecil (Lord Salisbury), the king's chief minister. The plotters knew that the letter had been sent, but, like men bereft of all sense, they supposed its contents would not be understood, and that it was still safe to go on. Several, including Guy Fawkes, remained in London. Others went into the country to prepare the rising.

Lord Salisbury, however, knew all he wanted; but to flatter the king he showed him the letter, and allowed him to enjoy. the credit of discovering its meaning. James, on reading the letter, of course instantly suspected gunpowder. The cellars underneath the Houses were searched on the night before Parliament was to sit. The barrels of gunpowder were discovered. Fawkes, still on guard, was seized and carried to, the king.

Before dawn, on the 5th of November, the streets of Westminster were alive with people, alarmed at the rumour of a Catholic rising. They mobbed the Spanish ambassador's. house. The trained bands were called out. The sheriffs were ordered to capture the conspirators, who by this time were racing along the highroad towards Worcester.

Digby had assembled his hunting party—about eighty, including retainers—at Dunchurch. When Catesby arrived he announced the discovery of the plot, and tried to persuade his friends to rise in insurrection. But the party rapidly dispersed. The leaders and a number of serving-men fled to Holbeach, in Staffordshire, where they took refuge in the house of Stephen Lyttleton. On the way they seized arms and armour at Hewell Grange. At Holbeach a slight explosion of gunpowder caused an alarm, and raised their fears. The sheriff and his soldiers surrounded the house.

Two of the conspirators escaped. Catesby and two others were killed by the sheriff's men. Percy was wounded, and died in a day or two. Digby and, four others were captured and taken to London. Robert Winter and Stephen Lyttleton, after reaching Hagley, where they hid for two months, were betrayed by a servant. Two Jesuit priests, suspected of being concerned in the plot, were caught near Worcester, in a secret room behind a gentlewoman's chamber.

The plot had utterly failed, and the prisoners could only expect the vengeance of the Government. It was still usual to torture prisoners suspected of treason. The faithful Fawkes was tortured, and so was one of the priests. But little more was learnt than Salisbury knew already. All the arrested conspirators were executed, except Tresham, who died in prison before his trial.

The effect of the plot was to increase the hostility of the nation against the Catholics. The penal laws were again enforced. Catholics who had begun to attend Church were now required to take the sacrament. Churchwardens and constables were fined if they did not prosecute known recusants, and were rewarded for their success. New fines were inflicted on those who kept Catholic servants. Recusants were forbidden to come within ten miles of London. They were forbidden to practise as attorneys or physicians; they could not be executors of a will, nor guardians of children. They might not be married except in the Church of England.

Their books could be destroyed, and their houses visited by the magistrates in search of arms. It is said that courtiers bought from the king the shameful privilege of seizing land and property belonging to the wealthier Catholics.

For another century the Catholics were persecuted and were cut off from public life. Gunpowder Plot had sealed their fate, and had given new life to the popular hatred, which burst out time after time. Even in the days of George III—when the Gordon Riots, with the cry "No Popery," placed London in the hands of a howling mob for three days and nights—popular fury against Rome was still a living force in England.