Remember, remember the 5th of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot!
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
In the early hours of the 5th of November 1605, the royal guard apprehended a man acting suspiciously in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament. Upon being challenged he declared his name to be John Johnson. The authorities had received a letter tipping them off to a plot to assassinate the king, James I, the royal family and the assembled Members of Parliament at the opening session on that day. It had been decided to let the plan mature further, to the very last hours, maximizing the possibility of catching all the conspirators red-handed. A pre-dawn search of the buildings in the Westminster precincts revealed the swarthy, rugged Mr Johnson lurking amongst thirty-six barrels of gunpowder and a great mass of kindling – flame at the ready. Further enquiries ascertained that a certain Thomas Percy had rented the cellar, and so the first conspirator was connected. A known Catholic recusant (non-conformer to the established Church of England) he was servant and kinsman to Henry Percy, the revered Earl of Northumberland, a warrant was instantly issued for his arrest too. As the held man, John Johnson, was submitted to torture, illegal under common law but permissible by royal assent in the case of treason, the first domino in the chain fell, but not by any word from his lips – it would take three days of manacling and racking before the man held at the Tower of London spoke, admitting that his real name was Guy Fawkes – by this time he had hoped he had given the other twelve men involved in the plot ample time to flee abroad.
James I of England, VI of Scotland, had become successor to the English throne at the death of his childless second cousin, Elizabeth I, in March 1603. The protestant Elizabeth’s reign had been hard on the Catholic citizens who remained in England, her initial tolerance was lost due to various misguided Spanish and French sponsored plots to assassinate her, including one which involved James’ mother, Mary Queen of Scots, and led to her imprisonment and beheading by her English cousin. Recusants under Elizabeth were heavily fined or repeatedly imprisoned. The extortionate fines completely wiped out the fortunes of many great families, but still they refused to give up what they saw as the ‘true faith’, practicing their religion in hidden chapels within their great houses, and harbouring priests within a warren-like network of ingeniously constructed ‘priest holes’. With the coming of a new king came new hope, even though the king himself was a protestant, his beloved mother had been a devout Catholic and so, it was rumoured, was his Danish wife, Anne. The Catholic, English nobles flocked to him as he made his procession down from Scotland to take the crown of England, courting him and managing to gain an indication that he would be tolerant to Catholics under his reign. That was all they wanted – toleration. James suspended the fines and set free those Catholics who were being held in prison because of their faith, he even gave a few known Catholic nobles good positions within his court, in the summer of 1603 all looked set fair for the catholic community of England, some exiles even began to return from abroad. As the year passed and became 1604, the king enjoyed his riding and his hunting but did little to pass laws that assured the Act of Tolerance. Some grew restless and two factions emerged: those Catholics who sought tolerance and those who would see the king toppled and a Catholic relation upon the throne. Initially, these radicals had hoped for help from Spain in this matter, by way of an invasion, but the canny James signed a peace accord with the Spanish, thus scuppering any hope of aid to the rebels. Two audacious plots against him, the Bye Plot and the Main Plot were discovered and many nobles were arrested for their involvement, including England’s darling, Sir Walter Raleigh.
James I was obsessive about his personal safety, having been the target of assassination attempts all his life, these Idiscovered plots changed his mind on tolerance, if his real plan had ever been that at all! In the early months of 1604 James publicly declared his ‘utter detestation of the papist religion’. This was shortly followed by proclamations ordering all Jesuit priests from the kingdom and fines for recusants to be reinstated – with demands for any arrears due through 1603! To a certain young Catholic noble from the Midlands this was too much, he decided the king had to go!
Robert Catesby was a charismatic, glamour boy and hero of his time – a soldier, expert swordsman and horseman; well loved and admired by all at court and in society. His noble family had been heavily persecuted under Elizabeth for their devout Catholicism. From the age of eight Catesby had seen his father regularly taken to the Tower for harbouring priests and other such crimes against the state, and his family were taxed to near bankruptcy for their beliefs. In the summer of 1604 he decided enough was enough. He devised a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament upon its opening session of 1605, killing the king, his two male heirs and the assembled Parliament, the king’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth, who was but ten years old at the time, would be kidnapped and installed as a puppet monarch whilst a pro-Catholic government was installed. Catesby brought together an assembly of likeminded friends and relations and told them of his plan. He had an incredibly persuasive manner, insisting to those who were initially horrified by the idea that ‘a dangerous disease requires a desperate remedy’ (a statement which was to become a catchphrase to the plotters). Catesby recruited Thomas Wintour, Catesby’s brother-in-law and Robert Wintour, his brother. Distant cousins of Catesby, the brothers John and Christopher Wright; Thomas Percy was an intimate friend of Catesby’s and brother-in-law to the Wrights. Later, other close friends and relations were enlisted – Robert Keyes, John Grant, Ambrose Rokewood, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and Thomas Bates (Catesby’s servant). The thirteenth member of the group, an outsider introduced to them by the Wright brothers who went to school with them, was Guy ‘Guido’ Fawkes. A Catholic, Yorkshire man, Fawkes had served as a mercenary in a long military career on the continent and was an expert with explosives. They were united in their devotion to the Catholic religion and a hatred of the English monarchy’s oppression of that faith. They planned their move for the next state opening of parliament in March 1605, but plague was rife in the capital so the parliament was suspended until the fateful day of the 5th November.
The plot was sprung in the small hours of that day, and as word spread across London the people spontaneously lit great bonfires in celebration of their monarch’s safe delivery from the jaws of death. Through the swirling smoke twelve men made desperate rides out from the capital, their plot having been discovered. Instead of making for the safety of the continent, as the be-racked Fawkes was hoping, the men rode to their homes in the Midlands in a vain, final hope of Catesby’s to rally men behind them in an uprising. It quickly became apparent that this was but a fool’s dream and the men made for various hideouts. Heavy rain slowed their escape and some were caught on route. Catesby, Percy and others made for Holbeche House – the home of a friend and sympathizer, Stephen Lyttleton. On the 7th of November, the house was surrounded by Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Worcestershire, and his men and a shoot-out ensued. Catesby, Sir Ambrose Rokewood, Lord John Grant and Grant’s friend, Henry Morgan, all died in the battle, their situation not helped by an explosion of their own gunpowder stores that had been set to dry out by the fire!
The rest of the conspirators were rounded up, as were those close to them as well as many innocents who were wrongly implicated. The main surviving plotters were hung, drawn and quartered as were some who were wrongly condemned. Others suffered imprisonment and heavy fines, including wives and aunts of the conspirators. Guy Fawkes appeared before the baying mob of spectators who had paid up to ten shillings each to see the ‘terrorists’ suffer their gruesome execution, but he denied them their spectacle by jumping from the gallows when the noose was placed around his neck, thus killing himself and avoiding his drawing and quartering whilst still conscious.
Catholic emancipation was set back another two hundred years because of this plot and Catholicism was not fully and legally re-established in England until 1850. James I installed an Act of Parliament in January 1606 called the ‘Thanksgiving Act’ which decreed that the populace would commemorate his safe deliverance from the evil plot on November the 5th each year, and thus the tradition of bonfires, fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes was born. The Act remained within the constitution until 1859, and Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated the length and breadth of this land to this day. Though, to my mind, it should be ‘Robert Catesby’s Night’ by rights, but time and tradition has forgotten the real man behind the plot, and his cohorts; only the outsider, the ‘hired help’ has been remembered.
Remember, Remember the fifth of November
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why in this gunpowder treason
Catesby should ever be forgot!(Addition to the traditional rhyme by Peggy-Dorothea)
Peggy-Dot AKA novelist Peggy-Dorothea Beydon, is the author of The Book Ark series and More Than Gold – A Klondike Adventure. She is also a highly accomplished craftswoman. You can discover much more about her and her work by going to the home page of this website.