On This Day

gunpowder plot, gunpowder plot conspirators, guy fawkes
National Portrait Gallery
The Gunpowder Plot
: Thomas Bates, Robert Winter, Christopher Wright, John Wright, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby and Thomas Winter.

On This Day: Guy Fawkes Caught; Gunpowder Plot Foiled

November 05, 2011 05:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On Nov. 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellar of the House of Lords guarding barrels of gunpowder, exposing a plot to kill the king.

The Gunpowder Plot

The Gunpowder Plot was hatched by a band of English Catholic conspirators led by Robert Catesby, a charismatic and persuasive man who had been involved in rebellions against the government in 1601 and 1602. He was joined by Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes and two other men. They formulated a plan on May 20, 1604 to blow up the Houses of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605, when British leaders would be assembling for the opening of Parliament.

They rented a house in Westminster and planned to dig a tunnel underneath the House of Lords, though this was not successful. They caught a break when a storeroom under the House of Lords became available; Percy rented it in March 1605 and Fawkes—calling himself “John Johnson,” Percy’s servant—took residence there. The conspirators were soon able to move 36 barrels of gunpowder into the storeroom.

In the following months, the conspirators would add eight members, including Francis Tresham. It was likely that Tresham revealed the plan to the Catholic nobleman Lord Monteagle in an Oct. 26 letter warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament. Monteagle sent the letter to King James I's first minister, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, while Monteagle’s servant warned the conspirators that their plot had been leaked.

Salisbury delayed taking action and the conspirators thought they were in the clear. On the night of Nov. 4, Fawkes was stationed in the storeroom, preparing to light the gunpowder the following day and escape to Europe. Salisbury ordered a search of the Houses of Parliament; the first search discovered an unusual amount of firewood in the storeroom, but the guards decided not to take any action.

A second search was ordered, during which the guards found Fawkes and arrested him. Over the next 24 hours, Fawkes refused to divulge information about himself or the plot. James I authorized the use of torture and Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London to be tortured on England’s only rack. Over the next two days, he finally revealed his real name and the details of the plot.

Meanwhile, six of the conspirators had fled London for the English Midlands, where they hoped to stir up a Catholic rebellion. They failed to find support and, on Nov. 8, they were cornered by government forces. Catesby, Percy and two others were killed in the ensuing shootout and the rest were captured.

Fawkes and seven other conspirators were convicted of treason and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Fawkes cheated the gruesome drawing and quartering by jumping from the hanging platform and breaking his own neck.

Background: Catholic Plots in England

The Gunpowder Plot grew out of Catholic-Protestant tension that had existed in England since the 1520s, when King Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England.

Queen Mary I, known as Bloody Mary, tried to reinstitute Catholicism through violent persecution of Protestants during her reign of 1553-8. Her successor, her half-sister Elizabeth, similarly persecuted Catholics. She lived with the threat of Catholic plots, both real and imagined, to kill her and place her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne.

When Elizabeth died in 1603, she was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots. Catholics were initially hopeful that James would offer them protection. However, under pressure from the anti-Catholic House of Commons and faced with a plot to put his Catholic cousin Arabella Stuart on the throne, James continued many of Elizabeth’s repressive policies, motivating the Gunpowder Plot conspirators to take action.

“Remember, Remember the Fifth of November”

In the early morning hours of Nov. 5, as Londoners learned that the king had survived an assassination plot, they lit bonfires in thanks. Nov. 5 became a yearly celebration in England, with people gathering to light bonfires and toss effigies of Fawkes—known as “the Guy”—into the fire.

Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Day, is still celebrated today in England and abroad, featuring bonfires and fireworks displays. Schoolchildren make effigies of Fawkes and learn rhymes about him, most notably “Remember, Remember.” It begins:

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!”

The image of Fawkes was made famous around the world by the 2006 film “V for Vendetta,” which featured a man in a Fawkes mask waging war against the government.

Reference: Primary Sources and Documentaries

The Gunpowder Plot Society features primary sources such as examinations, confessions and letters of the conspirators, and proclamations of Elizabeth I and James VI, as well as a list of the best books to read about the plot. The Web site also includes biographies of the plotters and other key figures.

The BBC offers two documentaries of the gunpowder plot. The first, “The Gunpowder Plot,” is a serious look at the story, covering the situation for Catholics in England, the five main conspirators, their plan, the preparation of the gunpowder, the discovery of the plot and the punishment of the conspirators.

The second, “Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot,” is a light-hearted look at the story that addresses common myths.

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