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The Guy Fawkes Gunpowder Plot

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Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot…


Words of “Remember Remember” refer to Guy Fawkes with origins in 17th century English history.

On the 5th of November 1605 Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with several dozen barrels of gunpowder. (Uh-Oh!)

Fawkes was subsequently tried as a traitor with his co-conspirators for plotting against the British government. He was tried by Judge Popham who came to London specifically for the trial from his country manor Littlecote House in Hungerford, Gloucestershire. Fawkes was sentenced to death and the form of the execution was one of the most horrendous ever practised (hung ,drawn and quartered) which reflected the serious nature of the crime of treason.

GPP Conspirators

L to Right: Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, John Wright, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby and Thomas Wintour

The plot intended to kill the King and most of the Protestant aristocracy by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening on November 5th, 1605. The plan was overseen from May 1604 by Robert Catesby, with the conspirators coming from either wealthy Catholic or highly influential gentry families.

Catesby may have decided on the plot when hopes of greater tolerance of Roman Catholicism under King James I of England faded, leaving many Catholics disappointed.

King James of England
However, it is likely that Catesby simply sought a future for Catholicism in England enabled by his drastic scheme: the plot was intended as the first step in a rebellion, during which James’ nine-year-old daughter (Princess Elizabeth) could be installed as a Catholic head of state.

The explosives were prepared by Guy “Guido” Fawkes, a man with 10 years military experience gained by fighting with the Spanish against the Dutch in the Spanish Netherlands.

The details of the plot were reputedly well-known to the principal Jesuit of England, Father Henry Garnet, as he had learned of the plot from Oswald Tesimond, a fellow Jesuit who, with the permission of his penitent Robert Catesby, had discussed the plot with him.

Although he was convicted, there has since been some debate over how much Garnet really knew.

As the details of the plot were known through confession, Garnet was bound against revealing them to the authorities. Despite his admonitions and protestations, the plot went ahead; however, Garnet’s opposition to it did not save him.

Father Henry Garnet

Conspired to assassinate King James I and members of the Parliament of England.

Father Henry Garnet, was executed in May 1606.

He died with dignity, and when his severed head was displayed, the crowd, rather than shouting “God save the king!” grew ugly and turned on the executioners, forcing them to flee in haste.

By March 1605, they had filled the undercroft underneath the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder, concealed under a store of winter fuel. Had all 36 barrels been successfully ignited, the explosion could easily have reduced many of the buildings in the Old Palace of Westminster complex to rubble, and would have blown out windows in the surrounding area of about a 1 kilometre radius.

The conspirators left London in May, and went to their homes or to different areas of the country, because being seen together would arouse suspicion. They arranged to meet again in September; however, the opening of Parliament was again postponed.

BETRAYAL

The weakest parts of the plot were the arrangements for the subsequent rebellion which would have swept the country and installed a Catholic monarch. Due to the requirements for money and arms, Sir Francis Tresham was eventually admitted to the plot, and it was probably he who betrayed the plot in writing to his brother-in-law Lord Monteagle.

An anonymous letter revealed some of the details of the plot; it read:

“I advise you to devise some excuse not to attend this parliament, for they shall receive a terrible blow, and yet shall not see who hurts them”.

Guy Fawkes Mask

DISCOVERY

During the preparation, several of the conspirators had been concerned about the safety of fellow Catholics who would be present in Parliament on the day of the planned explosion. On the evening of Friday, 26 October Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter while at his house in Hoxton.

The conspirators learned of the letter the following day, but resolved to go ahead with their plan, especially after Fawkes inspected the undercroft and found that nothing had been touched.

Having been shown the letter, the King ordered Sir Thomas Knyvet to conduct a search of the cellars underneath Parliament, which he did in the early hours of 5 November.

Shortly after midnight, Fawkes was found leaving the cellar the conspirators had rented and was arrested, giving his name as John Johnson.

Inside, the barrels of gunpowder were discovered hidden under piles of firewood and coal. Far from denying his intentions during the arrest, Fawkes stated that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament.

Nevertheless, Fawkes maintained his false identity and continued to insist that he was acting alone. Later in the morning, before noon, he was again interrogated. He was questioned on the nature of his accomplices, the involvement of Thomas Percy, what letters he had received from overseas and whether or not he had spoken with Hugh Owen.

Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London and interrogated there under torture. Torture was forbidden, except by the express instruction of the monarch or a body such as the Privy Council or the Star Chamber. In a letter of 6 November, King James I stated:

The gentler tortours [tortures] are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by steps extended to greater ones], and so God speed your good work.

Bonfire

Traditionally bonfires are lit in Britain every 5th of November to commemorate the plot.

Trial and executions

On hearing of the failure of the plot, the conspirators fled towards Huddington Court near Worcester, a family home of Thomas and Robert Wintour. Heavy rain, however, slowed their travels. Many of them were caught by Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Worcestershire, when they arrived in Stourbridge.

The conspirators were tried on 27 January 1606 in Westminster Hall. All of the plotters pleaded “Not Guilty” except for Sir Everard Digby, who attempted to defend himself on the grounds that the King had reneged on his promises of greater tolerance of Catholicism.

Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general, prosecuted, and the Earl of Northampton made a speech refuting the charges laid by Sir Everard Digby. The trial lasted one day (English criminal trials generally did not exceed a single day’s duration) and the verdict was never in doubt.

The trial ranked highly as a public spectacle, and there are records of up to 10 shillings being paid for entry. Four of the plotters were executed in St. Paul’s Churchyard on 30 January. On 31 January, Fawkes, Winter and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster, in front of the scene of the intended crime, where they were to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes, although weakened by torture, cheated the executioners: when he was to be hanged until almost dead, he jumped from the gallows, breaking his neck and killing himself, thus avoiding the gruesome latter part his execution.

Execution of Guy Fawkes

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