Gunpowder Plot - Guy Fawkes Day

The Gunpowder Conspiracy of 1605, as it was then known, (also known as The Powder Treason or The Gunpowder Plot) was a failed assassination attempt by a group of provincial English Catholics against King James I of England and VI of Scotland.

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 5 November 1605.

The conspirators also planned to abduct the royal children, and lead a popular revolt in the Midlands.


The plot 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 faded, leaving many Catholics disappointed. 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.

Other plotters included Thomas Winter (also spelled Wintour), Robert Winter, John Wright, Christopher Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Percy (also spelled Percye), John Grant, Ambrose Rokewood, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and Thomas Bates (Catesby's servant). 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 from being hanged, drawn and quartered for treason in 1606.


The Palace of Westminster in the early 17th century was a warren of buildings clustered around the medieval chambers, chapels, and halls of the former royal palace that housed both Parliament and the various law courts. Unlike the secure present-day building, the old palace was easily accessible; merchants, lawyers, and others, lived and worked in the lodgings, shops, and taverns within its precincts.

In May 1604 Thomas Percy, using his newly acquired status as a member of the King's Bodyguard, was able to lease lodgings adjacent to the House of Lords. The plotters' original idea was to mine their way under the foundations of the Lords chamber to lay the gunpowder there. The main idea was to kill James, but many other important targets were to be present, including the majority of the Protestant nobility and senior bishops of the Church of England. Guy Fawkes, as "John Johnson", was put in charge of this building, where he posed as Percy's servant, while Catesby's house in Lambeth was used to store the gunpowder with the picks and implements for mining.

However, when the Plague came back to London in the summer of 1604 and proved to be particularly severe, the opening of Parliament was suspended to 1605. By Christmas Eve, the miners had still not reached the buildings of Parliament, and just as they recommenced work early in 1605, they learned that the opening of Parliament had been further postponed to 3 October. The plotters then took the opportunity to row the gunpowder up the Thames from Catesby's house in Lambeth, to conceal it in their new rented house: they had learned (by chance) that a coal merchant named Ellen Bright had vacated a ground-floor undercroft directly beneath the House of Lords chamber. Presented with this golden opportunity, Percy immediately took pains to secure the lease. To deflect any suspicions he created the story that his wife was set to join him in London and thus he would require the extra storage space.

Fawkes assisted in filling the room with gunpowder, which was concealed beneath a wood store under the House of Lords building, in a cellar leased from John Whynniard. 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.

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".
According to the confession made by Fawkes on Tuesday 5 November 1605, he had left Dover around Easter 1605, bound for Calais. He then travelled to Saint-Omer and on to Brussels, where he met with Hugh Owen and Sir William Stanley before making a pilgrimage to Brabant. He returned to England at the end of August or early September, again by way of Calais.

Guy Fawkes was left in charge of executing the plot, while the other conspirators fled to Dunchurch in Warwickshire to await news. Once Parliament had been destroyed, the other conspirators planned to incite a revolt in the Midlands.


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.

My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse, to shift your attendance at this parliament; for God and man have concurred to punish the wickedness of this time And think not slightly of this advertisement but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be contemned, because it may do you good, and can do you no harm, for the danger is past as soon as you have burned the letter: and I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.
Monteagle had the note read out loud, possibly to warn the plotters that the secret was out, and promptly handed it over to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, the Secretary of State. 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.

A letter written by Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Sir Edward Hoby gave details of all those that would have been caught in the explosion:

On the 5th of November we began a Parliament, to which the King should have cometh in person, but refrained through a practice but that morning discovered. The plot was to have blown up the King at such time as he should have been sat in his royal throne, Nobility and Commons and with all Bishops, Judges and Doctors at one instant, and the blast to have ruined the whole estate and kingdom of England.

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.

The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot aroused a wave of national relief at the delivery of the king and his sons, and inspired in the ensuing parliament a mood of loyalty and goodwill, which Salisbury astutely exploited to extract higher subsidies for the king than any (bar one) granted in Elizabeth's reign. In his speech to both Houses on 9 November, James expounded on two emerging preoccupations of his monarchy: the Divine Right of Kings and the Catholic question. He insisted that the plot had been the work of only a few Catholics, not of the English Catholics as a whole, and he reminded the assembly to rejoice at his survival, since kings were divinely appointed and he owed his escape to a miracle.


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 remaining men attempted a revolt in the Midlands. This failed, coming to a dramatic end at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, where there was a shoot-out resulting in the deaths of Catesby and Percy and capture of several other principal conspirators. Jesuits and others were then rounded up in other locations in Britain, with some being killed by torture during interrogation. Robert Wintour managed to remain on the run for two months before he was captured at Hagley Park.

Seventeenth-century print of the members of the Gunpowder Plot being hanged, drawn, and quartered
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 of his execution.[17]
Henry Garnet was executed on 3 May 1606 at St Paul's. His crime was of being the confessor of several members of the Gunpowder Plot, and as noted, he had opposed the plot. Many spectators thought that his punishment was too severe.

Antonia Fraser writes:

With a loud cry of "hold, hold" they stopped the hangman cutting down the body while Garnet was still alive. Others pulled the priest's legs ... which was traditionally done to ensure a speedy death.


Guy Fawkes Night is an annual celebration on the evening of 5 November. It marks the downfall of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, in which a number of Catholic conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament, in London, United Kingdom.

It is primarily marked in the United Kingdom where it was compulsory, by fiat, until 1859, to celebrate the deliverance of the King of Great Britain; but, it is also celebrated in former British colonies including New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, and parts of the British Caribbean. Bonfire Night was celebrated in Australia until the mid- to late 1970s, when sale and public use of fireworks was made illegal and the celebration was effectively abolished. It is also celebrated in the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda. Festivities are centred on the use of fireworks and the lighting of bonfires.

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd (or by God's mercy)
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring. (Holla)
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!