Tensions were high in England in late October 1605, when an English nobleman, Lord Monteagle, received a mysterious letter. Along with the rest of England’s peers and the king, Monteagle intended to attend the opening of Parliament a few days later, on November 5.
The unsigned letter got straight to the point: “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 of your attendance at this parliament . . . for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow.”
The mysterious sender then urged Monteagle to burn the letter after having read its contents. Monteagle—a Catholic—did no such thing. Saving himself from the gruesome punishment that would soon engulf certain of his co-religionists, he forwarded the missive to Robert Cecil, chief minister of King James I. Many English Protestants suspected that members of the Catholic minority were plotting to topple the monarchy and impose a Catholic regime with foreign funding and aid, and this message seemed to confirm their suspicions.
The letter made its way to King James, who doubted, at first, that the threat was genuine. Despite the royal skepticism, on November 4, the Earl of Suffolk conducted a search of the Palace of Westminster and its environs, where England’s Parliament was due to meet the next day. The earl reported that he found no substantial cause for concern, but he did notice a privately rented ground-floor storeroom that contained an unusually large amount of firewood.
A Legend Is Born
Later that day, Sir Thomas Knyvett, a minor but trustworthy royal official, oversaw a second search of the buildings around Parliament. The same storeroom likewise attracted his attention, as did the man Knyvett found guarding it. He was not dressed like a watchman; instead he was wearing a cloak, boots, and spurs—clothes more suited, it seemed, for making a quick getaway on horseback.
Knyvett’s men shifted the firewood and found 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden behind it. The man, who gave his name as John Johnson, was found to have “matches” (long fuses) on his person. Knyvett had uncovered an astonishing conspiracy to blow up the members of both Houses of Parliament, the king, most of the royal family, and leading officers of state. The aim was to set up a Roman Catholic regime in Protestant England, with James I’s daughter Elizabeth—who would not be in attendance—as its puppet ruler.
Arrested and tortured, John Johnson revealed that he was from Yorkshire in northern England and that his real name was Guy Fawkes. He was one of several Catholic conspirators in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot. While not the ringleader himself, Fawkes became the best known member of the most famous conspiracy in English history. His capture has been illustrated in countless schoolbooks, novels, popular works of history, and movies: a tall, bearded figure in boots, dark cloak, and dark, wide-brimmed hat. It is his figure that is still burned in effigy on bonfires around England every year on November 5.
To understand the motivations of the man arrested that November night more than 400 years ago, however, it is necessary to examine an England and a Europe different from today. Fawkes and his fellow conspirators attempted to mount a terrorist attack on their own king and government because of religious upheavals occurring half a century before.
The political and religious instability unleashed by the Reformation had resulted in pitting Catholics against Protestants throughout Europe. In England religious strife resulted in the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558. The following year she and her advisers created a religious “settlement,” which envisaged a Protestant national church. The monarch was at its head, although it retained bishops, along with the traditional church courts and some pre-Reformation ceremonial practices.
Many English Catholics refused to accept the 1559 settlement. In this period it was generally accepted in Europe that all subjects of a state should adhere to its official form of Christianity. To achieve this religious uniformity, the Elizabethan regime forbade Catholic worship, including performance of baptisms, marriages, and funerals. Being a practicing Catholic was punishable by law. Fines, which could be very heavy for habitual offenders, were imposed on those refusing to attend Church of England services. Printing or importing Catholic books became high treason. Foreign-trained English Catholic priests who entered England were declared traitors, as were those who helped, housed, or hid them.
All men taking administrative office, from members of Parliament to schoolteachers, had to swear an oath denying the power of the pope and recognizing Elizabeth as head of the church. Elsewhere, England was involved in constant warfare in Ireland, which was populated by Catholics. English statesmen feared Spanish intervention on behalf of England’s Catholics, while, conversely, English Catholics looked to Spain for armed support in a potential rebellion.
English Protestant propaganda stressed atrocities committed in the name of Catholicism. The English population was also constantly reminded of the more than 280 people burned in five years by Elizabeth’s Catholic predecessor, Mary I, and the 1570 papal bull, which had declared Elizabeth illegitimate and encouraged her subjects to rebel against her. By the close of the 16th century the Spanish Armada—dispatched in 1588 by Philip II of Spain, and defeated by Elizabeth—was still a fresh memory, along with its mission to reimpose Catholicism in England.
Religion also dominated the situation on the other side of the English Channel. In France the Wars of Religion pitted French Catholics against French Protestants. Farther north, the Protestant Dutch Republic was embroiled in a bitter conflict with Spain. The sack of Antwerp by Spanish troops in 1576 provided English Protestants with another example of Catholic cruelty.
After Elizabeth I’s death in 1603, hopes were high that her successor, James I (who had ruled Scotland as James VI), would begin a new era of peace. The son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, James was Protestant, but English Catholics were hopeful he would be more sympathetic to them. Even Spanish agents expressed doubts about stirring up a Catholic uprising in England now that James had taken the throne. International relations took a more placid turn as well. At the signing of the Treaty of London of 1604, England agreed to end aid to the Protestant Dutch, and Spain agreed to give no military assistance to English Catholics.
Catesby and Company
These developments helped quiet the minds of some of England’s Catholic dissidents. English Catholicism was characterized by gentry leadership, which often had both sufficient influence and money. Many were well-positioned enough to bear the disadvantages loaded upon them and became “church papists,” conforming publicly to the 1559 religious settlement while privately practicing their religion.
Some Catholic dissidents, however, sought to overthrow Protestant rule in England. King James’s adherence to the 1559 settlement and public continuance of intolerant policies inspired some to take a more active role to place a Catholic monarch on the throne. One such person was Robert Catesby, the son of a gentry Catholic family from the English midlands. Although less famous than Guy Fawkes today, it was, in fact, the charismatic and persuasive Catesby who organized what later became the Gunpowder Plot.
In his early 30s when he conceived the plot, Catesby had a strong, attractive personality. A Victorian historian declared “he is said to have exercised a magical influence on all who mixed with him.” He used his charisma to sell his belief that only extreme, spectacular violence would end the persecution suffered by English Catholics. The idea of using gunpowder had occurred to him in 1603, and Catesby began recruiting in early 1604. The plan? To blow up Parliament and King James I in the hopes that Catholic rule could be restored in the aftermath.
The plot’s first members belonged to the disaffected Catholic gentry: thirtysomethings Thomas Winter and John Wright and the slightly older Thomas Percy. Winter traveled to Flanders, which was under Spanish rule, to seek out Spanish assistance, but Spain was not interested.
Luckily Winter found someone who was: Guy Fawkes, a former schoolmate of Wright. Going by the first name Guido at that time, the English Fawkes was fighting for the Spanish in Flanders. Born a Protestant in York in 1570, Fawkes later converted to Catholicism. Intelligent, tough, and cool-headed, his qualities were noted by English Catholics. Winter learned of Fawkes’s extensive expertise in explosives and convinced him to join the plot. In May 1604, at the Duck and Drake Inn in London, the five men met and swore an oath of loyalty and, most important of all, secrecy.
Catesby’s explosive attack on the English crown took shape in the months that followed. Percy began living in a house close to Parliament while Fawkes, by then adopting his pseudonym John Johnson, posed as his servant. The plotters began acquiring gunpowder. The conspiracy later grew to include new members who provided funds and further resources. They were Robert Keyes, Robert Winter (brother of Thomas), John Grant, Christopher Wright (brother of John), and the servant Thomas Bates.
In March 1605 Percy rented a basement storeroom at the Palace of Westminster. The gunpowder was then transported directly there, where, under the expert supervision of Fawkes, it could do the most damage. Three wealthy, influential men—Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham, and Sir Everard Digby—joined the conspiracy, bringing the total number to 13.
Several times they had planned to launch the attack when Parliament opened, but delays forced them to wait. Finally, in November 1605, it appeared that the plan would finally be set in motion. It is remarkable that, with a total of 13 plotters, the conspiracy stayed secret until Lord Monteagle received his letter. Scholars have long puzzled over the identity of the sender. One candidate is Monteagle’s own brother-in-law, Francis Tresham, one of Catesby’s co-conspirators, but no conclusive proof has been found. In any case, once Monteagle handed over the letter, the search was ordered, and Fawkes arrested and brought to the Tower of London in the early hours of November 5.
Execution and Aftermath
Fawkes was able to resist interrogation, until King James issued an order on November 6, 1605, authorizing the use of torture on Fawkes, who only then relented and confessed. By then, many of the conspirators had fled, but the king’s forces moved swiftly to hunt them down. Catesby, Percy, and Christopher Wright were killed in a shoot-out in Staffordshire in northern England with James I’s soldiers. Catesby’s death spared him from the grisly punishments meted out to traitors, but also denied historians his version of how the conspiracy unfolded—how the idea of blowing up Parliament came to him, as well as the way in which he recruited his team of conspirators. The rest were caught, taken back to London, and convicted of treason (except for Francis Tresham, who died in prison before the trial). All who were tried were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Fawkes and the others were set for execution in January 1606—“these wretches,” as James described them, “who thought to have blown up the whole world of this Island.” Fawkes was able to escape his full sentence. On the day of execution, he jumped from the gallows, breaking his own neck in the fall. Nonetheless, his corpse was quartered and sent to “the four corners of the kingdom.” The other men received the full measure of their sentences as a warning to other potential rebels.
King James’s reaction was remarkably circumspect. He was anxious to avoid both a pogrom against his Catholic subjects and diplomatic tensions with Catholic states. His speech to Parliament and official sermons preached by leading churchmen stressed the heinousness of the plot—but also accepted that many English Catholics were still loyal subjects. The miraculous nature of the plot’s discovery proved an important propaganda tool. Even before the executions of the plotters, Parliament passed the Thanksgiving Act of 1606 requiring every parish church in England to deliver a sermon on November 5 thanking God for deliverance from a Catholic plot.
Over time the day of thanksgiving morphed into Guy Fawkes Day (also called Bonfire Night) throughout the United Kingdom. Every November 5, fireworks (representing the gunpowder) and bonfires mark the occasion, with straw effigies of Fawkes—called “Guys”—being burned. Despite not being the leader of the conspiracy, Fawkes became the face of it, and was elevated to lasting fame.
James Sharpe is professor emeritus of early modern history at the University of York, England, and author of Remember Remember, the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot (Profile Books, 2006).
This story originally published in November 2017, and was updated on November 3, 2018.