In this series on the English Civil War, Myra King follows up on her articles about the Divine Right of Kings, and Henry VIII and bloody religious change, by telling us about the Gunpowder Plot. Was it really carried out by Guy Fawkes or was there a conspiracy led by somebody who thought that King James I was too tolerant towards Catholics?
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunfire treason and plot. I see no reason why the gunfire treason should ever be forgot,”
On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes and his twelve co-conspirators put the final nail in the Catholic coffin. Their idea had been to use thirty-six barrels of gunpowder to blow the British Parliament sky high. Their plan was to kill the king, kidnap his nine-year-old daughter, force her into Catholicism, and crown her their dummy queen. The king, James I, had caused great disappointment in the tiny Catholic community by refusing to reinstate the old denomination. Under James I’s predecessor, Elizabeth I, Catholics had lived safely enough but had been fined for practicing their illegal religion. James had abolished these fines, creating a more tolerant kingdom. But juggling all the different strands of Christianity eventually became too much for the king and he abandoned his tolerant attitude. Catholics, as well as Puritans, were to be fined for practicing anything but Protestantism. They were now also banned from obtaining degrees, holding certain jobs, and sitting in parliament. Sure, they were the minority, and if they really wanted, Catholics could practice in secret, but there would always be troublemakers. Thirteen to be exact.
A CONSPIRACY BEHIND THE GUNDPOWER PLOT?
According to legend, the plotters rented a house next to parliament and carried thirty-six barrels of gunpowder down to the cellar where the explosives expert, Guy Fawkes, was waiting to light the fuse and send the building to that great fireworks display on the other side. But as luck would have it, the cellar was searched the night before and our pyrotechnist was found. He was tortured and confessed the whole plot. He and his cohorts were then executed.
That is the famous version of the story. Many modern historians believe it to be far more sinister than that though.
Firstly, let us go back to James’s predecessor, Elizabeth. The Tudor lady wasn’t necessarily queenly material. In fact she had a foul temper and very bad manners. But something she did have was the knowledge to put others in charge of areas she knew nothing about. One such man was Robert Cecil, her chief advisor. Cecil was a brilliant politician (but not in the utterly-useless-but-hides-it-well way); he knew how to run a kingdom like a well-oiled machine. England was the envy of Europe under his (er, Elizabeth’s) reign.
Cecil had the grave misfortune of outliving Elizabeth though, and this meant that he had to mold himself to the new king. Unlike Lizzie, James had always been heir to a throne, therefore always groomed for a life of leadership. As an already ruling king of Scotland, James arrived with no need for advisers either. Cecil had to retreat to the shadows, but James’s tolerant attitude to Catholics was more than Cecil could bear. Unlike the new king, Cecil knew of the violent religious history of England and he knew that it was just a matter of time before all hell broke loose in the kingdom. Religious freedom could not be allowed, as the extremists would always take it too far. And Guy Fawkes proved Cecil’s fear.
The information surrounding the gunpowder plot does not add up however. How would known Catholics have been able to rent a house right next to parliament? That was illegal. How would they have even gotten the barrels of gunpowder into parliament? Surely they couldn't have just walked in. CCTV didn't exist yet but the idea of having no security at parliament is absolutely ridiculous. Not to mention, from where did they get this gunpowder? The only people to sell gunpowder would have been the government. Why would the government have sold thirty-six barrels of gunpowder to known Catholics? Unless the government - most notably William Cecil - wanted these Catholics to have gunpowder. It was no secret that King James was terrified for his safety. As the only heir of Mary, Queen of Scots, he had seen his fair share of death threats and even a kidnapping. So what would happen if somebody decided to use that fear against him? Could Cecil have orchestrated the entire plot in order to demonstrate how dangerous and untrustworthy Catholics were? Could he have hired the thirteen men, given them the idea of the plot and the gunpowder, and then simply waited for the end result? Cecil was no longer in charge, so if he wanted something done, he would have to find another way to do it. It is at least very suspicious that Cecil constantly talked about the danger of Catholicism, ‘miraculously’ the king was almost killed by Catholics, and suddenly Cecil’s word was law... Could he have staged it all?
THE PLOT THICKENS
The most damning of all the evidence is, I think, the ‘Monteagle Letter.’ One of the plotters, Francis Tresham, was a cousin with a man named Lord Monteagle. On October 26 a mysterious stranger came through the night bringing a letter to the Lord’s home. A letter with a very dark message. It was a warning to Monteagle that under no circumstances was he to go to Parliament on November 5. It simply, and without embarrassment, stated that parliament would receive a blow and all present would be killed. This letter was personally addressed to Monteagle but instead of reading it in private as protocol dictated, he had his servant read it out loud. Why was this done? And how, oh how, did Monteagle just magically have a letter delivered by a servant who could actually read? That alone is a bit of magic as this was a time when only the wealthy could read. Was the “servant” put in place to read aloud so that Monteagle had a witness? Does this mean Monteagle knew what the letter contained? Well, it is rather interesting when you take Monteagle’s next action on board... The Lord then took the letter straight to (surprise, surprise) William Cecil. Why him? Cecil then ordered a search of parliament and, low and behold, Guy Fawkes was found.
Tresham appears with more conspiracy later in the plot. Technically it is his fault the co-conspirators were caught. But while Guy Fawkes and the rest of the plotters were tortured to reveal information and then hanged, drawn and quartered, Tresham was simply locked in the Tower of London. Why? He was also locked in the cell by himself and was later found dead. Official records state he was poisoned. Who had poisoned him and why? Tresham obviously had vital information that spared him the wrack and the noose, but ultimately cost him his life. Was that information the damning truth of the so-called gunpowder plot?
Whether you believe the gunpowder plot was an inside job or you believe it truly was just another act of religious hatred, the fact still remains that this plot showed the scary depth of religious hatred and lack of love for the monarch. The gunpowder plot was just one more step closer to a war against the king and all who stood for him.
We continue our story of the English Civil War and problems with King Charles I here.