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,”

 

I do.

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 depiction of plotter Guy Fawkes from "Guy Fawkes - The Fifth of November a Prelude in One Act." The play was performed in 1793 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London.

A depiction of plotter Guy Fawkes from "Guy Fawkes - The Fifth of November a Prelude in One Act." The play was performed in 1793 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London.

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.

Supposedly.

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.


 

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In this article, Myra King follows up on her article about the Divine Right of Kings, by telling us about religious conflict in Henry VIII’s England. As we will see, this conflict would continue to simmer beneath the surface well into the 1600s; indeed, it would be a major factor in the English Civil War.

 

Once upon a time in a land far, far away, a regal king met the woman of his dreams. He instantly knew he had to marry her and make her his Queen. The only problem with this plan… He was already married.

When Henry VIII came across Anne Boleyn, he was already in his fourteenth year of marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Divorce was the only option. Unfortunately the pope refused to grant him one. After nearly seven years of fighting the Vatican, Henry got his Tudor breeches in a twist and decided to break away from the Roman Catholic Church. He established the Church of England, making himself the leader and instated the newly formed denomination, Protestantism. This was no simple decision as Catholicism had been the official religion of England since the Romans had brought it over one thousand years earlier. The people of England had had their faith ripped out from underneath them and they had no way to fight it. Henry’s decision to break with Rome did not end at the peaceful renaming of churches. Henry introduced an act called “The Reformation” and that was far from peaceful. Thomas Cromwell and Henry’s goons ransacked over eight hundred monasteries, literally stripping them of everything from their lead roofs, to their golden candlesticks and valuable books. The lucky monks were thrown into the street. The rest were executed for refusing to comply. The reformation brought in a ton of gold for Henry and a ton of misery for everyone else. Many of those who revolted against this act were murdered. Not only the rebellious men, but their wives and even small children were left swinging from ropes.

A strange fruit left to rot in the fields. 

King Henry VIII of England by Lucas Horenbout (c. 1526)

King Henry VIII of England by Lucas Horenbout (c. 1526)

It wasn’t only the peasants who met their untimely deaths in the reformation. Several of Henry’s own politicians were sent for the chop. Not to mention the fact that women were subjected to torture on the rack. An act unheard of before the tyrant Henry and his church.

There was nothing peaceful about this religious change. Many suffered at the newborn hands of the Church of England. This was the start of the religious wars that would plague the country for over a century. The people of England now became the unfortunate pawns in this genocide. And they had no way to fight back.

 

THE END OF THE KING

In 1547, Henry finally succumbed to whatever ailment had killed him (it is heavily debated), leaving his nine-year-old son, Edward VI, as king. Edward, having been born and bred a Protestant, kept the kingdom as his father had left it. But Edward was a sickly boy and at the tender age of fifteen he was dead and buried. This left his elder sister, Mary I, as queen. Mary’s bloodlust and stupidity is almost stomach turning. Her first act as queen was to undo the reformation and return England to the Vatican. Bad idea. By this point, the Church of England was the only religion the young English knew. They had been schooled by Henry and Edward to read the bible, now Mary burned them for it. They had been taught that prayers were private, and the vanity and abuse of the Catholic Church were not their god’s doing. Mary burned them for questioning the Vatican. Mary’s second mistake was to marry her cousin, Philip of Spain. He was a money and power hungry Catholic who was anything but popular among the English. Mary had been warned by her government that marriage to Philip would be political suicide. But she did not heed their warning. And so, Philip brought his hand in marriage as well as his need to conquer an unconquerable land – France.

England owned one town in France, Calais, a town close to England on the French coast. Philip wanted more. Mary’s government begged her not to go to war with the French. England was in trouble, you see; it had done nothing but rain during Mary’s reign. The crops were ruined. There would be no food for the following year. England needed her money in order to buy food from the French. They couldn’t use that money for war. Mary would not listen though. England not only lost the war with France, but also Calais – a town that could have produced food for them.

 

BACK TO SQUARE ONE

In Mary’s five short years as Queen she undid the horror that her father had done; all Henry VIII’s crimes against his people had been for nothing. She burned every Protestant she could find in a land completely Protestant. She married an unpopular fool and sent her army to their deaths to do his bidding. She lost French territory. She did nothing as her country flooded and starved to death. She earned herself the nickname “Bloody Mary” and is known as the most useless monarch England has ever had. All in the name of religion. Once again, the English people were the wretched victims of a monarch’s unholy obsession with their own religious ideas. More than three hundred Protestants were burned at the stake so that she could purge the country of the religion her father had killed nearly fifty-seven thousand people to introduce.

Mary died childless in 1558, leaving her half-sister as queen. Elizabeth quickly changed the country back to Protestantism. And the only people who needed to fear the stake were the corrupt Catholic priests. No one mourned for them; no one mourned the loss of Catholicism. Her memory lives on as one of the greatest leaders in English history; she has no connection to religious genocide. Her father and sister live in infamy as atrocious monarchs hated by the people. And besides their laughable marriages, all they are known for is the suffering their religious beliefs caused. Could it be a coincidence that one is adored while the other two are abhorred?

Elizabeth died childless in 1603 and left the throne to her cousin’s son, the king of Scotland – James VI of Scotland. England’s first fear was that the Catholic king would bring his dreaded religion to England and that there would be a repeat of Mary’s or Henry’s reign. Luckily James had some smarts and left his religion in Edinburgh castle. He became James I of England and brought with him, not one, but two sons. This officially ended the Tudor dynasty and the fears of succession that Henry’s questionable virility and his childless children brought to the table. James walked a fine line though. He believed in the Divine Right of Kings that meant he answered to no one but his god. He believed it was his right to do and say whatever he wanted. The English soon got a tad sick of this behavior. He must have known the dangerous dance he was partaking in. After two cruel monarchs who hid behind the thin guise of religion to commit their atrocities, religion was now top of the suspicion list. Every pro-Catholic move James made, he put his life on the line. Equally, every anti-Catholic move he made he put himself and his family in danger.

If James wasn’t aware of the danger he was in, the Gunpowder plot definitely showed him.

I don’t think James I ever failed to remember the 5th of November.

And that's for next time...

 

The next article in the series is on King James I and a conspiracy related to the Gunpowder Plot. Click here to read it!

 

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References

  • Who’s Who in British History by Juliet Gardiner
  • British History by Miles Kelly
  • Slimy Stuarts by Terry Deary
  • Terrible Tudors by Terry Deary