17th Century terrorism

The Gunpowder Plot:

17th Century terrorism

400 years ago, on 5 November, Parliament met briefly where it was
recorded that:
"This last night the upper House of Parliament was searched… and
one Johnson, servant to Mr Thomas Percy was there apprehended; who had
placed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the vault under the House with a
purpose to blow the King, and the whole company, when they should there
assemble. Afterwards divers other gentlemen were discovered to be of the
Johnson was a pseudonym used by Guy Fawkes in Britain’s first "terrorist" plot still commemorated to this
Mark Baker explains the events of 1605 and their significance today.

THE ARRIVAL of James I on the English throne in 1603 had aroused
hopes of a new period of tolerance towards English Catholics. Both his
mother, the ill-fated Mary, Queen of Scots, and his Danish Queen Anne
were Catholics.

However, this was never James’ intention. He was heavily influenced
by his main political advisor, the shrewd and skilfully manipulative,
Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, who was a devout protestant.

Throughout England there were many Catholic recusants (people who
refused to attend Protestant church). They were mainly based among the
landed gentry as they could be regularly fined for this.

At least the men could because, as women had no rights, it was
assumed that their disobedience in such matters must be the fault of
their menfolk. Two particularly courageous women exploited this
situation to the full.

Eliza Vaux, who was widowed and her sister-in-law Anne Vaux, both
frequently hosted secret worship sessions and hid Catholic priests
(particularly two senior Jesuits Henry Garnet and John Gerard) in secret
rooms known as "priests holes" in their houses.

Anti-Catholic legislation

In 1604, James attacked Roman Catholic doctrine. This was followed by
Parliament introducing new anti-Catholic legislation, making Catholics
an increasingly marginalised and persecuted minority. Among these were
the charismatic figure Robert Catesby and his cousin Thomas Wintour,
both of whom had been involved in the failed 1601 Essex plot to remove
James predecessor, Elizabeth I.

Catesby and Wintour, along with Jack Wright and Thomas Percy,
responded to this new legislation by hatching what we know as "the
gunpowder plot". They recruited a soldier, Guy Fawkes, to their cause.

He had fought for the Spanish army against the Protestant Dutch. He
had met Wintour in Flanders and had been to the same school as Wright.
They were all devout Catholics who saw their service as to God and the
Pope rather than the King.

They devised a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, using
Fawkes’ knowledge of gunpowder. They also planned to stage an uprising
in the Midlands and kidnap the young Princess Elizabeth to install her
as a puppet monarch, ahead of her elder brothers, whilst the country was
restored to Catholicism.

The conspirators dangerously over-estimated the support they would
gain for their plot from Catholics in Britain as well as the assistance
they would get from the continent. The main potential source of support,
Spain, had just concluded a peace treaty with James.

Catholics in Britain were divided. The Jesuits wanted to hold to the
sacred tenets of Catholicism, spread them where possible or die in the

The Appellants believed in compromising with the state and pledging
their loyalty to the government, from which they hoped Catholicism would
be officially tolerated as an unthreatening minority religion.

At first all went well

At first all went well, with gunpowder bought at the docks and
transported upriver to a cottage near the Palace of Westminster rented
by Percy. However, an outbreak of plague postponed the re-opening of
Parliament to 5 November 1605.

Eight others were brought into the conspiracy. And just when it
seemed their chances of breaking into the area directly beneath
Parliament would defeat them, a cellar directly beneath conveniently
became available.

This delay caused some soul-searching – Catholic peers and innocents
would be victims, such as Lord Monteagle (brother-in-law to one of the
newly recruited plotters) and the Earl of Northumberland, Percy’s

Whilst questioning it, Catesby raised the topic with Father Garnet.
Garnet was horrified but under the rules governing Catholic confession
he was forbidden to divulge this terrible knowledge to anyone.

On the night of 26 October there was a mysterious incident, which has
never been fully explained. A stranger accosted Lord Monteagle’s servant
and gave him a letter warning his master not to attend the coming
Parliament "as they shall receive a terrible blow".

Monteagle took the letter straight to the Earl of Salisbury. The
source of this letter has been the subject of considerable controversy
ever since. As Monteagle was transformed from being implicated in any
criminal act into the hero of the hour, he could well have faked the
letter himself.

Salisbury decided not to tell the king of the discovery straight
away. With his network of spies and informers he decided to wait and
draw as many of the conspirators into his snare as possible. He
eventually told the King on 1 November, and ordered a search of the
palace cellars, where Fawkes was apprehended on the night of 4 November.

It was also discovered that the gunpowder had decayed and would never
have ignited. Was Salisbury aware of this too? Some historians have gone
so far as to say the plot itself was an elaborate fabrication of
Salisbury’s to discredit Catholics and strengthen his own position.

Whilst this is unlikely, it was certainly the case that he was now
able to use this "act of terror" to whip up further hostility and
persecution to implicate other Catholics, including Fathers Garnet and
Gerard, in the plot.

The whole truth will never be known as Fawkes and Thomas Wintour, who
was captured shortly after, only confessed to the crime under torture.
In both their cases they "signed" confessions but Fawkes signature
"Guido" was barely legible and Wintour’s is spelt "Winter" – a method of
spelling he never used.


After Fawkes’ capture, the remaining plotters fled to their rapidly
diminishing supporters in the Midlands. Catesby, Percy and others
perished in a fire at Holbeach House in Staffordshire after accidentally
igniting some spare supplies of gunpowder.

Those left alive were tried the following January. Sir Edward Coke,
the Chief Prosecutor, was determined to prove the guilt and evil of the
plotters. Salisbury was equally determined to implicate as many
Catholics as he could.

Jesuit fathers Gerard and Tesimond had been able to flee to the
continent. Henry Garnet was not so lucky; he paid the price for taking
Catesby’s confession and sticking to his religious principles and was
hung, drawn and quartered along with Fawkes and the rest.

Salisbury and Monteagle were substantially rewarded for their
endeavours, whilst Catholic peers were heavily fined and the Earl of
Northumberland sent to the Tower for 17 years.

A wave of anti-Catholic feeling swept across England, and for a long
time 5 November was the signal for anti-Catholic riots.

Repressive laws followed. Catholics were barred from the legal
profession and from any form of government service, including becoming
officers in the armed forces. Yet it was devout and hardline protestants
who just over forty years later deposed and executed the King of

5 November has been celebrated ever since, as the day when a great
terrorist act against King and Parliament was prevented. But it can also
ignite more subversive feelings among those who participate.

For many years a popular joke was that Guy Fawkes was the only man
who entered Parliament with the right intention!

In 1994, 5 November celebrations in Lewes, East Sussex burnt effigies
of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Michael Howard, just after the
introduction of the Criminal Justice Bill. An estimated 80,000 people
attended with 2,000 of them marching.

The real legacy of these events still reverberates today. How
religion can be used by the State as a divisive force in society. How
discriminating against minorities because of their race or religion can
force them into desperate acts. How individual acts of terror inevitably
fail to promote the cause of those who perpetrate them but instead give
credence to more and more repressive measures by the State.

The Gunpowder plot is one of the great stories in our history and
well worthy of further study. Unfortunately, history is usually written
by the victorious.

Socialists must take a different approach and represent the voice of
the oppressed, in learning the lessons and passing them on to new
generations to build a better world.