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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 plot".
Johnson was a pseudonym used by Guy Fawkes in Britain's first "terrorist" plot still commemorated to this day.
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 attempt.

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 employer.

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 England.

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.


Socialism 2005 Full agenda



Home   |   The Socialist 3 - 9 Nov 2005     |   Join the Socialist Party

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In this issue

Don't let Blair wreck hospitals and schools

NHS - fighting cuts and sell-offs

No to two-tier schooling

Sacked for defending union rights

USDAW presidential election

How the Labour Party was formed

17th Century terrorism

Bush presidency goes into freefall

Constitution will not prevent Iraq decay

Belgium: massive resistance to pension cuts


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