10 Conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot

James Travers

7 mins

01 Oct 2019

When Guy Fawkes was discovered in the vault below the House of Lords on 5 November 1605, the process of uncovering the conspirators who planned to blow up Parliament began.

There was a chaotic week following the discovery, including an abortive rebellion in the Midlands, then came the exhaustive official Investigation in the months and years that followed. The investigation produced so much dense and complex evidence, that it soon fed conspiracy theories involving the government itself.

Here are 10 of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.

1. Guy Fawkes

Guy Fawkes is arrested, having been caught with explosives underneath the House of Lords.

Guy or Guido Fawkes as he called himself, began as the unknown face of plot, a man who had spent so long abroad in the service of Spain that he was unknown in London.

The image of the cloaked figure with a dark lantern tending his barrels of gunpowder in the vault beneath the Lords’ chamber proved irresistible to artists and gradually made him the symbol of the plot.

He did not devise it, but it suited the government’s narrative to have a disaffected lone outsider as the face of the plot, rather than a network of conspirators with links to the monarchy itself.

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Adopted by the hacktivist group Anonymous, Guido Fawkes has become not just the face of the plot, but of political disaffection itself.

2. Robert Catesby

Engraving of Robert Catesby from 1794, currently in the National Portrait Gallery.

Widely seen as the brains and charisma behind the plot, Robert Catesby was affectionately known by his many friends among the plotters and the Lords themselves, as ‘Robin’.

Had his death at the plotters’ last stand at Holbeach House in Staffordshire not robbed us of his evidence to the investigation, we might have a tradition of burning Robins in effigy rather than Guys.

Those who did give evidence credited him with devising the plot and with enormous powers of persuasion.

Perhaps, once he was safely dead, those who had survived felt they could use the power of his personality to excuse themselves from any personal responsibility.

3. Thomas Percy

17th Century engraving of Thomas Percy by Crispijn van de Passe.

At first, the only evidence Fawkes would give was that he was the servant of Thomas Percy, who had rented the vault under the House of Lords.

This revelation gave the investigators their first lead and with it an acute sense of betrayal, because Percy was a ‘gentleman pensioner’ a member of the King’s bodyguard. The government immediately published a detailed description of him as a kind of ‘Wanted’ poster:

“The said Percy is a tall man, with a great broad beard, a good face, the colour of his beard and head mingled with white hairs, but the head more white than the beard, he stoopeth somewhat in the shoulders, well coloured in the face, long footed, small legged.”

There was popular demand at home and abroad for images of the great betrayer who was often described as a nobleman in his own right. No one could quite believe in a conspiracy of mere gentlemen.

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The investigation quickly focussed on Percy’s relationship with his noble kinsman who had secured him his trusted position: Henry Percy 9th Earl of Northumberland.

4. Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland

Painting of Henry Percy by Anthony van Dyck. In the Petworth House collection.

The earl was the focus of the official investigation long after all other avenues of enquiry had been exhausted.

Henry Percy was tried in the court of Star Chamber fined and imprisoned until 1621. He remained under a cloud and confined to his southern estates until he died on 5 November 1632.

His most crucial evidence concerned his relationship with Thomas Percy a man he had employed in the negotiations for King James’s succession in 1603, appointed to the king’s bodyguard and made constable of Alnwick Castle, but someone he claimed he did not entirely trust.

Percy had dined with the earl at Syon House on 4 November 1605. It was hard to believe that the earl had not been warned of the planned explosion on the following day.

Odder still, Percy appeared to lead the conversation, leaving the earl, deaf and uncertain, trailing in his wake. Who held the real power in the relationship, the master or the servant?

5. Thomas Wintour

Line engraving of Thomas Wintour, published 1794.

When the survivors of the siege of Holbeach House were brought to London Guy Fawkes’s evidence was superseded by those better informed about the plot.

In particular, Thomas Wintour, soldier, scholar and diplomat, the man whose declarations became the basis of the official account.

The candour and literary style of his confessions give us some of its more memorable phrases including his famous reporting of Catesby’s conception of poetic justice:

He said that he had bethought him of a way at one instant to deliver us from all our bonds and without any foreign help to replant again the Catholic Religion and withal told me in a word, it was to blow up the parliament house with gunpowder, for said he in that place have they done us all the mischief, and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment.

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6. Father Henry Garnet

Henry Garnet, Father Superior of the English Jesuit Province was accused at his trial of involvement in every Catholic plot since his arrival in England in 1586.

His evidence infuriated the investigators, partly because he could outwit them in points of theology even without access to the texts, and partly because the Doctrine of Equivocation, which he promulgated, made them doubt the truthfulness of his statements.

Equivocation achieved some celebrity and made its way into the foul mouth of the porter in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (II iii 9-13.):

“Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven.”

It may not be a coincidence that this remark is introduced with a joke playing on one of Garnet’s many pseudonyms and his fate:

“Here’s a farmer that hanged himself upon the expectation of plenty.”

Perhaps suggesting that Garnet, alias Farmer, like a true martyr, welcomed his own hanging on the expectation of a place in heaven.

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7. William Parker, Baron Monteagle

Painting of Wiliam Parker by John de Critz, in the Denver Art Museum.

Lord Monteagle received a mysterious anonymous letter hinting at a ‘terrible blow’ aimed at Parliament and warning him to stay away.

His prompt action in revealing the letter to King and Council and the propaganda value of a Catholic lord demonstrating conspicuous loyalty brought him public thanks financial reward and a poetic tribute from Ben Jonson.

Behind the scenes, embarrassing evidence kept emerging as the investigation progressed of his connection to the plotters his debts to Thomas Percy, and his private opinion of the king as a man ‘odious to all sorts’.

8. Sir Walter Raleigh

Painting of Sir Walter Raleigh by in the National Portrait Gallery.

The naval hero of Elizabeth’s reign seems to us an unlikely conspirator for a Catholic plot and Spanish invasion, but even as a prisoner in the Tower of London, he was suspected from the beginning by the Attorney General Sir Edward Coke.

Raleigh was mentioned in Fawkes’s evidence as someone the plotters might look to for support, perhaps only at Coke’s suggestion.

At his execution, Raleigh famously jested with the sheriff that death would be

“sharp Medicine … a Physician for all Disease.”

The remark generally taken to illustrate his courage and original wit, but were there echoes of Robert Catesby’s famous justification to Thomas Wintour of his plan to destroy King James and his government:

“the nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy.”

This, in turn, was echoed in Fawkes’s justification of his actions when he said that

‘a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy’.

If King James was the disease and you could not kill him, you could at least rid yourself of him by dying yourself.

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9. Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury

Painting of Robert Cecil by John de Critz, in the National Portrait Gallery.

The Principal Secretary is often seen as a spider at the centre of a web; manufacturing the plot and manipulating the principal figures in it, in order to justify his intelligence network and personal power.

The evidence for the chaotic week of 5 to 12 November challenges this view and gives a picture of genuine panic and contradiction.

The resources devoted to the investigation of the plot for months and years after the discovery, which left government potentially vulnerable to other threats, strongly suggests the plot was a genuine unforeseen scare.

We are sometimes guilty of projecting the executive power and reach of the modern state back in time, forgetting the reliance of early Stuart government on local law enforcement and local loyalty.

10. Sir Edward Coke

Portrait of Sir Edward Coke.

Another indication of the limits of Lord Salisbury’s power was his struggle to persuade the Attorney General Sir Edward Coke to stick to the carefully worded official view of the plot.

Coke took his own view of the guilt of Lord Monteagle and Sir Walter Raleigh and wanted a common law trial for the Earl of Northumberland. He was suspicious of the King’s motives and mildness in trying him in Star Chamber.

Behind the loyal bluster of Coke’s rhetoric at the plotters’ trial lay the seeds of later conflict between royal prerogative and the common law, which would prove a bigger threat to the Stuart dynasty than the plotters had been.

James Travers specialises in finding hidden histories in unpublished sources at The National Archives in Kew, London, where he works as Cultural Property Manager. The Gunpowder Plot: Terror in Shakespeare’s England is his most recent book and will be published on 15 October, by Amberley Publishing.