The Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605 is one of the most infamous episodes in British history. A group of Catholic conspirators, led by Robert Catesby and including Guy Fawkes, conspired to blow up the Houses of Parliament, assassinate the Protestant King James I who would be conducting the State Opening of Parliament above, and restore Catholicism to England.
However, their nefarious plans were thwarted, thanks in no small part to a mysterious and pivotal piece of correspondence known as the ‘Monteagle Letter’.
What was written in the Monteagle Letter, and just how crucial was it in thwarting the Gunpowder Plot?
Background to the Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot was born out of religious and political turmoil in early 17th-century England. At the time, England was predominantly a Protestant country, yet when King James I ascended to the throne after Elizabeth I’s’ death in 1603, many Catholics hoped their new king would be tolerant of their faith. However, they were left disappointed, and Catholics continued to face significant discrimination and persecution, with James issuing many tough anti-Catholic measures.
Robert Catesby, a soldier, was a well-know rebel, and along with his devout Catholic associates believed that violence was the only means of redressing their grievances and securing greater religious freedom.
To accomplish their objective, they hatched a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening, which had been rescheduled for 5 November 1605 following a plague outbreak. They managed to rent a cellar beneath the House of Lords and stockpile 36 barrels of gunpowder, with the intention of causing a massive explosion that would kill the king, his ministers, and the entire English establishment.
The plan was distributed by letter to the plotters.
The Monteagle Letter
In October 1605, a mysterious letter arrived at the home of William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, in Hoxton, London, allegedly delivered to his footman as he passed in the street, directed to his Lord by an unknown party. The letter contained around 160 words, was unsigned, written in a cryptic manner with disguised writing, and without a date. It warned Parker not to attend Parliament on 5 November.
The exact contents of the letter vary in different historical accounts, but they all spoke of a ‘great blow’ Parliament would receive, and all conveyed the same message: that he should avoid the upcoming State Opening. The letter raised suspicions and concerns about the safety of the King and Parliament, and the identity of its author remains a mystery.
Monteagle was a prominent Catholic, and earlier that year had written a letter to chief plotter Robert Catesby expressing his discontent at the standing of Catholics under James I’s new rule. He had also previously been imprisoned for his involvement in the Essex Rebellion. Despite his status now partly recovering, he had remained under suspicion by many in court, so he appreciated the chance to prove his loyalty to King James.
Instead of taking the warning and burning the note as it had asked, his first instinct was to share it with his close relative, Robert Cecil, the King’s Secretary of State. Cecil was a shrewd and astute politician who was not inclined to dismiss such a warning. Together with the other members of the Privy Council (the king’s advisors), they decided to investigate further.
The Monteagle Letter sparked an immediate response from the authorities. The Privy Council was divided on how to proceed, but Cecil convinced them to take the warning seriously, arguing that failing to investigate could have dire consequences, and that the potential threat to the King and Parliament was too great to ignore.
Intriguingly, Cecil decided to keep the investigation secret, and sent spies to watch over and search the cellar beneath the House of Lords. James I was shown the letter when he returned from a hunting trip on 1 November, and immediately realised there was a plot involving gunpowder.
Arresting the conspirators
As the plot unravelled, the authorities moved swiftly to apprehend the conspirators. On the night of 4 November 1605, Guy Fawkes, who had been tasked with guarding the gunpowder, was discovered in the cellar vaults beneath the House of Lords next to a large pile of wood. Although initially managing to persuade soldiers that he was looking after these for Lord Percy, when the guards returned around midnight, the 36 stockpiled gunpowder barrels were discovered, and Guy Fawkes was arrested. A search of his person revealed matches and kindling, further implicating him in the plot.
Guy Fawkes was tortured at the Tower of London until he revealed the details of the plot, and over the next few days, the other plotters were captured, with Catesby and 4 of his associates dying in a shootout with law enforcement at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. Four others were arrested and later executed, along with Guy Fawkes, by being hung, disembowelled and quartered, with their heads displayed on pikes.
The Gunpowder Plot was effectively foiled, thanks in large part to the Monteagle Letter’s warning and the subsequent investigation that followed.
Who might have written the Monteagle Letter?
The chief suspect is Francis Tresham, the last man recruited in the Gunpowder Plot. Tresham had had reservations about the Plot, doubting whether such a loss of life was justified. His sister was also married to Lord Monteagle – another reason why Tresham may wish to have spared Monteagle.
Indeed Catesby and fellow plotter Thomas Wintour suspected Tresham had been responsible for the leak from the start, and had summoned him to meet them once they learned of the letter. Nevertheless, Tresham had convinced Catesby and Wintour that he wasn’t a traitor. Furthermore, after the plot’s failure, Tresham had spent weeks held in the Tower of London signing statements and corresponding with Robert Cecil. In this, he insisted he’d always been opposed to the plot, and had offered his assistance with the investigation. It therefore seems strange that he wouldn’t have mentioned the letter if he had indeed been its author.
Overall, 13 men were involved in the Gunpowder Plot, so any of these could have been the letter’s author. The letter may also not have been the work of any of them – many other people could have been the culprit.
Furthermore, if Monteagle had suspected something was being plotted, he may have feared he would have been implicated due to his Catholicism, previous role in the Essex Rebellion, and friendship with many of the conspirators, and thus written the letter himself to both prevent the plot and prove his allegiance to the king. This is merely conjecture however, as are theories that Cecil himself may have learned of the plot and got one of his assistants to write the letter to Monteagle as a way to test Monteagle’s loyalty, and for Cecil to ‘discover’ the plot without revealing his sources.
The impact of the Monteagle Letter
Whoever was its author, the Monteagle Letter was the biggest tip-off in British history, providing an early warning about the impending plot and setting off a chain of events that ultimately thwarted the conspiracy.
The ensuing surveillance of the cellar led to the discovery of the barrels of gunpowder, providing concrete evidence of the plot’s existence, and enabling the conspirators to be arrested – preventing the catastrophic explosion that could have forever altered the course of English history by claiming the lives of King James I and members of his family, his chief ministers, and the many Members of Parliament in attendance. The Gunpowder Plot’s failure reinforced the position of the Protestant Stuart monarchy in England and further marginalised Catholics, leading to more religious persecution and division.