Why Did the Gunpowder Plot Fail? | History Hit

Why Did the Gunpowder Plot Fail?

Engraving of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators by Crispijn van de Passe the Elder.
Image Credit: Public Domain

Remember, remember! On 5 November 1605 Guy Fawkes was caught red handed preparing 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords. His objective was to kill the Protestant King James I, who was conducting the State Opening of Parliament above.

Why the Gunpowder Plot came about and how it was foiled.
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The rise of Protestant England

The 16th and 17th centuries were a time of religious upheaval in Europe and across the British Isles. Following Henry’s VIII’s break with Rome in 1534, the religion of the monarch had become a matter of great importance.

Henry’s son Edward VI alienated the Catholics, while his elder sister Mary carried out violent purges against the Protestants, earning the name ‘Bloody Mary’. Elizabeth was more prudent, maintaining an uneasy balance between the two, though her reign was far from free of religious tensions.

When Elizabeth died childless in 1603, James, son of Elizabeth’s long-standing rival, Mary Queen of Scots, ascended to the throne. He was a Protestant, yet Catholics were hopeful that their new king would be tolerant of their faith. They were sorely disappointed.

Concerned about Catholic terrorism across Europe, and led by his belief in the Divine (and Protestant) Right of Kings, James issued a raft of tough anti-Catholic measures.

Early 17th century portrait of King James I.

Image Credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Catholic resentment

For Catholic soldier Robert Catesby, the situation soon became intolerable. Catesby was a well-known rebel: he had taken part in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601, and in 1603 had made efforts to invite Spain’s King Phillip to invade England, trying to take advantage of any uncertainty following Elizabeth’s death and James’ ascension. Now Robert began plotting to kill James.

Catesby set about gathering his team of plotters. He invited his cousin, Thomas Wintour, and John Wright, considered the greatest swordsman in the country, to meet at his home in Lambeth. In the Spanish Netherlands, Catesby tracked down the soldier Guy Fawkes, who was fighting for Catholic King Philip. With the addition of Catesby’s friend, Thomas Perry, the core of the group was complete. In May 1604, they met for the first time.

A plan emerged. The king would be killed in a huge explosion at parliament. The date was set for January 1605. But an outbreak of plague delayed the opening of parliament, and it was rescheduled for 5 November.

The plot is set in motion

In October, the plan was distributed by letter to the plotters. Fawkes would be the one to light the fuse, having obtained gunpowder on the black market. He would then flee across the Thames. Meanwhile, in the midlands, James’ daughter Elizabeth, who had been strongly influenced by a Danish Catholic mother, would be seized and installed on the throne.

The details were set. But the group was betrayed. Unbeknown to them, one of the letters was shown to the King on 1 November.

On the night of 4 November, the under-croft beneath parliament was searched. Guy Fawkes was discovered, sitting next to a large pile of wood. Yet he somehow managed to persuade soldiers that he was merely looking after the faggots (bundles of firewood) for his master Lord Percy.

At around midnight, the guards returned. This time Fawkes struggled to explain away his present situation, being as he was in the process of setting matches and touchwood to gunpowder hidden beneath the faggots. He was seized, arrested, and dragged before the king the following morning.

The second part of the plan also floundered: Catesby and several other conspirators had set off to the Midlands, ready to seize Elizabeth when the time was right. Once they heard news of Fawkes’ failure, they decided to try and proceed anyway. After raiding castles in the Midlands for supplies and weapons, they eventually endured a siege at Holbeche House in Staffordshire.

In the ensuing gunfight against government forces, 5 conspirators, including Catesby, were shot, with a further 4 arrested. Meanwhile, at the Tower of London, Fawkes was tortured until he revealed the details of the plot.

A gruesome end for the conspirators

The execution of Guy Fawkes’ (Guy Fawkes), by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1916.

Image Credit: Public Domain

In January, Fawkes and the other surviving conspirators were hanged, disembowelled and quartered in front of a baying crowd. The heads of all the conspirators were displayed on pikes.

With the failure of the plot, James’ Stuart dynasty endured – leading to civil war, restoration and other momentous events in British history – while their nation remains defiantly Protestant to this day. Monarchs and members of the royal family were banned from marrying Catholics between 1701 and 2015: if they did, they would be excluded from the line of succession. Similarly, Prime Minister Tony Blair did not disclose his Catholicism whilst in office.

In Britain, 5 November has been marked every year since with the burning of an effigy of Fawkes, and a huge firework display to mock his failed ambitions.

Sarah Roller