5 November – Remembering the Gunpowder Plot of 1605

Robert Catebsy
Robert Catebsy

5th November in the UK is Fireworks’ Night or Guy Fawkes’ Night, the night when Brits remember the arrest of Guy Fawkes on the night of 4th/5th November 1605 as he guarded thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in the cellars beneath Westminster. The idea had been to blow up the House of Lords at the opening of Parliament on the 5th November, and to assassinate King James I.

Guy Fawkes is the plotter we remember, the effigy (the “guy”) burned on bonfires, but it is thought that the ‘brains’ behind the plot was actually Robert Catesby. Robert Catesby was the son of Sir William Catesby and Anne Throckmorton (of the Throckmortons of Coughton, Warwickshire). Catesby was a Catholic and he had been in trouble during the reign of Elizabeth I for being involved in the Essex Rebellion, a rebellion instigated by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. He was imprisoned and fined 4,000 marks as punishment. Catesby and other Catholics hoped that the accession of James I would bring an end to the oppression and persecution of Catholics, but they were disappointed. In her book, The Gunpowder Plot, historian and author Lady Antonia Fraser wrote of Catesby’s mentality as being “that of the crusader who does not hesitate to employ the sword in the cause of values which he considers are spiritual” and Catesby does not seem to have had any qualms in plotting to bring down James I and his government by blowing up the Palace of Westminster (the Houses of Parliament) on the opening session of Parliament, thus killing the King, the Royal family, members of Parliament (MPs), the Lords and the leading bishops. This would be the first step in their rebellion which sought to replace James I with his daughter, nine year-old Princess Elizabeth, as a Catholic queen.

One of the plotters, Thomas Percy, a member of the King’s Bodyguard, was able to lease lodgings that were situated adjacent to the House of Lords, and the idea was that the plotters would dig down underneath the foundations of the House of Lords and place gunpowder there. Guy Fawkes (also known as Guido Fawkes), a man who had been fighting for the Spanish in the Low Countries, was the man chosen to put the plan into operation by preparing the gunpowder and lighting the fuse, and he posed as Percy’s servant, calling himself John Johnson so that he could stay in the property.

The Black Plague of summer 1604 meant that the plan had to be changed due to the opening of Parliament being delayed. However, this delay worked in the mens’ favour because during this time, they learned of a vacant ground-floor undercroft directly under the House of Lords Chamber. Thomas Percy was able to secure the lease of this undercroft. Guy Fawkes and other members of the group set about filling this space with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, which had the potential to completely level the Palace of Westminster.

Everything seemed fine, and the plot looked as if it would be successful, until Lord Monteagle received an anonymous tip-off just over a week before the state opening of Parliament was due to take place. The letter, thought to be from Lord Monteagle’s brother-in-law, Sir Francis Tresham, who had recently become a member of the plot, gave enough details for Lord Monteagle to go to Robert Cecil. Cecil took the news to the King, who ordered the cellars beneath Westminster to be searched. This search took place on the night of 4th/5th November and Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed with the barrels of gunpowder.

The plot had been foiled, Fawkes had been arrested and tortured, but Catesby did not give up. On the 6th November he and his friends raided Warwick Castle for supplies and he sent a message to Coughton Court asking Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit, and his priests to help him raise an army in Wales. Garnet did not want to be involved and so fled. Catesby made his way to Huddington Court in Worcestershire, the home of his cousin, Thomas Wintour, where, on the morning of the 7th November, he and his fellow conspirators went to confession and then took the sacrament. They travelled to Hewell Grange, Worcestershire, home of the absent Thomas Windsor, which they ransacked for arms and money, and then on to Holbeche House, Staffordshire, where they attempted to dry out some gunpowder by spreading it in front of the fire. Some of the gunpowder caught fire, injuring Catesby, Ambrose Rookwood and John Grant. Grant was so badly injured that his eyes were burnt out, but although some of the conspirators fled after the fire, he remained at Holbeche along with Catesby, Thomas Wintour, who had rejoined the group, John and Christopher Wright, Rookwood and Thomas Percy to await the arrival of James I’s men.

At 11am on the 8th November 1605, 200 of the King’s men, led by the Sheriff of Worcester, Richard Walsh, besieged the house. It is said that Catesby kissed his gold crucifix, which he wore around his neck, and vowed that he would not be taken prisoner but that he would defend himself with his sword. Catesby was shot but managed to crawl into the house, where he was later found dead but clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary.

Thomas Wintour survived a shot to the shoulder but was executed along with his fellow conspirators, Rookwood, Robert Keyes and Guy Fawkes, on the 31st January 1606 by being hanged, drawn and quartered. His brother, Robert, was executed in the same manner on the previous day, 30th January, along with John Grant, Thomas Bates and Sir Everard Digby. Thomas Percy was shot by the same musketball which killed Catesby and he, like Catesby, was exhumed and his head displayed outside Parliament. The Wright brothers were shot dead at Holbeche.

Robert Catesby had spoken of how he had given everything for “the honour of the cross” and he would have seen his death as that of a martyr for the Catholic faith. It is strange that many people have never heard of Catesby, the man who planned the Gunpowder Plot, but, instead, we remember Guy Fawkes, the man in charge of the gunpowder.

On 5th November 1605, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s narrow escape by lighting bonfires around the city, and it is that celebration that is remembered in the UK every year on 5th November, along with the fireworks which have their origins in Guy Fawkes’ gunpowder. In fact, this celebration to give thanks for the deliverance of the King was made compulsory in the United Kingdom until 1859.

The traditional rhyme which is said on Guy Fawkes Night is:-

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

As the UK has a Queen on the throne at present, the last part of the last line is changed to “God save the Queen”.

Places to Visit

There are various historical houses which have links to the Gunpowder Plot and you can read all about them in the article by BBC History Magazine – click here – but here they are with links to their websites:-

Also on this day in history…

  • 1514 – Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, was crowned Queen of France. She had married King Louis XII at Abbeville on the 9th October 1514. The marriage was rather short-lived, as Louis died on the 1st January 1515, and Mary went on to marry Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. See Mary Tudor, Queen of France, for more information.

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7 thoughts on “5 November – Remembering the Gunpowder Plot of 1605”
  1. Thank you for posting the famous rhyme, I only ever remember the first four lines. So it’s good to be able to read it in its entirety. About seven or eight years ago, Channel four did a two part drama which dramatised the famous Guy Fawkes plot. The first part of the drama focused on the reign of Mary Queen of Scots and her relationship with Bothwell and marriage to Darnley. It also centred on the relationship between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth I. The second part of the drama moves forward in time to the reign of James I and the famous gunpowder plot. I really enjoyed watching it at the time, thinking it had a very good cast and was well acted. They have never repeated it on Tv as far as I know. Thank you for the article Claire, I shall be watching the fireworks tonight with my little boy who is three and is fascinated with all the beautiful colours that illuminate the sky this time of the year. Have a lovely evening everyone and Keep safe X

    1. Hi Daniela
      Was the 2 part drama called Gunpowder, Treason and Plot with Robert Carlyle playing James I?
      I’ve just looked it up, both parts are on YouTube to watch, not sure if its this one you mean though because this was done by the BBC in 2004, but looking at the write up it could possibly be…. anyway it looks good so I’m off to watch it now because I can’t remember seeing it, though I probably have, very rarely miss period drama!!
      But thanks for reminding us about it….

      1. Yes Dawn, It was this one. I couldn’t remember the name of the actor who played James I when I was commenting. I only remember him being famous and Scottish. However you are absolutely right, because he played a quite compelling part. I didn’t realise the BBC did it, I thought it was channel four. I am sure they have put it on DVD but don’t think I have ever come across it. Enjoy anyhow and hope you had a good Guy Fawkes night. X

        1. You are right Daniela, it is on DVD. I only got to watch a bit of the first one, as we had some late guests turn up, so will snuggle down tonight to watch it.
          It was our 30th wedding anniversary yesterday (cripes!! am I really that old!?! 🙂 ), so yes we did have a lovely Guy Fawkes night thank you, I was thoroughly spoilt, I had bought for me an over night stay in Edinburgh and train tickets by my other half, (I only live 3hrs away) so I can visit Holyrood Palace, and go to the Mary Queen of Scots exhibition that’s showing at a museum there, I go next week. So you mentioning this drama is such a coincidence..I can’t wait…

  2. In my favorite satiric take on English history, 1066 And All That, written in the 1930’s, the authors say that Guy Fawkes day is still celebrated to remind Parliament that ‘it would have been a Good Thing.’ They mention a lot of events that could have been a ‘Good Thing.’ During our recent government shut down, I mentioned to a couple of Anglophile friends, that I was thinking rather fondly of Guy Fawkes, for the first time. Only kidding, NSA.

  3. Many congratulations Dawn on your wedding Anniversary and enjoy Edinburgh. My sister was married there, so I have fond memories of the city. Glad you had a good evening, enjoy Gunpowder, Treason and Plot when you watch it. I did like it at the time, not sure how historically accurate it was as I must confess I am not very knowledgeable on this particular period in history but always like to learn more. That’s why I enjoy this website, as I am constantly learning new things. Anyhow once again many congratulations. All the very best. Daniela X

  4. As York Council had cancelled the official celebrations in York centre and Cliffords Tower last week when we where there as they are too popular and get too many people and health and safety has gone mad in this country; the only ones were the very large celebration by Karboom with music and hogroasts and so on and a great display and some smaller ones. But like every city you could see fireworks and bangs going off all over the place even walking back from the party and our meal later. We had a late night walk and a drink in the tavern of the Guy Fawkes Inn, which used to be the house that he was born in and is now a hotel or inn and eating place and very nice tavern which plays live folk music every night. York council may have cancelled bomb fire night: York definately had not.

    But in truth we should be commemorating the injustice done to these men by the government of King James. These men may have been terrorists or freedom fighters but they believed in the justice of their cause and that James was evil. He had come to the throne and promised more freedom and to relax the persecutions under Elizabeth. But he went back on his word persuaded by the rich Protestants in his cpuncil and he also expelled English nobles from his bedchamber and other centres of power and put in Scots instead. He had publihed fresh edicts against Catholics and threatened them if they grew in number or where converted to the Catholic Faith with death. These men now took the whole thing personally and plotted to get rid of the Protestant Scottish Government of James and replace it with a Catholic one.

    The men involved: Catesby, Fawkes, Winter, Percy and Digby entered the plot because of a combination of personal and tragic circumstances and because of what they had witnessed. Fawkes had seen priests slaughtered in the most terrifying manner not far from his own boyhood home. He converted and became a soldier in the service of Spain. He became a fanatic but he was not a madman. Nor where the others. They were all well educated and came from families with some connections and money. But they saw the Government as a clear and present danger to them, their families, lives and to England. James had made a vow and changed his mind. James had to go.

    What sort of man was James I and VI. He was well read and educated and well versed in the classics and the learning of the day. He had surbived at least two if not more direct attempts on his life and he was cautious and trusted no-one. He was interested in the occult and particually interested in witchcraft and how to punish and defeat it. He had personally been responsible for the burning of over 200 men and women in Berwick after the Berwick witchtrials. He liked to watch public executions and to be present at torture and interrogations himself. He caused a public outcry on his journey from Scotland to London before his coronation when he illegally summarily executed a man for theft. This may have been legal in Scotland but at this time it was no longer so in England. He was also a loving father and a devoted husband, a man of caution and wisdom and moderate habbits. He was a scholar and enjoyed debates and was pius despite hating the Geneva Bible. He wanted to make peace with the Catholic factions in England and had intended to keep his word to them; but he feared the unstable and powerful rich Protestant factions at court and bowed to pressure to bring the laws and fines agaisnt Catholics back in again. This outraged Catesby and his friends and the plot to get rid of him was in reaction to this outrage.

    Recent demonstrations show that the plot would have succeeded. However, it is unlikely that without strong armed support around the country that the second phase would have: to put in a puppet monarch in Princess Elisabeth and to bring in a Catholic regiem. A reaction may have followed that would have resulted in the murder of thousands of Catholics. But had they put into action a follow up, then it really could have reversed the history of England and gained Catholics freedom from fines, fear, torture and death a lot sooner. But the five were betrayed.

    Bringing in a sixth plotter Francis Tresham, because they needed money. they let the cat out of the bag. It is believed that Tresham sent a letter to his cousin Lord Montagle who showed it to the authorities and the plot was found out. The Monteagle Letter is a mystery and some believe he forged it, but in any event this was what roused the authorities who searcehd the undercroft under Westminster, and Fawkes was caught with the tinders and the powder. But was he framed? That has also been suggested. A drama a few years ago asked was the Home Secretary Robert Cecil in on the deal and did he frame the plotters? It did seem convenient that he then took the credit for the search and brought Fawkes before James just after midnight on 5th November. A few hours later and the entire Parliament and the King and Prince Henry would have been killed. A very scary thought. The body parts would have been scattered to the four winds; the walls blown apart, the roof and timbers destroyed and all dead. Windows for miles around shattered and the sound heard 5 miles away. Not a small boom after all.

    Ironic that some people light bomb fires to commemorate an explosion that never happened.

    Even sadder was that Fawkes was not the chief brains but because Catesby and Thresham died a heroic death with a bullet and went out in a blaze of glory, and Fawkes and the others were hung, drawn and quartered that he is known better than the others. More people were involved in the actual plot: about 11 in total, but several more people were wrongly rounded up and martyred. Father Garratt was executed even though he had nothing to do with it. His only crime was not to break the seal of the confession as he could not do so. Others were either killed or imprisioned even thoguh they knew nothing of the plot; they just happened to be convenient Catholics to blame. And yes, James was present at most of the executions with his wife and his children and he did take part in the questioing as well.

    I also visited the Church were Fawkes was baptised and lit a candle for him and the others executed and for the martyred as well. This is Michael Le Belfrey just next to the Minster. On the way back from our walking tour on the next day we went to the shrine of Saint Margaret Clitherow the lady pressed to death for refusing to give up the priest she had protected. A wealthy butchers wife, she was also raised a Catholic in Elizabethan York and was converted. She spent three times in the prison and on the word of a child of 13 she was betrayed, although her Protestant in law Henry May, who despised her may have had a hand in it. She refused on the grounds that she had committed no crime and so needed no trial. Because she was with child at the time she should have been allowed to plead her belly as they could not execute her until after her child was born and she may be pardoned. She was protecting her family as if she was found guilty they would lose their business, home and goods. She had three small children. But she was taken and pressed to death by large stones being placed on top of her until her ribs and bones broke and her breathing slowed and she was dead. The purpose was to get her to plead in court. She was not found guilty of any crime or tried. She was only allowed to save her modesty because she made a smock and insisted on wearing it. It took 15 minutes to die. She could have taken much longer. A hundred years later in 1680 a priest was also taken in York and suffered at the Knavesmire the aweful fate of hanging drawing and quartering. He too is recalled in the shrine. This was the England in which lived the Gunpowder Plotters. They wanted to change things. I do not agree with their methods, but I understand them. I do, however, agree with their ideals. It is because of men like this and saints like Margaret Clitherow and others that we have the supposed freedom of religion and worship today. Blowing up Parliament may have been extreme; but in a country that did not even recognise them as existing, refused them protection of law and condemned them to a living dead; may-be that was the only remedy they had left.

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