Brooke Shaffer

Author, Gamer, and Cat-Collector Extraordinaire

Famous Coups, Part 4: England

The last (or second to last, possibly) coup that we're going to cover, is the infamous Gunpowder Plot.  Not familiar with it?  Well, is this familiar to you?

Remember, remember, the 5th of November
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot;
I know of no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot

The Gunpowder Plot can trace back to the mid sixteenth century, when King Henry VIII took control of the Church.  With the monarchy proclaiming itself the head of the Church, and the rise of the Protestant Church, English Catholics struggled to maintain their freedom.  Henry's successor, Elizabeth I, furthered the divide with her decree that anyone appointed to public or church office should swear fealty to the throne as head of the Church.

King James I was far more moderate, even tolerant, toward Catholics, and promised not to persecute any who would be quiet, mind their own business, and not cause trouble for the law.  He was also more in favor of exile than execution.  Nevertheless, King James was anxious about a Catholic assassination.

Regardless of his more moderate attitude, James did not completely eradicate Catholic persecution, and several assassination plots were uncovered before the Gunpowder Plot.  One of these was the Bye Plot.  It was crafted by Catholics, but also revealed by Catholics, and this was the only reason that James did not take a harder line with Catholics following the incident.

In 1604, James discovered that a rosary had been sent to his wife, Queen Anne.  Displeased, he ordered all Jesuits and Catholics out of the country.  On March 19, he gave a speech in which he reiterated his desire for peace, but only by profession of the true religion, that is, the Church of England.  The Catholics were to remain quiet and not increase in number within the country.  This set off another string of persecution against Catholics, sometimes violent.

The idea behind the Gunpowder Plot was to kill King James I and many of those on the Privy Council, in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as well as various judges and other nobles.  The conspirators would also kidnap his daughter Elizabeth.  The fate of his sons, Henry and Charles, would have to be improvised.

The plotters were Robert Catesby, John and Christopher Wright, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham.  The first meeting, of only five of them, took place on May 20, 1604.  They thought they were going to finalize their plans and be ready by February 1605.

On June 9, Thomas Percy was appointed to a troop of bodyguards for the king.  He used this appointment to set up shop in London, with Guy Fawkes, under the pseudonym John Johnson, pretending to be his servant.  Parliament adjourned in July.

Through the fall, the conspirators rowed their stored gunpowder across the Thames from Catesby's residence in Lambeth.

On December 24, it was announced that Parliament would not be in session like normal over concerns of the plague.  It was reopened on October 3, 1605.

The delay between the opening of Parliament and the plot is mythologically attributed to the plotters digging a tunnel under the House of Commons.  No evidence has ever been found for such a tunnel, the prosecution for the later trial never presented any evidence for a tunnel, and conspirator confession to this tunnel came after only multiple torture sessions.

In June, Jesuit priest Oswald Tesimond told Father Henry Garnet that he had taken a confession from Catesby and thereby learned of the Gunpowder Plot.  They determined that the confession fell under the seal of the confessional, which meant it could not be repeated.

In July, Parliament was again delayed opening because of fears of plague, and the new date was set to be November 5.

36 barrels of gunpowder were brought into the undercroft beneath the House of Commons in July, but by August, it was discovered that it had decayed.  More barrels were brought over at the last minute.

Guy Fawkes was designated the one to light the fuses and escape across the Thames, while revolt in the streets would ensure the capture of James' daughter Elizabeth.

The problem came from the wives of the conspirators.  It is unclear that they were part of the conspiracy, but there is evidence to suggest that they had a good idea of what was going to happen.

Other concerns came up over other Catholics, and the conspirators came up with various measures to keep certain members out of Parliament the day of the explosion.  One of these was Lord Monteagle, who was also Francis Tresham's brother-in-law.  On October 26, Monteagle received an anonymous letter.

My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament; for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.

Monteagle did not discern the letter's meaning immediately and went to several advisors for interpretation.  Word got back to Catesby of possible betrayal.  Because of Monteagle's relation to Tresham, the conspirators confronted Tresham.  The man convinced them that he did not write the letter, but urged them to abandon the plot anyway.  They refused.

On November 1, the letter was shown to the king who immediately became convinced that it referenced fire or an explosion of some form.  The Privy Council declared that a search of Parliament would be conducted both above and below.

Two accounts of the search exist.  The king's version states that the first search was conducted on November 4.  They discovered Fawkes in the undercroft with the gunpowder, disguised as a massive pile of firewood.  Still acting as John Johnson, he stated that the firewood belonged to his master, Percy.  The search party reported their findings to the king.  Percy was already known as a potential Catholic agitator and, at his name, James ordered a more thorough search of the building.

The search party returned to the undercroft late that night.  Guy Fawkes was there in a cloak and hat.  He was discovered with a pocketwatch, several slow matches, and touchwood.  The barrels of gunpowder were also discovered.  He was arrested and taken to the king on November 5.  He maintained his identity as John Johnson.

As news of John Johnson's arrest spread through London, the other conspirators took the hint and scattered.  An arrest warrant was issued for Percy as well.

A letter addressed to Guy Fawkes was found on his person, but "John Johnson" maintained that it was simply one of his aliases and he acted alone.  His steadfastness impressed even the king who likened it to a Roman resolution.

Questioning of other servants and noblemen revealed Catesby, Rookwood, Keyes, Wynter, John and Christopher Wright, and Grant as co-conspirators.  Fawkes, still acting as Johnson, stubbornly insisted that he acted alone.  The king ordered him taken to the Tower of London and tortured.  The details are sketchy, but he was for sure subjected to the rack.  On November 7, Fawkes' resolve broke and he confessed everything.

Only two confessions were recorded in full, Fawkes' and Wintour's.

In his confession, Thomas Bates also implicated Father Tesimond in the conspiracy.  He stated that he had also visited Father Garnet on November 7 to tell both priests of the plot's failure.  Garnet, Tesimond, and another priest, Gerard, were implicated as wanted men.  Tesimond and Gerard managed to escape the country and lived out their days in freedom.  Garnet, however, was captured.

At the trial, Attorney General Edward Coke declared the plot invented by the Jesuits, citing Catesby's confession to Father Garnet and Oswald Tesimond.  Each of the condemned, said Coke, would be drawn backwards to his death, by a horse, his head near the ground. He was to be "put to death halfway between heaven and earth as unworthy of both". His genitals would be cut off and burnt before his eyes, and his bowels and heart then removed. Then he would be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of his body displayed so that they might become "prey for the fowls of the air".

Father Garnet was questioned on nearly two dozen occasions.  When threatened with torture, he merely responded, "threats are only for boys."  While speaking to another prisoner, he let slip that he had spoken to Tesimond who had told him of Catesby's confession.  He was charged with high treason and executed.

Digby, Wintour, Rookwood, and Keyes, along with three other prisoners, were all hanged, then cut down before they died.  While still conscious, they were castrated, disemboweled, and drawn and quartered.  Fawkes was to suffer the same fate, but instead jumped from the gallows and broke his neck, saving himself the agony of the remainder of the sentence.

So, kids, that's today's fun history lesson.  Yeah, it's May, but remember, remember, the fifth of November.

-Brooke Shaffer

Go Back