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This Week In History

The Gunpowder Plot. November 5, 1604.

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The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, often called the Gunpowder Treason Plot or the Jesuit Treason, was a failed assassination attempt against King James I by a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.

The plan was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605, as the prelude to a popular revolt in the Midlands during which James’s nine-year-old daughter, Elizabeth Stuart, was to be installed as the Catholic head of state. Catesby may have embarked on the scheme after hopes of securing greater religious tolerance under King James had faded, leaving many English Catholics disappointed. Fawkes, one of the fellow plotters, who had 10 years of military experience fighting in the Spanish Netherlands in the failed suppression of the Dutch Revolt, was given charge of the explosives.

The plot was revealed to the authorities in an anonymous letter sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, on 26 October 1605. During a search of the House of Lords at about midnight on 4 November 1605, Fawkes was discovered guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder—enough to reduce the House of Lords to rubble—and arrested. Most of the conspirators fled from London as they learned of the plot’s discovery, trying to enlist support along the way. Several made a stand against the pursuing Sheriff of Worcester and his men at Holbeche House; in the ensuing battle, Catesby was one of those shot and killed. At their trial on 27 January 1606, eight of the survivors, including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Details of the assassination attempt were allegedly known by the principal Jesuit of EnglandFather Henry Garnet. Although he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death, doubt has been cast on how much he really knew of the plot. As its existence was revealed to him through confession, Garnet was prevented from informing the authorities by the absolute confidentiality of the confessional. Although anti-Catholic legislation was introduced soon after the plot’s discovery, many important and loyal Catholics retained high office during King James I’s reign.

The Gunpowder Plot was commemorated for years by special sermons and other public acts, such as the ringing of church bells. It added to an increasingly full calendar of Protestant celebrations that contributed to the national and religious life of 17th-century England, and has evolved into the Bonfire Night of today.

William Shakespeare had already used the family history of Northumberland’s family in his Henry IV series of plays, and the events of the Gunpowder Plot seem to have featured alongside the earlier Gowrie conspiracy in Macbeth, written between 1603 and 1607. Interest in the demonic was heightened by the Gunpowder Plot. The King had become engaged in the great debate about other-worldly powers in writing his Daemonology in 1597, before he became King of England as well as Scotland. Inversions seen in such lines as “fair is foul and foul is fair” are used frequently, and another possible reference to the plot relates to the use of equivocation; Garnett‘s A Treatise of Equivocation was found on one of the plotters. Another writer influenced by the plot was John Milton, who in 1626 wrote what one commentator has called a “critically vexing poem”, In Quintum Novembris. Reflecting “partisan public sentiment on an English-Protestant national holiday“, in the published editions of 1645 and 1673 the poem is preceded by five epigrams on the subject of the Gunpowder Plot, apparently written by Milton in preparation for the larger work. The plot may also have influenced his later work, Paradise Lost.

 

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