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The Gunpowder Plot


(Oath taken May, 1604, plot discovered November, 1605).

Robert Catesby, the originator of the Powder Plot, owned estates at Lapworth and Ashby St. Legers. His ancient and honourable family had stood, with occasional lapses, perhaps, but on the whole with fidelity and courage, for the ancient faith. Robert, however, had begun differently. He had been at Oxford in 1586, after Protestantism had won the upper hand, had married into a Protestant family, and his son was baptized in the Protestant church. Father Gerard says that he "was very wild, and as he kept company with the best noblemen in the land, so he spent much above his rate." But at, or soon after, his father's death in 1598 "he was reclaimed from his wild courses and became a Catholic", and was conspicuously earnest in all practices of religion. We, unfortunately, also find in him an habitual inclination towards political and violent measures. This was conspicuously shown during the brief revolt of the Earl of Essex, in February, 1601. Upon receiving a promise of toleration for his co-religionists, Catesby immediately joined him, and also induced some other Catholics to join -- among others, Thomas Percy, Thomas Winter, John Wright, and Lord Monteagle, all of whom we shall afterwards find in, or at the edge of, the Powder Plot. Catesby, who is said to have behaved with great courage and determination, escaped the fate of Essex with a ruinous fine, from which his estates never recovered.

Guy Fawkes

But the mental warp caused by those few days at Southampton House was more deleterious still. He was probably henceforth connected with all the schemes for political or forcible remedies which were mooted at this time. Early in 1602 his ally, Thomas Winter, is found negotiating in Spain for assistance, in case Elizabeth's death should leave the Catholics a chance of asserting themselves, for it was one of Elizabeth's manias to leave the succession an open question. Again, he knew of, perhaps had something to do with, the obtaining of a Brief from Clement VII which exhorted Catholics to work for a Catholic successor to the throne (The Month, June, 1903). Still it is not to be imagined that Catesby's faction, for all their ultra-Catholic professions, thought themselves debarred from treating with Protestants when that was to their advantage. While Winter negotiated at Madrid, Percy was busy at Edinburgh, and received from James promises of favour for the English Catholics. So notorious was it that the Catesby clique were "hunger-starved for innovations", that when Elizabeth was sickening, he, with Tresham, Bainham and the two Wrights, was put under restraint by order of the council, but apparently for a few days only (Camden to Cotton, 15 march, 1603); and Privy Council Registers, XXXII, 490). Then the queen died and James succeeded (24 March 1603). After that everything seemed full of promise, and, so far as we can see, the universal hope of better things to come brought a period of peace to Catesby's restless mind.

But as time went on, James found it difficult, nay impossible, with Elizabeth's ministers still in office, to carry out those promises of toleration, which he had made to the Catholics when he was in Scotland, and believed that their aid would be extremely important. When he felt secure on his throne and saw the weakness of the Catholics, his tone changed. It was reported that, when he had crossed the English border on his way to London, and found himself welcomed by all classes, he had turned to one of his old councillors, and said "Na, na, gud fayth, wee's not need the Papists now" (Tierney-Dodd, Vol. IV). His accession was indeed marked by a very welcome relaxation of the previous persecution. The fines exacted for recusancy sank in King James's first year to about one-sixth of what they used to be. But the policy of toleration was intensely abhorrent to the Puritan spirit in England, and James could not continue it with the government machinery at his command, and he began to give way. In the fifth half-year of his reign the fines were actually higher than they had ever been before, and the number of martyrs was not far short of the Elizabethan average. At the first indication of this change of policy (March, 1604), Catesby made up his mind that there was no remedy except in extremes, resolved on the Powder Plot, and insisted in his masterful way on his former allies joining him in the venture. Thomas Winter says that when Catesby sent for him in the beginning of Lent, and explained his project, "he wondered at the strangeness of the conceit", expressed some doubt as to its success, and no doubt as to the scandal and ruin that would result from its failure. But there was no resisting his imperious friend, and he soon expressed himself ready "for this, or whatever else, if he resolved upon it.". The first orders were that Winter should go to the Spanish Netherlands and see whether political pressure applied by Spain might not relieve the sufferings of the Catholics in England, but he was also to bring back "some confident [i.e. trusty] gentleman", such as Mr. Guy Fawkes. Winter soon discovered what Catesby had probably foreseen in England, that there was no hope at all of any immediate relief from friends abroad, and he returned with Fawkes in his company.

Early in May, 1605, Catesby, Thomas Percy (who by some is believed to have been the originator of the plot), Thomas Winter, John Wright, and Fawkes met in London, were initiated into the plot, and ten adjourned till they could take an oath of secrecy. They did this one May morning in "a house behind St. Clement's", and then, passing to another room, heard Mass and received Communion together, the priest (whom they believed to be Father John Gerard) having no inkling of their real intentions. It is of course impossible to give a rational explanation of their insensate crime. They did not belong to the criminal class, they were not actuated by personal ambitions. They were of gentle birth, men of means and honour, some were married and had children, several of them were zealous converts who had made sacrifices to embrace Catholicism, or rather to return to it, for they mostly came from Catholic parents. On the other hand, though religiously minded, they were by no means saints. They were dare-devils and duelists, and Percy was a bigamist. They were kept in a state of constant irritation against the government by a code of infamous laws against their religion, and a series of galling fines. They had, as we have seen, dabbled in treason and plans of violence for some years past, and now they had formed themselves into a secret society, ready to poniard any of their number who should oppose their objects. They understood their oath to contain a promise not to tell even their confessors of their plans, so sure did they feel of the rectitude of their design. Nor did they do so until fifteen months later, when, Father Garnet having written to Rome to procure a clear condemnation of any and every attempt at violence, Catesby, with the cognizance of Winter, had recourse to Father Greenway with results to which we must return later.

The first active step (24 May, 1604) was to hire as a lodging Mr. Whynniard's tenement, which lay close to the House of Parliament, and had a garden that stretched down towards the Thames. But no sooner was this taken than a government committee claimed the right of sitting there, so the preparations for mining had to be postponed for six months. Before Christmas, however, they had opened a mine from the ground floor of their house, and advanced as far as the wall of the House of Lords; then they made slow progress in working their way through its medieval masonry. In March, however, they discovered that the cellar of the House of Lords might be hired, and on Lady Day, 1605, a bargain was struck for that purpose. They had now only to carry in their powder, and cover it with faggots of firewood, and the first part of their task had been accomplished with surprising facility. They then separated, to make preparations for what should follow when the blow was struck. For this it was necessary to procure more money, and by consequence to admit more members. Five were mentioned before, and five more, Christopher Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Winter, and John Grant had been added since. Three richer men were now sworn in, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby, and lastly, Francis Tresham. It was this thirteenth man who has been generally believed to have caused the detection of the plot, by a letter sent to his cousin Lord Monteagle on 26 October. This mysterious document, which is still extant, is written in a feigned hand, with an affectation if illiterateness and in the obscurest of styles. The recipient was warned against attending Parliament on the day appointed, and hints were added as to the specific character of a "terrible blow" that would befall it. "There [will] be no appearance of any stir"; "they shall not see who hurt them"; "the danger will be past as soon [i.e. quickly] as you have burnt this letter." Monteagle, having received this letter, first caused it to be read aloud at his table before some mutual friends of the conspirators, then he took it to the government.

Contrary to what might have been expected, no measures were taken for the security of the House, and the conspirators, who had heard of Monteagle's letter breathed again. Catesby had from the first laid down this principle, "Let us give an attempt, and where it faileth, pass no further." The attempt had not yet failed, they did not think the time had come to "pass no further". So the continued all their preparations, and their friends were invited to meet for a big hunt in Warwickshire on the fatal day. The official account of the government delay is briefly this: No one at first understood the inner meaning of the letter until it was shown to James, who "did upon the instant interpret and apprehend some dark phrases therein, and thereupon ordered a search to be made". That this story is not strictly true is acknowledged by every critic (See end of this article). Whatever the germ of truth in it may be, the delay in itself was far from sagacious. If the conspirators had not been foolhardy, they would have fled as soon as they knew that one of their number had turned informer. However, on the last day before that fixed for the explosion, an inspection of the precincts of the House was resolved upon and conducted by a high official, but led to no result. Yet another search was then ordered, on the pretext that some hangings of Parliament house had been purloined, and this was immediately successful. The powder was found and Fawkes, who was on the watch close by, was arrested. Next day (5 November) the conspirators fled to their rendezvous, and thus betrayed themselves. It was with difficulty that they got their own retainers to keep with them, the Catholics everywhere refusing them aid.

Their only chance, they thought, was to fly into Wales, where, in the hilly country, and among a people which had not yet fully accepted religious changes they might still possibly find safety. But on reaching Holbeche, in Worcestershire, they perceived that further retreat was impossible, and were preparing to sell their lives dearly when a chance spark exploded their store of powder, wounding some and discouraging all. It seemed a judgment of God, that those who had plotted with powder should perish through powder. Their eyes seemed to have been at length opened to the reality of their offence. They made their last confessions to a passing priest, Father Hammond, and they prepared without illusions for the fate that was before them. Next morning (8 November) they were attacked, and defended themselves bravely against heavy odds -- Catesby, Percy, and the two Wrights were killed, and the rest wounded and captured. After an almost endless series of examinations the survivors were put on their trials on 27 January, and executed on 31 January, 1606. Their deaths did them credit; in particular the last letters and verses of Sir Everard Digby, which were not intended for the public eye, and were not discovered or published till long after, produce the impression of a man who deserved a happier fate.


"Discourse of the Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot", 1605, etc., etc.; "True and Perfect relation of the proceedings against the late Traitors" (reprinted in State Trials and translated into French and Latin -- "Actio in Henricum Garnettum et caeteros"); "The Calendars of State Papers and Hatfield Calendar" (Hist. MSS. Commission); JARDINE, "Criminal Trials, II (1832), and "A Narrative of the gunpowder Plot", 1857; GARDINER, "History of England" (1883), I; IDEM, "What the Gunpowder Plot was" (1889); "The Life of a Conspirator, being a biography of Sir Everard Digby, by one of his descendants (1895); GERARD, "What was Gunpowder Plot" (1897); "The Problem of the Gunpowder Plot" (1897); (cf. "The Month", 1894-1895, Dec. to May; 1896, May, June; 1897, Sept. Nov.); SPINK, "The Gunpowder Plot and Lord Monteagle's Letter (1902); SIDNEY, "A History of the Gunpowder Plot" (1904). For Fther Garnet see POLLEN, "Father Garnet and the Gunpowder Plot" (1888); "The Month", 1888, cf. 1901, June, July). EUDAEMON-JOANNES, "Apologia pro R. P. H. Garnetto (1610); ABBOTT, "Antilogia adversus A. Eudaemon-Joannem" (1611; CAUSABON, "Epistola ad Frontonem Ducaeum" (Ep. 730, ed. 1709). Also Dict. Nat. Biog., s. vv. "Catesby, Robert"; "Winter, Thomas", "Garnet, Henry"; "Coke, Edward"; Cecil, Robert"; etc.

Transcribed by John Looby

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