See J. Gerard, What Was the Gunpowder Plot? (2d ed. 1897); S. R. Gardiner, What the Gunpowder Plot Was (1897, repr. 1971); J. Langdon-Davies, ed., Gunpowder Plot (1964); A. Fraser, Faith and Reason: the Story of the Gunpowder Plot (1996).
(1605) Conspiracy by English Roman Catholic zealots to blow up Parliament and kill James I. Angered by James's refusal to grant more religious toleration to Catholics, a group of conspirators led by Robert Catesby (1573–1605) recruited Guy Fawkes to their plot. One member warned his brother-in-law Lord Monteagle not to attend Parliament on the appointed day (November 5, 1605), and Monteagle alerted the government. Fawkes was arrested in a rented cellar under the palace at Westminster, where he had concealed 20 barrels of gunpowder. Under torture, he revealed the names of the conspirators, and they were all either killed while resisting arrest or executed in 1606. The plot bitterly intensified Protestant suspicions of Catholics.
Learn more about Gunpowder Plot with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The plot was overseen from May 1604 by Robert Catesby. Catesby may have decided upon the plot when hopes of Catholic toleration under King James I went down, leaving many Catholics disappointed. However, it is likely Catesby simply thought a Catholic future for England brought about by his drastic scheme. The plot was intended to begin a rebellion during which James' nine-year-old daughter (Princess Elizabeth) could be installed as a Catholic head of state.
Other plotters included Thomas Winter (also spelled Wintour), Robert Winter, John Wright, Christopher Wright, Robert Keyes, Sir Thomas Percy (also spelled Percye), Lord John Grant, Sir Ambrose Rokewood, Sir Everard Digby, Sir Francis Tresham, and Catesby's servant, Thomas Bates. The explosives were prepared by Guy Fawkes, an explosives expert with considerable military experience, who had been introduced to Catesby by a man named Hugh Owen. The well known image (top right) of the plotters was created by the Dutch artist Crispijn van de Passe, who may have had access to first hand descriptions.
The details of the plot were well known to the principal Jesuit of England, Father Henry Garnet, as he had learned of the plot from Oswald Tesimond, a fellow Jesuit who, with the permission of his penitent Robert Catesby, had discussed the plot with him. As the details of the plot were known through confession, Garnet was bound not to reveal them to the authorities. Despite his admonitions and protestations, the plot went ahead, yet Garnet's opposition did not save him from being hanged, drawn and quartered for treason in 1606.
However, when the Black Plague came again to London in the summer of 1604 and proved to be particularly severe, the opening of Parliament was suspended to 1605. By Christmas Eve, they had still not reached Parliament and just as they recommenced work early in 1605 they learned that the opening had been further postponed to October 3. The plotters then took the opportunity to row the gunpowder up the Thames from Lambeth and to conceal it in their rented house. They learned by pure chance that a coal merchant called Ellen Bright had vacated a cellar under the Lords, and Percy immediately took pains to secure the lease.
Fawkes assisted in filling the room with gunpowder, which was concealed beneath a wood store under the House of Lords building in a cellar leased from John Whynniard. By March 1605, they had filled the undercroft underneath the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder concealed under a store of winter fuel. Had they been successfully ignited, the explosion could have reduced many of the buildings in the Old Palace of Westminster complex, including the Abbey, to rubble and would have blown out windows in the surrounding area of about a 1 kilometre radius.
The conspirators left London in May and went to their homes or to different areas of the country, because being seen together would arouse suspicion. They arranged to meet again in September. However, the opening of Parliament was again postponed.
The weakest part of the plot was the arrangements for the subsequent rebellion that would sweep the country and provide a Catholic monarch. Due to the requirement for money and arms, Francis Tresham was eventually admitted to the plot and it was probably he who betrayed the plot by writing to his brother-in-law Lord Monteagle. An anonymous letter revealed some of the details of the plot. The letter read, 'I advise you to devise some excuse not to attend this parliament, for they shall receive a terrible blow, and yet shall not see who hurts them'.
According to the confession made by Fawkes on 5 November 1605 (Tuesday), he left Dover on about Easter 1605 for Calais. He then travelled to St Omer and on to Brussels, where he met with Hugh Owen, and Sir William Stanley. Next, he made a pilgrimage in Brabant. He returned to England at the end of August or early September, again by way of Calais.
Guy Fawkes was left in charge of executing the plot, while the other conspirators fled to Dunchurch in Warwickshire to await news. Once the parliament had been destroyed, the other conspirators planned to incite a revolt in the Midlands.
"My lord out of the love i bear to some of youre frends i have a care of your preseruasion therefore i would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift of 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 youre self into youre control where you may expect the event in saftey 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 councel 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."
Below is the same message, with modernized spelling and punctuation:
"My lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care for your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift of 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, the 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 past 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 had the note read aloud, possibly to warn the plotters the secret was out, and promptly handed it over to Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, the Secretary of State. The other conspirators learned of the letter the following day, but resolved to go ahead with their plan, especially after Fawkes inspected the undercroft and found that nothing had been touched.
The tip-off led to a search of the vaults beneath the House of Lords, including the undercroft, during the night of November 4. At midnight on November 5 Thomas Knyvet, a Justice of the Peace, and a party of armed men, discovered Fawkes guarding a pile of faggots, not far from about twenty barrels of gunpowder, posing as "Mr. John Johnson". A watch, slow matches, and touchpaper were found in his possession. Fawkes was arrested. Far from denying his intentions during the arrest, Fawkes stated that it had been his purpose to destroy the King and the Parliament. Later in the morning, before noon, he was again interrogated. He was questioned on the nature of his accomplices, the involvement of Thomas Percy, what letters he had received from overseas, and whether he had spoken with Hugh Owen.
He was taken to the Tower of London and there interrogated under torture. Torture was forbidden except by the express instruction of the monarch or the Privy Council. In a letter of November 6, King James I stated:
"The gentler tortours [tortures] are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by steps extended to greater ones], and so God speed your good work."
The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot aroused a wave of national relief at the delivery of the king and his sons and inspired in the ensuing parliament a mood of loyalty and goodwill which Salisbury astutely exploited to extract higher subsidies for the king than any but one granted in Elizabeth's reign. In his speech to both houses on 9 November, James expounded on two emerging preoccupations of his monarchy: the divine right of kings and the Catholic question. He insisted that the plot had been the work of a few Catholics and not of the English Catholics as a whole. And he reminded the assembly to rejoice at his survival, since kings were divinely appointed and he owed his escape to a miracle.
On hearing of the failure of the plot, the conspirators fled towards Huddington Court near Worcester, a family home of Thomas Wintour and Robert Wintour. Heavy rain, however, slowed their travels. Many of them were caught by Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Worcestershire, when they arrived in Stourbridge.
The remaining men attempted a revolt in the Midlands. This failed, and came to an end at Holbeach House in Staffordshire, where there was a dramatic shoot-out ending with the death of Catesby and capture of several principal conspirators. Jesuits and others were then rounded up in other locations in Britain, with some being killed by torture during interrogation. Robert Wintour managed to remain on the run for two months before he was captured at Hagley Park.
The conspirators were tried on January 27 1606 in Westminster Hall. All of the plotters pleaded not guilty except for Sir Everard Digby who attempted to defend himself on the grounds that the King had gone back on promises of Catholic toleration. Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general, prosecuted, and the Earl of Northampton made a speech refuting the charges laid by Everard Digby. The trial lasted one day (English criminal trials generally did not exceed a single day's duration) and the verdict was never in doubt.
The trial ranked highly as a public spectacle and there are records of up to 10 shillings being paid for entry. It is even reputed that the King and Queen attended in secret. Four of the plotters were executed in St. Paul's Churchyard on 30 January. On January 31, Fawkes, Winter, and a number of others implicated in the conspiracy were taken to Old Palace Yard in Westminster, in front of the scene of the intended crime, where they were to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
Fawkes, though weakened by torture, cheated the executioners. When he was to be hanged until almost dead, he jumped from the gallows, so his neck broke and he died, thus avoiding the gruesome later part of this form of execution. A co-conspirator, Robert Keyes, attempted the same trick, but unfortunately for him the rope broke, so he was disemboweled fully conscious.
Henry Garnet was executed on 3 May 1606 at St Paul's. His crime was to be the confessor of several members of the Gunpowder Plot, and as noted he had opposed the plot. Many spectators thought that his sentence was too severe. Antonia Fraser writes:
"With a loud cry of 'hold, hold' they stopped the hangman cutting down the body while Garnet was still alive. Others pulled the priest's legs ... which was traditionally done to ensure a speedy death".
Interest in the demonic was heightened by the Gunpowder Plot. The king himself 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. The apparent devilish nature of the gunpowder plot also partly inspired William Shakespeare's Macbeth. Demonic inversions such as the line fair is foul and foul is fair are frequently seen in the play. Another possible reference made in Macbeth was to equivocation, as Henry Garnett’s A Treatise of Equivocation was found on one of the plotters and a resultant fear that Jesuits could evade the truth through equivocation:
Faith, here's an equivocator, that could
Swear in both the scales against either scale;
Who committed treason enough for God's sake,
Yet could not equivocate to heaven
- Macbeth, Act 2 Scene 3
The Gunpowder Plot was commemorated for years after the plot 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 seventeenth century England. Through various permutations this has evolved into the bonfire night that occurs today. Historians have considered the possible events that may have followed the successful implementation of the Gunpowder Plot, with the destruction of Parliament and the death of the king. Most have concluded that the violence of the act would have instead resulted in a more severe backlash towards suspected Catholics. Without the involvement of some form of foreign aid, success would have been unlikely, as most Englishmen were loyal to the institution of the monarchy despite differing religious convictions. England could very well have become a more "Puritan absolute monarchy", as "existed in Sweden, Denmark, Saxony, and Prussia in the seventeenth century" , rather than the path of parliamentary and civil reform that occurred. It is, however, difficult to tell what would have emerged out of the resulting chaos, or to know which faction would have come to the fore ultimately.
The fifth of November is variously called Fireworks Night, Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night. An Act of Parliament (3 James I, cap 1) was passed to appoint 5 November in each year as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance". The Act remained in force until 1859. On 5 November 1605, it is said the populace of London celebrated the defeat of the plot by fires and street festivities. Similar celebrations must have taken place on the anniversary and, over the years, became a tradition — in many places a holiday was observed (it is not celebrated in Northern Ireland).
It is still the custom in Britain on, or around, 5 November to let off fireworks. Traditionally, in the weeks running up to the 5th, children would make "guys" — effigies supposedly of Fawkes — usually formed from old clothes stuffed with newspaper, and equipped with a grotesque mask, to be burnt on the 5 November bonfire. These effigies would be exhibited in the street to collect money for fireworks. This practice is, however, becoming increasingly rare. The word guy came thus in the 19th century to mean a weirdly dressed person, and hence in the 20th and 21st centuries to mean any male person.
Institutions and towns may hold firework displays and bonfire parties, and the same is done on a smaller scale in back gardens throughout the country. In some areas, particularly in Sussex, there are extensive processions, large bonfires and firework displays organised by local bonfire societies. The most extensive of this kind takes place in Lewes.
The Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before the State Opening, which, since 1928, has been held in November. Ostensibly to ensure no latter-day Guy Fawkes is concealed in the cellars, this is retained as a picturesque custom rather than a serious anti-terrorist precaution. It is said that for superstitious reasons no State Opening will be held on 5 November, but this is untrue: for instance, the State Opening was held on 5 November in 1957.
A commemorative British two pound coin was issued in 2005 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the plot.
The cellar in which Fawkes watched over his gunpowder was demolished in 1822. The area was further damaged in the 1834 fire and destroyed in the subsequent rebuilding of the Palace of Westminster. The lantern Guy Fawkes carried in 1605 is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. A key supposed to have been taken from him is in Speaker's House, Palace of Westminster. These two artifacts were exhibited in a major exhibition held in Westminster Hall from July to November 2005.
According to Esther Forbes, a biographer, the Guy Fawkes Day celebration in the pre-revolution American Colonies, was a very popular holiday. In Boston, the revelry took on anti-authority overtones and often became so dangerous that many would not venture to leave home.
This did not dissuade some from continuing to claim Cecil's involvement in the plot. Father John Garrett, namesake of a Jesuit priest who had performed Mass to some of the plotters, wrote an account alleging Cecil's culpability in 1897. This prompted a swift refutation a year later by the eminent historian S.R Gardiner who argued that Garrett had gone too far in trying to 'wipe away the reproach' that the plot had exacted upon generations of English Catholics.Gardiner portrayed Cecil as guilty of nothing more than opportunism. Subsequent attempts to prove Cecil's responsibility, such as Francis Edwards's 1969 work, have similarly foundered on the lack of positive proof of any government involvement in setting up the plot.. There has been little support by historians for the conspiracy theory since this time, other than to acknowledge that Cecil may have known about the plot some days before it was uncovered. However with many Internet websites suggesting Cecil's full involvement and postulating a profusion of theories, the idea lives on. It is unlikely either side will ever produce the evidence needed to convince the other of the veracity of their argument.
The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend, a study on an ITV programme presented by Richard Hammond broadcast on 1 November 2005 re-enacted the plot, by blowing up an exact replica of the 17th century House of Lords filled with test dummies, using the exact amount of gunpowder in the underground of the building. The dramatic experiment, conducted on the Advantica Spadeadam test site, proved unambiguously that the explosion would have killed all those attending the State Opening of Parliament in the Lords chamber.
The power of the explosion, which surprised even gunpowder experts, was such that seven-foot deep solid concrete walls (made deliberately to replicate how archives suggest the walls in the old House of Lords were constructed) were reduced to rubble. Measuring devices placed in the chamber to calculate the force of the blast were themselves destroyed by the blast, while the skull of the dummy representing King James, which had been placed on a throne inside the chamber surrounded by courtiers, peers and bishops, was found a large distance away from the site. According to the findings of the programme, no-one within 100 metres of the blast would have survived, while all the stained glass windows in Westminster Abbey would have been shattered, as would all windows within a large distance of the Palace. The power of the explosion would have been seen from miles away. Even if only half the gunpowder had gone off, everyone in the House of Lords and its environs would have been killed instantly.
The programme also disproved claims that some deterioration in the quality of the gunpowder would have prevented the explosion. A portion of deliberately deteriorated gunpowder, at such a low quality as to make it unusable in firearms, when placed in a heap and detonated, still managed to create a large explosion. The impact of even deteriorated gunpowder would have been magnified by the impact of its compression in wooden barrels, with the compression overcoming any deterioration in the quality of the contents. The compression would have created a cannon effect, with the powder first blowing up from the top of the barrel before, a millisecond later, blowing out. In addition, mathematical calculations showed that Fawkes, who was skilled at the use of gunpowder, had used double the amount of gunpowder needed.
A sample of the gunpowder may have survived. In March 2002, workers investigating archives of John Evelyn at the British Library found a box containing various samples of gunpowder and several notes that suggested they were related to the Gunpowder Plot:
Guy Fawkes day was used in an episode of The Avengers. In this episode entitled "November Five" the Avengers investigate the theft of a nuclear warhead. The thief plans to detonate it in the Houses of Parliament on November the fifth, just like Fawkes.
The Kate Walsh song "Fireworks" is about her disliking Guy Fawkes day because it reminds her of perhaps a former lover or someone otherwise close to her.