The Gunpowder Plot

A  later sketch of Whynniard's house (adjacent to the House of Lords) rented by the Gunpowder plotters


The Plotters

Robert Catesby was a descendant of Sir William Catesby, Richard III's retainer. Robert had been fined for involvement in the Essex Rebellion. Even before the Gunpowder Plot, he had been assossiated with another conspirator, Thomas Winter, in schemes to encourage a Spanish invasion of England. It seems likely that Catesby was the originator of whole Plot, and that his first recruits were John Wright and Thomas Winter.


Thomas Percy was a second cousin of Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland and worked for him collecting rents from the Earl's northern estates. In 1591, he married Martha Wright, a member of a Yorkshire Catholic family. Martha's brothers - John and Christopher - had been involved in the Essex rebellion (1601), and joined the Gunpowder Plot.


Guy Fawkes was the child of a well-to-do Yorkshire family. During the 1590s, he fought for the Spanish Catholic cause in the Netherlands (where he would have learnt the art of "mining" - tunneling underneath enemy positions in order to destroy them with explosives). Fawkes was brought into the plot by Thomas Winter, who had met him when both were visiting Spain.


Thomas Winter was born in Worcestershire; his maternal uncle (Francis Ingleby) had been executed as a seminary priest in 1586. He had fought in Flanders and France, and in 1602 joined the scheme to obtain Spanish support for a restoration of Catholicism in England.


The attempt

bulletThe basic aim of the Gunpowder Plot was to have "blown up the Upper House [the House of Lords] when the King, lords, bishops and others had been there". In the chaos that followed the death of England's ruling elite, the plotters would launch a rebellion and install a Catholic regime.
With this end in view, Thomas Percy rented the "Whynniard house" which included a chamber adjacent to The Lords. The plotters began to dig a tunnel or mine from below this house to a point underneath the House of Lords.

A long vault ran at ground level beneath the House of Lords, the "Painted Chamber" (where Lords and Commons met for conferences between the Houses) and the "Prince's Chamber" (where the Lords dressed into their formal robes).

A: The chamber attached to the House of Lords
B: The house leased to Percy
[The yellow line represents the approximate route of the attempted mine]


bulletThe plotters' digging encountered problems at the heavy stone foundation wall of the House of Lords, so when they heard that a coal merchant (Ellen Wright) who rented the vault was terminating her lease, Percy rushed to take it over.
bulletIn March 1605, the plotters moved a large quantity of gunpowder (about one ton in 36 barrels) into this vault and covered it with firewood. Most of the plotters then left London, and did not return until late in October.


The discovery

bulletWilliam Parker, Baron Monteagle was a Catholic gentleman who had been involved in both the Essex rebellion and Thomas Winter's mission to Spain. However, on the accession of James I, Monteagle conformed to the Church of England, and was summoned to the House of Lords in the parliament of 1604.
bulletIn October 1605, Monteagle  returned to his home in Hoxton, just outside London. While he was at dinner, a letter of warning was handed to one of his servants.
My Lord,
     Out of the love that 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 of your attendance at this Parliament - for God and man have 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 contemned, because it may do you good, and can do you no harm, for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt this letter, and I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it
    To whose holy protection I commend you
The letter handed to Lord Monteagle's  servant, 26 October 1605
[Spelling and punctuation modernized]


bulletMonteagle took the letter to London, and gave it to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury who was dining with other members of the Privy Council. They in turn showed it to James I when he returned to London, 31 October 1605.
bulletDespite the letter's cryptic phrasing, James and his officials deduced that the "terrible blow" would be an explosive one. They searched below the House of Lords and found the firewood. They also found Guy Fawkes - waiting in the cellar so that he could later ignite the gunpowder with a slow match (fuse). Fawkes told them that the wood belonged to Thomas Percy
bulletBecause Percy was a known Catholic, the searchers returned on the night of 4th November, and looked through the firewood with particular care . they soon found the gunpowder found there, and arrested Guy Fawkes.


The Midlands "rebellion"

bulletDespite the failure of the main Plot, Robert Catesby with Thomas Percy, Thomas Winter and others tried to raise a rebellion in Warwickshire and Staffordshire.

The plotters' route
(Click map for full size version)


The plotters assembled at Dunchurch on 5th November, and stole horses from Warwick that night. They moved on to Clopton and then to Coughton Court, which had been rented by Sir Everard Digby - a wealthy Catholic landowner on the fringes of the plot.


The following night (6 November) the band reached Winter's House at Huddington. The next morning they plundered Hewell (Howell) Grange for weapons.


On 7th November, the plotters finally reached Holbeche (Holbeach) House in Staffordshire, just north of Stourbridge (Sturbridge) and near Kingswinford. Holbeche was the home of Stephen Littleton (a relative of John Littleton - another dabbler in the Essex rebellion).

The Sheriff of Worcestershire, Richard Walsh, caught up with the rebels here on 8 November. Most of the rebels fled.


bulletRobert Catesby and Thomas Percy decided to take a final stand and were mortally wounded - apparently both by the same bullet. (Later, their heads were displayed together on London Bridge).

Both Wright brothers also died of their wounds. Thomas Winter was hit by a crossbow bolt in the shoulder, and both he and Guy Fawkes were executed 31 January 1606.

bulletMonteagle was showered with praise, rewarded with valuable land and given a generous pension.
Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland was found guilty of complicity in the Plot, fined a massive 30,000 and imprisoned until 1621.


The aftermath

bulletThe Gunpowder Plot provoked the English government into a series of anti-Catholic measures.
bulletThe fines for recusansy (refusal to attend Church services) were established at 20 per month, but an additional clause allowed the state to seize two thirds of the lands of obstinate papists.
Catholics "... by the wicked and devilish counsel of Jesuits, seminaries, and other like persons dangerous to the Church and State, are so far perverted in the point of their loyalties and due allegiance unto the King's Majesty and the Crown of England as they are ready to entertain and execute any treasonable conspiracies and practices, as  evidently appears by the more than barbarous and horrible attempt to have blown up with gunpowder the King, Queen, Prince, Lords, and Commons in the House of Parliament assembled ..."

(An Act for the better discovering and repressing of popish recusants, 1606)


bulletThe same legislation enacted an Oath of Allegiance that all Catholics could be required to take or suffer criminal penalties. This Oath provoked an extensive pamphlet campaign between Protestants (including James I himself) and Catholics on the nature of political obligation.
bulletOn a broader, level the Gunpowder Plot proved to be the last gasp of active resistance; thereafter, English Catholics adopted a quietist stance. Some of Charles I's most loyal supporters during the English Civil War were Catholic gentlemen.


[More on the Gunpowder Plot]