The Gunpowder plotters



1603-1612 1612-1618 1618-1628 1629-40 1640-42


1. 1603-1612

James I succeeded to the English crown on the death of Elizabeth, 24 March 1603.
James had become King of Scotland in July 1567 when he was eleven months old. He could not remember a time when he was not king. Hardly surprisingly he had a high opinion of himself.
[More on James]

The rough handling that the infant James had received from his Presbyterian tutors - particularly the dour George Buchanan (1506-82) -  soured his view of Presbyterianism throughout his life.

From the 1590's, James was in close contact with Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury. James was very eager to ensure that he inherited the English throne, for England was a far richer and more powerful country than Scotland, and its nobility and clergy far less unruly than their Scottish counterparts.
Salisbury became James I's chief minister and secured the downfall of Sir Walter Ralegh, who was convicted of treason in 1603.
(It was alleged that Ralegh had plotted to install Arabella Stuart on the throne. He spent some years in prison, was released in 1616 to find gold in the New World, but angered the Spanish and was executed in 1618 on the basis of his 1603 treason conviction).


Robert Cecil became Lord Treasurer in 1608, Viscount Cranborne in 1604, and Earl of Salisbury in 1605.

Cecil's power was to some extent counterbalanced by that of the Howard family, especially Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton (1540-1614), who had been imprisoned in Elizabeth's reign for intriguing with James' mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. James made Henry Howard Lord Privy Seal in 1605. Henry Howard was a man of great learning, but his involvement in the Overbury scandal tainted his final years.
Another of James I's early favorites was Robert Carr (1590?-1645). Devoid of intellect, but extremely handsome, Carr became Viscount Rochester (1611), and Earl of Somerset (1613). The Overbury scandal led to his fall from favor.

James I

James I was as extravagant as Elizabeth I had been frugal. He handed out titles, offices and pensions with a trowel. This made him popular in the short-term, but increased the financial problems of the crown.



One method that James tried to raise money was impositions. These additional customs duties were seen as taxation by Parliament and as requiring parliamentary consent. In 1606 the Judges in Bate's Case ruled that impositions were legal, and the government continued to collect them despite protests in parliament.
Salisbury tried to resolve the dispute by the Great Contract of 1610. This scheme involved James giving up impositions and other unpopular levies in exchange for a permanent income from Parliament. Negotiations initially made progress but collapsed in mutual distrust - the King thought that the sum he was been offered was too low (200,000 p.a.), while Parliament could not bring itself to institute a permanent tax on land.
Problems with the puritans continued. They had been optimistic that James would be more favorable to their cause than had Elizabeth and had presented him with Millenary Petition as he traveled to London for his coronation 1603. In 1604 at the Hampton Court Conference, James showed himself as hostile as Richard Bancroft to puritan aspirations. Fortunately for the puritans, many bishops were more tolerant and sympathetic than James and Bancroft.
James I continued Elizabeth's policy of fining Roman Catholics for recusancy.

Philip III
King of Spain 1598-1621

In 1604, James made peace with Spain which destroyed Catholic hopes of liberation by a Spanish invasion.

A few Catholic gentlemen turned in desperation to violence. The Gunpowder Plot was a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament when King, Lord and Commons were all present and then seize control of England.
After the plan's disastrous failure, severe laws were passed against Catholics (in practice, they were rarely enforced). In fact, because of the absence of a foreign Catholic threat, James I's government could afford to be less severe than Elizabeth's - only twenty priests were executed between 1603 and 1625.



2. 1612-1618

Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613)

The rapid rise of Henry Howard and Robert Carr was ended by a sensational case of divorce and murder: the Overbury scandal.

Robert Carr fell in love with Frances - the daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk. Unfortunately Frances was already married to the Earl of Essex (the son of Robert Devereux). They had been married when children and had lived separately. When Essex arrived to claim his bride, Frances (who was attracted to Carr but not to Essex) did all she could to discourage any advances and then divorced him on the grounds of impotence.
James took Frances' side in the matter and rigged the divorce court to ensure that France got her annulment (September 1613). Frances and Carr were married in December 1613.
Ten days before the divorce was annulled a young gentleman - Thomas Overbury - died by poison in the Tower of London. In 1615, evidence emerged that he had been poisoned by an agent of Frances because he was about to reveal that she had been living as Carr's mistress before her divorce, and had used drugs and witchcraft to engineer her husband's impotence. There was no direct evidence of Carr's involvement in the murder, but enough suggestion of his and Henry Howard's complicity to lose James I's favor entirely.


The Howard faction was pro-Spanish, anti-puritan, tolerant of Roman Catholics, and supportive of royal power - this was more or less the opposite of the predominant opinion in the House of Commons. In 1614, the Addled Parliament had been dissolved without passing any laws or granting any taxes in part because of the Howards plots. (Continued disputes over impositions also caused trouble).
The Howard faction also met opposition at court from George Abbot (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1611) and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke (the richest nobleman in England).
George Abbot decided to take advantage of James' weakness for handsome young men by introducing the king to his own client - the particularly handsome and charming George Villiers.
James certainly fell for Villiers, making him an Earl in 1617, a Marquess in 1618, and a Duke of Buckingham in 1623. Unfortunately for Abbott, Villiers grew so powerful that he no longer had any need of Abbot's help, and began to make his own choices.

3. 1618-1628

George Villiers
During the early years of James reign, patronage was divided between various factions, but after 1618 all patronage was in the hands of Buckingham. This aroused great resentment.
Buckingham's support for a marriage of Charles (James' heir) to a Spanish princess was also very unpopular.


From 1618, Spain was at war with Frederick V, the Elector Palatine, (briefly King of Bohemia) and son-in-law of James I by his marriage to Elizabeth. Frederick was the leader of the German Protestant Union against Hapsburg attempts to reestablish Catholicism throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

Territorial and dynastic problems also played their part in causing the Thirty Years War (1618-48), but in England it was widely regarded as a contest between Protestants and Catholics. In England, public opinion was in favor of war with Spain, not alliance with it.
In 1624, the marriage negotiations collapsed and Charles and Buckingham called for war. This made them popular for a while.
After the death of James I in 1625, England did declare war on Spain. However, not only was the war executed incompetently, but also England started simultaneously war with France.
The war was very expensive, and in 1626-27 Charles and Buckingham resorted to measures of very dubious legality to raise money. The  most unpopular was the Forced Loan and the imprisonment of those who refused to pay it. The government also billeted troops in civilians' homes.
Even with these methods, Charles still had insufficient money and had to call Parliament. It condemned Charles' illegal methods in the Petition of Right.

William Laud

The Commons also attacked Arminian doctrines and their most powerful exponent, William Laud.
23 August 1628,  a disgruntled soldier, John Felton assassinated Buckingham.
1629, Charles I called another session of Parliament, but when it opposed him as vigorously as in 1628, he dissolved it and decided to try and rule without parliament.


4. 1629-1640

Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford (1593-1641)
Thomas Wentworth


The period from 1629 to 1640 is known as the Eleven Years Tyranny or the Personal Rule. Charles I pursued unpopular religious policies, that emphasized ceremonies and sacraments and were seen by many as a return to popery.
In Ireland, his trusted agent Thomas Wentworth adopted severe policies to suppress all Irish resistance to English rule.
Charles revived long-defunct taxes to finance his regime, that many though simply illegal. He revived and extended Ship Money to finance the expansion of the English Navy.
Charles I had as little taste for presbyterianism as his father, and in 1637 he tried to bring the Scottish Church more into line with the English by introducing bishops and a Scottish Prayer Book modeled on the English Book of Common Prayer.

Tradition holds that the "Prayer Book riots" were started by a woman, Janet Geddes, who on Sunday, 23 July 1637 threw her stool at the Dean of Saint Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh in spontaneous outrage at him "saying Mass in her ear".


In 1638, the Scottish rebelled. Charles finances were insufficient to put down the rebellion, and he was forced in Spring 1640 to call the Short Parliament (April 13th to May 5th). It was highly uncooperative and Charles dissolved it.
The Scots invaded Northern England, taking Newcastle and Durham and defeating Charles army in August 1640. Charles was forced to come to terms with the Scots and agree to pay the wages of the army that had just defeated him.
Since he lacked the money to do this, the Long Parliament was summoned 3 November 1640.

5. 1640-1642

 John Pym (1585-1643)

Over the next two years, England drifted into Civil War.
Charles resented the Commons, and made promises with every intention of breaking them as soon as he could obtain military support from Ireland or the Continent.
The leaders of the Parliamentary opposition knew that Charles was not to be trusted, and tried to neutralize him by attacking his trusted agents, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury.
An Act was passed by Parliament in 1641 declaring Strafford a traitor. Laud was imprisoned.

The execution of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford


Parliament also forced through legislation to assure its own permanence, to declare illegal Charles I's new forms of taxation, and to reverse his changes in the Church.
Almost everyone agreed that Charles had acted badly, but the king's moderate critics began to alienated by the actions of his more radical opponents. In particular, the use of the London mob to stop the Bishops taking their seats in the House of Lords raised fears of social upheaval. Furthermore, many gentry had deep misgivings about the attempts to abolish Bishops altogether and reform the English church "root and branch".
During 1641, the King gradually accumulated more support. The Irish revolt of  October 1641 forced the question of who should control the army needed to suppress the uprising - King or Parliament. The issue could not be resolved peacefully; in Summer 1642, the English Civil War began.



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