Remember Remember

28th October 2005 at 01:00
It was a crime of religious fervour and idealism as well as a wanton act of terrorism. Steve Farrar recounts the 17th-century plot to wipe out King and Parliament.

As the smoke cleared from the corridors and chambers of Holbeach House, just four of England's most wanted were left alive. John and Christopher Wright had fallen first, as the posse's opening shots ripped into the hastily barricaded Staffordshire building. The severely injured brothers died even as they were stripped by the unruly rabble that Sir Richard Walsh, the sheriff of Worcestershire, had assembled.

Christopher's silk stockings wrenched from his still twitching feet. Thomas Percy likewise expired amid the plundering that followed the pitifully brief melee. It was a wretched end to the devout conspirators' hopeless last stand.

The only one to die with some semblance of dignity was Robert Catesby.

Mortally wounded, he had managed to crawl away from the firefight into the heart of the Staffordshire house. There he found a picture of the Virgin Mary, a symbol of the seditious religion he had sought to restore.

Clutching this image, the ringleader of the Gunpowder Plot died. It was late on the morning of November 8, 1605, just three days after the conspiracy had been uncovered. Yet already the whole episode was being imprinted in the awareness of the nation.

At about the same time as Catesby breathed his last, back in London, Guy Fawkes was cracking under the brutal torture being inflicted on him. The man, who had been caught preparing one of the most audacious attacks against the English state, held out for several days as he was hung from iron gauntlets and then stretched on the rack. But torture can break the resolve of even the most dedicated and battle-hardened fanatic. By the time his interrogation was over, Fawkes had told his tormentors everything he knew. The infamous spidery signature scratched at the foot of his confession reveals the high price he had paid for his stubborn resistance and dedication to his faith. Four wounded men were captured in the fight at Holbeach House. Four more were rounded up in the following days, though it was not until January 9, 1606 that the last conspirator, Robert Winter, was apprehended.

On being found guilty of treason, all were to die grisly, traitors' deaths.

In the words of Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general who directed their prosecution, each "shall be strangled, being hanged up by the neck between heaven and earth, as deemed unworthy of both I cut down alive, and to have his privy parts cut off and burnt before his face as being unworthily begotten, and unfit to leave any generation after him. His bowels and inlaid parts taken out and burnt, who inwardly had conceived and harboured in his heart such horrible treason. After to have his head cut off, which imagined the mischief." In the face of this judicial horror, the men died bravely. None recanted. Sir Everard Digby declared that his faith left him with a clear conscience. Fawkes had to be helped up the ladder before being hanged.

The Gunpowder Plot had failed. Immortalised through 400 years of British tradition, its aim had been no less than to wipe out the Protestant King James I and his entire parliament, opening the way for a Catholic seizure of power. An act of terrorism by any other name perpetrated by a handful of driven, religious fanatics who were prepared to kill and risk their own lives in order to further their cause. The obvious parallels have not escaped those struggling to get a grip on the recent terrorist attacks, a short step from the fifth of November to 77. Jack Straw, the foreign secretary used the example while talking to Muslim leaders in the wake of the London bombings.

Both groups embraced sacrifice and carnage for a vision of a religious and political country very different from the one they had grown to hate. But unlike the ill-defined vision of the London suicide bombers, the conspirators that Catesby had gathered around him had a clear, tangible goal. They did not want to build a new England. They wanted to recover a lost one. And their act of terror would blow open the door to the past.

It was just two generations since the kingdom had been Catholic, four since Protestantism had been widely regarded as a foreign affliction. The plot may have been born out of a similar desperation and fanaticism as that of the London bombers, yet it was almost an act of conservatism. For centuries, England had been a faithful member of the Roman church. There had been some calls for limited reform, but the country remained wedded to all the trappings of the old faith with its pilgrimages, festivals, ceremonies and rituals and its clergy who offered the only way for believers to get to heaven. Then Henry VIII decided he wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and while he was at it, a big share of the church's wealth as well. So in 1533, the kingdom split with Rome. But core doctrines were left untouched in this Reformation lite - it was terrestrial power that shifted, not spiritual. The English were still by and large a Catholic people.

It was only when Henry's nine-year-old son Edward VI came to the throne in 1547 that England got its first avowedly Protestant king and the Reformation truly arrived. Pilgrimages and the giving of alms gave way to a service in English with teachings directly from the Bible. Some embraced the new church, others revolted and were crushed. Then in 1553 Edward succumbed to respiratory infection and his ardently Catholic sister Mary took the crown. She wanted the old faith back and, during her reign, some 300 Protestants were burned at the stake. But she was not given the time to see her subjects securely returned to Rome.

On Mary's death in 1558, the pendulum swung again as her Protestant sister Elizabeth began her long reign. A new version of the new faith was concocted, becoming embedded in the population and increasingly associated with patriotism. It drew on fears of foreign intervention - whether of Spain, France or Rome - and on the stories of Protestant martyrs who had died during the tyranny of Bloody Mary. All the while there was a steady persecution of those of Elizabeth's subjects who refused to embrace the Protestant church. Foreign-trained priests were smuggled into the country to tend the flock in secret - just over 130 were caught and executed for treason. There were also Catholic attempts to unseat Elizabeth from the Babbington plot that resulted in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 to the Spanish Armada of 1588. She weathered them all and when she died in 1603, the kingdom Elizabeth left to her cousin James I was largely and comfortably Protestant.

The embattled and dwindling minority of Catholic faithful never stopped praying that they would be delivered from the heretical regime that inflicted ever more onerous burdens on them. So it was that James's ascension to the English throne was eagerly anticipated. He may have been a Protestant but many of his new Catholic subjects were hopeful that he would be more tolerant of their beliefs. But there was to be no amnesty for the faithful.

Early in 1604, Robert Catesby, a devout Catholic from a well-to-do family, called a meeting in the Duck and Drake inn on the Strand, London. He told his select audience - Thomas Winter, John Wright, Thomas Percy and an imposing Yorkshireman called Guy Fawkes - that the time for action had come: "Shall we always, gentlemen, talk and never do anything?" Catesby had a notoriously magnetic personality and an extremist's passion. Raised a Catholic, he nevertheless married a Protestant and so escaped the worst excesses of religious persecution. But with his wife's early death, Catesby's faith deepened and his more reckless side came to dominate. He was lucky to escape with a heavy fine for joining the Earl of Essex's abortive coup d'etat against Queen Elizabeth in 1601. However, it seems rebellion was in Catesby's blood as his four companions were told that he had resolved to blow up James and his Parliament by packing the building with gunpowder and detonating it when the nation's elite assembled. Winter protested that it might lead to still greater persecution of Catholics.

Catesby talked him around and all five men swore on a prayer-book to keep their plot a secret.

Percy then moved to a small dwelling adjacent to the House of Lords where he was joined by Fawkes, nominally to serve as his manservant under the name John Johnson. While Catesby was the heart and brains of the plot, it was the Yorkshireman who provided the fist to deliver the knockout blow.

Raised a Protestant, Fawkes had converted to Catholicism before coming of age. And with the zeal of the convert, he quit England to fight with Spain's army of Flanders against Protestant Dutch rebels. The English Jesuit Oswald Tesimond described him as a man of considerable experience and military prowess, adding: "He was also - something decidedly rare among soldiery, although it was immediately evident to all - a very devout man, of exemplary life and commendable reticence." Here was the holy warrior, fresh back from fighting the non-believer in foreign lands. Here was the man with both the expertise and drive to do the deed.

The plotters fleshed out their plans. The destruction of England's rulers would prompt confusion and crisis out of which a Catholic rising would put James I's third child, the eight-year-old Princess Elizabeth, on the throne. Power, though, would reside with a Protector selected from the Catholic peers. Capturing Elizabeth, who was living near Coventry, would require a rising of local gentry sympathetic to the cause and therefore the circle of plotters was widened, raising the number to 13, including Thomas Winter's brother Robert and John Wright's brother Christopher. Back in London, Percy leased a storeroom under the House of Lords. Compared with today's barriers, armed officers and metal detectors protecting Parliament from those who might attack it, security at Westminster in the 17th century was laughable. It was not difficult to rent space in the warren of rooms and corridors deep inside England's parliament. Indeed, the plotters were able to smuggle 36 barrels of powder inside without attracting any attention.

Yet the plot was found out. Someone tipped off the authorities. There are many theories as to what actually happened, including one suggesting that the whole episode had been initiated to bolster James's rule. The official version of events pinpoints the delivery of a mysterious letter to a young nobleman Lord Mounteagle, another who had joined the Essex rebellion and whose recent conversion to Protestantism was not entirely convincing. The unsigned note said: "I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift off your attendance at this Parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time I they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them." Mounteagle took the letter straight to the royal court and a search of the Houses of Parliament was ordered.

In the early hours of November 5, a group of men led by Sir Thomas Knyvett, keeper of Whitehall Palace, found the gunpowder. Also apprehended was a cloaked and booted man carrying fuses. He gave his name as John Johnson.

Fawkes was brought before the king who asked him how he could consider such treason and conspire to kill "so many innocent souls which never offended him?" The Yorkshireman replied "a dangerous disease required a desperate remedy" and that he repented only his failure to execute the plan. By the time Fawkes broke under torture, the government had already compiled a list of names from its own informants and was hot on the trail of Catesby and the other conspirators. The next day, most were dead or in custody.

The aftermath was every bit as dreadful as Thomas Winter feared. Despite Catholic priests publishing forceful condemnations of the plot in its immediate wake, and even Pope Paul V speaking out against it, the moderate Catholic community could not escape the backlash. Henry Garnett, a Jesuit priest who had been appalled by the plot, was captured a few months later, tried and convicted of treason and executed at St Paul's. Further constraints on Catholics were introduced, along with "An Act for a Public Thanksgiving to Almighty God every year on the Fifth Day of November".

What if the smoke had cleared not over Holbeach House and the bodies of dying Catholic plotters but over the Palace of Westminster and the remains of the Protestant elite? Could the plot have succeeded? Probably not. There were most likely too few Catholics left to have seized control in the face of a largely Protestant population. Assuming the Westminster massacre had led to a snowball effect and a Catholic regime - perhaps under the Earl of Northumberland, with support from France and Spain - took power, the country may well have descended into the bloody religious wars that were about to cut a swathe through the population of continental Europe. But this was a clash of views in which everything was at stake. The desperation that drove Catesby to attempt to blow up Parliament was about more than just persecution and politics - it was about the fate of the eternal soul.

And for that cause, the conspirators willingly gave up their lives.

England, meanwhile, would become even more paranoid of the Catholic enemy within. It would be more than two centuries before the minority could feel the persecution was over. Throughout those years and beyond, celebrating the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot became an essential statement of English identity and tradition.


If the gunpowder stashed beneath the Houses of Parliament had been ignited, the explosion would have been more than adequate to destroy the entire complex. In fact, according to calculations by physicists at the University of Aberystwyth, it would have destroyed all buildings within 36 metres and ripped down roofs and walls within 91m. That would have razed the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Hall and Westminster Abbey.

The gunpowder was made from saltpetre or potassium nitrate, which provides the oxygen for burning the other ingredients, charcoal and sulphur. Huge amounts of hot carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide are produced and if confined, this results in an explosion.


From the start, the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot was commemorated with sermons, dinners, fireworks and explosions. And things developed rapidly.

According to historian James Sharpe, in his book Remember Remember the Fifth of November (published by Profile, pound;15.99), there are records from during the reign of James I's son Charles of effigies of the Pope and the devil (but not Guy Fawkes) being burned on bonfires.

As the religiously-charged 17th century progressed, the event became increasingly politicised - a celebration of the nation's deliverance from Popery. However, as national paranoia declined in the 18th century and into the 19th century, efforts were made to curb the most extreme anti-Catholic elements. This is where the less controversial effigy of Guy Fawkes makes its debut. The authorities were still nervous of "unruly elements"

directing local parties, and attempts were made to wrest control from them and sanitise the event even as the service of commemoration was removed from the Anglican prayerbook in 1859.

By the 20th century, it had become generally peaceful and had lost much of its meaning. Local celebrations have largely given way to big municipal bonfire parties and displays, but despite commercial pressure from the more easily marketable Hallowe'en, 400 years on from the first November 5, it remains a stubbornly English night.

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