The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Toleration

Simon Adams investigates the political and religious options available to the Catholics of early Jacobean England, and asks why some chose to attempt the spectacular coup in November 1605.

The etching of eight of the thirteen conspirators, by Crispijn van de Passe. Missing are Digby, Keyes, Rookwood, Grant, and TreshamEveryone knows what the Gunpowder Plotters looked like. Thanks to one of the best-known etchings of the seventeenth century we see them ‘plotting’, broad brims of their hats over their noses, cloaks on their shoulders, mustachios and beards bristling – the archetypical band of desperados. Almost as well known are the broad outlines of the discovery of the ‘plot’:  the mysterious warning sent to Lord Monteagle on October 26th, 1605, the investigation of the cellars under the Palace of Westminster on November 4th, the discovery of the gunpowder and Guy Fawkes, the flight of the other conspirators, the shoot-out at Holbeach in Staffordshire on  November 8th in which four (Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy and the brothers Christopher and John Wright) were killed, and then the trial and execution of Fawkes and seven others in January 1606.

However, there was a more obscure sequel. Also implicated were the 9th Earl of Northumberland, three other peers (Viscount Montague and Lords Stourton and Mordaunt) and three members of the Society of Jesus. Two of the Jesuits, Fr Oswald Tesimond and Fr John Gerard, were able to escape abroad, but the third, the superior of the order in England, Fr Henry Garnet, was arrested just before the main trial. Garnet was tried separately on March 28th, 1606 and executed in May. The peers were tried in the court of Star Chamber: three were merely fined, but Northumberland was imprisoned in the Tower at pleasure and not released until 1621.

The leader of the plot was Robert Catesby, a Northamptonshire gentleman who lived at Chastleton House, the now well-known National Trust property in Oxfordshire, during the 1590s. Most of the others, with the exception of Fawkes (a late recruit), were related to Catesby or to each other. There are strong similarities to an earlier Catholic conspiracy, the Babington Plot to free Mary, Queen of Scots in 1586, but where in 1586 the government had both written evidence and the testimonies of most of those involved, Catesby’s death has left a large hole in the inner story of the Gunpowder Plot. The government’s investigation was dependent initially on the admissions of Fawkes, but the survivors of Holbeach could add little more. All that could be established was that in May 1604 Catesby had devised a plan to mine the House of Lords during the next opening of Parliament.

Thanks to the fact that nothing actually happened, it is not surprising that the plot has been the subject of running dispute since November 5th, 1605. James I’s privy council appears to have been genuinely unable to make any sense of it. The Attorney-General, Sir Edward Coke, observed at the trial that succeeding generations would wonder whether it was fact or fiction. There were claims from the start that the plot was a put-up job – if not a complete fabrication, then at least exaggerated for his own devious ends by Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, James’s secretary of state. The government’s presentation of the case against the plotters had its awkward aspects, caused in part by the desire to shield Monteagle, now a national hero, from the exposure of his earlier association with them. The two official accounts published in 1606 were patently spins. One, The Discourse of the Manner, was intended to give James a more commanding role in the uncovering of the plot than he deserved. The other, A True and Perfect Relation, was intended to lay the blame on Garnet.

But Catesby had form. He and several of the plotters as well as Lord Monteagle had been implicated in the Earl of Essex’s rebellion in 1601. Subsequently he and the others (including Monteagle) had approached Philip III of Spain to support a rebellion to prevent James I’s accession. This raises the central question of what the plot was about. Was it the product of Catholic discontent with James I or was it the last episode in what the late Hugh Trevor-Roper and Professor John Bossy have termed ‘Elizabethan extremism’?

The primary focus of Catholic discontent was what had become known by 1605 as the penal laws. On one level they included all the Elizabethan religious legislation back to the Supremacy and Uniformity Acts of 1559, but the term was usually applied to a specific series of statutes passed between 1581 and 1593. The 1559 acts involved an oath to the royal supremacy over the church and obligatory attendance at a parish church every Sunday. Absence, soon described as recusancy (disobedience, hence recusant), incurred a one shilling fine. The later statutes made it treason to withdraw the Queen’s subjects from their allegiance by converting them (1581) and treason for Jesuits and priests trained in foreign seminaries to enter England (1585). The 1581 statute also increased recusancy fines to the deliberately penal level of £20 a month.

The penal laws were not the product of a clearly articulated policy, each of the statutes was a compromise of greater or lesser incoherence. Their target, however, was clear: the Catholic missionary clergy and those who sheltered them. The Catholic ‘mission’ began in 1568 with the founding of the first seminary for exiled clergy at Douai in the Low Countries, but after 1580 the Jesuits became increasingly dominant in the mission. Their dominance was intellectual and moral rather than numerical, for the Society was not large. There were only about five Jesuits in England at any one time during the 1580s, rising to fourteen in 1598. Of the 180-odd persons executed under the penal laws in Elizabeth’s reign the overwhelming majority were seminary priests, not members of the Jesuit order.

Legislation was one thing, enforcement another. Although it had its enthusiastic priest hunters, the Elizabethan government was not a bloodthirsty regime. Catholic polemic which (very successfully) portrayed the Elizabethan persecutions in a similar fashion to the way John Foxe had portrayed the Marian  made the Elizabethan elite (who knew their Foxe well) very uncomfortable. The use of torture was a particularly controversial issue. It was not part of the Common Law process, but was permitted in treason cases, to force the suspect to reveal his accomplices, though not incriminate himself.

The relatively minor role torture played in the Gunpowder Plot investigation is a good example of the myths that surround this emotive subject. Permission was given to employ torture on Fawkes, who initially refused to say anything, but whether it was actually used and how much is unclear. By 1605 the torture debate had spawned another, over what had become known as the ‘doctrine of equivocation’. This was the argument that it was legitimate for Catholics to be economical with the truth, even when questioned under oath, in order to protect their friends and family, but it was not difficult to twist this into the claim that nothing a Catholic said could be trusted. Equivocation was attributed to the Jesuits, and Garnet had written a treatise on the subject, a point of major importance at his trial.

The years after 1588 saw the worst phase of the persecutions, culminating in execution of Fr Robert Southwell in 1595. This seems to have been the turning point, and thereafter executions dropped off sharply as Elizabeth’s government began looking for a way out. Their solution was an oath of allegiance distinct from the oath to the supremacy that would enable Catholics to prove they were not treasonous. This oath had first appeared in 1581 and a version of it (‘a form of submission’) was resurrected in the 1593 statute.

On Elizabeth’s death there were over 200 Catholic clergy active in the country. Estimates of lay Catholics are particularly vexed. The best modern estimate, John Bossy’s, is some 40,000 on Elizabeth’s death. For the laity the heaviest burdens were recusancy fines and the exclusion from public life caused by the oath to the supremacy. Open recusants (those fined) were merely the tip of the iceberg, the number of nominal conformists, whom Protestants came to call ‘church papists’, was another matter. The missionary clergy blamed the penal laws for intimidating many into conformity; once they were removed a large number of conversions could be expected.

What did Catholics want – or rather what solutions were possible? There were four: England’s return to the Church; some form of formal toleration similar to that granted French Protestants; repeal of the penal laws; or simple non-enforcement. None, however, was as straightforward as it appeared.

The return to the Church could be accomplished either by a Catholic monarch or by force. Until 1587 the possible succession of the Queen of Scots had provided a straightforward solution. After her execution, however, things became complicated, thanks to the enigmatic stance of James VI. On the eve of the Armada, Philip II of Spain with the support of the leaders of the mission, Cardinal William Allen and the Jesuit Robert Persons, decided to cut James out of the succession in favour of his own daughter the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia. It was the Infanta’s claim that Persons notoriously made public in A Conference on the Next Succession in 1595. By then Spain was not in a position to implement it by force and the Pope (Clement VIII) was hostile to the Spanish monarchy and opposed to its expansion. Under pressure from English exiles, Philip III hesitantly committed himself to the claim privately in February 1601, but Isabella herself was not interested.

One reason Persons and Allen supported Isabella was a residual hostility in Catholic circles to a Scottish succession, a hostility shared by some of the Gunpowder Plotters, especially Fawkes. The paralysis in Spain led to a revived interest in an English alternative to James and Isabella, in particular Arbella, heiress of the junior Stewart line. When Elizabeth died in March 1603 the Spanish government had itself abandoned the alternatives in favour of reaching an agreement with James.

Persons’ tract undoubtedly strengthened English Protestant support for James while at the same time stiffening hostility to the Jesuits.  Yet James was also convinced that Clement VIII would excommunicate him to assist Isabella’s claim. This fear inspired possibly the most dangerous of his pre-1603 manoeuvres, various hints of leniency to Catholics. Rome read this evidence that his conversion was imminent. As a result Clement viewed his accession with benevolence.

A formal toleration offered the most sophisticated solution for the English Catholics, but there were insuperable difficulties. The French edicts of toleration, from the first in 1563 to the Edict of Nantes of 1598, offered two broad concessions: freedom of conscience (no Inquisition and no heresy prosecutions) and freedom of public worship under greater or lesser geographical restriction. This was never a solution Rome wanted, but from 1563 a number of foreign lay Catholics, predominantly, but not exclusively, French, had urged it on Elizabeth. She had refused on the grounds that her subjects already enjoyed freedom of conscience and that English Catholics did not acknowledge her, while French Protestants accepted they were the subjects of the king of France.

The remaining two options would free Catholic clergy from fear of execution and relieve lay Catholics of recusancy fines, but the 1559 Acts would remain in place and Catholic worship would be semi-legal at best. Repeal would demand the co-operation of Parliament, while non-enforcement would involve the Crown overriding the law of the land, an aspect of royal absolutism  that would become a major constitutional issue in the Restoration. There was also the tricky political issue of even-handedness, for since 1559 Puritans had repeatedly contrasted attempts to discipline them with the apparent tolerance of Catholics.

In the mid-1590s the Catholic mission fragmented. The underlying issue was hostility among the seminary priests to the Jesuits and their influence, and this came into the open in disputes over the future organization of the mission after the death of Cardinal Allen in 1594. The seminarians wanted a bishop appointed, but this was blocked by the Jesuits, and instead in 1598 George Blackwell, a seminarian sympathetic to the Jesuits, was appointed to the novel office of ‘archpriest’. The result was the archpriest or appellant controversy, so-called from the attempts of the seminarians to appeal to Pope Clement VIII against Blackwell’s authority. In the spring of 1601 the Bishop of London, Richard Bancroft, secretly offered assistance to the appellants, both in sending a delegation to Rome and in printing tracts against the Jesuits in England.

Bancroft’s aim was not merely to encourage the enmity between the appellants and the Jesuits, but also to win the agreement of the appellants to an oath of allegiance. Bancroft had the support of Robert Cecil and the more guarded approval of Elizabeth, although she indicated there were limits to the concessions she would be prepared to make. The Pope was prepared to make some organizational changes to the mission, but he saw no reason to negotiate with Elizabeth with James’s accession in the offing. At the end of 1602 the appellants had agreed a form of oath, but they were not prepared to renounce the apostolic authority of the papacy. Nevertheless, by Elizabeth’s death the breach with the Jesuits had become open, not least because the appellant controversy was conducted with a remarkable degree of personal animus. This has left its mark on subsequent historical treatment; even Lady Antonia Fraser has referred to the appellants’ ‘worst qualities of bitterness and self-pity’.

Despite almost universal expectation of a major disturbance, James’s accession in the spring of 1603 was uncontested. But the enigma remained. He retained the key figures of Elizabeth’s privy council, but added to them several peers of Catholic sympathy (including the Earl of Northumberland). His own solution to the religious question was a new general council to restore the unity of Christendom. Clement remained convinced that James’s conversion was imminent. However, James then vacillated over recusancy. In May 1603 it was announced that recusancy fines would still be imposed, but in July, in response to Catholic appeals, he agreed to remit them.

July 1603 also saw the discovery of the Bye and Main Plots. The Bye Plot involved a prominent appellant priest, William Watson, as well as Thomas, Lord Grey de Wilton and George Brooke, brother of the 10th Lord Cobham; the Main Plot involved Cobham himself and Sir Walter Ralegh. Cobham gave the plots their names when he apparently told his brother that he and Lord Grey ‘were but uppon the Bye, but he and Sir Walter Rawleigh were uppon the Mayne’. The plots were discovered when the government was warned by other appellants, Blackwell and the Jesuit Fr Gerard.

The Bye Plot involved seizing James and his eldest son Prince Henry, and forcing him to replace his chief ministers; the Main getting Spanish support to replace James with Arbella Stewart. Both plots intended to impose some form of liberty of religion, Watson being convinced that James had reneged on an earlier promise to implement toleration. This and an (ultimately) mistaken belief that ‘discontentment’ with James would provide popular support were the only features shared with Gunpowder Plot. Although Ralegh was a friend of Northumberland’s, none of the political figures involved in the 1603 plots was a Catholic, and all were notorious enemies of Essex.

At the beginning of 1604 James’s government undertook three major political initiatives almost simultaneously: the Hampton Court Conference (January), the first Parliament of the reign (March 19th to July 7th) and negotiation of a peace treaty with Spain (eventually signed in August). James did not have much of a religious policy to announce to Parliament other than the general council scheme; his real interest lay in the Union with Scotland. Only late in the session did what became ‘The Act for due execution of the statutes against Jesuits etc.’ appear, a statute confirming that the penal laws were still in force. It is possible the inspiration came from Cecil, who may have wished it to strengthen his position in any future negotiations over religion. Another aspect may have been the desire to retain even-handedness. After Hampton Court a proclamation was published on  February 19th ordering all priests to leave the country. In early 1605 a substantial (if debated) number of Puritan clergymen lost their livings, this may account for James’s announcement in February that he would enforce the penal laws and collect recusancy fines.

The Anglo-Spanish treaty was the product of considerable behind-the-scenes diplomacy. Philip III intended to obtain some form of alleviation for English Catholics, but he did not want to wreck the treaty by demanding it first. As a result the Spaniards did not have any concrete proposals for a formal toleration like the Edict of Nantes. Instead they floated a scheme whereby Spain would finance recusancy fines for twenty-one years, provided priests were not executed. Although no agreement was reached in the immediate term, great faith was placed in the discussions of a marriage between James’s heir Prince Henry and one of Philip III’s daughters.

Why did Robert Catesby therefore propose in May 1604 to destroy Parliament? The best explanation is a fatalistic conviction that the penal laws were here to stay and that Spain had abandoned English Catholics for James. However, the plan was also based on the assumption that Parliament would reassemble in the autumn. Because of the plague, on Christmas Eve 1604 it was prorogued to October 1605, forcing Catesby to leave his gunpowder decaying in the cellar for almost a year.

Had the planned explosion been successful, James, Henry and the Lords and Commons would have been eliminated. What was to happen next was vague, one of the major mysteries of the plot. Instead of crowning one of the known claimants, Catesby proposed to place James’s nine-year old daughter Elizabeth on the throne (a curious choice given the plotters’ hostility to Scots). There would also be a Lord Protector drawn from those peers who survived the explosion. It was this intention that ultimately incriminated Northumberland and the three other peers, for it suggested that the warning sent to Monteagle was not unique and that other Catholic noblemen had been advised to be absent, as the four (for various reasons) intended to be. The rest of the evidence against Northumberland was (it was admitted) even more circumstantial. James had appointed him captain of the gentleman pensioners. He in turn appointed Thomas Percy, his cousin and man of business, a gentleman pensioner in 1604 and Percy had rented the cellar where the powder was laid.

The role of the three Jesuits was more important and more controversial. Gerard had celebrated mass for the plotters after they had taken their decision in May 1604, although it was claimed he was ignorant of their purpose. Tesimond had heard Catesby’s confession in the summer of 1605, during which Catesby had asked for advice in general terms about the killing of innocents. Tesimond in turn had revealed his disquiet to Garnet. Thanks in part to Tesimond, Garnet knew Catesby was up to something. He told Catesby that the Pope did not want English Catholics to create a disturbance at this point, but Catesby replied he did not care. Given the willingness of the Jesuits to expose the Main Plot, it was difficult to explain Garnet’s silence as other than consent. His failure to do anything effective to stop the plot was perhaps the crucial episode of the whole affair.

As he approached his second parliamentary session James was far more concerned with the Union with Scotland than religion. This makes it difficult to argue that the Plot was a government trap, for it served no obvious immediate political purpose. The official response was surprisingly muted. On discovery of the plot, Parliament was prorogued until January 1606. That session produced two relevant statutes, ‘An Act for better discovery and repression of Popish Recusants’, and ‘An Act to prevent and avoid dangers that might grow by Popish Recusants’. They included a number of provisions that had been proposed and rejected in Elizabeth’s reign, of which the most important was an obligation to take communion once a year as well as Sunday attendance. These, however, were only the stick, as there was also a large carrot in the form of the oath of allegiance. This had been revised by Bishop Bancroft after 1602, and encompassed both a theoretical section, denial that the Pope had any power to depose heretical rulers, and a practical, refusal to obey should he attempt to do so. Although not spelt out the implication was that taking the oath would lead to lenient enforcement of the penal laws.

The oath of allegiance was the centrepiece of James’s response to the Gunpowder Plot. The ‘archpriest’ Blackwell, who had condemned the Plot on November 7th, was prepared to take it, but Rome would not consent to any Catholic doing so, and the dispute over the oath kept the Plot alive. That the Plot would be seized on by Puritans as evidence that the Catholic danger was still there was hardly surprising. This was why the Plot did real damage  to Catholics, for one of the old arguments in favour of toleration had been that Puritans were seditious republicans and that Catholics were more reliable supporters of monarchy. It cannot be said that, had the Gunpowder Plot not occurred, James I would have implemented a toleration for his Catholic subjects; but the complexity of the situation in 1600-05 meant that a number of outcomes were possible. The plot closed many of them down.

Simon Adams is Reader in History at the University of Strathclyde