The Gunpowder Plot

Pauline Croft explains the origins of Bonfire Night.

The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Laing Art Gallery (Tyne and Wear Museums), c. 1823. By Henry Peronett BriggsThe Gunpowder Plot is one of the most notorious events in British history. The shock it caused can still be sensed in the words of the House of Commons Journal for 5 November 1605. ‘This last night the upper House of Parliament was searched ... Thirty-six Barrels of Gunpowder in the Vault under the House, with a purpose to blow King, and the whole Company, when they should there assemble’. What lay behind this extraordinary conspiracy? We need to go back at least a decade before 1605 to understand its origins.

The New Reign

By 1595 Queen Elizabeth, born in 1533, was visibly ageing. She was childless and had never proclaimed her heir. James VI of Scotland wanted to maximise his chances of succeeding to the English throne, since he had a strong claim through his mother, Mary Queen of Scots. Elizabeth gave James an annual pension in 1586 and promised that she would not undercut any right or title that he possessed, but she would not go further. Increasingly agitated that he had never been officially proclaimed as heir, James began to build up as much support as possible for his claim, making informal overtures to catholic powers such as Spain, Savoy and Tuscany. The attitude of the papacy might be crucial, so James used his catholic queen, Anne of Denmark, to correspond with Clement VIII.  

The king’s strategy successfully deflected any foreign opposition to his claim, but more important was his success in 1601 in secretly winning over Sir Robert Cecil, the principal secretary of state and the leading member of the English privy council. Once he began to write secretly to James, the king was reassured, and promised to wait patiently until Elizabeth died. In England, the Roman Catholic minority was particularly interested in the prospect of James’ accession. The creation of the moderately protestant church of England in 1559 had raised hopes that it would become a truly national church for all English people, but a small minority of deeply committed catholics retained their faith despite severe financial and legal penalties. The priests who slipped in secretly from abroad to say Mass and encourage the faithful risked the hideous death of hanging, drawing (disembowelling) and quartering if they were caught.  

James was by nature a tolerant and broad-minded man. Writing to Cecil, he expounded his view that blood should never be shed over differences of religious opinion. But equally he did not want catholic numbers to increase, since ‘they might practise their old principles on us’. Similarly James told the earl of Northumberland that he would not persecute catholics who were quiet and outwardly obedient to the law. If they gave the king good service, he would reward them. This suggested a more liberal policy than that pursued by Elizabeth. Unfortunately these cautious royal remarks were often interpreted more widely, and some English catholics became convinced that James would get rid of all the Elizabethan recusancy laws (the legislation that penalised those who refused to attend their protestant parish churches).  

When at last Queen Elizabeth died, on 24 March 1603, most English catholics openly rejoiced. In April 1603 the king left Edinburgh to travel south, and on his journey he was petitioned by catholics for a toleration. In July at Hampton Court, just before his coronation, James received some leading catholic gentry who brought a petition for toleration. The king declined to go so far, but he told them he would suspend the monthly recusancy fines so long as the catholic community continued to support both king and state.

So far everything had gone fairly well for the catholics. Then in June and July 1603 came the revelation of the Bye and Main plots. The Bye plot, so called because it was the lesser in importance, was a crazy attempt led by a priest named William Watson to hold the king to ransom until he declared a catholic toleration. The Main plot was more drastic, and less religious: it aimed to get rid of the Scottish king and his ‘cubs’, instead placing his English-born cousin Lady Arbella Stuart on the throne. Both plots were hopelessly incompetent, but showed how quickly disenchantment with James had set in.

The Conspirators

Some catholics were quick to think of aggressive action. Among them were several young men who had been implicated in 1601 in the abortive revolt of the earl of Essex, when they had shown themselves to be valiant fighters. Robert Catesby, son of a wealthy catholic family from Warwickshire, was the charismatic leader of a tightly-knit circle, which included Francis Tresham and the brothers Jack and Kit Wright, all noted swordsmen who fought in the rebellion. The Wrights were at school at St Peter’s, York, with Guy Fawkes, who left England in 1592 to fight in the armies of catholic Spain against the rebel Dutch. They were brothers-in-law to Thomas Percy, a catholic employed by his kinsman the earl of Northumberland. Catesby was related to Robert and Thomas Wintour, whose Worcestershire home was known as a priests’ refuge. In late autumn 1601 Tom Wintour journeyed to Spain on behalf of Catesby, Tresham and the others left leaderless after the downfall of Essex. He offered support to Spain in case of a future invasion of England to aid catholics, but got little more than vague promises of financial assistance.  

Guy Fawkes also travelled to Spain and in July 1603 wrote a memorandum, still in the Spanish archives, which insisted that James was intent on driving all catholics out of England. Fawkes was fiercely anti-Scottish, believing that the natural hostility between the English and the Scots would make it impossible to reconcile the two nations for long. He warned the Spanish court that any peace overtures from James should be treated as subterfuges and ignored. Fawkes was too late, for in spring 1603 Spain rather grudgingly sent an envoy to congratulate the king on his accession. Philip III, hoping to end the hostilities between England and Spain that began in 1585, thought that his envoy Juan de Tassis should insist on toleration for English catholics as part of the negotiations. But on arrival in England Tassis realised this would be impossible and advised that the issue should wait until the peace treaty was finalised.  

The Plot

Catesby and his friends had already begun to lose faith in Spain. In winter 1604, Tom Wintour was summoned to London by Catesby, who announced that he had thought of a way ‘at one instant’ to deliver English catholics without foreign help. ‘In a word, it was to blow up the Parliament house with gunpowder; for said he, in that place have they done us all the mischief [by the recusancy laws] … and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment’. A proclamation had come out on 18 January announcing that the new king would shortly call a parliament. Catesby’s self-confidence won over the reluctant Wintour. As a last-ditch effort, they decided to contact the Constable of Castile, the chief Spanish envoy for the forthcoming peace treaty with England. He had recently arrived in Flanders, but gave little indication that he would help the English catholics. Guy Fawkes was told by Tom Wintour that they were resolved to take action if the peace with Spain ‘helped us not’. Shortly afterwards, Thomas Percy came to London, and challenged them: would they talk and never do anything, or take action? In May the inner group of five men met at a lodging in the Strand. They took an oath of secrecy, then heard Mass in another room, whereupon Catesby disclosed to Fawkes and Thomas Percy his plan, already familiar to Wright and Wintour. 

By this time the first session of a new Parliament had opened on 19 March 1604 and was likely to last for two to three months. In May, Thomas Percy used his links with his kinsman Northumberland to lease a small house adjacent to the House of Lords’ chamber in the old palace of Westminster. The idea was to drive a tunnel from the cellars through to the foundations of the chamber. Gunpowder could be ferried across the Thames at night from Catesby’s house in Lambeth. However, Parliament was prorogued on 7 July with its next meeting announced for 7 February 1605. All the Elizabethan legislative penalties on catholics had been confirmed, and in July two priests who had refused to leave the country were executed in the usual barbaric fashion, the first victims of the reign. Even worse, by late 1604 the recusancy fines were once again being collected. 

The treaty negotiations between Spain, England and Spanish Flanders were concluded in August 1604. There was no mention of toleration for the English catholics. The plotters had already abandoned any hopes of Spain, and agreed to meet again in the autumn, to dig the tunnel before the new parliamentary session convened in February 1605. Unfortunately they were unable to use their leasehold house just before Christmas 1604, only to learn on 28 December that Parliament had been further delayed until 3 October 1605. They began work again in February 1605, when they also began to discuss how they could get hold of the young Prince Charles and his sister Elizabeth. It was assumed that the heir, Prince Henry, would attend the opening of parliament with his father, as he had done in 1604. For their coup d’état to be successful, they needed to have all the surviving royals in their hands. With the help of Northumberland, in June 1604 Percy was made a gentleman pensioner (one of the king’s bodyguard) and could use his court position to capture Charles. However, the four-year-old was sickly, and they did not take him too seriously since he might not survive. His elder sister, Princess Elizabeth, would make a more malleable puppet queen, better suited to their purposes.  

In March 1605 three other members of Catesby’s circle were let into the plot: Robert Wintour (Tom’s brother), Kit Wright (Jack’s brother) and John Grant (the Wintours’ brother-in-law). Then a new opportunity unexpectedly arose. The street-level chamber or vault between the underground tunnel and the House of Lords’ first-floor meeting place was used for coal storage, and became available for rent. The chamber was part of the warren of medieval kitchen buildings of the original palace of Westminster, abandoned as a royal residence after a fire in 1512. Renting the chamber, they could stack the gunpowder directly under the House of Lords. They broke off for the summer but Catesby, the paymaster for the whole venture, was running short of cash. Three wealthy catholic gentlemen – Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby, and Francis Tresham – were indicted into the inner circle, although Tresham was agitated on hearing what was planned. On 3 October 1605 Parliament was prorogued again until 5 November.

The Plot Foiled 

By late October the plotters were back in London and everything seemed to be in place. However, on 26 October 1605, just as four of the leading lords of the privy council – the earls of Salisbury, Suffolk, Northampton and Worcester – were sitting down to supper at Whitehall, a letter was brought in to them by Lord Monteagle. A former catholic and follower of Essex, Monteagle had been helped out of trouble in 1601 by Robert Cecil, later earl of Salisbury. In public, Monteagle emphasised his new-found protestantism, but he was still intimately linked to catholic circles by marriage. Even more significantly, Tom Wintour, at the heart of the plot, acted as Monteagle’s occasional secretary. By summer 1605 Lord Salisbury was already receiving disturbing rumours of a possible catholic conspiracy, but as yet he had little specific information. The letter brought by Monteagle (and most probably secretly written by him, using information he had gathered from his catholic contacts) included a warning to stay away (‘devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this Parliament’) since ‘a terrible blow’ would be struck. Once again, the information was hardly specific. The privy councillors agreed that no immediate action should be taken until the king returned from his hunting: he would be safer in the country, away from Westminster.

On Friday 1 November, Salisbury showed the king the Monteagle letter. James recalled his father Lord Darnley’s murder in the gunpowder plot at Kirk O’Field in Edinburgh in 1567, and wondered if something similar was planned. They decided that Lord Chamberlain Suffolk, whose task was to prepare the palace of Westminster for the parliament, should search the areas near the meeting places of the Lords and the Commons. Meanwhile Catesby learned of the letter delivered to Salisbury. Fearing they were betrayed, he sent Fawkes to check the rented chamber, but he reported that nothing had been touched. Both Catesby and Tom Wintour suspected Francis Tresham of betraying them, but he swore his innocence. Thomas Percy agreed with Catesby that they should see their plan through. On 4 November Percy rode to Syon House on the Thames to see Northumberland, but sensed he knew nothing. He did not warn his kinsman to stay away from the state opening. Later the same day, Fawkes went to the vault with a slow match and a watch given him by Percy to check the time. Astonishingly, Lord Chamberlain Suffolk, making his rounds of the palace accompanied by Monteagle among others, encountered Fawkes, whom he took to be some sort of servant. Suffolk noted the large pile of brushwood and faggots (concealing the gunpowder) but was satisfied when he learned that it belonged to the chamber’s tenant, Mr Thomas Percy of the gentleman pensioners.

On their return to court, Monteagle expressed surprise that Thomas Percy should be renting a vault in Westminster when he had his own house in London. He commented that Percy was a catholic, perhaps even the author of the anonymous warning letter, since he and Monteagle had been friends. The king then ordered a further search of the cellars and undercrofts of the old palace, this time undertaken by Sir Thomas Knyvet. To avoid raising any alert, it was given out that they were looking for hangings missing from the stores. About midnight on 4 November they reached Fawkes in the vault, booted and fully clothed. Knyvet had him arrested, and his men found the gunpowder, packed in 36 barrels, under the wood pile. Fawkes gave his name as John Johnson, a servant of Thomas Percy.

The plan was that on the morning of Tuesday 5 November, Fawkes would light the length of slow match as soon as the king came into the Lords (presumably on hearing the noise overhead) and get away across the Thames before the explosion. Meanwhile Sir Everard Digby and his servants waited at the Red Lion inn in Dunchurch, under the guise of a hunting party. As soon as he learned of the plot’s success, Catesby would leave London for the midlands where he would meet Digby to mastermind the catholic rising that formed the next stage of the plot. They would seize Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey near Coventry, the home of her governor, Lord Harington, and proclaim her queen. But little of this had been fully worked out. As the Jesuit Father Oswald Tesimond later commented, ‘They left all at random’.  

The Aftermath 

Once the news of Fawkes’ arrest was out, Catesby, Percy and John Wright fled north, arriving at Dunchurch that evening. One of the servants at the Red Lion later recalled hearing a man speak out of a casement window: ‘I doubt wee are all betrayde’. The other huntsmen melted away, refusing to involve themselves in the conspiracy.

The ringleaders were not ready to give in. Late on 5 November they raided the stables of Warwick Castle for fresh horses, then spent two days moving from one catholic ‘safe house’ to another, including Huddington Grange, the Wintour home where they received communion. No new supporters joined them and other recusants had refused them assistance. On 7 November they reached Holbeach House in Staffordshire. Worn out by strain, fear and their hours of riding, they carelessly spread out before the fire some damp gunpowder taken from one of the houses in which they had sheltered. It exploded, burning Catesby and Rookwood and blinding John Grant. They already knew that they were being followed by government forces, and the explosion convinced them that they had lost their great gamble – even that God had abandoned them, turning their own gunpowder plot against them. Jack Wright suggested to Catesby that they should blow themselves up with the remaining gunpowder. Tom Wintour, who had been out of the house trying in vain to raise some catholic help, asked on his return what they would do. Catesby, the Wright brothers, Thomas Percy and the rest replied unhesitatingly, ‘We mean here to die’.

The following morning the sheriff of Worcestershire with at least 200 men arrived outside Holbeach. In the shootout, the Wright brothers were killed. Thomas Percy and Robert Catesby were brought down by one shot which passed through both of them. From beginning to end, the plot was all the work of Catesby. Courageous, affluent and ruthless, he had brought the others in and exercised a compelling hold over them. Although Catesby paid occasional lip-service to the idea that they should save as many as possible of the crypto-catholic noblemen who would attend the fatal state opening, he despised the men who had offered so little leadership to their beleaguered co-religionists, and never showed the slightest remorse for what he planned to do. 

Tom Wintour was captured, shot in his right arm and unable to defend himself. Also captured were the injured Ambrose Rookwood and the severely burned John Grant. They were taken back to London, where others including Digby and Tresham later joined them in the Tower. By 9 November Fawkes had been tortured and given six statements on the conspiracy, each fuller than the last. He reiterated his intense dislike of the Scots, evident on his visit to Spain. The king immediately proposed questions to be put to Fawkes, including a query about the authorship of a hostile libel asserting that the monarch would die for taking the unpopular title of ‘King of Great Britain’. James leaped to the conclusion that anti-Scots hatred was at the heart of the plot, rather than his own slipperiness in raising and then dashing catholic hopes. However, Fawkes and Wintour were the only survivors of the original plotters and their testimony would be vital. The fight at Holbeach saved the government most of the task of hunting down survivors, as well as demonstrating beyond doubt that these were the guilty men. By 9 November the privy council could feel that they were back in control. The king’s speech that day at the prorogation of parliament was gracious, emphasising that he believed the plot to be the work of a few fanatics rather than the whole catholic community. He also exonerated catholic monarchs abroad. He gave thanks that God had delivered them all from ‘a roaring, nay a thundering sin of fire and brimstone’.  

Northumberland was unable to clear himself of suspicion, since the privy council suspected that the plotters intended to use him as Protector, to guide Princess Elizabeth through her minority. The earl was imprisoned for years in the Tower, although in comfortable quarters. The surviving plotters – Fawkes, Tom and Robert Wintour, Everard Digby, John Grant, Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rookwood and Catesby’s servant Thomas Bates – were tried on 27 January 1606, found guilty and executed over the next few days. The government was also keen to implicate the catholic priests on the periphery of the plot, and here the confession of Bates proved invaluable. He incriminated Father John Gerard, who had said Mass at the plotters’ initial meeting in May 1604, as well as Fr Oswald Tesimond and above all Fr Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior. In July 1605, Catesby had suffered a rare spasm of moral unease, revealing something of his plans to Tesimond. Greatly distressed, Tesimond passed the information on to Garnet, but neither revealed the plot to the authorities, although they tried to damp down any treasonable activity among catholics. Gerard and Tesimond got away from England just in time, but Garnet was hunted down, tried then hanged, drawn and quartered in May 1606.


On the evening of 5 November 1605, with Fawkes in custody and the plot foiled, there was a great outburst of bell-ringing, and the inhabitants of London lit bonfires to celebrate the providential deliverance of the king and his nobility. An act was passed in 1606 for an annual public thanksgiving with appropriate sermons, a religious occasion rather than a rambunctious social event. It was only in the later 17th century that effigies of the Pope were burned on the bonfires, and ‘the guy’ appeared in the 18th century.

The long-lasting impact of the Gunpowder Plot was related above all to the grand scale of the intended atrocity. Unlike earlier assassination plots against Queen Elizabeth, the gunpowder plot would have killed hundreds if not thousands, not only in the House of Lords but in the great fire which would surely have swept through the decrepit palace and beyond. Moreover the story was so chillingly dramatic, and recently it chimes with the concerns of our own post-9/11 world. The word ‘terrorism’ was not known in 1605, but protestant contemporaries (and many catholics) regarded the plotters as murderous fanatics. Yet they were also tragic figures, brave and deeply religious men drawn into a doubtful cause. Led by the charismatic figure of Robert Catesby, they were driven by sustained state persecution to see themselves as heroes freeing their oppressed people. Perhaps we should see the Gunpowder Plot as the last violent act of England’s turbulent Reformation. 

Pauline Croft is Professor of Early Modern History at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is the author of several articles and books, including King James (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003).