The Gunpowder Plot was a failed assassination attempt against King James I of England by a group of provincial English Catholics, led by Robert Catesby and Guy Fawkes. The conspiracy consisted in killing the king by blowing up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on November 5 1605. However, the plot was revealed to the authorities in an anonymous letter and the conspirators were arrested, preventing the overthrow of the Protestant Stuart dynasty.
The religious tension in England dates back to the mid-16th century when King Henry VIII took control of the English Church from Rome. Back then, Catholics struggled in a society dominated by the Protestant Church. Henry was succeeded by Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, who decided to respond to this religious division by introducing the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. This forced anyone appointed to a public or church office to swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the Church and state. Failure to do so meant being fined and accused of treason. As a result, Catholicism became marginalised and priests had to practise their faith in secret.
When the Queen’s health began to deteriorate, choosing her successor became a matter of urgency, as she was unmarried and childless. Catholics hoped that her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, would be chosen as the successor, but she was executed in 1587. Then, the English Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, negotiated with Mary’s son, King James VI of Scotland and prepared the way for him to ascend the throne. On 24 March 1603 Queen Elizabeth passed away and James was crowned King James I of England and VI of Scotland. The transition of power went smoothly and the new king received support from leading papists and the Jesuit priests.
As James was married to a catholic monarch, Anne of Denmark, it was initially believed that his attitude towards Catholics would be more moderate than Elizabeth’s. Some even thought that he would be encouraged to convert to Catholicism after his mother’s martyrdom. However, James made no sign of attempting to end their persecution. Consequently, in 1603 some members of the clergy conspired against him in what became known as the Bye Plot and the Main Plot, which were unsuccessful. The following year, James denounced the Catholic Church and ordered all Jesuits and other Catholic priests to leave the country.
The Gunpowder Plot
On March 26 1604, Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter and John Wright met secretly to plot against the King and end Anglican repression. A few weeks later, they were joined by a fourth conspirator, Guy Fawkes, a committed Catholic who had fought in the Netherlands in a regiment of English Catholic exiles under a Spanish banner. The following year, others joined the plot, amounting to a total of 12 conspirators.
The plan was to blow up the Parliament during the next opening ceremony by placing barrels of gunpowder in its cellars. Their aim was to kill King James and kidnap his daughter Elizabeth, who would be installed on the English throne. The conspirators rented an undercroft in the basement of the Parliament, where they placed the gunpowder and waited for the king to open the gates of the Parliament in early October 1605. However, a plague epidemic forced the ceremony to be postponed until 5 November.
Ten days earlier, a Catholic nobleman, William Parker, Baron of Monteagle and brother-in-law of one of the conspirators, received an anonymous letter warning him of the danger of attending the ceremony. Parker handed the letter to Cecil, now Earl of Salisbury, who ordered the head of security to search the Parliament building on November 4. There, they found Guy Fawkes, who was in charge of the explosives, finalising preparations for the bombings. After being brutally tortured, Fawkes revealed the names of his accomplices. Some were arrested and executed on the spot, while others fled to London and were gradually caught or killed by the English guards. Those who went to trial, including Fawkes, were executed and their heads were displayed before the public. However, Fawkes avoided such fate by committing suicide.
Consequences and Legacy of the Plot
As a consequence of the plot, Catholics suffered further repression due to the introduction of new anti-Catholic laws. In the summer of 1606, laws against recusancy were strengthened and returned England to the Elizabethan system of fines and restrictions. Moreover, Catholics were banned from serving as army or naval officers, socially stigmatised and denied the right to vote, an exclusion that continued well into the 19th century.
In January 1606, during the first sitting since the plot, the Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act 1605 or Thanksgiving Act, which made the event an annual feature of English life to commemorate it and thank God for preventing its success. Nowadays, this commemoration is still celebrated in Britain and receives the name of Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night or Guy Fawkes Night. On this day, it is customary to let off fireworks and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes. The tradition was exported by English settlers to colonies around the world, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and various Caribbean nations.
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