“Remember, remember, the 5th of November – gunpowder, treason and plot”. This was the day on which the opening of Parliament in 1605, attended by King James I and all the members of the Houses of Lords and Commons, would have been sabotaged by a massive explosion, had the plot succeeded. The plotters hoped thereby to start a revolution that would have resulted in the restoration of a Catholic regime in Great Britain, following years of repression of Catholics under Queen Elizabeth I and now her successor James, despite him being the son of a Catholic mother, namely Mary Queen of Scots.
There were fourteen people in the plot, which was led by a Catholic nobleman named Robert Catesby. The plan was to take advantage of the complex geometry of the old Parliament buildings, which were eventually burned down in 1834 although not as the result of any plot. The buildings had been built piecemeal over hundreds of years, and one anomaly was that cellars belonging to adjoining private houses ran underground beneath the chambers of Parliament.
Catesby and the plotters had rented one of these houses earlier in the year, because they knew that its cellar ran underneath the House of Lords, where the Opening ceremony would take place on 5th November. They spent the intervening months storing barrels of gunpowder in the cellar, just one or two at a time so as not to attract attention. When the night of 4th/5th November arrived, there were 36 such barrels in the cellar, each containing about 100 pounds of gunpowder.
There has long been a question mark over whether the plot would actually have worked, given the age of some of the gunpowder and the fact that it was being stored in an underground cellar close to the River Thames, which must surely have been subject to damp. There is always the possibility that only a few of the barrels would have exploded, if any, and the result would not have been as spectacular as the plotters hoped.
However, the viability of the plot was never put to the test, due to the humanitarian feelings of one of the plotters. Somebody (it has never been established who) sent a letter to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, that advised him to think up an excuse for not attending the Opening ceremony “as you tender your life”. The letter contained the words “I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament”. Monteagle rapidly passed the latter up the chain of command until it reached the king, who seized on the word “blow” as having something to do with gunpowder.
Catesby and the conspirators got to know about the existence of the letter, and there was some debate among them whether or not to abandon the whole idea. However, the conclusion was that the risk should be taken to proceed, seeing as they had come so far.
Thus, on the night of 4th November, a thorough search was made of the cellars beneath Parliament and the cache of gunpowder was found, guarded by one of the plotters, a certain Guido Fawkes. His job would have been to light an 8-hour fuse and make his escape long before the explosion would have happened.
Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London where he was interrogated, firstly by King James in person. Under torture, he revealed the whereabouts of the “safe house” in Warwickshire to which most of the others fled after hearing of Fawkes’s arrest. Catesby and his companions were therefore followed to the house by soldiers and killed after a brief shoot-out.
The other conspirators were soon rounded up and sent to the Tower where, along with Fawkes, they suffered the traitors’ death of being hanged, drawn and quartered.
The traditional British ceremony of Bonfire Night, with the burning of a “guy” and the setting off of fireworks, has always been held to be the result of a spontaneous outpouring of relief on the part of the country’s largely Protestant population at being saved from a dastardly Catholic plot. However, there is little evidence to show that such celebrations were held until after 1689, when William of Orange became King William III by deposing King James II.
William chose the date of 5th November on which to land in England in 1688. He appreciated the significance of that date, given that he was a Protestant prince who was ousting a Catholic king, and it may well be that it was the second “5th of November” that is really being remembered today.
© John Welford