Monday 5 November 2007

Remember, remember the Gunpowder Plot: treason or lies?

5 November 1605 is the date of the Gunpowder Plot. It is said that some Catholics, most famously Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up King James I, the first of the Stuart kings of England.

The story is remembered each 5 November when "guys" are burned on "Bonfire Night" and - in times past but not now - the Church of England celebrated a service in remembrance of the "deliverance" of Parliament from gunpowder.

Catholics in England had expected James to be more tolerant of them. In fact, he had proved to be the opposite and had renewed the orders that all Catholic priests leave England and the Penal Laws be enforced with hanging, drawing and quartering used against priests and faithful Catholics. It is said that this led to a plot to kill not only King James but also Parliament at its state opening.

It is said that the conspirators were:

Guy Fawkes,
Robert and Thomas Wintour,
Thomas Percy,
Christopher and John Wright,
Francis Tresham,
Everard Digby,
Ambrose Rookwood,
Thomas Bates,
Robert Keyes,
Hugh Owen,
John Grant, and the man who is said to have organised the whole plot
Robert Catesby.

In celebration of his survival, James ordered that the people of England should have a great bonfire in the night on 5 November each year. This fire was traditionally topped off with an effigy of the pope rather than Guy Fawkes. In Lewes, East Sussex, an effigy of the pope is still burned alongside one of Guy Fawkes.

But is there more to the whole plot than meets the eye? Some believe so.

There is evidence that the whole plot was a government conspiracy to convince James that Catholics could not be trusted and had t be persecuted.

There are a number of curious factors.

Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, and effectively Prime Minister, hated Catholics. Cecil also feared that King James might soften the anti-Catholic penal laws.

The government had a monopoly on gunpowder and it was stored in places like the Tower of London. How, then, did the conspirators get hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder without drawing attention to themselves? Did they, in fact, get help from the government?

How was the gunpowder moved across London from the Tower of London to Westminster (at least two miles distant) without anyone seeing it? The River Thames would not have been used as it could have lead to the gunpowder becoming damp and useless. 36 barrels would have been a sizeable quantity to move without causing suspicion.

Why were men who were known to be Catholics allowed to rent out a house so near to the Houses of Parliament? How did they move 36 barrels from that house to the cellar of the Houses of Parliament without anyone noticing?

Why, for the first time in history, was there a search of Parliament's cellars that conveniently found "John Johnson" (Guy Fawkes’ nom de guerre) before he lit the fuse?

Why was the soldier who killed Catesby and Percy at Holbeech House in the Midlands, to where the “conspirators” had escaped, given such a large pension for life when the names of other conspirators had yet to be disclosed?

Some historians have pointed out these issues and claimed that the plotters were pawns in the hands of Robert Cecil and that he orchestrated the whole affair in his bid to get James to expel all Catholics altogether.

Two other issues are also odd.

The first is the so-called Monteagle Letter.

One of the plotters was a man called Francis Tresham. Lord Monteagle was his cousin.

On the evening of 26 October, a mysterious man brought a letter to Monteagle’s home just outside of London. The letter was a clear warning for Monteagle not to turn up at the Houses of Parliament on the 5 November. The letter stated that Parliament would receive a terrible blow on that day and that those killed would not see who had done it to them. The letter was addressed to Monteagle but it was read out aloud by his servant. Why? Was Monteagle looking for a witness that he had received this letter?

Monteagle went straight to Robert Cecil and informed him of what had happened. Cecil ordered a search of the cellars of Parliament on the night of 4 November. The guards found Guy Fawkes. A second search the next day, ordered by King James I himself, also found the gunpowder and Fawkes who was found to be in possession of matches. He was arrested.

The other issue also involves Tresham.

Here was important and could know much about the other conspirators who had yet to be apprehended. Once arrested, he was locked in the Tower of London but he was locked in a cell by himself. He died on 23 December 1605 having been poisoned. How did he get the poison? Did he knowingly take it? Or did someone want to silence him before he talked? Catholics have a horror of suicide because, for the sound of mind with no mitigating circumstances, it can be a path to damnation. Someone else may have had access to him and introduced poison into his food. Such a person could only have been of high rank and position as no-one else would have had access to this valuable prisoner.

Was the so-called Gunpowder Plot in fact a cunningly laid trap set to fool the king and the country into thinking that Catholics were seeking to murder the king and hence were dangerous people who should all be expelled, imprisoned or executed?
There is no doubt but that the government of both Cecil and his father were certainly capable of such deviousness and there are a stream of examples of such mischief.

The reign of Elizabeth I – the ill-named “Gloriana” – was a time of tyranny, evil, devilish cunning, treachery, murder, villainy, heresy and infamy of the most notorious and unprecedented kind. The country was permanently marked by this time of great evil which enured into the reign of King James I and well after.

It therefore need not surprise us that such a cunning plot might well have been laid by the government and by Cecil, himself.



JARay said...

I well remember being told all of those reasons as to why the "Gunpowder Plot" was a fiction when I was a boy at school (a Catholic Grammar school, I might add). There also was added the observation that even if all of those unlikely events had taken place the actual "explosion" would most probably have been little more than a large fire because, for gunpowder to explode, it has to be compressed not just loaded into a barrel.
At the same time, our Chemistry teacher made some gunpowder and wrapped it up in a tube of stiff brown paper. When he lit the touch paper (made from soaking some paper in a solution of saltpetre) the ensuing fire which spouted out was about four inches long and burned fiercely but certainly did not explode! No doubt, today, he would be severely censured for such an activity but we thought it great and he certainly demonstrated that gunpowder does not always explode.


Dr. Peter H. Wright said...

I am not, by nature, a "conspiracy theorist" myself, but in the matter of the "Gunpowder Plot", there are cleary too many discrepancies in the official history of events.

I find I am quite convinced by the scholars who have argued that, while there was some sort of ill thought out scheme to overthrow the government, such a plan could never have succeeded.

The theory that Cecil, who had a pathological hatred of Catholicism, orchestrated the whole affair in order to provide the king with hard evidence against Catholics has, I think, been convincingly rehearsed.

I had not fully considered the "logistics" involved in the transfer of such quantities of gunpowder.

But I have always been sceptical of the true authorship of the Monteagle letter, particularly in light of the death in suspicious circumstances of its supposed author, Tresham.

It was all too convenient for Cecil to "discover" the plot this way.

I think the Gunpowder Plot Society has a comprehensive bibliography on the subject which is not fully listed on its website.

This post has been a most fascinating read.

Thank you.