The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Toleration in 1605: 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

By Adams, Simon | History Today, November 2005 | Go to article overview

The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Toleration in 1605: 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


Adams, Simon, History Today


EVERYONE 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'?

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