Skip to main content

The Gunpowder Plot is the most famous terrorist conspiracy in British history and one of the most famous in the world. The name ‘Guy Fawkes’ is familiar to almost anyone who speaks English, but this was a much larger and more complex event than we have been led to believe, particularly by Hollywood versions like V For Vendetta. In this episode I offer a background history of the conflict between the Catholic Church and the English monarchy and outline the competing theories and interpretations of what happened. Was this a genuine rebellion? An elitist uprising? A fake plot? An excuse for government terror? A calculated entrapment operation? All the cards are on the table in this episode.



That was a clip from the BBC where a bunch of oh so posh and proper types, explained the Gunpowder Plot, or at least the official version of it. That’s one of a series of clips, I assume from a documentary but I’m not sure.

As you can imagine, I am very sceptical about this piece of history, partly because it is perhaps the most well-known terrorist plot in Western History, at least in the pre-modern age. Far more people know about the Gunpowder Plot than know about, for example, what happened at Entebbe or the Decade of Regicide, both of which happened much more recently and had a more tangible effect on the modern world. Indeed, I’m sure for a lot of people the name Guy Fawkes is more recognisable than Ziad Jarrah, the supposed leader of the hijackers of Flight 93. Indeed, aside from Mohammed Atta, my experience is that most people, even a lot of 9/11 truthers, struggle to name the alleged 9/11 hijackers. But if you ask them who was behind the Gunpowder Plot, they’ll be able to tell you it was Guy Fawkes.

Naturally, most people won’t be able to tell you much more about the plot or name any of the other conspirators, it is always Guy Fawkes who is mentioned as though he did this all by himself. This image was reinforced by the movie V for Vendetta. In that film it is a lone radical, driven primarily by revenge, who attacks the fascistic British government. Just like in most movies, it is the lone wolf, the single hero/anti-hero, the exceptional individual. This is, of course, an individualist myth, in reality history just doesn’t work like that. But That’s a story for another day.

However, it is important to note that at the end of the film there are several instances of the radicals, the terrorists, and the fascistic security state coming together and working as one. The central character, V, makes a deal with the security services to surrender if they execute one of their own political leaders. The crowd that gathers near parliament all wearing Guy Fawkes masks look like they are going to clash with the military, but at the last moment the army stands aside and lets them past. Finally, after V is killed, it is actually a policeman who pushes the lever and sets the train-bomb going towards Parliament and thus he who ultimately blows up the houses of Parliament.

Now, I think that film is quite terrible, laden with clichés and tedious waffle, just like the Matrix trilogy it is a film that has just enough ideas in it to make you think it’s about something when in fact it is extremely shallow. Nonetheless, it is interesting that in this recreation of historical terrorism, moulded with numerous references to the Gunpowder plot, has a resolution where the terrorists and fascistic government are actually working together.

Getting back to the plot itself, as I say it is always the individual, Guy Fawkes, who gets all the attention. People still burn effigies of Guy Fawkes on November the 5th, in a ritual which is fun because you get to watch a big bonfire and eat toffee apples and everything, but which has always struck me as extremely bizarre. And in focusing all the attention on Guy Fawkes the 10 or so other major conspirators are ignored. Thus, I’m going to give you a brief background history of what led up to this and who else was involved, before looking at several different interpretations of what happened.

So, this was a Catholic, possibly Jesuit plot against not just the monarchy but the entire British government of the day. The conflict goes back to the 1530s, 70 years before the Gunpowder Plot, when Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce from his first wife. Divorce is, of course, not permitted by the Catholic Church so this led to an argument between Henry VIII and the Pope, and ultimately led to the British monarchy breaking with the Vatican and getting rid of Catholicism as the national religion. He then happily got divorced and married his new wife, before proceeding to have her executed three years later so he could marry again. The new wife only lasted a year before she died, so he got married again, before divorcing 6 months later and getting married again, but he then had her executed a couple of years later. The sixth and final wife lasted four years before Henry VIII died, taking this misogynistic, psychopathic serial killer straight to hell.   Assuming there is a hell, that is, I’m sure Henry VIII is there. Perhaps the most vile of a long line of vile monarchs that this country has had.

This conflict continued throughout the century, and in the time of Elizabeth I things got particularly nasty. The Recusancy laws demanded that everyone participated in Church of England (i.e. Protestant) activities, that everyone had to either be protestant or pretend to be. Those Catholics who refused were called Recusants, and were fined and often punished in worse ways than that. In particular Jesuit Missionaries were persecuted, and some were executed, murdered by the state for religious and political reasons.

When Elizabeth died she left no children, there was no natural heir. So in the years leading up to her death certain senior bureaucrats in the British government cast about for a successor. They ended up with James I, the king of Scotland, and thus began the reunification of what is now called the United Kingdom, the UK. James had quietly promised to treat Catholics with more respect and even spread rumours in Rome that he was considering converting to Catholicism. But when he got onto the throne, none of that happened.

As you might imagine, the Catholics fought back, attempting assassinations and uprisings against the monarchy and the government through the reign of Elizabeth I and James I. The Gunpowder Plot is only the most famous of these, there were actually quite a lot of conspiracies to overthrow the British government at this time. So that is the first common misconception – that the Gunpowder Plot was a standalone event rather than part of a much longer and larger struggle.

The second major misconception is, as I say, that this was all about Guy Fawkes and he just wanted to blow up Parliament and kill the king. As though this was just about revenge, anger, frustration, craziness. In reality the plot was much larger, blowing up Parliament was only one aspect of this. The other aspects were to simultaneously inspire and organise an uprising in the midlands, literally the middle of the country if you go north to south, and also to kidnap the King’s daughter, also called Elizabeth, and make her the new Queen. Even though at this point I think she was 9 years old. So this was a coup plot, an attempted coup d’etat, not just a wild terrorist attack.

Similarly, while Guy Fawkes was a soldier, essentially a working class man, most of the conspirators were landed gentry and some were even working for the government. Thomas Percy, for example, was one of the King’s bodyguards. But the plot also involved John Wright, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham. They were led by Robert Catesby, a zealous Catholic extremist. While I’m sure you’ve heard of some of these other men, I’m equally sure none of them are as familiar to you as Guy Fawkes. Funny how, in terms of the popular historical narrative, not at the time, it all gets pinned on one working class guy while the middle to upper class guys are basically ignored. Such is the class politics of British history, I guess.

What happened to these men? Well, most of them were caught and tortured and then publicly executed. Before being beheaded and having their heads put on spikes in public in Westminster. ISIS have nothing on the British monarchy when it comes to wanton public brutality. Others also suffered the same fate, including Father Henry Garnet, the leading Jesuit in England at the time. He was arrested and executed because certain confessions, all obtained through torture, implicated him or at least implied that he knew what was going on and didn’t say anything or warn the government. Once word of Guy Fawkes’ capture made it back to the midlands, several of the men did manage to escape across country, though they ended up in a shoot-out and were all killed.

Now, over the summer I read a two-part book called The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 by Antonia Fraser. Now, admittedly that is Lady Antonia Margaret Caroline Fraser DBE, someone who is very much part of the establishment, but nonetheless this is quite a radical book. She quite openly discusses the varying theories about the Gunpowder Plot, and so I thought I would sketch these out to you as a buffet of interpretations for this event.

1) The theory that there was a plot of sorts, but it was ineffective and never would have succeeded. This tends to focus in on the ludicrous notion that the plotters tunnelled into the cellar where the barrels were found, which isn’t something most historians take seriously. There is also the question of what was in the barrels – no one really disputes that Guy Fawkes was caught in the cellar with the barrels of powder, but some books have argued that it wasn’t gunpowder.

1B) The idea that there was no real plot, that the whole thing was a fabrication. This is, of course, a prototype of the modern ‘it’s all fake’ idea.

2) Others have argued that it was gunpowder, but that it had decayed, as organic explosives do quite rapidly. These barrels had been down there for months, so the theory is quite possibly true. In her book Fraser points to the fact that the handful of conspirators who escaped for a few days before being hunted down and killed in a firefight – they took with them additional barrels of gunpowder. But they had trouble storing it, it got damp and began to decay, so they – and you’ll laugh at this – spread it out near the fire to try to dry it out. Naturally, it caught fire, blinding one of them, and seriously burning Catesby, the guy at the top of the conspiracy. So the idea that these guys weren’t so handy with the gunpowder and might have stacked up dozens of barrels of decaying powder under the houses of parliament is certainly worthy of consideration.

3) The official story, or at least the popular historical version, which is that a dastardly group of Catholic extremist terrorists tried to murder the beloved King James 1st for no good reason. This is not something Fraser devotes much time to advancing, she’s quite open that she thinks this received wisdom is not a fair account of what happened.

4) That there was a conspiracy against the King, either with or without the knowhow to actually carry it out, but that the authorities massively overreacted and used this as an excuse to execute a bunch of people and expand the crackdown on Catholics. This is something Fraser devotes a lot of pages to, particularly in the second book that deals with what happens after Guy Fawkes was caught. The use of torture, quite horrible torture that we needn’t get into the details of, against the captured men in order to elicit confessions is something she really hammers home. Quite a number of people against whom there was little or no evidence were arrested and either executed or at least imprisoned in terrible conditions for years. The public executions, the disgusting spectacle of the rotting heads of the conspirators – the real Terror of this event was not in the plot itself, but in the government’s reaction. I think she says that quite explicitly at one point. So that is the misconception about this event, above all others. As always, who are the real terrorists? In this case it was undoubtedly the government.

5) The theory that it was all being run as an entrapment operation by Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State, basically the bureaucratic head of the King’s government. This is a distinct possibility. After all, this is how you put down real rebellions – you infiltrate them, direct them or just follow them up to a point, and then entrap them, seize them and destroy them. Indeed, there’s something quite primal about that, like a hunter stalking their prey. Only obviously they did not eat the corpses of the executed men. As far as we know.

So, this Robert Cecil theory, or at least the broad idea that the conspirators were basically guilty but walked right into a trap that was set for them, is quite a popular one. People ask how was it that Guy Fawkes got enough access to the cellar to plant 36 barrels of gunpowder. In truth, physical security at the House of Parliament has always been crap and that you could probably bomb it now if you really wanted to. Which suggests that no one wants to, since it hasn’t really suffered any trouble since it burnt down in the 1830s. Though it is slowly but surely slipping into the river Thames, which amuses me. So this security question is not necessarily a point I feel is particularly strong.

Nonetheless, there is a more subtle point to be made. If the security was so bad that Guy Fawkes could actually sneak all these barrels in from a nearby house being rented by one of the King’s bodyguards, then how come they caught him? Searches of the cellars were not a common practice. So was this a massive stroke of luck or something more sinister?

It is at this point that we have to talk about the Monteagle letter, an anonymous letter received by William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, about 10 days before Guy Fawkes was caught. The letter begged Monteagle not to attend the opening of parliament because it was going to ‘receive a terrible blow’. To be sure, there is no mention of Catholics or gunpowder or cellars.

Baron Monteagle took the letter straight to Robert Cecil to warn him and the King and on the night of the 4th November the cellar was searched and Guy Fawkes was caught. So the whole unravelling of the plot begins with this letter. I’ll link up a copy from the national archives so you can see it for yourself, but the interesting point here is that Baron Monteagle was the brother in law of Francis Tresham, one of the senior conspirators. So was this a warning from Tresham to his relative to avoid the opening of Parliament and hence the bombing? This is what Fraser suggests could be the case.

There is, of course, another possibility. Namely, that Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State himself, wrote the letter (or had it written) thus giving himself the excuse to expose the plot and bring the whole thing home. What is certain is that no one seems to know who wrote this letter, even though it’s apparently one of the most important letters in British history. The whole thing hinged on this.

If it was Tresham then why did he not confess to it? He was among the group that was captured and confessed, though he wasn’t executed, he died in the Tower of London, the jail, about 6 weeks later. Though exactly how he died is not all that clear either. This all suggests it could have been Robert Cecil, or an agent of his, which would explain why we still don’t know. It simply wouldn’t have been something anyone would have ever written down or told someone else about. If Cecil had agents within the circle of conspirators, possibly even agent provocateurs, possibly even Francis Tresham, then he could have done this as a way of protecting his source. This is the hypothesis of another book by Alan Haynes.

I know what you’re going to ask me – what do I think? Well, obviously the conspiracy theorist in me says it was a plot by Robert Cecil, probably including some real radicals like Catesby who were crazy enough to actually try to do this, but also including some agents helping to steer the plot enough to make it easy to expose and be seen to be responding to. I definitely buy into the interpretation that the real terror of the Gunpowder Plot was what happened afterwards, the King and Government’s response.

As to the question of whether the gunpowder had decayed – clearly for this whole thing to have worked Guy Fawkes had to have a source of illegal gunpowder. You couldn’t get dozens of barrels of the stuff on the open market without drawing attention to yourself so it has to be from somewhere else. He did have contacts on the continent in friendly Catholic countries who could have helped provide it, in which case they may have replaced the initial batch with a second, fresh batch closer to the start of November. Because the date of the opening of Parliament kept getting pushed back due to fears about the plague and other things, so the conspiracy kept having to be put off for another few weeks or months. Thus, it is plausible the explosives had decayed, it’s plausible that if they could get one lot and smuggle it in that they could have done the same with a replacement batch.

Obviously, that just leaves the popular official version, which, y’know, don’t make me laugh. As if I’d take that seriously. But ultimately there a lot more I don’t know about this than I do know, so as always feel free to disagree with me. I very much encourage anyone who is curious about this to look into it and to get Antonia Fraser’s two part book on the subject. Again, it is not the easiest book to read but I managed well enough so I expect any of you will be able to handle it.