Fanatical bombers in London are not a new phenomena. On The 5th November 1605, four hundred and ten years ago this week, Guido Fawkes, more commonly known as Guy was discovered hiding in the cellars of the houses of parliament. Stacked nearby were 36 barrels of gunpowder, partly concealed by faggots - enough to demolish the houses of parliament twenty five times over. It took just four days of torture and interrogation before Fawkes admitted his part in a plot to kill King James I, and his immediate heirs, during the state opening of parliament. But why was an officer from the Spanish army, known as an explosives expert, trying to kill an English king?
During the trial of the conspirators the plot was described as an attempt by English Catholics to change the monarch and the religion of the country. But this is only a small part of the story. Although doomed from the start the plot had the support of the Pope and was part of a much bigger intrigue involving among others the King of Spain. This was not a few disaffected religious fanatics working on their own but an internationally coordinated attempt to subvert the course of English history.
Following the death of Elizabeth I, without an heir in 1603, the crown passed to her cousin James VI of Scotland making him James I. The first Stuart King of England. While protestant Elizabeth had tolerated the catholic faith James I had little time for papists. His intolerance and repression of the catholic religion quickly created resentment in England and abroad, a situation aggravated when James ordered all catholic priests to leave the country. The Pope, Bishop of Rome, excommunicated James I and his protestant subjects proclaiming that no heretic could sit on the English throne.
Fawkes’ trial indictment deals with the Pope’s position in some detail: -
‘First, That the King, and his People (the Papists excepted) were Hereticks.
Secondly, That they were all cursed, and excommunicated by the Pope.
Thirdly, That no Heretick could be King.
Fourthly, That it was lawful and meritorious to kill and destroy the King, and all the said Hereticks.’ sic.
In modern parlance the Pope issued a fatwa calling for the murder of James I.
Towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign there were still hostilities with Spain. Philip II of Spain had negotiated with the plot conspirators to send an invasion army to England in support of any uprising of Catholics against the English crown. Plans were made for the invading army to land either in Kent or Milford Haven depending on the strength of the uprising. It was agreed that the English plotters were to supply the army with up to 2000 horses and equipment, demonstrating the scale of the undertaking.
The court indictment spells out their objectives: -
‘First, To deprive the King of his Crown.
Secondly, To murder the King, the Queen, and the Prince.
Thirdly, To stir Rebellion and Sedition in the Kingdom.
Fourthly, To bring a miserable Destruction amongst the Subjects.
Fifthly, To change, alter, and subvert the Religion here established.
Sixthly, To ruinate the State of the Commonwealth, and to bring in Strangers to invade it.’ sic.
The trial transcript shows that Philip offered 50,000 crowns to the plotters immediately and pledged a further 50,000 crowns to follow later. Count Miranda conducted the financial negotiations on behalf of the King. Despite this damming fact and evidence that Fawkes acted as a messenger to the Spanish King the indictment describes Philip’s actions as honourable. Any further involvement he has in the plot is glossed over. Were the trial judges practicing ‘real politic’ to allow Philip’s negotiations for peace to continue after the plot failed? After all, what point was there in pursuing the King of Spain in an English court of law?
Guy Fawkes, who claimed his name was John Johnson when arrested, had been born in 1570 at Saint Michael-le-Belfrey, York. He was a protestant but converted to the catholic faith, changed his name to Guido and enlisted in the Spanish Army in 1593. He fought in Italy and was considered an expert on demolition using gunpowder. A skill he used effectively during the siege of Calais in 1596. By then Guido had risen through the ranks and had his own command in Philip II of Spain’s army. During this campaign, while Fawkes was in Flanders, he was recruited by the plotters and started his journey to the scaffold and a traitor’s death.
A common thread runs through the conspiracy linking The Vatican, Spain, and Flanders to England. A large proportion of the key plotters were Jesuits suggesting the religious order was being used to front political subversion and as a conduit to stimulate direct action. It was in Flanders that Fawkes first met Father Baldwyn who, in turn, introduced him to Father Creswell in Spain. One of the principle schemers was Henry Garnet a Superior of the Jesuits in England. Not all were priests. Amongst the plotters was Thomas Percy from the Northumberland Percy family together with John Wright, Christopher Wright, Gentlemen and Robert Catesby, a charismatic man regarded by some as the ringleader. The indictment names several others including Francis Tresham Esq; who was, some say, to play a key part in the undoing of the plot.
To be able to put together such a diverse but committed team was no mean accomplishment in itself but adding the need for negotiations, arranging funding, keeping the plot a secret and planning for events after the king was killed called for someone with a strategic grasp and an understanding of how to manipulate a political situation. Here again the indictment is revealing, telling us how the plan was to install the Kings’ daughter Princess Elizabeth as Queen and quietly usurp the protestant faith over a period of time. The plotters even had the confidence to appoint a new ambassador to the Vatican, Sir Edmund Baynam (also spelt Bainham), charged with the task of taking the news of the successful assassination to the Pope. All swore Oaths of secrecy, received the Sacrament of the Eucharist and were absolved of any sin.
The first attempt to dig a mine under Parliament began in December 1604. The plan was to fill the shaft with gunpowder. Work was slow and encountering a three metre thick wall digging was abandoned. By Easter 1605 a new plan was devised and the plotters rented an empty cellar under Parliament House for one year. In June they delivered 20 barrels of gunpowder covering them with iron and timber packing to increase the blast. In July a further 10 barrels were added supplemented with 6 more in September. In total 2,500 kg of gunpowder, enough to flatten Parliament and the surrounding area. Recent calculations suggest that the blast would have devastated a 500-metre area and broken windows 1/3rd of a mile away. Not only would success for the traitors have meant elimination of the King and his immediate family but also the knights, judges, lords, nearly the entire ruling class of England. All would have been there for the state opening of parliament and all killed in one big explosion.
Fawkes was in the cellar, ready with his matches and fuses when he was surprised by guards and overpowered. The official explanation for a sudden search the night before parliament opened is that one of the conspirators, Francis Tresham, sent a letter to his brother in law Lord Mounteagle, warning him not to attend the state opening. The letter was shown to Robert Cecil, James I’s Chief Minister and this alerted the crown authorities to the threat. Conveniently Tresham died of poisoning in the Tower of London before coming to trial and was never able to explain or refute the letter. Equally odd is the fact that on receiving the letter Lord Mounteagle instructed one of his servants to open and read it aloud in front of witnesses. It is possible that the authorities were aware of the plot from the start and allowed it to develop in order to scoop up all the conspirators. Was the letter from Tresham a forgery used to protect another informer in the group?
Another issue is where did the gunpowder come from? In1605 the English crown had a monopoly on explosives and 2.5 tons is a huge amount. Simply moving that amount around London would have aroused suspicions. Purchasing the powder would have been difficult and vigilant government agents may well have supplied defective gunpowder as a safety precaution. It is recorded that Fawkes expressed concern to his friends that the powder was damp and poor quality. Since Fawkes did not light his fuses we will never learn the truth.
Robert Catesby was shot trying to escape after the plot failed. At the trial the remaining defendants were all found guilty. Pleas in mitigation were heard and sentence passed the ultimate punishment under English law, death by being hung drawn and quartered.
The court documents gave explicit instruction for each execution: -
‘He shall be strangled, being hanged up by the Neck between Heaven and Earth, as deemed unworthy of both, or either; as likewise, that the Eyes of Men may behold, and their Hearts condemn him. Then he is to be cut down alive, and to have his Privy Parts cut off and burnt before his Face, as being unworthily begotten, and unfit to leave any Generation after him. His Bowels and inlay'd Parts taken out and burnt, who inwardly had conceived and harboured in his heart such horrible Treason. After, to have his Head cut off, which had imagined the Mischief. And lastly, his Body to be quartered, and the Quarters set up in some high and eminent Place, to the View and Detestation of Men, and to become a Prey for the Fowls of the Air.’ sic
It took two days to carry out the sentences in January 1606 ending the gunpowder plot and the lives of 8 traitors.