The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was the plan by a group of militant Roman Catholics to murder the Protestant King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) and the political leaders of England by blowing up the Palace of Westminster in London - which housed the English parliament - while James was attending the State Opening of Parliament.
The plotters, led by Robert Catesby, had rented a house next door to the Palace of Westminster, and, through its cellar, broke into the cellars of the Palace. They were able to place large quantities of gunpowder in barrels in the cellars, supervised by one Guy Fawkes, from York, who had served as an artillery officer with the (Catholic) Spanish armies in the Netherlands; he was an expert on explosives.
However, one of the plotters tipped off a relation who was due to attend the Opening of Parliament and a search of the Palace and its cellars was ordered. Fawkes was caught red-handed; most of the plotters fled but were either captured or killed in a fight with pursuing forces loyal to the crown. Fawkes and other captured plotters were convicted of treason and given the usual penalty—hanged, drawn and quartered.
The underlying conspiracy, organized by the Catholic gentry of the Midland counties, was to effect a coup d'état. They were largely reacting in frustration to the breakdown of James I's Catholic toleration policy. The first step in the plan was intended to be the assassination of the King James I and his ministers by the explosion of barrels of gunpowder. They would then supervise the new queen, Elizabeth, and make her a Catholic.
A minority interpretation put forward by Fr. John Gerard, SJ, a Jesuit historian, in 1897; he argued that the Protestant Earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil) manufactured the plot to affect public opinion against Catholics.
Image and memory
The earliest Jacobean poetry on the Gunpowder Plot helps reveal the gradual tendency to mythologize the event. Fawkes, not central to the first poems (Fawkes was not even mentioned in John Heath's "The Devil of the Vault"), becomes the main demonic presence a few years later. Chosen as history's scapegoat because of his outsider qualities, the monster finds his way into John Milton's earlier and later poems. There may be some unnoticed influence on Milton from the early poems concerning the plot, but one must also consider the crisis-ridden context of Renaissance Europe as encouraging the Manichean element. English and Latin poems dealing with the plot were written by Edward Hawes, Thomas Goad, Richard Williams, Francis Herring, John Vicars, John Ross, Thomas Campion, and Michael Wallace.
The British people commemorate this event annually on November 5. The festivities, involving bonfires and fireworks, lost all religious and political significance many years ago and it is now simply an excuse for night-time merry-making at what is otherwise a dull time of year.
- Fraser, Antonia. The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605. (1996). 347 pp. very well written account by scholar
- Nicholls, Mark. Investigating Gunpowder Plot. (1991). 254pp
- Nicholls, Mark. "Strategy and Motivation in the Gunpowder Plot," The Historical Journal (2007), 50:787-807, the latest scholarly overview
- Wormald, Jenny. "Gunpowder, Treason, and Scots." Journal Of British Studies 1985 24(2): 141-168. emphasizes the complexity of motivations in JSTOR
- Gerard was refuted in 1897 and his theory is not now accepted by scholars. See Ron Christenson, Political trials: Gordian knots in the law (1999) pp 20ff online
- Richard F. Hardin, "The Early Poetry of the Gunpowder Plot: Myth in the Making." English Literary Renaissance 1992 22(1): 62-79.