Any Guy will do, so long as we get a conviction

(Previously published in the McTavish Opera blog 5 November 2013)
Were the Gunpowder Plot conspirators framed?

It is a historical fact that on the evening of 4 November 1605, one Guido Fawkes was caught in the cellars underneath the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London, setting the fuses on 36 barrels of gunpowder. Looking into the background of the infamous Gunpowder Plot however left some serious questions.

The decision of Henry VIII, King of England 1509-1547, to split the Church of England from the Church of Rome established Protestantism as the state religion in England. Roman Catholic churches, chapels, monasteries and nunneries had been closed down and ransacked, and Roman Catholics generally had been persecuted and killed. The reign of Mary I, Queen of England 1556-1558, saw a reverse of this in which the Roman Catholic monarch and her followers set about Protestants with such ferocity that she is known to this day as “Bloody Mary”. When she was succeeded by her Protestant sister Elizabeth in 1558 however, persecution of Roman Catholics continued apace.

In Scotland the Reformation had seen Protestantism take hold even more fervently than in England. While the Church of England had Bishops, the firebrand Presbyterians of the Reformation saw any intervention between man and God as “of the Devil”. In only around ten years time Scotland went from being known as “The Pope’s special daughter” to the most Protestant country in Christendom. When the Reformation began, Mary, Queen of Scots 1542-1567, was still in France, where she had married Dauphin Francis and had for a short time enjoyed being Queen of France. Scotland at this time was being ruled over by Mary’s fanatically Roman Catholic mother, Marie de Guise; a woman who once boasted after beating the Protestant forces in battle “My God is stronger than John Knox’s God). Her death in 1560 saw power in Scotland pass to the Protestant Lords of the Congregation, whose persecution of Roman Catholics was to equal that of England. It was to this Protestant Scotland Mary returned in 1562, immediately causing turmoil which was to see her forced to abdicate, flee to England, and eventually to be executed on the orders of the English parliament.

Mary gave birth to a son, named James, in Edinburgh Castle in 1566. When she was forced to abdicate in 1567, part of the agreement she was forced to sign was to give her baby son up to the Lords of the Congregation, that he may be raised a Protestant. James of course was king from his mother’s abdication but regents ran the country in his stead, while carrying out his education and preparation as Scotland’s future Protestant monarch.

Mary’s grandmother had been Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and Elizabeth Tudor never married or left issue to succeed her on the English throne. So it was that when Elizabeth died in 1603, the only viable claimant to the throne was James VIII, King of Scots, who by this time was 37 years old. Having gained the kingdom his mother tried so hard to claim, James immediately headed south for London. “I am the husband, and the Kingdom is my wife,” James announced, “I hope therefore that no man would think me so bigamous to have two suitors.” So it was that James announced that his two kingdoms would henceforth be known as “Great Britain”. “We hate it.” said the Scots. “We hate it too.” said the English.

Among all this there was continued and even fiercer persecution of Roman Catholics. It was out of this and the background of the monarchy that the Gunpowder Plot was hatched.

The Plot

The alleged idea behind the plot was a reverse of what had been done with James; the conspirators intended to kill the king, seize his daughter Elizabeth, have her invested as Queen and brought up as a Roman Catholic to insure a future Catholic monarchy in England. “I shall blow the king back to Scotland.” Fawkes allegedly boasted.

Guido Fawkes and thirteen co-conspirators hired rooms in the Westminster area in the run up to the opening of parliament in 1605. The others were as follows;

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

Having apparently smuggled no fewer than 36 barrels of gunpowder into the cellars of the Houses of Parliament, these men left Guido Fawkes, apparently the explosives expert, to set the fuse in the evening of 5 November 1605. A routine patrol of two guards, who had been ordered to do a last minute check, stumbled upon Fawkes attempting to do so.

Fawkes was arrested and tortured into a confession. Sir William Wade, Lieutenant of the Tower, was ordered to give whatever means at his disposal to torture a confession out of Fawkes. These orders came directly from King James VI & I himself. Under this torture, Fawkes not only confessed to his conspiracy but apparently named all of those who conspired with him. Arrests were issued for all concerned, some who tried to flee and were killed where they stood, while the others were captured. Guido Fawkes and the surviving conspirators were found guilty and hanged for treason in January 1606.

The consequences

James VI & I was a highly paranoid man, particularly in matters of religion. He had been brought up to believe that there were Roman Catholics against him and out to either dethrone or kill him at every turn. There could be no better way therefore to convince James to curtail of all of those whose faith differed from that of not only Protestantism in general, but the Church of England (of which the king was of course the head), than to convince him of a Roman Catholic plot to kill him?

Behind all this was the Justice Minister Robert Cecil, who was not merely happy with James expelling priests, he wanted Roman Catholics eradicated from England altogether, as he perceived them as a constant threat to both the monarchy and the state. So it was that there was one of the most severe crackdowns upon Roman Catholicism that England ever saw. There was in fact a crackdown upon anyone who was not Protestant in general or Church of England in particular (it is worth remembering that when Henry VIII split the Church of England from Rome, he did so in full belief that he was a king ordained by God; a belief which James VI & I fervently shared). With Roman Catholics being set upon and killed, often even without trial but rather by mob rule, on a daily basis, the king ruled that every parish should set a fire every 5 November to celebrate his deliverance from the conspirators. In the earliest days the effigy on the top of these bonfires were not a “Guy” – or image of Guido Fawkes – but rather of the Pope.


It was not even legal to own gunpowder in England in the 17th century. The government had a monopoly on gunpoder and private ownership of such was considered a treasonable offence in itself. Apologists point out that there was a black market in gunpowder and indeed this is true. Is it highly likely, however, that conspirators would have been able to get their hands on such a huge amount without being detected? Cecil, whose duty it was to protect the House of Commons, would have had spies out and would surely have been made aware of these actions. Indeed, it is entirely possible that if the conspirators got their hands on such vast quantities of gunpowder, they could not have possibly got it on the black market without government help.

Similarly, Cecil, who had a number of spies out watching Roman Catholics, could hardly have not been aware of a number of single men moving into rooms around Westminster. Apologists claim that the conspirators used false names. This is true. But whatever their faith, Cecil would have been made aware of them. It is also a fact that among these men there were a number of noblemen who would have been easily recognised in Westminster, not least Thomas Percy, heir to the Earldom of Northumberland and one of the highest nobles in the UK. To believe that Cecil and his spies would not have recognised noblemen, whom Cecil knew on a personal basis, is a complete nonsense.

Percy and Robert Catesby fled London and were shot dead in the back by a soldier, who was later to receive an unprecedented pension of 2/- per annum; a vast sum for a solider in 1605.

Probably one of the most damning pieces of evidence pointing to a government conspiracy is that of the Mounteagle Letter. Lord Mounteagle was a cousin of Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot. On 26 October 1605 an unidentified messenger gave him a letter which he read aloud by Mounteagle’s serveent In the message he warned Mounteagle not to attend the opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605, for parliament would receive a terrible blow and those who carried this out would not be seen.

As a loyal Lord and servant, Mounteagle immediately carried this information to Robert Cecil. This news reached Cecil on the evening of 4 November 1605, the very same evening that Guido Fawkes, under the name of John Johnston, was discovered setting the fuses on 36 barrels of gunpowder – which had previously gone unnoticed in the Palace of Westminster.


There is no doubt that there was a Roman Catholic plot against James VI & I, as evidenced by the very presence of Fawkes in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament in the first place.

It is claimed that the barrels of gunpowder were floated up the Thames and entered into the Houses of Parliament over several evenings. Even then, in the run up to the State opening of Parliament, to be attended by the king and queen, to imagine that anyone like Robert Cecil, who saw anti-monarchist, Roman Catholic plots at every turn, would not have parliament secured is stretching credulity to the limit.

Similarly, Cecil’s spies, many of whom had been inherited from the huge spy network of Queen Elizabeth I, would have been well aware of several unmarried men suddenly moving into lodgings around Westminster. As I have said before, many of these mens were nobles who would have been well known to Cecil and his spies, no matter what names they used.

All in all the Gunpowder Plot on the face of it seems a plot doomed to fail from the beginning – a plot which could have only have gone ahead with any modicum of success with government collusion.

Every chain has it’s weakest link. In the number of nobles involved in the Gunpowder Plot, the most minor of them was Guido Fawkes, the most lowly of those among the conspirators. It is no mistake then that it was Fawkes who became the fall guy, the patsy, for a conspiracy which set religious rights back decades. He was indeed the Lee Harvey Oswald of 1605.

I do not for one moment imagine that this blog will stop anyone from commemorating Bonfire Night on 5 November. I do hope however it will give many deeper insight into what is essentially a pro-monarchist and deliberately bigoted, anti-Roman Catholic celebration.

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