The Gunpowder Plot 1605


Gunpowder plot conspirators

The Gunpowder Plot was a failed assassination attempt against King James 1 by a group of English Catholics led by Robert Catesby.  Many English Catholics had hoped that the death of Elizabeth 1 and the accession of James in 1603 would lead to a relenting of harsh penalties for recusancy.  Because Elizabeth had not formally named James as her successor, and to counter the efforts of influential Catholics like Robert Persons, James did some skilled political maneuvering with the pope and European monarchs to persuade them he was not a threat to Catholics.  After these promising early signs, James cracked down once he was securely on the English throne and banished all Catholic priests.  He then threatened to outlaw all Catholics.

Princess ElizabethCatesby’s fellow plotters were mainly Midlands or Yorkshire based: John and Christopher Wright, Thomas and Robert Wintour, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham.  Many of these men were from prominent Catholic families who had hosted Jesuit priests such as Edmund Campion during the reign of Elizabeth.  They planned to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605, capture James's nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, and install her as the Catholic head of state (although she wasn’t actually a Catholic). Fawkes, who had been a soldier in the Spanish Netherlands, was given charge of the explosives. 

Guy FawkesMany Catholics loyal to the Crown were likely to be at the State Opening of Parliament and plotters began to voice concerns about this and seek to warn their friends to stay away. Thus the plot unravelled as Lord Monteagle took his anonymous letter of warning to the authorities.  On 5th November a search was made of the House of Lords and Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding enough gunpowder to reduce the House of Lords to rubble.

The conspirators were variously pursued and tracked down.  Catesby and seven others made a last stand at Holbeche House in Worcestershire.  In the ensuing battle Catesby was one of those shot and killed. 

Catesby had met Fr Henry Garnet, the English Jesuit Superior, three times during the summer of 1605.  He sought advice about the morality of a scheme which might kill innocent as well as guilty. Garnet admonished Catesby, showing him a letter from the pope which forbade rebellion. Fr Oswald Tesimond SJ told Garnet he had learnt of the plot while taking Catesby's confession. Garnet judged that he had received this information under the seal of the confessional, and that canon law forbade him to repeat it. Nevertheless he tried to dissuade Catesby from going through with the plot. Garnet wrote to Fr Claudio Acquaviva, the Jesuit General in Rome, about possible rebellion in England: "there is a risk that some private endeavour may commit treason or use force against the King”.  He asked Acquaviva to persuade the pope to issue a public brief against the use of force.[68]

St Thomas Garnet SJFrom the first moment of the plot’s discovery, the government sought to have the Jesuits incriminated as its instigators.  Four of the Jesuits on the wanted list -  Garnet, Edward Oldcorne, Ralph Ashby and Nicholas Owen - were starved out of their priest holes at Hindlip Hall at the end of January 1606.  Tesimond and Fr John Gerard escaped to the continent.  Fr Gerard was a close associate of Garnet, and under suspicion as the minister to several of the conspirators.
At their trial in January 1606 the remaining living conspirators including Fawkes, were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  So by the time of the trial of the Jesuits no one was alive to testify to their innocence. The trials of the Jesuits uncovered no evidence of their guilt of conspiracy.  Garnet was executed for having knowledge of the plot.

Although anti-Catholic legislation was introduced soon after the plot's discovery, many important and loyal Catholics retained high office during King James I's reign. The thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot is still commemorated in Bonfire Night every 5th November.

Read more about why Jesuits have been accused of conspiracy over the centuries

Gunpowder Plot, English martyrs, Guy Fawkes, conspiracy, Robert Catesby