Gunpowder Plot

A group of English Catholics conspired to blow up the houses of Parliament with King James and all the members inside. The Gunpowder Plot not only failed but also intensified Protestant suspicions of Catholics and reduced religious tolerance of Catholicism in England.

Summary of Event

The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy by a small group of English Roman Catholics who were discontented with the policies of King James I James I (king of England);Gunpowder Plot . Their plan was to blow up the king, his ministers and family, and the entire legislature during the opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605. After the destruction of the monarchy and the government, the conspirators had hoped that an uprising by English Catholics would follow and enable them to take over the country. Catholicism;England
[kw]Gunpowder Plot (Nov. 5, 1605)
[kw]Plot, Gunpowder (Nov. 5, 1605)
Government and politics;Nov. 5, 1605: Gunpowder Plot[0400]
Religion and theology;Nov. 5, 1605: Gunpowder Plot[0400]
England;Nov. 5, 1605: Gunpowder Plot[0400]
Gunpowder Plot (1605)

Under Queen Elizabeth I, persecution of Catholics had been widespread. Persecution, religious;Catholics in England Executions and imprisonments were not uncommon in extreme cases. The introduction of recusancy laws, which fined people for failure to attend Anglican church services, was also extremely unpopular among English Catholics. Some individuals were forced to pay thousands of pounds in recusancy fines over the years. The accession of James I to the throne in 1603 brought hopes of greater tolerance for Catholics and that the persecutions would soon end. Conflict between the king and Parliament, however, resulted in little relaxation of the recusancy laws. James’s nationality—the idea of a Scottish monarch ruling England—as well as his failure to obtain religious freedom for Catholics led Robert Catesby Catesby, Robert to initiate the Gunpowder Plot conspiracy.

Catesby had seen his family persecuted for years under Queen Elizabeth, and he was quite willing to seek violent revenge on the Protestant government. In March of 1604, Catesby told fellow Catholics Thomas Percy Percy, Thomas and Thomas Winter Winter, Thomas of his plans to blow up Parliament. They were shocked by the plan at first and suggested trying to secure relief for the English Catholics through peaceful means by seeking assistance from foreign governments. When King Philip III Philip III (king of Spain) of Spain failed to convince James to relax the recusancy laws, however, violence seemed to be the only alternative left for the conspirators to consider.

Returning to England in May, Winter brought with him Guy Fawkes, Fawkes, Guy a man he believed would be an asset to their plans because of his military experience. Later that month, the conspirators rented rooms near the Houses of Parliament. The conspiracy had grown to include John Wright, Wright, John Christopher Wright, Wright, Christopher Robert Winter, Winter, Robert and John Grant Grant, John . The following year, Ambrose Rokewood, Rokewood, Ambrose Francis Tresham Tresham, Francis , and Sir Everard Digby Digby, Sir Everard were added to help finance the operation. The conspirators’ plan, to dig a tunnel to the House of Lords and place a large quantity of gunpowder there, was fraught with problems from the start. With the exception of Fawkes, who had some experience in mining operations, the conspirators were members of the gentry with no experience of digging. Consequently, they found their task to be quite challenging physically.

Finances, too, were a problem, but the problem was lessened somewhat by the addition of Rokewood, Digby, and Tresham, to whom the full details of the plot were not revealed. Although the opening of Parliament was delayed many times, the workers began to despair of the tunnel. In February of 1605, however, they learned of a cellar for rent under the House of Lords. They abandoned the tunnel and rented the cellar, supposedly for the storage of coal and wood. By April, they had succeeded in storing some twenty barrels of gunpowder in the cellar. The conspirators disbanded and arranged to meet later in the year to discuss the final steps in their plot.

While the conspirators waited for Parliament to commence, several of them began to have second thoughts. Catesby, however, managed to convince most of the conspirators to continue with the plot as planned. He also acquired a small number of horses and weapons, which he stationed in small groups throughout the West Midlands. These forces were to be used in the uprising he believed would naturally follow once their plan had been executed.

When Tresham learned the full details of the plot and that his brother-in-law, William Parker, fourth baron Monteagle Monteagle, fourth baron and eleventh baron Morley, would be a victim of the explosion, he was shocked. Unable to convince Catesby to seek a less violent means to achieve their political goals, Tresham decided to reveal the plot by warning his brother-in-law not to attend the opening of Parliament. On October 26, Monteagle held a dinner party at his home. During the evening, a messenger delivered an anonymous letter to him, which he instructed to be read aloud. The letter warned of a plot to blow up Parliament, although no names of the conspirators were mentioned.

It has been suggested that both Tresham and Monteagle conceived the idea of the “anonymous” letter and believed that by having it read in public, the government could be alerted to the plot without implicating Tresham as a conspirator. It was Tresham’s hope that, once alerted to the plot, the government would intercede and prevent a horrible tragedy from occurring. In addition, Tresham believed, news that the plot had been discovered would reach his fellow conspirators in time for them to abandon their plans and flee to safety abroad.

Between October 26 and November 4, little action was taken by the authorities. As a result, it was only during the few days prior to November 5 that most of the conspirators decided to abandon the plot and flee. When the authorities eventually searched the cellar containing the concealed gunpowder, they met a man named Johnson who claimed to be Thomas Percy’s servant. According to Johnson, his master was using the area for coal storage. Moments before midnight on November 4, the cellar was visited again by authorities. This time, the concealed gunpowder casks were discovered and Johnson was arrested. Johnson was interrogated over several days and was even subjected to some allegedly mild tortures. He eventually revealed his true name to be Guy Fawkes.

Shortly after Fawkes was discovered, the king appointed a commission to investigate the Gunpowder Plot. The commission comprised the attorney general, Sir Edward Coke, Coke, Sir Edward and seven privy councillors. Over a period of about two weeks, Fawkes eventually provided most of the details of the plot, including the names of the conspirators. Even without Fawkes’s early cooperation, the identities of many of the conspirators were suspected. Many of them, including Catesby, Percy, Grant, Thomas Winter, and Christopher Wright, were well-known Catholic sympathizers, and warrants were issued for their arrest.

Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament when the king and all the members of Parliament were present.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Around the time of Fawkes’s arrest, the remaining conspirators had participated in what they hoped would be the outbreak of rebellion in other parts of the country. The fighting was short-lived, however, and many of the conspirators were killed, including Catesby, Percy, and both of the Wright brothers. Thomas Winter was wounded and arrested together with the others shortly after. Those who survived were tried and executed at the end of January, 1606.


Over the centuries since the Gunpowder Plot, studies of the early Stuart administration and of the plot itself have been hindered by a fire in 1619 that destroyed many of the Privy Council’s records. Although unlikely, there have long been rumors that the plot was actually instigated by members of the government who were attempting to discredit the Catholics. In retrospect, it is easy to understand the source of those rumors: The conspiracy was in fact disastrous for the Catholic cause in England. Public exposure of the conspiracy led England’s Protestants to grow more suspicious of Catholics than ever. They harbored greater resentment toward them, and the unpopular recusancy law was enforced even more rigorously. Since 1606, November 5 has been a day of public thanksgiving in Great Britain and is often celebrated with displays of fireworks.

Further Reading

  • Edwards, Frances. Guy Fawkes: The Real Story of the Gunpowder Plot? London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1969. An introductory account of the plot, emphasizing the role of Guy Fawkes.
  • Fraser, Antonia. Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot. New York: Doubleday, 1996. Fraser, an author of popular English histories, examines the causes and events that led to November 5, 1605, comparing the Gunpowder Plot to modern acts of religion-inspired terrorism.
  • Gardiner, Samuel R. What the Gunpowder Plot Was. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1969. Based on a century-old first printing by a great scholar, this work examines historical evidence for the plot and discounts high-level government involvement.
  • Haynes, Alan. The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1994. Provides information about Guy Fawkes and the other plotters and explains why these Catholics attempted to kill the Protestant members of Parliament and King James I.
  • Nicholls, Mark. Investigating the Gunpowder Plot. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Examines how King James and his Privy Council approached the investigation of the plot. Contains a useful bibliography.
  • Wormald, Jenny. “Gunpowder, Treason, and Scots.” The Journal of British Studies 24 (1985): 141-168. Attempts to explain why the conspirators resorted to violence to address their grievances.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Sir Edward Coke; James I; Philip III. Gunpowder Plot (1605)