The Gunpowder Plot

Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot

But what  is this rhyme is referring too?

It is referring to a plot to assassinate King James I of England in 1605. The plan was to blow up King James on the state opening of Parliament using gunpowder.

It was the year 1605 and King James I of England had been on his throne for two years. For the most part his country was at peace; however there were some who were discontent.

From the reign of King Henry VIII and the reformation, England’s religious beliefs had been split mainly into Protestants and Catholics. King James was raised a Protestant but his deceased mother, Mary Queen of Scots was a Catholic, and so when James ascended to the English throne the Catholics believed that he would be more lenient towards the Catholic faith. However, this was not the case, or more to the point James was not lenient enough and so some of the Catholics began to grow angry with their monarch. One of these men was a man named Robert Catesby. He would become the leader of what is now known as the Gunpowder plot.


Catesby was a tall and handsome, dashing man of noble character and impressive dignity. He was also known to be a courageous horseman and supreme swordfighter. Catesby was well-liked by those who knew him. He won many acquaintances over to Catholicism and had great success in converting Protestants to his faith, one of these men would be Thomas Wintour. Catesby was actually arrested and imprisoned in 1601 during the failed Essex rebellion to overthrow Queen Elizabeth, where Catesby hoped Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex would place a Catholic monarch on the throne. He was eventually released after paying a fine on 4,000 marks, which he only managed by selling off his estate at Chastleton and with the help of Sir Thomas Tresham. He was possibly imprisoned again during the decline of Queen Elizabeth where some Catholics were imprisoned by the government who feared open rebellion. He even funded the activities of some Jesuit priests too.[1]

It was around 1604 that he begun to plot against King James and would bring into his plot 4 other men who were already known to him. They all had interlocking relationships with one another which helped in keeping the plot a secret. In their first meeting on 20th May 1604, at the Dog and Drake down the Strand they would all meet in a private room where, before the plot was revealed they took a secrecy oath on the bible. They also all swore a secrecy Oath on the bible. These 4 other men were Thomas Wintour, John Wright Thomas Percy (a distant relation to Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland) and a man named Guy Fawkes.


Guy Fawkes was born in 1570 and was raised as a Protestant. He eventually converted to Catholicism and went abroad and joined as a mercenary in the Spanish army as he was able to practice his religion more freely over there. It is thought it was through his experience as a mercenary that gave him the skills in using gunpowder. He was tall and powerfully built with a thick reddish brown beard and hair with a flowing moustache. He was both physically enduring with intelligence and had a hatred towards the Scots. In addition, he would probably not have been recognised as much as the others in London; another reason for his recruitment.

Eventually more men were brought into the plot, some due to the money they would bring to the plotters. They were again all relatives, by blood or marriage, to one or more of the original five conspirators. They were Robert Keyes, Robert Wintour (brother to Thomas), John Grant, Kit Wright (bother to John), Thomas Bate (Catesby’s servant), Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood and Francis Tresham. All these men were Catholics or Catholic converts.

We know the plot never happened so what did?

Well the plan was to hire out a basement near the houses of parliament (which back then was possible) and to tunnel underneath and there place many kegs of gunpowder to blow up when the time came. It was Guy Fawkes responsibility to guard the gunpowder kegs once they were moved at night, into the tunnel. It was eventually realised that there was an actual basement next to the House of Lords that was for rent and so the plotters rented that and therefore ceased tunnelling.

After the blast which would kill Prince Henry too (James eldest son), the plotters had in place a plan to kidnap the young prince Charles and his sister Elizabeth. They planned to place Elizabeth onto the throne and marry her to a Catholic Lord or foreign prince and restore England back into the Catholic fold.

When the time came near some of the plotters began to grow concerned for those Catholic lords who were members of parliament that would be killed along with James. Catesby allowed some discreet warnings to be given (those Lords who heeded the warning were eventually questioned as to why they did not attend). Francis Tresham wanted to warn his brother in law Lord Monteagle of the plot but was told not to and that it would arouse too much suspicion. However, a warning was still issued to Lord Montegle in the form of a letter, delivered on Saturday 26th October, by an unknown man to his estate.

In it, it stated:

I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament, for God and man have concurred to punish the wickedness of this time, and think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament

Not sure of its meaning Monteagle handed the letter into the Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State Robert Cecil, who would eventually (on the 1st of November) hand it over to the King who had been away hunting. Upon seeing the phrase ‘a terrible blow’, James realised that a plot had been formed to blow him and parliament up.


James was a very suspious man and his whole life had been fraught with plots on his life. His father, Henry, Lord Darnley had an attempt on his life using gunpowder as well. He was staying Kirk o’ Field in 1567, recovering from either Smallpox or possibly syphilis where the building was blown up with gunpowder.  Darnley survived the blast, managing to escape, however his body, along with his valets’ were found in the nearby orchard, both had been strangled.

Catesby, who was actually due to go hunting with the King was informed of this letter by one of Moteagle’s servants and began to suspect that Tresham had issued the warning. He and Wintour questioned Treshem and threated his life. He refused writing the letter and managed to convince them of his innocence. It was at this point that some of the plotters, including Tresham, began to fear that their plot had been discovered, suggested that they flee, Catesby however was insistent that it was fine, and that the plot should go ahead as planned.

James, meanwhile, requested that the basement be searched. It was here where Fawkes was found guarding the gunpowder, at first he stated he was a servant to Thomas Percy and that his name was John Johnson. The guards left to report their findings to the King. They returned the following day (5th November) after hearing the mention of Percy’s name and did a thorough search. They would find the hidden barrels of gunpowder under piles of faggots and coal. On Fawkes person they would find a pocket watch, several slow marches and touchwood. This time Fawkes was arrested and taken to the king for questioning.

Eventually Fawkes was moved to the Tower for more questioning in the King House (now Queens House) and eventually tortured due to the fact that he was not answering any of the questions set out by James. He eventually gave up the plan to blow up King James and the names of his co-conspirators. One of these signatures is from Fawkes before his interrogations; the other is lifted from his confession after interrogation. 

While Fawkes was trying to hold out at the Tower, Catesby and the other plotters, upon hearing of the discovery of their plot fled London. They held themselves up at Holbeche House in Staffordshire. After arriving at Holbeche House at about 10 pm, several were maimed when gunpowder left to dry in front of the fire was ignited by a stray spark. At this some of the men fled and were eventually captured. Catesby began to think that maybe they had offended God, but time had now run out. At about noon the next day, 8 November 1605, the house was surrounded by a posse led by Richard Walsh of about 200 men. Here Walsh set fire to the house in an attempt to smoke the men out, eventually some of the conspirators were shot, some fatally like Catesby and Percy, others just flesh wounds. Catesby’s body was eventually found nearby the house, his corpse clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary.

Those who survived the showdown were arrested and were tried for treason at Westminster Hall along with Fawkes. On the 30thof January 1606 Grant, Digby, Robert Wintour and Bates were taken to St Paul’s churchyard where they were hung drawn and quartered. The following day, the same fate was to meet Keyes, Rookwood, Thomas Wintour and finally Fawkes at Old Palace Yard, Westminster. Tresham had died while imprisoned in the Tower; some say through poison as it is suspected he turned traitor to the plotters.

It is said that Fawkes neck broke when he was hung and so did not have to suffer the ordeal of his body parts being cut away while still alive. Whether it was because he was too weak or that he had a sympathetic executor. Their heads (along with Catesby’s) andother body parts were then distributed around London and England, as was the norm after a traitor’s death.

That was the end of what we now know as the Gunpowder Plot.

An act of parliament was passed by James to appoint the 5th of November each year as a day of thanksgiving for the joyful day of deliverance. It remained in force until 1859. The day however is still remembered each year in Britain for fireworks to be set off and effigies of Guy Fawkes being burnt on a fire.

The basement where the Gunpowder was stored no longer exists. It, and others were destroyed when the House of Lords was remodeled by the architect Sir John Soane in 1822.  The original basement storeroom, in which Guy Fawkes was apprehended, was actually at ground floor level, this storeroom was adjacent to the present House of Lords and the spot is now marked with a brass plaque.

An official search of the basements by the Yeoman of the Guard still takes place every year on the morning of State Opening, though with tightened security already in place at Parliament this is thankfully more of a ceremony rather than a security precaution.

However you can see Fawkes lantern he had when arrested which now resides at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. Holbeche House and a few other sites associated with the plotters still exist also.

Of course, there was a lot more detail and planning in the gunpowder plot, known back then as the Powder plot. There are even theories, which some people believe that it was a government conspiracy set up by Robert Cecil against the Catholics.

Well who knows, it is up to you to decide.


Fraser, A (2002) terror and faith in 1605. London:Phoenix.


Anon. (nd) The Gunpowder plot. Avalible at : Accessed 05.07.2014]

Anon. (nd) Guy Fawkes. Avalible at: Accessed 02.07.2014]

Anon (1605) Lord Montegle letter. Available at: Accessed 30.10.2014]

Anon. (2005) Gunpowder, treason and plot. Available at: [accessed 25.09.2014]

Anon. (2005) The life and crimes of guy Fawkes. Available at: [accessed 30.09.2014]

Ashmolean (2011) Guy Fawkes lantern. Available at: [accessed 30.09.2014]

Gunpowder plot society (nd) The conspirators. Available at: [accessed 26.09.2014]

History learning site. (2014) The gunpowder plot. Available at: [accessed 30.09.2014]

House of Commons information office. (nd)Frequently asked questions: The Gunpowder plot. Available at: [accessed 30.09.14]

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