bonfire night : all you need to know about the conspiracy of catholics to kill king james

gun powder plot
bonfire night

Bonfire Night has arrived and a lot of us know it celebrates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, but what really happened?

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was a failed conspiracy by a group of Catholic extremists in England to assassinate the Protestant monarch, King James I, by putting explosives beneath the House of Lords.

The State Opening of Parliament was due to take place on November 5, 1605, and it was here that the band headed by Robert Catesby plotted to kill the King.

Their purpose was for it to be accompanied by a popular revolt that would visit James’ daughter, Princess Elizabeth, installed on the throne as a Catholic Head of State.

The group included: Catesby, John Wright, Christopher Wright, Robert Wintour, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Francis Tresham, Ambrose Rookwood, and Sir Everard Digby.

Fawkes was entrusted with the explosives due to his previous military experience in the Spanish Netherlands, where he served for ten years in the failed suppression of the Dutch Revolt.

The Gunpowder Plot conspirators (Image: Getty)
After the details of the plot were hammered out in October 1605 in various taverns around London and Daventry, it was agreed that Fawkes would light the fuel before escaping along the Thames.

The revolt would then break out, as Fawkes would flee to the continent to explain the revolt to European Catholic powers.

However, on October 26, 1605, Francis Tresham’s brother-in-law, William Parker the Baron Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him of a plot against Parliament.

Monteagle warned the King’s close advisor, Robert Cecil the Earl of Salisbury, who shared the news with other leading nobles but not the King, electing to wait and see what would unfold next.

This is the letter sent to Lord Monteagle a few days before parliament.
Soon Catesby became aware through the Wright brothers that they had been betrayed, accusing Tresham who managed to convince them otherwise but suggested abandoning the plot.

The King discovered the plot on November 1, with Cecil feigning ignorance to suggest the King uncovered the plot.

King James was terrified of being killed in a manner similar to his own father, Henry Stuart Lord Darnley, who was murdered following a house explosion in Scotland in 1567.

Plans were put in place to provide checks within and below the Houses of Parliament.

Guy Fawkes attempts to plant gunpowder in the cellar of the Palace of Westminster, 5th November 1605 (Image: Getty)
The conspirators, however, remained convinced that they were safe to continue due to poor information from sources who were not in the King’s privy council.

In the first search beneath Parliament on November 4, they found an apparent serving man (Fawkes) beneath the House with firewood that he claimed belonged to his master, Thomas Percy, which aroused suspicion due to Percy’s reputation as a Catholic usurper.

In the evening, Thomas Knyvert led a thorough search party again and found Fawkes in a cloak, hat, and boots and with a lantern, pocket watch, touchwood and slow matches. There were also 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden nearby. Fawkes was arrested – giving his name as John Johnson – and taken to the King in the early hours of November 5.

It was ordered that day that the public could celebrate the failure of the plot, but without danger or disorder. This made 1605 also the first year that the day was celebrated.

The arrest of Guy Fawkes in the cellars of Parliament (Image: Rex)
News spread of”Johnson’s” detain and the other conspirators fled London and attempted to find help across the way, leading to a stand-off in Holbeche House from the Sheriff of Worcester.

The conflict saw Catesby as one of the few who had been captured and killed, while the survivors were detained.

On January 27, 1606, eight conspirators (such as Fawkes) were convicted and sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered.

The Observance of November Act was shortly introduced that saw the date enforced as a public day of thanksgiving for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.

The celebrations soon turned tense, however, as they became a symbol of sentiment, with effigies of the pope being burned alongside Guy Fawkes.

Eventually, after raising customs of violence and clashes at celebrations, the Act was repealed in 1859.

As the decades passed celebrations continued and slowly the feeling returned and zeal diminished.

In the end, the celebrations are rarely celebrated as a symbol of monarchism or the collapse of Catholic extremism but are simply regarded as a family occasion filled with fireworks and bonfires.

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