The Gunpowder Plot: History in an Hour

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This vault contained thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, enough to demolish the Houses of Parliament. He was arrested, imprisoned in the Tower of London and tortured. He succumbed on the night of 7 November and confessed all. He was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. The name Robert Catesby is not familiar to most of us, but it was Catesby, not Guy Fawkes, who was the principal architect of the Gunpowder Plot of Born in into a wealthy and established Catholic landowning family from Warwickshire, Robert Catesby also known as Robin was the only surviving son of Sir William Catesby and Anne Throckmorton.

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It is not surprising, then, that the young Catesby adopted an anti-Protestant stance from a relatively young age. It is believed that he studied for a time at a Jesuit seminary in Douai, where he was taught theology and classical languages. He also attended Oxford University but his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy — which declared Elizabeth I to be Supreme Head of the Church in England — meant that he left without gaining a degree. Catherine was a Protestant from a well-connected family. The marriage was a happy one, producing two sons, one of whom died in infancy. Grief-stricken, Catesby once more wholeheartedly embraced his faith, and devoted his life to the Catholic cause.

When James I of England succeeded Elizabeth I in , Catholics were hopeful that he would be more sympathetic to their plight. When this hope proved to be futile, Robert Catesby decided it was time for action. On 20 May , he gathered together a group of cousins and close friends for a meeting in London.

The Gunpowder Plot: History In An Hour by Sinead Fitzgibbon

It was at this meeting that Catesby unveiled his plan to use gunpowder to blow up the Palace of Westminster. The attack would mean certain death for the new King, members of the Royal Family, and the sitting Government. In the chaos which would inevitably follow, Catesby hoped that the oppressed Catholic nobility would stage an uprising and seize the reigns of power from the Protestant establishment.

The date was set for 5 November — the official opening of Parliament.


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Over the next couple of days, Catesby and his men rode into the Midlands, relentlessly pursued by the authorities. On the night of 7 November, the group reached Holbeach House in Staffordshire, but were discovered by government forces. A brief gunfight left all conspirators injured, and Catesby with fatal wounds. Robert Catesby died with a picture of the Virgin Mary in his arms, devoted to the bitter end. He was born to Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband Lord Darnley at a time of extreme religious and political unrest in Scotland.

A succession of regents acted as caretaker rulers until when, at the age of fifteen, James took control in his own right.

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If Elizabeth I of England were to die childless, James was the most likely successor. With a view to gaining favour with the ageing queen, James signed the Treaty of Berwick with her in James married Anne of Denmark in The union produced seven children, of whom only three Henry, Charles and Elizabeth survived into adulthood.

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When Elizabeth I died in , James finally realized his ambition to ascend to the throne of England. England and Scotland were now united, symbolically, under a common monarch. After this, James appeared to lose all interest in his native land, returning to Scotland only once, in He also left the legacy of the King James Bible, a literary masterpiece, which had an enormous impact on the development of the English language.

James also presided over the first tentative steps of British imperial expansion — he sanctioned the beginnings of the colonization of America, with the first British settlement named Jamestown in his honour. He died on 27 March This is exactly what happened. Far from being detected at the eleventh hour, the Gunpowder Plot was, thanks to this letter, discovered a full nine days previously.

Guy Fawkes

SF: Yes, I believe so. And without support, Catesby would have found it difficult to evade capture. AAH: Given that the 36 barrels of gunpowder in the undercroft was more than enough to kill everyone in the House on the day, what would that have done to the political landscape of the day? SF: Actually, the thirty-six barrels of gunpowder may not have been sufficient to wreak the intended havoc on the Houses of Parliament.

It has been suggested that it had been left to sit for too long in the barrels, causing its components to separate, thereby greatly reducing its efficacy.

Common sense dictates that the powerful Protestant ruling families would surely have hunted down the perpetrators, while Protestant vigilantes, galvanised by the act of terror inflicted on their fellow men in Westminster, would have sought revenge against ordinary Catholic civilians. If anything, a successful Gunpowder Plot would have made life worse for English Catholics, not better.

AAH: Were the views of the gunpowder plotters shared by other Catholics in Britain ranking and otherwise? Apart from a brief interlude during the short reign of Mary I, Catholics had suffered greatly at the hands of Protestant rulers. Elizabeth I, in particular, had introduced increasingly draconian constraints on the practice of the old religion in the s. So yes, like Catesby and his men, most Catholics would have felt persecuted and intimidated, and some would even have been prepared to take up arms for their cause.

That said, I believe very few would have agreed that the wholesale destruction of the Houses of Parliament was the best way to improve the lot of Catholics in England. Indeed, it is widely thought that even Henry Garnet, the leader of the underground network of Jesuit priests, tried to dissuade the plotters from carrying out their plan although quite how much Garnet knew of the extent of the plot is disputed.

What about the protestants? His mother was, after all, the Catholic martyr, Mary Queen of Scots.

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Protestants, of course, would have been outraged by the regicide, and I believe many would have taken the law into their own hands in an attempted to exact revenge. SF: That, in my opinion, would have been the most likely outcome. And, as I have already mentioned, I believe the regicide would have prompted Protestant vigilantes to mete out summary justice against suspected Catholics. SF: By the turn of the 17th century, relations between Protestant Britain and Catholic Spain had been strained for decades.

Perhaps it would finally have tipped the balance in favour of the longed-for Spanish intervention. By this point in the proceedings, Spain had largely abandoned English Catholics to their fate — in fact, the court of Philip III had previously declined to offer Catesby any assistance in his quest to mount a rebellion. AAH: James I was a Scottish King — if the assassination was a complete success and a king sympathetic to Catholics had been placed on the throne, how do you think Scotland would have reacted? SF: This is an interesting point to consider. And given Scottish Calvinists had gone to great lengths to install James as king in the first place at the expense of his Catholic mother, Mary, Queen of Scots , I doubt they would have taken his assassination lightly.

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