Who Was Guy Fawkes? - History of the Gunpowder Plot & Concept

Instructor: Patricia ONeill
On November 5, 1605, a man named Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellars beneath the British Parliament. Fawkes supposedly was one of 13 people who were conspiring in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Parliament and the King, hoping to throw England into so much turmoil that when the new king ascended the throne he would return England to its Catholic past.

Historical Background

Queen Elizabeth (r. 1558 -1603) was the last Tudor monarch. Her 45-year reign was considered by many to be a 'golden period' of British history.

Elizabeth came to the throne after her Catholic half-sister, Mary, who had used the English Inquisition to re-establish Catholicism in England. Although one of Elizabeth's goals was to return England to the Protestant faith, she was satisfied as long as her subjects gave an outward show of conformity.

All during Elizabeth's reign, there were many plots centered on putting her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, on the English throne, so in 1559, Parliament passed the Acts of Uniformity, which required an oath of allegiance to the crown and attendance at an Anglican Church service every Sunday. If people did not attend church, they were fined for recusancy (disobedience).

Queen Elizabeth I
Queen Elizabeth

Beginning of the Stuart Monarchy

Despite pressure from her advisers, Elizabeth always refused to marry and provide an heir. As a result, many Catholics had high hopes when King James I (r. 1603-1625) took the throne upon Elizabeth's death in 1603.

James' wife, Anne, had previously converted to Catholicism, and his mother was Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's Catholic arch-rival for the throne. There were even rumors, inspired by his diplomatic overtures to the pope, that James himself might become Catholic, and people believed his reign would bring greater toleration for the Catholic minority in Britain.

King James I
King James

It soon became clear, however, that James did not really support religious tolerance for Catholics. In 1604 he publicly condemned Catholicism as a superstition, ordered all Catholic priests to leave England, and expressed concern that the number of Catholics was increasing. He also largely continued with the repressive policies of his predecessor, such as fines for those refusing to attend Protestant services.

The Gunpowder Plot

English Catholics had organized several failed conspiracies against Elizabeth, and these intrigues continued under James. In 1604, a small group of Catholic dissidents plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament with a huge cache of gunpowder on the opening session of Parliament on November the fifth.

Although Robert Catesby was the ringleader, the most renowned conspirator was a man named Guy Fawkes, who had spent about a decade fighting for Spain against Protestant rebels in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands.

Gunpowder conspirators
Gunpowder Conspirators

Under the plan, on November 5, 1605, Fawkes would explode the gunpowder under Westminster, which would wipe out King James, most of the royal family, all the members of the House of Lords and House of Commons as well as the leading bishops. In the meantime, his fellow conspirators would kidnap James' daughter, Elizabeth, install her as a puppet queen and eventually marry her off to a Catholic, thereby restoring the Catholic monarchy.

The assassination attempt was foiled the night beforehand. An anonymous letter had been sent to a Catholic sympathizer, advising him to avoid the Opening of Parliament; this letter alerted the authorities to the existence of a plot. Fawkes was apprehended in the cellar, next to 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes Discovered

Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London and tortured upon the special order of King James. He revealed the names of his co-conspirators, most of whom were convicted of high treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Parliament immediately established November fifth as a day of celebration.

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