King James, target of The
What brings “Things You Missed in History Class” to mind is that I was listening to podcasts as over the hills and through the woods I went to Grandmother’s House for Christmas and they had an episode on Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot and I thought that might be interesting to do a posting on.Guy Fawkes was only one, and actually the least important, of five plotters who hatched a plan to King James I of England, his son Prince of Wales Henry, and members of Parliament of both Lords and the Commons by detonating gunpowder they had stored in a cellar under the House of Lords. The occasion would have been the State Opening of Parliament scheduled for November 5, 1605.
Fawkes, Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, John Wright, and Thomas Percy—all Catholics—hatched the plot in their disappointment that King James had not lifted many of the restrictions and penalties imposed by the Crown and Parliament on Catholics during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. When Elizabeth died in 1603 she was succeeded on the throne by her third cousin, James VI Stuart of Scotland. (James’ great-great grandparents were Elizabeth’s grandparents. Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s Father was the brother of Margaret Tudor who had married James IV of Scotland, and they were the great-grandparents of James VI.) James’ Mother was Mary, Queen of Scots who was a devout Catholic and who, as Elizabeth’s nearest relative and heir, had been kept under arrest by Elizabeth and eventually executed for fear of a Catholic rebellion that would depose (and kill) Elizabeth and put Catholic Mary on the throne. When his mother was beheaded at Fotheginghay Castle on Feburary 8th 1587, James became the next in line for the English Crown. (If you want to read a great piece of historical prose, read the introduction to Garrett Mattingly’s The Armada. It tells the narrative of Mary’s execution and I think this is the best piece of historical prose in the English language.) While his mother was Catholic and his wife, Anne of Denmark, was a convert to Catholicism who engineered the marriages of her sons to Catholic Princesses to secure a Catholic foothold in England, James himself was raised Protestant (Church of Scotland, Church of England) and was convinced in his Calvinist faith. Nevertheless, he sent signals at his accession that he was to be tolerant of Catholics. To gain Catholic support for his ascending the English throne, James had told the Earl of Northumberland—a prominent sympathizer with the Catholics and probably secretly a Catholic himself—that he would not persecute “any that would be quiet and give but an outward obedience to the law.” This promise was probably made in good faith, but the Puritan faction in Parliament would have none of it and wanted in fact to strengthen the anti-popery laws. The failure to offer relief to Catholics caused many in the Catholic party to turn from their support of James. The five plotters met on May 20, 1604 at the Duck and Drake Inn in the Strand (in London) to lay the foundation of their scheme; they swore an oath of secrecy and then, to seal the oath, received the Eucharist together. The plotters used Thomas Percy’s position as a member of the Honorable Company of Gentlemen at Arms, (ironically) a bodyguard of the King, which gave him the prestige and rationale to rent a house within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster that adjoined the chamber in which the House of Lords met. The house was owned by one John Whynniard. The building included an “undercroft” (or semi-basement hall) that in fact was directly beneath the Lords’ Chamber. The plotters devised a plan to secretly and by night move gunpowder into this crypt over a period of months and then detonate it when the King came for the ceremonial opening of Parliament. Killing the King and the Crown Prince, the plotters planned to kidnap the King’s infant daughter, Elizabeth and make her Queen while she would be “guided” by a council of Catholic noblemen.
Parliament was scheduled to convene in February 1605 but plague and other reasons caused the opening to be postponed several times until a final date of November 5 was chosen. The delay gave the plotters time to gather more participants into their scheme but this may have worked against them as the larger the group became the more difficult confidentiality became to maintain. Moreover the plotters were receiving conflicting advice from the clergy as to the morality of their plot, some priests encouraging them and others admonishing them against violence and treason. By November the conspirators had stashed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the undercroft beneath the House of Lords.
A little more than a week before the scheduled date, Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter, presumably from a friend among the conspirators, advising him to leave London and not attend the State Opening. Monteagle was a Catholic sympathizer (and possibly himself secretly a Catholic) but he immediately handed the letter over to the Earl of Salisbury, head of James’ secret police. Salisbury initially hesitated but then showed the letter to the King who ordered a search of the Houses of Parliament in which the cellars where the conspirators had hidden the gunpowder beneath piles of firewood were searched, but the firewood was not disturbed and the powder was not found. A second more thorough search uncovered the gunpowder and Fawkes, who was guarding it, was arrested. Other conspirators were rounded up but most had fled at word of Fawkes arrest. Within days, a posse led by the sheriff of Worcester rounded up most of the conspirators in the Midlands. In addition to the conspirators themselves many prominent Catholic nobility and gentry were arrested and interrogated. In the end, Fawkes and Thomas Wintour, were executed by being hung, drawn, and quartered while Percy, Catesby, and Wright were killed while be taken by the Sheriff of Worcester’s posse. Later joiners to the plot Everard Digby, John Grant, Robert Wintour, Thomas Bates, Ambrose Rookwood, Stephen Littleton, Robert Keyes and Humphrey Littleton were all hung, drawn, and quartered. Jesuit Father Henry Garnet who had been privy—at least to some degree—of the plot but had not endorsed it was also captured and executed.
I think the interesting question the gunpowder plot raises is the use of violence for a just cause. Catholics certainly had every justification in seeking relief from the civil and penal restrictions placed on them by Elizabeth and James. Catholics could feel that they had been betrayed particularly by James who had given assurances of leaving them in peace in return for their support at his accession to the English throne but then reneged on his promises. Given the state of constitutional development in England in the 17th century there were no non-violent ways to bring about a change of government that would leave Catholics in peace. Nevertheless, Church authorities both in England—Archpriest George Blackwell—and in Rome had told the clergy to instruct the faithful against any sort of civil disobedience. (The Archpriest was the papal appointee to oversee the Church in England which at this point had no bishops.) Despite appeals to Pope Clement VIII to condemn rebellion against the Crown and Parliament, it was only after the Gunpowder Plot that Pope Paul V condemned the plot and admonished English Catholics to keep the peace. This was somewhat of a reversal of earlier policies set when Pius V had excommunicated Elizabeth and relieved her Catholic subjects of their obedience to the Crown. At the end of the day, one would have to say that the Church did not support the plot and the use of violence to bring about its freedom under James and that the plotters acted against Catholic principles. Also as none of those executed—with the possible exception of Father Garnett—were in any way executed for odium fidei (hatred of the faith), they cannot be considered martyrs but remain traitors to those loyal to the Crown and rebels to those who recognize the right of rebellion by those deprived of liberties.