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In 1605, members of the Catholic resistance in England hatched a plot that would have completely changed the political landscape of the country. They wanted to blow up the entire parliament and the king on November 5, which they thought would return a Catholic monarch to the throne.
The plotters got caught, and their demise has been celebrated for the last 400 years.
Learn more about Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and why the fifth of November is remembered, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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To understand what brought about the gunpowder plot, we need to back up about 70 years.
Henry VIII was the king of England and his wife, the Spanish and very Catholic Catherine of Arragon, wasn’t able to provide him a son and an heir.
Actually, she had three sons and three daughters, but none of them survived more than a month save for her daughter Mary.
In order to have the son he wanted, he petitioned the Pope to get his marriage annulled so he gets married again. The Pope was having none of this, so in 1534 he did what any monarch would do in a similar situation, he started his own religion with himself as the head.
So he got married again, and again, and again, and again……and again.
When Henry created the Church of England, he made being a Catholic treasonable offense, confiscated all church property, and there were many executions.
After he dies his daughter Mary eventually takes the throne who is Catholic, and she restored Catholicism as the state religion, and she executed many Protestants.
Then Mary dies and she is replaced by her half-sister, the Protestant Elizabeth, who once again makes the Church of England the official religion, and makes it compulsory, to both Catholics and other Protestants alike. Most of those other Protestants became what we call the Puritans.
Elizabeth is on the throne for a very long time, forty-four years, and during that time, Catholics are forced to practice their religion underground.
She dies in 1603 and next in line was the Scottish King James VI, who was also a protestant.
Initially, James wasn’t as dogmatic as Elizabeth or Henry before him. He had a catholic wife and he was more lenient towards Catholics.
However, this began to change. James had to try to juggle different demands from different groups, and he tended to favor the Puritans over the Catholics.
There was a plot discovered against James in mid-1603, called the Bye Plot, where a group of Catholics and Puritans conspired to kidnap James and take him to the Tower of London. In February 1604, James announced his “utter detestation” of Catholicism, kicks out all the priests, and once again cracks down on the Catholics.
It was in this environment that the Gunpowder Plot was hatched.
The Catholics didn’t want to just sit around and hope for change, or to keep taking it on the chin. They wanted to do something.
The organizer of the Gunpowder Plot was a catholic named Robert Catesby. Catesby had been persecuted under Elizabeth and dropped out of university to avoid taking an oath to the Church of England.
The plan was pretty simple. At the opening of Parliament where the King would be in attendance, they would ignite a whole bunch of gunpowder below the House of Lords and blow up the king, his ministers, senior bishops with the Church of England, and everyone in Parliament.
According to the plan, with the death of James, his eldest daughter Elizabeth who was 8 years old, would be placed on the throne, brought up as Catholic, and married off to another Catholic.
Catesby, by all accounts, was a very charismatic guy and managed to recruit several other people into his plot.
Catesby first recruited Thomas Wintour. He was a well-traveled polyglot and scholar. During their first meeting, Wintour also brought Jack Wright, who was one of the best swordsmen in England.
Catesby outlined his plan and there was initial resistance, but he supposedly told them “Let us give the attempt and where it faileth, pass no further.”
Catesby wanted to get the support of Spain, so he sent Wintour to the Netherland, which at that time was controlled by Spain.
Wintour found out that Spain really wasn’t interested in helping blow up the king and parliament, which would be an act of war, but rather was interested in pursuing peace.
While in Flanders, he met an English Catholic who had been fighting for Spain during the Eight-Year War, which was a Dutch revolt against Spain.
His name was Guy Fawkes.
If you know anything about the Gunpowder Plot or about November 5, you probably know the name, Guy Fawkes. He is the one who the day is named after. Yet, surprisingly enough, he wasn’t the mastermind of the conspiracy.
Fawkes and Wintour returned to England to tell Catesby that Spain wasn’t interested. There their conspiracy was joined by Thomas Percy who was a friend of Catesby and Wright’s brother-in-law.
The first meeting with all five men took place on May 20th, 1604, at the Duck and Drake Inn in London. There, the five took an oath of secrecy.
They thought that they had until February of 1605 to get everything ready as parliament was adjourned.
In June, Percy was appointed to the king’s guard. This gave him an excuse to get a home in central London, so he got a place in the heart of Westminster, not far from Parliament.
The plotters would use this building to store the gunpowder. Fawkes created an alias of “John Johnson” to serve as caretaker of the house.
In December 1604, they received the news that the opening of parliament had been pushed back from February to the third of October.
In March, they got lucky and managed to rent out the undercroft of the House of Lords. It was actually part of another building, but it was perfect for their plan. Undercroft areas were like cellars and were mostly used for storage.
A few more people were let in on the plot during this time: Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Christopher Wright. Wright and Wintour were brothers of the other plotters and Grant was the brother-in-law of Wintour.
In July, they had quietly moved 36 barrels of gunpowder, purchased on the black market, under the House of Lords.
They then found out that the opening of parliament was delayed yet again, and was put off to November 5 this time.
By late August 1605, the gunpowder that had been brought in, in July had gone bad, so they had to bring in more gunpowder and firewood to conceal it.
By October, the final details were being planned.
Fawkes would be the one to light the fuse. He would get away by taking a boat across the Thames River. A revolt would simultaneously take place in the midlands which would be used as a diversion to capture Princess Elizabeth.
Fawkes would then find his way to mainland Europe to talk to the Catholic heads of state to explain what was going on.
Also in October, Catesby brought his cousin, Francis Tresham into the conspiracy.
Tresham is of interest to this story for one reason.
On October 26, William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, was delivered an anonymous letter warning him to avoid the opening session of parliament on November 5.
While it has never been firmly established who sent the letter we do know one thing: Baron Monteagle was the brother-in-law of Francis Tresham.
This letter was the undoing of the conspiracy.
Baron Monteagle notified the authorities who then notified the king on November 1. He suspected given the wording of the letter that explosives might be involved, the authorities conducted a search of the area in and around the House of Lords on the evening of November 4, the night before parliament was to open.
They searched the undercroft and found Fawkes there amongst piles of wood. Falkes gave his name as John Johnson and said that he worked for Thomas Percy. The authorities left, to file their report.
The king, however, insisted that they check again, so later that night they went back, and again found Fawkes. This time they searched him and found several fuses and a watch. He was also dressed for traveling with boots and spurs.
After searching the firewood more closely, they found 36 barrels of gunpowder.
Fawkes was taken into custody and was brought before the king on the morning of the 5th. He initially claimed that he had acted alone and his mission was to blow up parliament. Meanwhile, word of his arrest got out and the other conspirators fled London.
On November 6th, King James had given permission to use torture on Fawkes to get him to talk. Torture could only be approved in England at the time by the king. Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London and by the next day, he had spilled the beans on the entire conspiracy.
The other conspirators made their way to the midlands to try and execute the other part of the plot which was to spark an uprising and capture the princess.
No one wanted anything to do with them, including their own family members, who didn’t know of the plot and didn’t want to be found guilty of treason.
They holed up in a home in Staffordshire and found that their black powder was wet, so that evening they put it out in front of the fireplace to dry out. In one of the most ironic twists of the whole affair, the gunpowder exploded with a spark from the fireplace, blinding one of the conspirators.
200 of the king’s men showed up and in the ensuing fight, Catesby and Percy were killed.
In the aftermath, eight conspirators were executed in a most gruesome way. They were hung, castrated, disemboweled, and then beheaded and quartered. Fawkes managed to jump from the gallows, killing himself in the fall.
In the end, the plot resulted in things being made even worse for Catholics in England. More restrictions were put in place on Catholics and it really wasn’t possible to openly practice Catholicism for the next 200 years.
In January 1606, parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act 1605, also known as the Thanksgiving Act, which made November 5 a holiday. It was typically celebrated with church bells, sermons, and bonfires. Informally, it became known as Guy Fawkes Day.
People began creating effigies of Guy Fawkes, which were simply called a guy, which would be burned on the bonfires of November 5. Fireworks also became a popular way of celebrating. The effigies, known as guys, became the basis of generically calling any man “a guy”.
The official holiday was rescinded in 1859, but it remains celebrated unofficially to this day. It’s not as popular as it once was and it has lost its anti-Catholic purpose, but people will still light bonfires and have fireworks demonstrations.
The tradition spread to other British colonies, but it didn’t have quite the same fervor it did back in the old country. Even in America, it was celebrated in a few places in New England in the 19th century, although they usually burned effigies of people like Benedict Arnold or other politicians people didn’t like.
As celebrations go Guy Fawkes Day is a really odd one in that it is dedicated to the hatred of a single person, and it is a celebration that has lasted 400 years.
The associate producers of Everything Everywhere Daily are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
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Thoughtful and fun. Worth every Moment.
This podcast is honestly incredible. The host lays out each episode in a digestible, fun, and educational format. Every topic he covers is interesting, even if it doesn’t seem like it will be from the title. I have a hard time focusing for long periods of time, so this format of learning is perfect for me. Many of the episodes contain information that I deem foundational knowledge but are lessons I missed in history class as a kid because I wasn’t paying attention. Becoming a regular listener has not only made me smarter and connected many dots for me, but it has also made me a more interesting dinner guest, as I am now able to relay accurate facts on a variety of topics. It helps that I wholly trust Gary’s research and knowledge on all the subjects. I truly don’t know how he does it, but I am grateful he does as this has been missing from my life. Thank you, Gary.
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