Frequently Asked Questions: The Gunpowder Plot

Interesting facts and information relating to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

The Gunpowder Plot is the name given to the conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605, which was discovered the night before. The origins of the plot remain unclear and it is doubtful that the truth will ever be known. Generations of historians accepted it was an attempt to re-establish the Catholic religion. Others, in more recent times, have suspected that the plot was the work of a group of agents-provocateurs, anxious to discredit the Jesuits and reinforce the ascendancy of the Protestant religion. 

The plot centred around five conspirators, Robert Catesby, Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy, John Wright and Guy (or Guido) Fawkes, later joined by Robert Keyes, who determined to blow up of the House of Lords in 1605. The detonation was to take place on State Opening day, when the King, Lords and Commons would all be present in the Lords Chamber.

There is no doubt that Fawkes, though remembered wrongly as the principal conspirator, was in fact a minor cog in the wheel. Born in 1570 at York, he was brought up as a Protestant. In 1593, he enlisted as a mercenary in the Spanish Army in the Netherlands - he became a Catholic shortly before that date. He was at the capture of Calais in 1595, where he apparently distinguished himself greatly. He may have been chosen for his skills when it was planned to tunnel under the House, and it was an advantage that, having been abroad for some time, he was not known in London.

The plot was discovered, in the official version, through an anonymous letter to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, warning him not to attend the State Opening. Whether the letter was genuine or a forgery is uncertain. In any event, on the 4 November an initial search was made of Parliament (initially, it is said by Monteagle and the Lord Chamberlain, Suffolk). The cellar was thoroughly searched at midnight and Fawkes found with the gunpowder. He was then arrested.

All the co-conspirators (except Robert Winter) were killed or arrested by 12 November and taken to the Tower of London. They were probably subjected to extensive torture which formed part of the punishment for treason at the time. Fawkes and the conspirators who remained alive, were tried for high treason in Westminster Hall on 27 January 1606 and all were convicted and sentenced to death. The executions took place on 30 and 31 January (Fawkes was executed on 31) and included hanging, drawing and quartering. The heads and other portions of the conspirator's bodies were set up at different points around Westminster and London.

The 5 November is variously called 'Firework Night', 'Bonfire Night' or 'Guy Fawkes Day'. An Act of Parliament (3 James I, cap 1) was passed to appoint 5 November in each year as a day of thanksgiving for 'the joyful day of deliverance'. The Act remained in force until 1859. It is still the custom for Britain on, or around, 5 November to let off fireworks and children to make guys - effigies supposedly of Fawkes. Institutions and towns may hold firework displays and bonfire parties, and the same is done, on a smaller scale in back gardens throughout the country. The year 2005 marked the 400 anniversary of the plot with an exhibition The Gunpowder Plot: Parliament and Treason held in Westminster Hall. Are the Houses of Parliament still searched before State Opening?

The Houses of Parliament are still searched by the Yeomen of the Guard just before the State Opening (normally held in November since 1928) to ensure no latter-day Fawkes is concealed in the cellars, though this is retained as a picturesque custom rather than a serious anti-terrorist precaution (for which, of course, there are proper means).

No, the cellar was destroyed in the fire of 1834 that devastated the mediaeval Houses of Parliament. The lantern Guy Fawkes carried in 1605 is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

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