To Blowe Up The Parliament House

Given today is 5th November, I thought it might be nice to have a few Gunpowder Plot snippets.  For anyone unfamiliar with the plot, in 1605 an attempt was made by a group of radical Catholics to murder the king, his ministers, and all government officials, by placing barrels of gunpowder beneath Westminster.  The plot was thwarted at the last minute, and ever since, on the 5th November bonfires are lit, and effigies of Guy Fawkes are burned, to celebrate the country’s deliverance from what would have been catastrophic devastation.

The first snippet comes from an account of an experiment conducted in 2003, to measure the potential effect of the original planned explosion beneath Parliament:

According to official sources, the number of barrels of gunpowder found in the vault when it was eventually searched by the authorities was thirty-six. In 2003, the Institute of Physics in London asked the University of Aberystwyth’s Centre for Explosion Studies to estimate the likely effect of detonating thirty-six barrels of gunpowder under the old House of Lords. The team estimated that thirty-six barrels probably equated to around 5,000lbs of gunpowder, and constructing a worst-case scenario, they calculated that an explosion of this nature would have ‘caused structural damage within a radius of 500 yards (a yard equates to 0.9 of a metre, or roughly three feet). All buildings within forty yards would have been destroyed, roofs and walls within a 100 yard radius would have collapsed, and even at 900 yards some windows would have been broken. The Palace of Westminster, Westminster Hall, Westminster Abbey and the surrounding streets would have obliterated.

The following snippets are from the confession of Thomas Winter, a principal Plotter. His confession was extracted in the Tower after his capture:

Mr Catesby [ringleader of the Plot] ‘brake with me that he had bethought him of a way at one instant to deliver us from all our Bonds, and without any forraine helpe to replant again the Catholicke Religion, and withal, told me in a word it was to blowe up the Parliament house with Gunpowder, for, said he, in that place have they done us all the mischiefe, and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment.

The beginning of Easter Terme up came Thomas Percy. The first word he spake was Shall we always, Gentleman, talke, and never do anything? M Catesby took him aside and had speach about somewhat to be done, so as first we might all take an oath of secrecy, which we resolved within two or three daies to do.

Following this exchange, the Plotters met at the Duck and Drake Inn, near the Strand, on 20th May 1604:

We met behind St Clements, M Catesby, M Percy, M Wright, M Guy Fawkes, and myselfe; and having upon a Primer given each other the oath of secrecy, in a chamber where no other bodie was, we went after into the next roome and heard Masse, and received the blessed Sacrament upon the same.

On 5th November 1605, in the morning:

I went downe towardes the Parliament house and in the middle of Kings streete, found the Garde standing that would not let me passe. And as I returned I heard one say, There is a Treason discovered, in which the King and the Lords should have been blowen up. So then I was fully satisfied that all was knowen, and went to the Stable where my Gelding stood, and rode into the Countrey.

The subsequent last stand in the country, when many of the Plotters were trapped in a house, surrounded by the King’s men:
 About eleven of the clock came the companie to best the house, and as I walked into the court, I was shot into the shoulder, which lost me the use of mine arme: the next was shot the elder Wright, stricken dead, after him the younger M Wright, and fourthly Ambrose Rookwood, Then said M Catesby to me, Stand by me Tom and we will die together. Sir, quoth I, I have lost the use of my right arme and I fear that will cause me to be taken. So as we stoode close together, M Catesby, M Percy and myself, they two were shot (as farre as I could guesse with one Bullet), and then the companie entered upon me, hurt me in the  Belly with a Pike, and gave me other wounds until one came behind and caught hold of both mine armes.’

After the siege, the surviving Plotters were rounded up and taken to London, where they underwent a spectacular trial.  All of them, including Guy Fawkes, were executed in January 1606.  For a description of their execution see my October post Beware the Executioner.

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  • November 5, 2009 - 10:29 am | Permalink

    The confessions are largely devoid of emotion on the whole, and there is a moving quality to them as a result. Winter & Fawkes were tortured in the Tower, so by the time their confessions were transcribed they were broken men. Much more moving are the accounts of the final speeches on the scaffold in January 1606. I might do a post on them over the weekend.

    Thank you for the clip, I’ve added it to the main post.

  • November 5, 2009 - 10:21 am | Permalink

    Really interesting details. Oddly matter of fact in a way: ‘hurt me in the Belly with a Pike’. But I suppose that’s ‘confessions’ for you.

    What the extent of the explosion would have been if successful: (warning: this clip does contain Richard hammond, but thankfully not Jeremy Clarkson)

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