Category Archives: Gunpowder Plot

Crime Gunpowder Plot

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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Gunpowder Plot

A Defiant Guy Fawkes


An interesting addendum to my execution posts would be a glance at the official written account of Guy Fawkes’ defiance in the hours after his arrest. Far from showing fear or anxiety about his arrest, he appears to have adopted a rather cavalier attitude. However, as with all official accounts, a certain degree of scepticism is prudent. It was in the interests of James I to have Fawkes universally portrayed as a black-hearted Catholic villain, and what follows is anonymous authorised commentary on the initial interrogation of Guy Fawkes. Its interest lies beyond the surprisingly rebellious response of Fawkes, for the suggestion he crumbled upon merely glimpsing the Rack is in fact a propagandic stretch of the truth. Evidence suggests Fawkes was almost certainly subsequently tortured in the Tower.

The prisoner himselfe was brought into the house, where in respect of the strangenesse of the accident, no man was stayed from the sight of speaking with him. And within a while after, the Counsell did examine him; Who seeming to put on a Romane resolution, did both to the Councell, and to every other person that spake with him that day, appeare so constant & settled upon his grounds, as we all thought we had found some newe Mutius Scaeuola [Roman general] borne in England. For not withstanding the horrour of the Fact, the guilte of his conscience, his suddain surprising, the terrour which should have beene stroken in him by coming into the presence of so grave a Counsell, and the restlesse and confused questions that every man all that day did vexe him with; yet was his countenance so farre from being dejected, as he often smiled in scornefull manner, not only avowing the Fact, but repenting only his failing in the execution thereof (hee said) the Divell and not God was the discoverer: Answering quickly to every mans objection, scoffing at any idle questions which were propounded unto him, and jesting with such as hee thought had no authoritie to examine him. All that day could the Counsell get nothing out of him touching his Complices, refusing to answere any such questions which hee thought might discover the Plot, and laying all the blame upon himselfe; Whereunto he said he was moved only for Religion and conscience sake, denying the King to be his lawfull Soveraigne, or the Anoynted of God in respect he was an Hereticke, and giving himselfe no other name than John Johnson, servant to Thomas Percy. But the next morning being carried to the Tower, he did not there remaine above two or three days, being twice or thrice in that space re-examined, and the Racke only offered and showed unto him when the maske of his Romaine fortitude did visibly begin to weare and slide off his face, And then did he begin to confesse part of the truth.

On 6th November James signed an order authorising the torture of Fawkes. At this time the two favoured methods of torture used in the Tower were the manacles and the rack. Both designed to be extremely painful, the manacles were ‘iron gloves into which the hands of the suspect were placed, and from which he was hung up against a wall.’ Initially the suspect’s feet would be propped on a pile of wooden billets for support, but these would eventually be removed ‘to leave him dangling, sometimes for several hours. The gauntlets could also be tightened to heighten the agony.’ The rack, a form of torture in which the suspect’s body was stretched, led to the dislocation of the suspect’s arms and legs and usually caused permanent physical damage. Fawkes almost certainly suffered the manacles, and in all probability the rack too. His signature below is testament to his broken body.

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Crime Gunpowder Plot

Beware the executioner

Today’s snippet is a description of the execution method favoured for traitors in Jacobean England. Sir Edward Coke, passing final judgement against the Gunpowder Plotters at their trial in 1606, omninously describes their impending death. This fate was subsequently met by eight of the plotters, including Guy Fawkes.

He shall have his judgement to be drawen to the place of Execution from his prison, as being not worthie anymore to tread upon the face of the earth, whereof he was made. Also for that he hath beene retrograde to nature, therefore is hee drawen backwards at a horse taile… hee must be drawen with his head declining downeward, and lying so neere the ground as may be, being thought unfit to take benefit of the common ayre: For which cause also, he shalbe strangled, being hanged up by the necke between heaven and earth, as deemed unworthy of both, or either: As likewise, that the eyes of men may behold, and their hearts contemne him. Then hee is to be cut downe alive, and to have his privie parts cut off and burnt before his face, as being unworthily begotten, and unfit to leave any generation after him. His bowles and inlayed parts taken out and burnt, who inwardly had conceived and harboured in his heart such horrible Treason. After to have his head cut off which had imagined the mischief. And lastly, his body to be quartered and the quarters set up in some high and eminent place, to the view and detestation of men, and to become a pray for the fowles of the aire.

© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved

Crime Gunpowder Plot

Monteagle Letter


Today I thought it might be interesting to share the Monteagle Letter, the famous epistle that foiled the Gunpowder Plot and saved the King and Parliament.

The author of the letter has never come to light. There are countless theories as to who might have penned it, but the most likely candidate is Monteagle’s brother-in-law, Francis Tresham, an unenthusiastic and dithery Catholic on the outer fringes of the Plot.

The letter itself reads as follows ( I have standardised spellings):

My Lord, out of the love I beare to some of your friends I have a care of your preservation, therefore I would advise you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift off your attendance at this Parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time, and think not slightly of this advertisement but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no appearance of any stir yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them, this counsel is not to be contempted because it may do you good and can do you no harm for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter and I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.

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