Gunpowder Plot

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Gunpowder Plot, conspiracy to blow up the English Parliament and King James I on Nov. 5, 1605, the day set for the king to open Parliament. It was intended to be the beginning of a great uprising of English Catholics, who were distressed by the increased severity of penal laws against the practice of their religion. The conspirators, who began plotting early in 1604, expanded their number to a point where secrecy was impossible. They included Robert Catesby, John Wright, and Thomas Winter, the originators, Christopher Wright, Robert Winter, Robert Keyes, Guy Fawkes, a soldier who had been serving in Flanders, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham, Ambrose Rookwood, and Thomas Bates. Percy hired a cellar under the House of Lords, in which 36 barrels of gunpowder, overlaid with iron bars and firewood, were secretly stored. The conspiracy was brought to light through a mysterious letter received by Lord Monteagle, a brother-in-law of Tresham, on Oct. 26, urging him not to attend Parliament on the opening day. The 1st earl of Salisbury and others, to whom the plot was made known, took steps leading to the discovery of the materials and the arrest of Fawkes as he entered the cellar. Other conspirators, overtaken in flight or seized afterward, were killed outright, imprisoned, or executed. Among those executed was Henry Garnett, the superior of the English Jesuits, who had known of the conspiracy. While the plot was the work of a small number of men, it provoked hostility against all English Catholics and led to an increase in the harshness of laws against them. Guy Fawkes Day, Nov. 5, is still celebrated in England with fireworks and bonfires, on which effigies of the conspirator are burned.

See J. Gerard, What Was the Gunpowder Plot? (2d ed. 1897); S. R. Gardiner, What the Gunpowder Plot Was (1897, repr. 1971); J. Langdon-Davies, ed., Gunpowder Plot (1964); A. Fraser, Faith and Reason: the Story of the Gunpowder Plot (1996).

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Gunpowder plot, 1605. Soon after becoming king of England in 1603, James I discreetly relaxed the penal laws which subjected catholics to fines, imprisonment, and even death. However, the ensuing uproar in Parliament persuaded him to backtrack, leaving the catholics feeling betrayed and hopeless, particularly since the conclusion of peace with Spain in 1604 had deprived them of help from that quarter. A band of young catholic hotheads decided to seize the initiative by destroying the entire English government. They smuggled barrels of gunpowder into the cellars of Parliament, and Guy Fawkes stood ready to ignite these on 5 November 1605, when the king, Lords, and Commons were assembled for the opening of the new session. The plot was betrayed, however, and the conspirators captured, tried, and executed. The plot etched itself upon the collective English memory, and bonfires and ‘burning the guy’ have remained traditional features of Bonfire Night celebrations.

Roger Lockyer

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Gunpowder Plot (November 1605) Failed Roman Catholic conspiracy to blow up James I of England and his Parliament. The leader of the plot was Robert Catesby, and its chief perpetrator Guy Fawkes. The plotters were arrested on November 5, a date now celebrated in Britain as Bonfire Night.