The Gun Powder Plot Defused, Thankfully

It is Guy Fawkes night in Great Britain, here is the story of the Gun Powder Plot, This is interesting history.

Catholic Conspiracy and the Gunpowder Plot

By Pat Horan

“Remember, remember!

The fifth of November,

The Gunpowder treason and plot;

I know of no reason

Why the Gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!”

On Nov. 5, as Americans absorb the results of the midterm elections, those in the UK will be celebrating Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night) with firework celebrations. The day marks the 409th anniversary of the 1605 “Gunpowder Plot” to blow up the British Parliament and assassinate King James I.

Elizabeth I of England had died without an heir in 1603. Since King James VI of Scotland – son of Mary, Queen of Scots – was the great grandson of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, he was considered to be most fit to be heir to the English Crown. With his coronation, James united the Kingdom of England and Ireland with the Kingdom of Scotland, proclaiming himself, “King of Great Britain and Ireland.” The Protestant Elizabeth’s succession is rather ironic as she had her cousin and James’ mother, the Catholic Queen Mary, beheaded after Mary was found guilty of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth! Although the son of Catholics, James was raised as a Protestant.

James was more moderate toward Catholics than his predecessor, who had declared all Catholic priests to be guilty of treason, but after he discovered that the pope had sent James I’s wife a rosary, James denounced the Roman Catholic Church, ordered its priests to leave the country, and reimposed fines on those guilty of not attending Anglican services.

The plot to destroy Parliament and assassinate the king is believed to be the brainchild of Robert Catesby, a Catholic veteran of the Earl of Essex’s rebellion against Elizabeth. To implement this plan, Catesby recruited several men, including, Guy (Guido) Fawkes, who had fought for the Spanish against Protestant Dutch rebels in the Netherlands. As a man with military experience, Fawkes was the one to handle and set off the gunpowder. Catesby and the conspirators intended to kill most of the Protestant aristocracy along with the king during his address before the House of Lords and then kidnap his young daughter, Princess Elizabeth. A Catholic uprising would then install the child as the monarch.

Parliament was set to re-open in February 1605, but the threat of plague delayed this until the fall. During the summer, Catesby met with the Jesuit superior of England, Henry Garnet, and received reconciliation from another Jesuit, Oswald Tesimond. Tesimond learned of the plot and approached Garnet, asking for his advice. Garnet determined that the seal of the confessional prevented him from revealing this to English authorities, but he urged Catesby not to use violence.

As details of the conspiracy were finalized, several of the plotters became increasingly concerned about the safety of Catholic members of Parliament that might be present. British historian Antonia Fraser recounts that an anonymous letter was sent to the Lord Monteagle. Monteagle read the letter that warned him not to attend the State Opening of Parliament as it would “receive a terrible blow.” The letter made its way to the King.

On the night of Nov. 4, a search was conducted underneath Parliament. The search party discovered and arrested Fawkes, who was dressed in a cloak and hat, with barrels of gunpowder underneath the House of Lords.

Although Fawkes insisted he acted alone, English authorities traced the plot to Catesby and the other conspirators. Catesby and three other plotters were killed before they could be arrested. The other members of the inner circle were captured and brought to the Tower of London along with Fawkes, where they awaited being tried with treason. One of them, Thomas Bates, implicated Father Garnet, Father Tesimond, and a third Jesuit, Father Gerard. Gerard and Tesimond escaped the country, but Garnet was captured.

As he was interrogated, Garnet admitted he had learned of the plot under the seal of confession, but he rebutted the accusations of treason made against him. He had even attempted to stop the plan. Despite the weakness of the prosecution, Garnet was convicted and eventually hanged, drawn, and quartered. Robert Cecil, an important adviser to both Elizabeth I and James I, is believed to have influenced the prosecution to foster anti-Catholic sentiment. Although the priests probably were not involved in the creation and implementation of the plan, the Gunpowder Plot is sometimes nicknamed the “Jesuit Treason.”

The captured members of the attempted regicide were also convicted and executed by the same means.

While the events of 1605 are generally not at the forefront of people’s minds nowadays, Nov. 5 is still a night of celebration in Britain. The 2006 film V for Vendetta, based on the 1982 graphic novel of the same name, has made the “Guy Fawkes” mask a common feature of protest movements across the world. (The film’s protagonist is a freedom fighter who dons the masks, but it neglects to mention that the real Fawkes was intent on installing a Catholic monarchy.).

Author’s note: I’d like to thank Fr. Thomas Worcester, SJ; Fr. Thomas McCoog, SJ; and my friend, Lee Evans for sharing their knowledge of this subject with me.

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