The Gunpowder Treason of 1605
Speaker: Malcolm Deacon
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is widely known and continues to be celebrated in the UK on the 5 November every year with bonfires and firework displays. While it is well known that Guy Fawkes and his companions planned to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I, the fact that the plan was to replace King James with his nine-year-old daughter Princess Elizabeth is rarely mentioned. And what about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the anonymous letter tipping off the authorities? Malcolm Deacon posed the question that all may not have been as it seemed, suggesting that ‘fake news’ is not a new phenomenon.
The Gunpowder Plot took place in 1605 when James had only been King for two years. These early years were filled with unrest and plots which aimed to remove the Scottish King from the throne. Although James was liked by many of his English subjects, there were others who wanted to see an Englishman as king, and there was great discontent amongst Catholics who hoped for more religious tolerance from James. Deacon outlined the complex plot involving a circle of inter-related families who met at numerous country homes in Northamptonshire and neighbouring counties like Warwickshire. He outlined his view that evidence points to the anonymous letter being a government counterplot which allowed the plotters sufficient time to be caught in the act; it was in fact a conspiracy with all the hallmarks of Robert Cecil Earl of Salisbury whose spies had had the dissidents under observation for years.
At the time, the young Princess Elizabeth lived at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire. Her parents, King James and Queen Anne, thought it best that she should live in the countryside under the guardianship of Lord and Lady Harington, who did all they could to offer her the best education and environment. The plan was to kidnap Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey while the House of Lords was being blown up in London, killing her father and her brother Henry, the Prince of Wales. Elizabeth would then be raised as a Catholic, made a puppet queen and Catholicism would be reinstated. For the plot to work, the conspirators tried to entice John Harington away from Coombe on false pretences. He refused, and hearing that a group of Catholic men were meeting at nearby Dunchurch under the command of Sir Everard Digby on the 4 November, suspicious Harington relocated Elizabeth to Coventry.
The large group of riders disguised as a hunting party, numbering over a hundred, had assembled on Dunsmoor Heath, close to Coombe Abbey, awaiting orders. With the failure of the plot in London the leader of the whole enterprise, Robert Catesby, arrived from nearby Ashby St Legers, to tell them of Guy Fawkes’ arrest in London. Catesby had left London ahead of the planned explosion and had been caught up by other fleeing plotters making their escape. Many of the riders instantly deserted but a group of some fifty men led by Catesby rode off westwards in the hope of finding support for their rebellion. After a raid on Warwick Castle the riders fled to several Catholic houses in turn but finding little support in desperation they made a final stand at Holbeach House, Staffordshire on the 8 November. John and Christopher Wright, Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy were shot by the Sheriff of Worcester and his men and died at the scene.
On the 30 and 31 January 1606, the remaining eight of the plotters were executed after being found guilty of treason; Guy Fawkes, Robert Wintour, Everard Digby, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Thomas Wintour and Robert Keyes were all hung, drawn and quartered in St Paul’s Churchyard and Old Palace Yard in Westminster. Sir Francis Tresham escaped punishment by dying in the Tower of London; some say he was poisoned and his head was exhibited on a spike in Northampton at the South Gate. The horrific executions served as a fitting deterrent to the outlaws. The aftermath was devastating for Catholics, left destitute after many officials profited from the acquisition of their confiscated property. Princess Elizabeth was badly shaken by the news of the plot, and while she never did become Queen of England, (as her brother Charles I succeeded her father as King), she briefly reigned as Queen of Bohemia when her husband Frederick V Elector Palatine became king. Later known as the Winter Queen, Elizabeth did guarantee the continuance of the Protestant monarchy in England, however, as her grandson ascended the throne as King George I after the Act of Settlement of 1701 excluded the Catholic line of the family. Our present Queen is a descendent of Elizabeth Stuart.