RogerBW's Blog

The Gunpowder Plot 09 June 2014

Guy Fawkes is often described as "the only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions". But what did he really aspire to do?

Well, for a start, Fawkes was the technical support rather than one of the ideological motivators, though certainly he was sympathetic to the cause; he was the only one of the plotters who had experience working with gunpowder. The Gunpowder Plot itself was conceived by Robert Catesby. (Probably. See below.)

The objective of the Plot was to assassinate King James (who had been on the throne for a little more than a year, following the death of Elizabeth I) and replace him with a Catholic monarch: specifically his daughter, Princess Elizabeth (the future Winter Queen), at that point nine years old. (And Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, as regent, but they probably didn't tell him this.) The death of the king's Parliament was to be merely a fortunate side-effect. English Catholics had hoped James would be more tolerant of Catholicism than Elizabeth had been, and this didn't seem to be happening (the Spanish were constantly pushing to have Catholics allowed freedom of worship, while the Privy Council was very much against it).

It's not clear what the conspirators were planning to do about Prince Henry, ten years old, or Charles, five; it appears that they hadn't quite worked this out themselves, but it probably wouldn't have involved happily sending them off into exile. But the death of the King would kick off a popular uprising starting in the Midlands (they did nothing to ensure this would happen), and there would be free rainbows and kittens for everybody.

Everybody Catholic, anyway.

If the plot had come off… what the plotters were hoping for was something like a return to the "good old days" of Queen Mary – the original "Bloody Mary" – when hundreds of religious dissenters were burned at the stake for refusing to accept Catholicism. (It's worth noting that none of the conspirators had been alive to experience this. Harking back to a golden age that one wasn't personally around for is one of the major failure modes of the fanatic.)

What they were relying on was the mass of English Catholics putting their Catholicism before their Englishness, and being radical in the same direction that they were themselves. But it seems to me that by far the most probable outcome is that the small secretly-Catholic population would have been shocked by the treason that had been committed in its name, and far from following the conspirators would have strung them up from the nearest tree (rather than risking being strung up themselves by the Protestants). If the uprising had somehow miraculously occurred, I'm sure the nasty sneaky people who are always waiting in the wings would have taken over from the ideological revolutionaries just as they always do; though the idea of this particular Queen Elizabeth, had she been allowed to survive to rule in her own right, is somewhat tempting. (Ronald Hutton wrote What if the Gunpowder Plot had Succeeded?, which I haven't read; apparently he predicts a failed uprising followed by a more Puritan, more absolute monarchy.)

In practice, of course, someone blabbed. It was probably Francis Tresham, the thirteenth (!) person to be added to the conspiracy; it was certainly his brother-in-law who received the vaguely warning letter, failed to understand its meaning, and promptly handed it over to the Earl of Salisbury. And even though the plotters knew that the letter had been leaked, they carried on with the plot!

Some argue that Salisbury deliberately let them continue so as to achieve a more impressive revelation, certainly a problem to which law enforcement authorities have been subject before; there's even a minority which contends that the whole thing was Salisbury's idea, which would certainly account for the shambolic nature of the whole affair. I think it was simply a more naïve age.

So what the Plot achieved in the end was slightly greater restrictions on English Catholics – look, you can see they can't be trusted – though several continued to hold high office under James. Seventy years later Titus Oates' completely fictitious conspiracy seemed vaguely plausible. And of course we got Bonfire Night, in its various forms.

If you are a techie with political opinions, do not assume that other people are competent conspirators just because they share those opinions.


  1. Posted by Phil Masters at 10:16am on 12 June 2014

    Hutton's essay is online. Executive summary; two possible outcomes, the likely one being an absolutist Protestant monarchy, the wildly unlikely one being an absolutist Catholic monarchy. One has to conclude that Hutton regards the routine blithering incompetence of the Stuarts (and of the plotters) as a major blessing in disguise.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:24am on 12 June 2014

    Thanks! Interesting stuff. And one point he misses: an anti-Catholic Charles wouldn't have married Henrietta Maria, who seems at best to have encouraged him in his dafter moments (having been brought up in the French court where Richelieu was busy reinventing Divine Right).

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