The Gunpowder Plot (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: The Gunpowder Plot

Q1: Study sources 3 and 5. Explain why Guy Fawkes and Thomas Wintour wanted to blow up Parliament.

A1: Guy Fawkes said he wanted to blow up Parliament because "religion had been unjustly suppressed there". Fawkes and Wintour, like other Catholics in England, had been disappointed when King James agreed to a law being passed that imposed heavy fines on people who did not attend Protestant church services.

Q2: Explain why the group led by Robert Catesby wanted to "seize Lady Elizabeth, the King's eldest daughter".

A2: If James was killed the Catholics had to find another person to replace him. At that time there were no Catholics in England who had a strong legal case to become king. They therefore decided to make Elizabeth queen. The plan was that once she was old enough, they would marry her to a Catholic nobleman.

Q3: Compare sources 2 and 7. Give a reason why these two writers disagreed about who was behind the Gunpowder Plot. It will help if you consider the dates of the two sources.

A3: James Oliphant believed that the Roman Catholics were responsible for the Gunpowder Plot. Robert Crampton argues that it was the English government. Oliphant wrote his account in 1920. Since his book was published new evidence has emerged about the Gunpowder Plot. For example, evidence that suggests that Tresham did not write the letter has only been available during the last few years.

Q4: Why does Robert Crampton believe the Catesby group were not guilty of trying to blow up Parliament? Why do historians such as James Oliphant believe they were guilty?

A4: Crampton puts forward four main reasons why he believes that the members of the group were not guilty: (i) no one has seen the tunnel; (ii) the group would have had great difficulty obtaining the gunpowder; (iii) the government would not have rented the cellars to a known Catholic agitator; (iv) the Tresham letter was not written by Tresham.
A large number of historians disagree with Crampton. The main evidence they use to support their view is the signed confessions of Guy Fawkes and Thomas Winter. One of the reasons that historians disagree about what happened in the past concerns their selection and interpretation of the evidence. Crampton, for example, doubts the reliability of confessions obtained under torture.

Q5: Discuss the reliability and value of sources 3, 4 and 5 in helping us understand who organised the Gunpowder Plot.

A5: In sources 3 and 5 both Guy Fawkes and Thomas Winter admit they were involved in the plot to blow up Parliament. However, both these confessions were obtained while they were being tortured. Guy Fawkes' signature in source 4 suggests that he was in a bad state when he signed the confession. At this time people tended
to believe that whatever the pain, the defendant would not confess to a crime he did not commit. They believed if someone was innocent, God would help them resist making a confession. Today, people are much more likely to doubt evidence produced under torture. There are many examples from history where people have confessed to crimes they could not possibly have committed. In recent years, doubts have even been raised against confessions that have been made without the use of torture.

However, just because evidence was obtained under torture does not mean that it is untrue. Many historians argue that the story Fawkes and Winter told sounds very convincing. For example, the group had a strong motive and their idea to seize Elizabeth and force her to marry a Catholic nobleman is the sort of plan they would have come up with. Of course, Robert Cecil would have been aware of this and maybe he told them what to write. As you can see, it is virtually impossible for historians to be certain about the reliability of these confessions.

Source 1 was produced by an artist living in Germany. All the evidence suggests he never met these men and therefore it is highly unlikely that these portraits are accurate. On the engraving these men are named as the conspirators. However, the artist only knew their identities because they were the ones named during the trial in January, 1606. Therefore this is not a reliable source in helping us understand who was involved in the Gunpowder Plot.

Q6: Use sources 8, 9, 10 and 11 to describe the execution of Guy Fawkes.

A6: Philip Sidney (source 8) describes how conspirators were "tied to separate hurdles, they were dragged, lying bound on their backs, through the muddy streets to the place of execution, there to be first hanged, cut down alive, drawn, and then quartered". This is shown in source 10.

A contemporary source (source 9) suggests that Guy Fawkes, with the help of the hangman, was killed before he was castrated. This is explained by Camilla Turner (source 11): "As he awaited his grisly punishment on the gallows, Fawkes leapt to his death - to avoid the horrors of having his testicles cut off, his stomach opened and his guts spilled out before his eyes".