The Gunpowder Plot (Classroom Activity)

Queen Elizabeth died on 24th March, 1603. Later that day, Robert Cecil, read out the proclamation announcing James VI of Scotland as the next king of England. The following day the new king wrote from Edinburgh informally confirming all the privy council in their positions, adding in his own hand to Cecil, "How happy I think myself by the conquest of so wise a councillor I reserve it to be expressed out of my own mouth unto you".

James left for England on 26th March 1603. When he arrived at York his first act was to write to the English Privy Council for money as he was deeply in debt. His demands were agreed as they were anxious to develop a good relationship with their king who looked like a promising new leader. "James's quick brain, his aptitude for business, his willingness to take decisions, right or wrong, were welcome enough after Elizabeth's tedious procrastination over trifles. They were charmed, too, by his informal bonhomie."

Soon after arriving in London King James told Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, "as for the catholics, I will neither persecute any that will be quiet and give but an outward obedience to the law, neither will I spare to advance any of them that will by good service worthily deserve it." James kept his promise and the catholics enjoyed a degree of tolerance that they had not known for a long time. Catholics now became more open about their religious beliefs and this resulted in accusations that James was not a committed Protestant. The king responded by ordering in February 1605, the reintroduction of the penal laws against the catholics. It has been estimated that 5,560 people were convicted of rucusancy during this period.

Roman Catholics felt bitter by what they saw as the king's betrayal. They now realised that they were an isolated minority in a hostile community. In February 1604, Robert Catesby devised the Gunpowder Plot, a scheme to kill King James and as many Members of Parliament as possible. Catesby recruited Thomas Wintour and in April 1604, he introduced him to Guy Fawkes.

At a meeting at the Duck and Drake Inn on 20th May, Catesby explained his plan to Guy Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy and John Wright. All the men agreed under oath to join the conspiracy. Over the next few months Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, Thomas Bates and Christopher Wright also agreed to take part in the overthrow of the king.

Catesby's plan involved blowing up the Houses of Parliament on 5th November, 1605. This date was chosen because the king was due to open Parliament on that day. At first the group tried to tunnel under Parliament. This plan changed when Thomas Percy was able to hire a cellar under the House of Lords. The plotters then filled the cellar with barrels of gunpowder. The conspirators also hoped to kidnap the king's daughter, Elizabeth. In time, Catesby was going to arrange Elizabeth's marriage to a Catholic nobleman.

Primary Sources

Crispen van de Passe, The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators (c.1606)
(Source 1) Crispen van de Passe, The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators (c.1606)


(Source 2) Robert Crampton, The Gunpowder Plot (1990)

If Guy Fawkes case came up before the Court of Appeal today, the... judges would surely... acquit him... First, no one has ever seen the attempted tunnel. Builders excavating the area in 1823 found neither a tunnel nor any rubble. Second, the gunpowder. In 1605, the Government had a monopoly on its manufacture... The Government did not display the gunpowder and nobody saw it in the cellars. Third, these cellars were rented by the government to a known Catholic agitator... Fourth, the Tresham letter. Graphologists (handwriting experts) agree that it was not written by Francis Tresham.

(Source 3) Guy Fawkes was arrested on the 4 November, 1605. After being tortured in the Tower of London, Guy Fawkes confessed to planning to blow up Parliament on 17th November 1605.

Catesby suggested... making a mine under the upper house of Parliament... because religion had been unjustly suppressed there... twenty barrels of gunpowder were moved to the cellar... It was agreed to seize Lady Elizabeth, the king's eldest daughter... and to proclaim her Queen.

Henry Peronett Briggs, The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (c. 1823)
(Source 4) Guy Fawkes signature before and after being tortured.

(Source 5) Thomas Wintour was arrested on 8 November, 1605. After being tortured in the Tower of London, Wintour confessed to planning to blow up Parliament on 23rd November 1605.

Mr. Catesby... said he had a plan to deliver us from all our troubles and - without any foreign help - to replant again the Catholic faith... He said his plan was to blow up the Parliament House with gunpowder... He asked me if I would give my consent. I told him "Yes".(9)

Henry Peronett Briggs, The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (c. 1823)
(Source 6) Henry Peronett Briggs, The Discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (c. 1823)

(Source 7) James Oliphant, A History of England (1920)

Some of the Roman Catholics, in the hope of bringing about a violent change... tried to blow up King and Parliament with gunpowder... After this it was necessary to adopt sterner measures with the Roman Catholics.

(Source 8) Philip Sidney, A History of the Gunpowder Plot (1905)

Guy Fawkes refused to name his friends... he was speedily put to torture... he was compelled to confess... The conspirators met their fate with courage, considering the terrible nature of their punishment. 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.

(Source 9) The Weekly News (31st January 1606)

Last of all came the great devil of all, Guy Fawkes, who should have put fire to the powder. His body being weak with the torture and sickness he was scarce able to go up the ladder, yet with much ado, by the help of the hangman, went high enough to break his neck by the fall. He made no speech, but with his crosses and idle ceremonies made his end upon the gallows and the block, to the great joy of all the beholders that the land was ended of so wicked a villainy.

Engraving of the execution of those found guilty of the Gunpowder Plot (1606)
(Source 10) Engraving of the execution of those found guilty of the Gunpowder Plot (1606)

(Source 11) Camilla Turner, The Daily Telegraph (5th November, 2014)

The traditional death for traitors in 17th-century England was to be hanged from the gallows, then drawn and quartered in public. But, despite his role in the Gunpowder Plot - which the perpetrators hoped would kill King James and as many members of parliament as possible - it was not to be Fawkes's fate.

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. He died from a broken neck.
His body was subsequently quartered, and his remains were sent to "the four corners of the kingdom" as a warning to others.

Questions for Students

Question 1: Study sources 3 and 5. Explain why Guy Fawkes and Thomas Wintour wanted to blow up Parliament.

Question 2: Explain why the group led by Robert Catesby wanted to "seize Lady Elizabeth, the King's eldest daughter".

Question 3: 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.

Question 4: 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?

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

Question 6: Use sources 8, 9, 10 and 11 to describe the execution of Guy Fawkes.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.