The Gunpowder Plot was a failed attempt to blow up England’s King James I and the Parliament on November 5, 1605. The plot was organized by Robert Catesby in an effort to end the persecution of Roman Catholics by the English government. Catesby and others hoped to replace the country’s Protestant government with Catholic leadership. Around midnight on November 4, 1605, one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was discovered in the cellar of the Parliament building with barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes and other men involved in the plot were tried and executed for treason. Every November 5, the British celebrate Guy Fawkes Day by burning Fawkes in effigy.
What became known as the Gunpowder Plot was organized by Robert Catesby, a devout English Catholic whose father had been persecuted by Queen Elizabeth I for refusing to conform to the Church of England.
Guy Fawkes, born in York in 1570, was a convert to Catholicism, and his religious zeal led him to fight in the army of Catholic Spain in the Protestant Netherlands. Like many Catholics, he took a dim view of the Protestant King James I, who initially seemed sympathetic to Catholics, but soon ordered all Jesuit and Catholic priests to leave his realm.
Catesby, Fawkes and a handful of other plotters rented a cellar that extended under the House of Lords building in London, and Fawkes planted the gunpowder there. However, on October 26, Lord Monteagle, the brother-in-law of one of the conspirators, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on November 5.
Guy Fawkes Discovered
Monteagle alerted the government, and soon an investigation was launched. At about midnight on the night of November 4-5, Sir Thomas Knyvet, a justice of the peace, found Guy Fawkes lurking in a cellar under the Parliament building with a fuse, a box of matches and 36 barrels of gunpowder.
Fawkes was taken into custody. Under torture, Fawkes revealed he was a participant in an English Catholic conspiracy to annihilate England’s Protestant government and replace it with Catholic rule.
By torturing Fawkes, King James’ government learned the identities of his co-conspirators. During the next few weeks, English authorities killed or captured all the plotters and put the survivors in the Tower of London while awaiting trial.
Fawkes and the other surviving chief conspirators were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered in London. However, moments before the start of his execution, on January 31, 1606, Fawkes jumped from a ladder while climbing to the gallows, breaking his neck and dying.
Following the failed Gunpowder Plot, new laws were instituted in England that eliminated the right of Catholics to vote, among other repressive restrictions.
Guy Fawkes Day
In 1606, Parliament established November 5 as a day of public thanksgiving. Guy Fawkes Day—also referred to as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night—is now celebrated annually across Great Britain each November 5 in remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot. As dusk falls, villagers and city dwellers across Britain light bonfires, set off fireworks and burn effigies of Fawkes.
Another tradition that originated from the Gunpowder Plot is the ceremonial search before the State Opening of Parliament, when the Yeomen of the Guard search the buildings and cellars for explosives or other security threats.