King James I’s London – 7. The Gunpowder Plot

June 8, 2011

One of the most significant events during the early year of King James I’s reign was the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot.

The plot, which involved a group of Catholic conspirators including Robert Catesby and  Guido ‘Guy’ Fawkes (you can read more about Fawkes in our earlier entry on Bonfire Night), centred on a plan to blow up the House of Lords in Westminster Palace during the State Opening of Parliament in November 1605, thus killing the king (who had aggrieved Catholics in a public denunciation at the Hampton Court Conference in 1604; it should also be noted that he was already aware of several other failed Catholic plots to kill him) and, presumably, many MPs and Lords.

It is believed they intended replacing James with his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, whom they hoped could be made more amendable to Catholic worship.

But such a plot was hard to keep mum and an anonymous tip-off to Lord Monteagle, a Catholic, not to attend the event, led authorities to eventually uncover the plot in a basement storeroom below the House of Lords where, at around midnight on 4th November, they found Fawkes guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered – a sentence never fully carried out after he leapt off the scaffold and broke his neck – and the other plotters, who had fled from London soon after the discovery, were either killed during subsequent arrest attempts, imprisoned or executed.

So happy was King James I – that he had Act of Parliament passed which made the 5th November a day of thanksgiving – it remained in force until 1859. Celebrations of the plot’s foiling continue every year on Bonfire Night.

But what were some of the significant places in the event? The cellar where Fawkes was arrested no longer exists – it was destroyed during a fire in 1834.

The conspirators who had been arrested were subsequently taken to the Tower of London where King James I authorised the torture of at least Fawkes and perhaps others among the conspirators. Fawkes capitulated quickly and signed two confessions (which are now in The National Archives). Another of the conspirators, Francis Tresham, died of natural causes while in the Tower.

The eight surviving conspirators went on trial at Westminster Hall – still part of the Houses of Parliament complex today; the end of the hall is visible in the above picture – in late January 1606 and were all condemned to death for treason.

Four of them were executed on 30th January in St Paul’s Churchyard outside St Paul’s Cathedral while the remaining four including Fawkes were executed the next day outside Westminster Hall in Old Palace Yard. The heads of Catesby and Thomas Percy, both of whom had been killed during a shoot-out in Staffordshire, were set up outside the Houses of Parliament.

Arrests – and in some cases executions – of others believed to be associated with the plot continued in the following months.

Another place of note in the story of the Gunpowder Plot is Syon Park in the city’s west, now the London home of the Duke of Northumberland. The aforementioned Thomas Percy was a cousin of the then Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy, and apparently dined with the Catholic earl at the house on the night of 4th November, before the plot was uncovered.

That association subsequently led to the earl’s arrest and he was confined to the Tower for the next 15 years on the order of the king.

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