On this day: the gunpowder plot is foiled

On this day in 1605, the conspiracy known as the Gunpowder Plot got under way. The goal of the plot, which was led by Robert Catesby, was to blow up Parliament that included King James I, his queen, and their son. Conspiring with Catesby were Thomas Winter, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Guy Fawkes.

The gang were devout Roman Catholics, angered by King James’ unwillingness to tolerate Catholics, and hoped that by killing the king, they would be free to take over England.

The plot first began to be planned in 1603 when the gang reunited. In May 1604, Percy rented a house adjoining the House of Lords. In December of that year, the team began digging a tunnel from Percy’s home, but soon discovered that a vault under the House of Lords was available for rent, so they quickly took it away. Some 36 barrels of gunpowder were smuggled into the vault and hidden under charcoal and firewood.

Preparations were completed in May 1605, and the gang dispersed until November 5, when the plan was to be carried out because that was the day Parliament was inaugurated. The plan was to blow up Parliament and kidnap King James’s daughter and youngest son. The gang believed that the country would give in to their demands.

While preparations went well, there was some disagreement about giving warnings to certain people. Some of the conspirators wanted to warn Roman Catholics that they should be in Parliament on November 5, but Catesby refused.

The sun rises over the Houses of Parliament in London, Great Britain (credit: HANNAH MCKAY / REUTERS)

On October 26, a Roman Catholic, who supported the king, named Lord Monteagle, received an anonymous letter warning him not to be in Parliament on November 5. To this day, the author of the letter is unknown.

Monteagle immediately took the letter to Robert Cecil, who decided to search the vault. The next day, the gang members were told that the plot was known, but Fawkes told Catesby that nothing had been touched in the vault, so Catesby decided to continue as planned.

On November 4, the king sent Thomas Howard, the Lord Chamberlain, to examine the buildings around the House of Lords. When he got to the vault, he found Fawkes, who told him there was only firewood in the basement. Howard remained suspicious, so he sent a magistrate to investigate and the gunpowder was found. Fawkes was arrested in the early morning hours of November 5 and later revealed to his fellow conspirators under torture.

The rest of the gang were later killed in a shootout with authorities or arrested and executed.

Two months later, Parliament announced that November 5 would henceforth be a Thanksgiving Day, and it is celebrated in England to this day. Also known as Guy Fawkes Day, the day is celebrated with bonfires in which an effigy of Guy Fawkes is burned.


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