The Gunpowder Plot: ‘The Most Horrible Treason’

5 November, 1605: A plot to blow up the House of Lords with gunpowder is thwarted when explosives expert Guy Fawkes is caught red-handed in Parliament’s basement. Robert Catesby is the mastermind who, along with his trusted cast of conspirators, sought to assassinate King James during the opening of Parliament.

This story of gunpowder, treason and plot is consecrated in British history, marked each year with the burning of bonfires, fireworks and effigies. But how did this play out at the time? How did people respond? And what became of the conspirators and others who were implicated? Learn more with this extract from London and the Seventeenth Century by Margarette Lincoln.

Robert Catesby, a prominent and charismatic Catholic, had begun to think about blowing up parliament early in 1604, even before James’s first speech to the House made it clear that there would be no religious toleration. Catholic attempts to get Philip III of Spain to invade England had proved fruitless. Catesby, who had been imprisoned for rebellion against Elizabeth, now believed that only desperate action could relieve the plight of Catholics in England. His plan was to massacre the king and his ministers at the next opening of parliament, stir up rebellion in the Midlands, and place James’s young daughter Elizabeth on the throne as a puppet queen. He took trusted friends and kinsmen into his confidence, including Thomas Percy, who smarted under the belief that James had made a fool of him.

In March 1605 the conspirators set to work again. Percy rented a cellar under the medieval House of Lords, and they began bringing the gunpowder across the Thames from Lambeth, concealing the barrels under piles of firewood. Fawkes, posing as Percy’s servant and taking the name John Johnson, kept watch over the cellar. When the time came, he was to light a fuse, then escape to the Continent while the others raised rebellion in the Midlands. But as plague still raged in London, the opening of parliament was again postponed until 5 November. These delays made it difficult to keep the plot a secret, although conspirators had sworn an oath to do so. Newer recruits began to worry that Catholic Members of Parliament would be unfairly killed in the explosion. Seemingly it was one newcomer, Francis Tresham, who warned his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, not to attend the opening ceremony.

Although Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, had been put on guard, he delayed any search of the buildings around parliament until the afternoon of 4 November. Even then, to allay fears, the search party gave out that it was just looking for missing goods belonging to the court. It found nothing, only a stockpile of firewood in one of the cellars that a servant (Fawkes) explained was the property of Thomas Percy. But when the searchers reported back, someone recalled that Percy was a Catholic and a second inspection was ordered, although it was nearly midnight. This time, Thomas Knyvet, Gentleman of the Privy Chamber and Justice of the Peace, found Fawkes, dressed and booted at the door of the cellar, and arrested him. There was no street lighting in London – anyone venturing out after dark had to carry their own torch or lantern and their own weapon – so his mere presence was suspicious. A thorough search revealed the gunpowder, and Fawkes was found to be carrying matches and touchwood. Denial was impossible. Hauled before the king and members of the Privy Council before daylight, he allegedly swore that he had meant to blow the beggarly Scots back to their native mountains but would not name his accomplices1.

Most of the conspirators had galloped north from London on 5 November as soon as they heard that Fawkes had been arrested, throwing their heavy cloaks into a hedge to gain speed. The City was soon aflame with rumours. Crowds gathered at alehouses and conduits; anyone in foreign dress prompted suspicion, but Spaniards were the most obvious target. In Westminster, the guard at the palace gates was strengthened and soldiers began stopping people at major roads. The king issued his first proclamation for the arrest of Thomas Percy that day, ‘a tall man, with a great broad beard, a good face, the colour of his beard and head mingled with white haires’2. He was to be captured alive so that his fellow conspirators might be discovered. That evening, church bells were ordered to be rung in London and bonfires blazed in every main street to mark the king’s providential escape. 

On 6 November, James approved the use of torture on Fawkes, stipulating only that ‘gentler tortures’ be used first3. The very next day James was able to release a second proclamation naming the seven confederates to be arrested with Percy who, ‘cloaked with zeale of Superstitious Religion’, had plotted ‘the most horrible treason that ever entered into the hearts of men’4. Anyone who harboured these traitors, or did not do their utmost to apprehend them, would themselves be judged traitors. The mood in London can be sensed by the fact that this proclamation refuted rumours that the plot had been incited by religion (rather than rebellion) and specifically denied that any foreign ruler had supported it. Already, there were murmurings against the Spanish ambassador and James had no desire to antagonize foreign powers. Nor did he wish to encourage disaffected subjects to expect help from abroad. 

Fawkes was now brutally tortured on the rack to reveal all he knew and to try to force him to implicate Catholic priests in the plot. He could barely sign his confession on 8 November; his juddering signature is graphic evidence of terrible suffering. The final, printed version of his confession, implicating Jesuits and naming the intelligencer Hugh Owen, is suspiciously well crafted; Salisbury most likely had a hand in shaping it. The first Sunday after the discovery of the plot, a sermon was preached at St Paul’s Cross giving thanks for the king’s deliverance and condemning the cruelty and ‘Hyperdiabolicall deuilishnesse’ that had made religion a stalking horse for treason5.

Salisbury’s henchmen questioned Londoners to find out which Catholics had left the capital in a hurry. The new Venetian ambassador, Nicolò Molino, took the opportunity to stress the difficulty of his mission, ‘The city is in great uncertainty; Catholics fear heretics, and vice-versa; both are armed; foreigners live in terror of their houses being sacked by the mob that is convinced that some, if not all, foreign Princes are at the bottom of the plot.’6  Meanwhile, Catesby’s plans for rebellion in the Midlands came to nothing. When the surviving conspirators were caught, their confessions were rushed into print as the king and his advisors aimed to control the narrative of events. Official publications were adapted to counter the questions and rumours current in London. Not until December did one of the conspirators, Thomas Bate, reveal that he had confessed the plot to his priest. At once, James issued another proclamation calling for the arrest of three named Jesuit priests, describing them individually. Two managed to escape overseas, but on 27 January 1606, Father Henry Garnet, leader of the Jesuit order in England, was taken at a manor in Worcestershire after weeks of hiding and brought to London for interrogation.

On 30 January four of the conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered in St Paul’s Churchyard. This was not the normal place of execution and the choice of venue illustrates the power of association residing in key locations within the capital. St Paul’s, where Elizabeth had given thanks for the defeat of the Spanish Armada, was a potent symbol of the Protestant faith. The location was intended to counteract any tendency to make Catholic martyrs of the conspirators. Yet, as the plotters all met their deaths bravely, many sympathizers in the crowd returned from the bloody executions full of pity.

Father Garnet’s trial was carefully prepared for 28 March and took place at the Guildhall, where state trials were held. English authorities chose to issue a broadsheet portrait of Garnet as ‘the Popes Darling’7 with a text claiming he had connived at every plot in England for the past thirty years. An official account of his trial and execution was also printed. But if the authorities hoped to avoid Catholic appropriation of Garnet as a martyr, their plan backfired. After Garnet was beheaded, Catholics in the crowd rushed forward to get a drop of what they believed was martyr’s blood.

The details of this horrifying treason, with its many points of interest, gripped London for months. Key locations in the City featured in the narrative of events and helped to shape it. Aspects of the plot are also reflected in popular literature of the time. No author dared to treat it directly, but readers and playgoers would have been attuned to passing references. Most famously, Shakespeare alluded to Garnet’s support for the doctrine of equivocation in Macbeth, written in late 1606 or early 1607. The drunken porter of Macbeth’s castle, answering impatient knocking at the door, imagines himself to be the keeper of hell’s gate:

Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.8

Shakespeare, who came from a Catholic family, is careful to link equivocation and treason. He also echoes the black humour directed at Garnet in the official account, who was advised on the scaffold to confess all he knew and not to waste his last breath on equivocation.

Thomas Dekker’s The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London (1606) obsessively alludes to the recent intrigue. He substitutes contemporary failings for the seven cardinal sins identified by the Church, describing such transgressions as lying, intrigue by candlelight and cruelty. When denouncing falsehood, Dekker addresses London outright and asks, ‘Is it possible that . . . so many bonfires of mens bodies should be made before thee in the good quarrel of Trueth? And that now thou shouldst take part with her enemy?’ Rulers, he continues, have suffered the ‘Triple-pointed darts of Treason’, because men were deaf to the true religion. Can London now be ‘in League with false Witches’ that bring only death?9

Dekker’s most vivid image of cruelty is the plague pit into which the dead were often tumbled indiscriminately. Yet his work also makes clear that recent treason trials were indelibly etched on the public consciousness. When he condemns foreign fashions, as was routine at the time, he compares an Englishman’s suit, incongruously aping different continental styles, to a traitor’s body that had been hanged, drawn, quartered and set up in various places. The traumatic executions, the fearful atmosphere created by government spies, the suspicions encouraged within small communities about neighbours’ religious beliefs, created a deeply destabilizing environment.


1 Thomas Birch, ed., The Court and Times of James the First: Illustrated by Authentic and Confidential Letters, from Various Public and Private Collections, 2 vols (London: Henry Colburn, 1849), 37. 

2 James F. Larkin and Paul L. Hughes, eds, Stuart Royal Proclamations, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973–83), I, 123. 

3 Samuel R. Gardiner, History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1603–1642, 10 vols (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1883), I, 266. 

4 Larkin and Hughes, Stuart Royal Proclamations, I, 124.

5 [William Barlow], The Sermon Preached at Paules Crosse, the tenth day of November, being the next Sunday after the Discoverie of this late Horrible Treason (London: Mathew Lawe, 1606), 18, 36.

6 CSPV X, 293 (21 November 1605).

7 BM 1886,0410.1.

8 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, eds Sandra Clark and Pamela Mason (London: Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, 2015), 185–6 (II. 3. 8–12).

9 Thomas Dekker, The Seven Deadly Sinnes of London (1606), ed. Edward Arber (London: [E. Arber], 1879), 21.

About the Book

The first comprehensive history of seventeenth-century London, told through the lives of those who experienced it.

The Gunpowder Plot, the Civil Wars, Charles I’s execution, the Plague, the Great Fire, the Restoration, and then the Glorious Revolution: the seventeenth century was one of the most momentous times in the history of Britain, and Londoners took center stage.

In this fascinating account, Margarette Lincoln charts the impact of national events on an ever-growing citizenry with its love of pageantry, spectacle, and enterprise. Lincoln looks at how religious, political, and financial tensions were fomented by commercial ambition, expansion, and hardship. 

‘Lively and arresting.
Ian W. Archer, Times Literary Supplement

About the Author

Margarette Lincoln is a visiting fellow at the University of Portsmouth and was Deputy Director of the National Maritime Museum. She is the author of Trading in War: London’s Maritime World in the Age of Cook and Nelson.

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