Nostalgia: Threat of an internal Catholic rising

A contemporary engraving of some of the thirteen Gunpowder Plot conspirators.
A contemporary engraving of some of the thirteen Gunpowder Plot conspirators.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was seen as the elimination of the greatest foreign threat, but there remained the danger to Protestant England of an internal Catholic rising. Thanks to the efficiency and utter ruthlessness of the government’s secret counter-terrorism service, all the plots against Elizabeth’s life were thwarted and in 1587 the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, had removed the chief focus of a Catholic counter-Reformation. However, there was still a significant English Catholic minority, unwilling to accept a Protestant state and resentful of the persecution of their faith.

This minority was particularly well represented in Yorkshire. As Lord Burghley, President of the Council of the North at York, complained in June 1603, at every level of the county’s judicial and administrative government, from the Council itself down through the justices’ benches in all three Ridings to the meanest offices of constable and churchwarden, there were many open and clandestine Catholics.

The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the taking of Guy Fawkes.

The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the taking of Guy Fawkes.

It was no surprise, therefore, that the Catholic Gunpowder Plot of 1605 had several Yorkshire associations. Guy Fawkes was born in a house in Stonegate, York, and educated at St Peter’s school nearby, along with two other leading conspirators, John/Jack and Christopher/Kit Wright. St Peter’s seems to have been a nursery for Catholic boys. Three other pupils of the school who became priests were executed at Lancaster in 1601. Two other brother plotters, Robert/Robin and Thomas Wintour/Winter, were the children of Jane Ingleby of Ripley castle, near Knaresborough. Their uncle, Francis Ingleby, a priest, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1586.

Just as severe persecution of Protestants during the short reign of Mary (1553-8) had done more to stimulate than to suppress them, so something similar happened in the opposite direction during the long reign of her sister Elizabeth (1558-1603). Many English gentry families left the country, but many more, rather than pay the ruinous costs of recusancy, remained as closet Catholics in the hope that one day there would be a change of regime in their favour.

Under Elizabeth there was no prospect of toleration for Catholics. The Pope had condemned her as a heretic bastard and absolved English Catholics from loyalty to her. The war with Spain was nearly 20 years old and Philip II had been replaced by Philip III, yet peace seemed as distant as ever. Would the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne make any difference? James was a Protestant, but he was also the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Catholic “martyr” and the husband of a Catholic convert, Anne of Denmark. Also encouraging for English Catholics, the Pope in Rome had welcomed James’s smooth succession.

In James’s first speech to Parliament in March 1604 he had said, “ mind was ever so free from persecution, or thralling of my subjects in matters of conscience...” Accordingly, the English laws against Catholic recusancy were relaxed and there was a sharp fall in fines to the Exchequer.

However, for those English Catholics who had long relied on the assistance, in one form or another, of Catholic Spain, the peace treaty signed between James I and Philip III soon afterwards was a bitter setback. One of the English Catholics most disappointed was Guy Fawkes.

In 1591, aged 21, Guy had left Yorkshire to join Spain’s international army of Flanders fighting against the Protestant Dutch. There he prospered as a gentleman-soldier, noted for his bravery, growing military competence and religious devotion. As such he was entrusted by fellow Catholics to travel to Spain to ask for help for a rising of English Catholics against James I; but it was too late. All that he brought back to England was a new name, Guido instead of Guy.

On Sunday, May 20, 1604, at the Duck and Drake inn near London’s Strand, Guido Fawkes first met four fellow conspirators, Robert Catesby, John Wright, Thomas Winter and Thomas Percy. Here they heard the details of Catesby’s astonishing scheme to blow up King, Lords and Commons at the state opening of Parliament. All five swore an oath of secrecy. From then on more men were drawn in until they numbered 13. A plan to capture and promote the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth in Warwickshire was formulated and a groundfloor storeroom underneath the House of Lords was leased. With the false name of John Johnson, Guido agreed to supervise the delivery, storage and eventual detonation of 36 barrels of gunpowder.

We still do not know for certain who wrote a letter to Lord Mounteagle warning him of “a terrible blow this parlement” which alerted the government and scuppered the plot. On the King’s insistence, the palace of Westminster was searched and about midnight on November 4 the gunpowder and its keeper, Johnson, were discovered.

After being put to the manacles and the rack, Fawkes finally broke down and confessed on November 7. There was no rising of English Catholics: even the priests in the country condemned the plot as a “detestable device”. Catesby, Thomas Percy, Thomas Winter, John and Kit Wright escaped into Staffordshire, only to be besieged at Holbeach House on November 8. Four were shot down and killed by the sheriff’s men and Thomas Winter was wounded. Robert Winter was finally captured on January 9, 1606.

The show trial of eight survivors took place in Westminster Hall on January 27, 1606. Directing the prosecution was the formidable Sir Edward Coke, Attorney General, who had presided over the trials of the earl of Essex in 1601 and Sir Walter Raleigh, two years later. All eight were found guilty and subsequently hanged, drawn and quartered, half in St Paul’s graveyard and the others in Westminster Old Palace Yard. Finally, Henry Garnet, Superior of the Jesuits in England, who had counselled Catesby against the plot, was tried for complicity, found guilty, and executed like the others.

The Gunpowder Plot has remained important for the different ways it is still remembered and commemorated. From 1606 until 1859, the 5th of November was re-called in an annual service of Anglican thanksgiving for deliverance from Catholics! Because All Saints’, November 1, and All Souls’, November 2, became redundant to Protestants, November 5 was adopted as a convenient substitute, marking the coming winter with bonfires and the ringing of church bells.

However, the celebration of November 5, like so many former religious customs, has been paganised. Bonfires are still lit, but very few know why: and, except at St Peter’s school, instead of burning the Pope, we now incinerate “the Guy” without understanding who he was.