Behind Guy Fawkes: The Persecution of English Catholics


“Please to remember the Fifth of November,

Gunpowder Treason and Plot.

We know no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.”


So run the famous lines that the British know from Guy Fawkes Day, and which everyone else knows from V for Vendetta. Yet perhaps you have never noticed the ambiguity of this stanza, which V exploits in the movie. Why should the Gunpowder Plot never be forgot? V may take it as a reminder to oppose power whenever it wields its fist too absolutely, in order to make the government fear the will of a united people. But the lines can be interpreted differently.

I was not fully aware of the circle of devastation Guy Fawkes would have created had the plot succeeded. You can see below the damage he would have done—not only to the government buildings in Westminster, but to the surrounding area.

Blast areaDavid Cannadine, who wrote the introduction to Gunpowder Plots, says, “To be sure, the stakes were very high in November 1605: if the gunpowder had exploded, the entire Commons and Lords, plus King James I and his court, would have been blown to oblivion, in a destructive carnage that might have surpassed that of 9/11 in terms of numbers killed, and would certainly have exceeded it in terms of the collective might and power of those who had been taken out.”

Why then has this 400-year-old holiday persisted, a celebration of a terrorist attack? Most likely, because it was unsuccessful. Guy Fawkes, along with the rest of the conspirators, was Catholic. Those Christians who followed the Pope were seen to owe their allegiance more to Rome than the monarch, who was head of the Anglican church. As such, there is a long history of repression and persecution of Catholics in English history, including several conspiracies—both real and imagined by paranoid Protestants—in which Catholics struck back.

Henry VIIIIt could even be said that a small sect of radical Catholics, a minority within a minority, were the Islamicists of their own day. However, the eye of God had discovered Fawkes red-handed, according to Protestant polemicists; he and his fellow conspirators were betrayed, discovered, and summarily executed for treason. The failure and discovery of the plot was understood as divine deliverance, and it became a matter of English pride to remember how God had so delivered their nation from evil. Protestants knew “no reason why Gunpowder Treason / should ever be forgot.”

For centuries after, Catholics remained on the fringe of English society. Though Catholicism had been the state religion at the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign, he had changed it to Anglicanism in 1559, for political reasons and, of course, so he could famously divorce his queen, Catherine of Aragon. Certain historians have seen Catholicism as an accident of English history, an obstacle to be overcome in order for the “true” national character of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP-ish) England to evolve.

If Guy Fawkes were among us, no doubt he would tell a different story. Which is why starting this week and ending 5 November, I will relate the history of the Gunpowder Plot and attempt to demonstrate how Catholic English history can offer a different perspective from the Whig (conservative Protestant) understanding of English history.

Problems started for Catholics in 1559 with the Act of Supremacy, which established the Protestant Crown. The Act removed foreign influence from the running of the English state, cutting off ties with Rome. King Henry VIII held jurisdiction over not only state matters but the ecclesiastical and spiritual policy of his entire nation. Was this hubris? Thomas More, a high-ranking ecclesiastical adviser, certainly thought so. He was executed for opposing the king’s divorce and his break with Rome. Later, More became a Catholic saint.

tintern abbeyHenry VIII was notorious for tearing down the monasteries in England after breaking with the Church. Have you ever seen a picture of Tintern Abbey? Abandoned Gothic walls standing in space, roofless, the stone floor replaced with grass: that was Henry’s doing. Monasteries were church property and so had to be seized. He gave the land to his favourite courtiers, tearing down walls, shattering windows that were seen as idolatrous, and even stripping the lead used in the roofing, which was useful and valuable. In consequence to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, many libraries and books were lost to Henry’s rampaging vandals, although a few cataloguers attempted to preserve what ancient knowledge they could.

ElizabethThe monks were gone, but it was time for the Pope to strike back: on 25 February 1570, he condemned Queen Elizabeth I in a bull (a “bull” is not a cow, but a papal document that has the force of church law). Since the Virgin Queen had decided, after a long deliberation, to remain Protestant and continue Henry’s work after the Catholic interval of Queen Mary’s reign, the Pope declared the Elizabeth a heretic. As I recall, this bull not only excommunicated her—a condemnation of her soul to hell—but gave the assassin who killed her a dispensation to commit murder.

The source of the many Catholic plots that were sprung afterwards have their origin in this bull of excommunication. Guy Fawkes and his crew were merely trying to fulfill the wishes of the papacy, and bring an end to the persecutions of so many of his compatriots who had suffered under the Protestants. Recusancy laws, for example, obligated Catholics to attend Protestant church services. Although many attended service in order to keep up appearances—some even genuinely converting—those who did not attend could be fined, or worse.

The Gunpowder Plot was certainly not the only attempt to kill Queen Elizabeth that surfaced—although many “plots” were the paranoid imaginings of terrified Protestants. When a real plot happened, it often confirmed those fears. None was ever successful, though some came close. Here are the names of a few famous plots:


The Ridolfi Plot – 1571

Roberto di Ridolfi, a Florentine banker, travelled between Brussels, Rome, and Madrid while hatching a master plan to overthrow the Queen. He planned a foreign invasion to bring Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s cousin who had ruled briefly as a Catholic, to the throne. The Duke of Alba would invade with an army, stir the northern nobility into rebellion, kill Elizabeth, and marry Mary to the Duke of Norfolk. However, Elizabeth’s intelligence networks trapped them. Charles Baillie, a messenger for Ridolfi, was captured and tortured into revealing the plot. Ridolfi escaped because he was not in England at the time.


The Throckmorton Plot -1583

Queen Elizabeth’s lady-in-waiting Elizabeth Throckmorton had a cousin who became a conspirator, with the aim of restoring Queen Mary. Henry I, the Catholic Duke of Guise was to invade, backed by the Pope and King Philip II of Spain. Francis Walsingham, the Elizabethan spymaster, found out about it. In 1584, Sir Francis Throckmorton was executed.


babingtonThe Babington Plot – 1586

Probably the most famous of all Catholic plots against Elizabeth, the Babingon Plot happened two years before the Spanish Armada, and ended with the beheading of the Queen Mary, who had for so long supported the Catholics while under house arrest. Catholic leaders in England condemned the plot. Sir Anthony Babington led the English Catholic forces and planned to assassinate the Queen, while Spanish forces prepared to invade the country and plant Queen Mary on the throne. Thomas Morgan and Charles Paget worked in Europe to organize Mary’s conspiracy. The whole thing came apart when Babington detailed the names of the conspirators and the nature of the plot in a secret letter to Mary—which was intercepted and deciphered. He was arrested while trying to secure travel on a ship to Spain. Babington was hanged, drawn, and quartered on 20 September 1586, while Queen Mary was beheaded on 8 September 1587.


Lopez Plot – 1594

Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State, and the bane of numerous plots against the life of Queen Elizabeth
Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State, and the bane of numerous plots against the life of Queen Elizabeth

Doctor Roderigo Lopez was no Catholic. Though he was a Spaniard, he was exiled because of was a Marrano, or a closeted Jew. He attained an elite clientele once in England, acting as physician to Francis Walsingham and even Queen Elizabeth herself in 1586. For all appearances, he was a loyal Protestant. However, in October 1593 a plot was uncovered against Dom António of Portugal, who the English supported in favour of the present Spanish king. Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, accused Roderigo Lopez of conspiring to poison the Queen. The Lopez Plot may have been real, or it may have been only perceived; there is debate. However, Devereux, despite being the Queen’s favourite for a while, was known in the past to be a bold, reckless individual who disobeyed the Queen’s orders on military campaigns.


After Elizabeth’s death from natural causes (24 March 1603), James VI of Scotland assumed the throne, becoming James I of England. Catholics around the country hoped that the change would bring more toleration. However, they would be disappointed. And a select group of men would dedicate themselves single-mindedly to the task of blowing up the entire court of King James I.

Persecution of Catholics did not relent after James I assumed the throne.
Persecution of Catholics did not relent after James I assumed the throne.

Next week: The Gunpowder Plot.


Works Cited:

Buchanan, Brenda, David Cannadine, and Justin Champion, et al. Gunpowder Plots. London: Penguin, 2005.

Haynes, Alan. The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion. Dover: Alan Sutton, 1994.

Marotti, Arthur F. Religious Ideology and Cultural Fantasy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005.


Picture Credits:

Anthony Babington:

Francis Walsingham:

The Guy:

Henry VIII:

King James I:

Queen Elizabeth:

Tintern Abbey:



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