Behind Guy Fawkes II: The Gunpowder Plot

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

“But ‘The Gunpowder Plot’–there was a get-penny! I have presented that to an eighteen- or twenty-pence audience nine times in an afternoon. Your home-born projects prover ever the best; they are so easy and familiar. They put too much learning i’their things nowadays, and that, I fear, will be the spoil o’ this.”

-Leatherhead, Bartholomew Fair by Ben Johnson, Act 5 Scene 1

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A get-penny was a bestselling performance–in this case a puppet show of the Gunpowder Plot, so as Johnson attests through this quote, the drama of the 5 November was as popular today as it was in the seventeenth century.

When James I took the throne, Catholics flocked across the channel from France to return to England, hoping for toleration in the form of a law similar to the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which granted toleration to French Huguenots. However, several things were to go wrong.

First, there was the Bye Plot, in which William Watson, a priest, planned to kidnap the king and hold him for ransom until he declared toleration law. Then the Main Plot, which followed, was led by certain high-ranking courtiers like Lord Cobham and Sir Walter Raleigh. It aimed to get rid of the Scottish King James and replace him with Lady Arabella Stewart. In 1604, due to Puritan Scottish advisers, the king began to harden in his stance towards Catholic toleration. 19 March 1604 marked the passing of recusancy laws that formed a continuation of Elizabeth’s anti-Catholic policies.

Robert Catesby was a main ringleader among the Gunpowder Plot conspirators. He belonged to a wealthy Catholic family from Warwickshire. His cousin, Francis Tresham, was also prepared to use physical violence to achieve his aim of initiating a regime change. Jack and Kit Wright were notable swordsmen who fought during Essex’s failed rebellion of 1601, which saw the disgruntled earl beheaded. These two men would have known Guy Fawkes from school at St. Peter’s,York. Fawkes himself was a veteran of the wars against the Dutch in the Netherlands. Thomas and Robert Wintour, relatives of Catesby, also owned Huddington Court, a priest refuge. Thomas’ uncle had been a priest. He’d been hanged, drawn, and quartered—presumably for treason—a gesture I doubt Thomas appreciated.

Wintour and Fawkes are both known to have travelled to Spain in order to seek support. The Spanish under King Philip III was making a peace treaty with the English. Sceptical that the treaty would force the English king to tolerate Catholics, the conspirators prepared for another, more violent means of having their way.

Fawkes Conspirators
The Gunpowder Plot conspirators. Guy Fawkes’ name appears as Guido because he was closely associated with the Spanish.

In winter 1604, Wintour met Catesby and Jack Wright in their house in Lambeth, which was a stone’s throw across the Thames from Westminster—their target. The Gunpowder plot was Catesby’s idea, and hardening their resolve, once Fawkes had crossed the Channel, they met at a house behind St. Clements in the Strand. There, Father John Gerard, a Jesuit, celebrated Mass. Jesuits in England at this time were not allowed to enter England as “secular” priests: Elizabeth I had banished them from England by decree 5 November 1602. After the Mass, the conspirators swore an oath. The John Gerard was most likely not present for the oath, although Protestants would associate the conspiracy with the Jesuit order for a long time.

Parliament opened 19 March 1604. On 24 May, Thomas Percy acquired a lease on a small house near the House of Lords, where they were to excavate a shaft from the cellars to the foundations of the House of Lords’ chamber, and then lay the powder in a stack of concealed barrels. The peace treaty with Spain was signed, and it included no mention of Catholic toleration. The situation worsened when the king appointed a committee to prevent Jesuits from subverting the king’s authority.

The plotters encountered many setbacks. Their house was requisitioned while they were digging the mine, which risked the exposure of the plot. A plague outbreak forced Parliament to prorogue until 3 October 1605. They hoped for Princess Elizabeth to survive the explosion—a female monarch, they felt, would be more easily manipulable. Apparently, they had forgotten how much they suffered under the last female monarch, the last Elizabeth.

Robert Wintour, Kit Wright, and John Grant (a notorious participant in the Essex rebellion and the brother-in-law of Robert Wintour), entered the conspiracy in March 1605. Soon, they discovered coal in storage in the Lords’ meeting house. This meant they could place powder directly under the House of Lords. Presumably, the coal would help the fires burn afterwards. On 3 October, Parliament was prorogued once more, until the fateful day of 5 November.

robert cecil
Robert Cecil, spymaster and secretary of state. One of the successors of Francis Walsingham’s office, and a master in snooping out Catholic threats.

On 27 October, Catesby had reason to suspect the plot had been betrayed. He suspected Francis Tresham, for his connections to Mounteagle, but he denied it enough to convince the conspirators he was innocent. They pushed forward with their resolution. Thomas Percy met lord Northumberland in an attempt to see if he had heard about the conspiracy, but found that he was ignorant of it. The gunpowder was undisturbed, reported Fawkes.

Nonetheless, on Friday 1 November, the king read Mounteagle’s letter at Whitehall Palace. The next day, the Lord Chamberlain was ordered to search the palace at Westminster …

Fawkes enters the chamber with a slow match on 4 November. He comes face-to-face with the Lord Chamberlain. Imagine Guy’s surprise when the Chamberlain takes him to be a servant of the house. They are standing right in front of a pile of gunpowder barrels concealed only beneath a pile of brushwood and wooden sticks. Fawkes sighs in relief when the Chamberlain, satisfied, resumes his inspection of the rest of House of Lords.

The lie Fawkes uses to get out of that tight spot is not really a lie at all, but an omission of the truth: he said the sticks belonged to the tenant of the house, Thomas Percy, a respectable gentleman pensioner. However, Monteagle finds this suspicious. Why would Percy, a known Catholic, own a second house near Parliament when he has his own house in nearby London? The king has Sir Thomas Knyvet, a Justice of the Peace, an old friend of Robert Cecil, and one of the king’s privy chambermen, perform a more thorough search.

At midnight, they found Fawkes with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder, red-handed. Fawkes claimed he was actually “John Johnson,” Percy’s servant, but I doubt it took much of a genius to know he was lying and thought of that name on the spot.

fawkes discovered

Fawkes had intended to light the fuse after hearing the king enter Parliament above, then escape across the Thames before the whole thing blew. Sir Everard Digby and his men were stationed in an inn called the Red Lion in Dunchurch, posing as hunters, awaiting Step 2, which Catsby would have initiated after arriving from London with the intent of initiating a Catholic uprising. However, when news of the arrest reached them, the assemble huntsmen lost heart, losing all sense of guidance and momentum.

Catesby, Ambrose Rockwood, and John Grant fled from Catholic safehouse to safehouse, avoiding the law. Once, they were wounded in an accidental gunpowder explosion, when they left damp powder too close to a fireplace. So grim was their situation that “Jack White suggested to Catesby that they should blow themselves up with the remaining powder” (Cannadine 28).

What followed at Holbeach was like a showdown in the Wild West. The sheriff of Worcestershire arrived with two hundred men and exchanged fire with the conspirators. The Wright brothers (not the inventors of the airplane, but the Catholics Jack and Kit Wright), were killed. Tom Percy and Rob Catesby were brought down by a single bullet. Catesby died after crawling back to his house and hugging onto a statue of the Virgin Mary. The survivors were rounded up and brought to the Tower.

Under torture, Fawkes confessed to the crime. He hated the Scots, many of whom were Puritans, and he hated the Scottish king James for assuming the English throne. The earl of Northumberland, whom the plotters were suspected of planning to use as a lord protector after Princess Elizabeth took the throne, was thrown in the Tower. On 27 January 1606 the surviving plotters were tried: Guy Fawkes, Tom and Robert Wintour, Sir Everard Digby, John Grant, Robery Keyes, Ambrose Rockwood, and Thomas Bates. They were executed over the course of several days.

Fawkes executionsThomas Bates was the one who spoke of the involvements of three Catholic priests: Father John Gerard, Father Oswald Tesimond, and Father Henry Garnet, who was the only one in England at the time. Garnet was hanged, drawn, and quartered 28 March 1606.

On 5 November 1605, Londoners rang bells and lit bonfires in celebration of the deliverance of the kingdom from unthinkable treachery. In 1606, the day became a religious occasion and later in the century, effigies of the Pope were burned in public every 5 November. The tradition of burning effigies of “the guy,” meaning Guy Fawkes, would only arrive in the next century.

We can only imagine what would have happened had the plot succeeded. Chances are that the explosion would have set Westminister ablaze, inflicting destruction over a wide area. Hundreds or even thousands of people, including the bulk of the power structure of England, would have been annihilated spectacularly. Perhaps it was the consciousness of this conspiracy in history that inspired the string of similar conspiracies in twenty-first century popular culture: for example, the anti-mater bomb placed under St. Peter’s Basilica during the papal conclave in Angels and Demons, and the Nazi theatre explosion in Inglourious Basterds. Nothing like the Gunpowder Plot happened before 1605. And since then, nothing else has happened quite like it (except perhaps the failed attempt to crash a plane in the White House on 9/11).

Just as people today imagine what might have happened had the conspiracy succeeded, people back then tried, and imagined horrors. The paranoia stirred by the failed plot led to worse persecutions for Catholics. Collective fears also helped shape how the history of the plot was understood in posterity.

Gunpowder plot watercolour

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Next week: Jesuitophobia and the History of Catholic Conspiracies

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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.

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Picture Credits:

Guy Fawkes: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/cristinaodone/100187789/health-and-safety-threatens-bonfire-night-and-making-me-feel-sympathy-for-guy-fawkes/

Robert Cecil: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Cecil,_1st_Earl_of_Salisbury

King James I: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:King_James_I_of_England_and_VI_of_Scotland_by_John_De_Critz_the_Elder.jpg

The Battle of Culloden Part. 2: Jacobites V. Cumberland

Culloden battleCulloden Moor, which was once called Drumossie Moor, is a “boggy, heather-clad upland moor above Culloden House, south-east of Iverness, overlooking the broad waters of Moray Firth” (Magnusson 617). It is pretty good metaphor for the mire the Jacobites found themselves in on 16 April 1746, when the battle was fought…

Iverness is boxed in yellow.

Culloden is shown near Iverness

The Battlefield is shown, near Culloden
The Battlefield is shown, near Culloden

The actual battlefield, several hundred years after.

The battlefield
The battlefield.

When the Jacobite army was assembled on that battlefield, Prince Charlie was ready to receive the Hanoverians, led by the Duke of Cumberland, in the last pitched battle fought on English soil. But he forgot one thing.

The Duke of Cumberland's Birthday was 15 April, the day before battle.
The Duke of Cumberland’s Birthday was 15 April, the day before battle.

He really should have checked his calendar because he might have realized it was his bitter enemy’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Butcher Cumberland!, he might have said. (Charlie’s followers would later call him a butcher, after the battle.) To celebrate, the English commander gave a rest day to his troops, which was thoughtful, not to mention useful.

In exchange, his soldiers would bring him back the material to make a stylish fence around his family’s country house. Believe it or not, this is not a throwaway remark, and there will be more on that later.

Celebrating with Cumberland was the infamous-in-Quebec Conquerer of Canada, General James Wolfe, though he was not a general yet. Known for his conquest at the Siege of Quebec and leading the English forces in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe is an ambiguous figure in Quebec culture. Anglophones might occasionally stand by him, but the Francophone majority tend to resent his actions. For one thing, he ended New France and brought French Canada under British control. The Quebec nationalist movement, represented in Quebec by the Parti Quebecois, makes Wolfe into “the big bad Wolfe,” according to one Aislin political cartoon, the legendary enemy of the Quebecois.

General James Wolfe, who fought at Culloden, later went on to bag Canada for the British Empire.
General James Wolfe, who fought at Culloden, later went on to bag Canada for the British Empire.

Before all that, according to Wikipedia, he fought in the War of Austrian Succession, where he was made a brigade major after showing heroism against the French on the Continent. In Scotland by October 1745 to deal with the Rising, Wolfe became an aide-de-camp, for General Henry Hawley, who he was with on the duke’s birthday on Culloden Moor. He waited with the rest of Cumberland’s troops for the fateful encounter.

Since Charlie was missing Cumberland’s birthday, he thought it odd when the English troops did not arrive as planned, which muddled his plans. As early as 6:00 am on April 15, the army was ready to fight—except the enemy didn’t show.

Lord George Murray, a key commander at Culloden
Lord George Murray, a key commander at Culloden

Which is where Lord George Murray, a Lieutennant-General of the army, came up with the bright idea of a night raid on Cumberland’s camp. Maybe he wished they’d been invited to his birthday. They probably almost did wish it, actually, all joking aside—at least they feed you at a party.

The army had no food for two days, the clansmen were tired, and they were cold. Lord Murray’s idea was a long shot at best. It would be impossible to move 5,000 men 16 kilometres through unfamiliar terrain at night with the sort of discipline necessary for secrecy.

 

9:00 pm: The first three columns doused their campfires and marched off.

 

2:00 am: The leading soldiers were only 6 kilometres from their camp, with disorder and confusion in the ranks behind them. Everyone, officers and soldiers, had no idea where they were going.

 

Dawn: They were 6 kilometres away from their target, and deprived of a night’s sleep. Meanwhile, Cumberland’s forces started waking up, stretching, and began thinking of breakfast. Bitter Scotsmen slowly returned to camp, fearful of being spotted.

 

Upon their arrival, Prince Charles is said to have shrugged and said, “It is no matter, then; we shall meet them, and behave like brave fellows.”

He was right about being brave. The problem was, it was an enormous matter.

The Scots were famished and freezing (In Scotland, who isn’t?). Once Cumberland’s men were done with their morning routines, breaking fast with bread, cheese, and brandy, their marching drums awoke the dreary-eyed Highlanders. If ever a pot of coffee were needed more at any time in history…

The enemy was only 6 kilometres away (all these ‘6’s might have been an omen, in retrospect). Utter confusion followed in the Scottish ranks at the arrival of Cumberland’s army, and only 1,000 men answered the threat on their own initiative.

 

A battlefield layout I drew, but mostly copied from Magus Magnusson's book. The positions are very approximate.
A battlefield layout I drew, but mostly copied from Magus Magnusson’s book. The positions are very approximate. Modern features include the memorial cairn, the highway, and the visitor center. (As far as I know, Cumberland did not look at pamphlets on re-enactments times for a battle that had not yet happened.)

Approximate positions at start of battle10:00 am: 5,000 Highlanders assembled themselves at last, though they are disoriented and dead tired, still not fed. Each man was eventually given a single biscuit to eat before they set off. A chilling nor’easter brought in stabbing sleet and rain to oppress them even further. The English had 800 mounted dragoons, ten three-pounder guns, six mortars, and outnumbed the Scots by 2,000 or 3,000 men. It was not shaping out to be a great day.

 

11:00 am: The armies were within sight of each other. Now would be time for an inspiring speech on the part of the Bonnie Prince, and an opportunity to moon the enemy, but this wasn’t Braveheart, unfortunately.

 

Around this time, they had to come to terms with the grounds they’d chosen. It was decent ground for a Highland charge, though it also gave great advantage to the enemy dragoons, who were mounted and well equipped, unlike the Scottich cavalry. Lord George Murray disapproved of the terrain vehemently, but by this time, it was too late.

 

12:00 pm: BATTLE COMMENCES

Culloden battle

The Jacobites fired first with their rifles. The Hanoverian forces responded with precise roundshot from their cannons, which created a few casualties among the Scots but mostly succeeded in creating confusion. Communication was so terrible among the Jacobites that the Highlanders awaiting the command to charge (“Claymore!”) had to wait for a good hour until they heard it at last. During all that time, powder clouds, sulfur, and thunder from canons caused blindness and uncertainty.

Finally, the shout of “Claymore!” went through, and 1,500 men forming 8 clan regiments, charged “in a wave of unleashed kilted fury” (Magnusson 620). These included the Camerons, the Macintoshes, Macphersons, the Macleans, the Maclachlans, and Clan Chattan, all of whom encountered the first shock of battle.

This happened when Cumberland switched his artillery from roundshot to grapeshot, a deadly strategy. The new ammunition was essentially cannisters filled with iron nails, led balls, and other sharp objects. Imagine clouds of flying wedges flying at you. The clansmen were decimated and massacred. Furthermore, one row of Government infantry would shoot a volley of bullets at the Jacobites, while the others loaded their muskets, repeating so there was always a volley of lead hissing through the smoke, finding their targets in a haze of bloodied tartan.

claymore

If a Highlander even came close to Cumberland’s forces, he even had a secret weapon to stop the claymore broadswords used by the Jacobite infantry. “Instead of engaging the clansman coming directly at him (thereby catching his bayonet on the enemy’s leather shield), each soldier went for the unprotected right-hand side of the man on the attacker’s left,” writes Magnus Magnusson. “The tactic took steady nerves, and complete faith in you comrades—and it proved very effective” (620).

After the Government employed these devastating techniques, organization fell apart and the battle was all but lost. The Highlanders fought bravely, but ineffectively, kilted bodies littering the moor. Then the dragoons stormed the battlefield to bring the battle to a swift end, all after only 30 minutes.

Along with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Culloden ranks among the shortest most important battles in history.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe had a knack for fighting in half-hour battles that decided the fate of an entire nation.
The Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe had a knack for fighting in half-hour battles that decided the fate of an entire nation.

The Jacobites lost 1,500 troops while the Hanoverian losses amounted only to 50 dead, though 259 were wounded. The Jacobites killed one Hanoverian for every 300 they lost.

In the midst of the carnage, MacDonald of Keppoch is said to have run at his enemy, weeping as he was struck down by a volley of led balls, yelling in Gaelic, “Mo Dhia ando threig clann ma chinnidhmi?” In English: “My God, have the clansmen of my name deserted me?”

Lord George Murray marshalled some order to the right wing of the army in order to withdraw. But the sight of Prince Charlie weeping as he was escorted on horseback from the battlefield by his Irish officers was too much for many of the Jacobite supporters. Lord Elcho, a commander of Charlie’s bodyguard, yelled, “Run, you damned cowardly Italian!” (See, Rome was the new home of the Jacobite leaders after the Hanoverians supplanted them. They spent a lot of time arguing there.)

The claymore steel that Cumberland used for his stylish fence around Cumberland House. It cost many Scotsmen their lives. Photo scanned directly from Fitzroy Maclean.
The claymore steel that Cumberland used for his stylish fence around Cumberland House. It cost many Scotsmen their lives. Photo scanned directly from Fitzroy Maclean.

In the carnage that followed (for the blood of the day was not yet all spilled), the Duke of Cumberland would earn his derogatory title as Butcher Cumberland. Having been handed a fine birthday present in his easy victory at Culloden, his soldiers would soon run the field, slaying wounded Scotsmen and taking the steel from their claymores to present as trophies to the Duke.

According to Fitzroy Maclean, Cumberland used the swords to make a fence at Cumberland House, his family property. But such trophies do not last forever, and when the house was demolished in the 1800s, the sword blades were brought to Inverary Castle.

 

 

Thus concludes Part II of the epic of the Battle of Culloden. Stay tuned for the third part, in which Bonnie Prince Charlie dresses in drag to escape redcoats in pursuit of his £30,000 bounty! Also, I uncover something rather shocking about my family heritage…

The Bonnie Prince evades redcoats and gets into a boat that will carry him to his destiny.
The Bonnie Prince evades redcoats and gets into a boat that will carry him to his destiny.

 

Works Cited

 

Maclean, Fitzroy. Highlanders: A History of the Scottish Clans. New York: Penguin 1995.

Magnusson, Magnus. Scotland: The Story of a Nation. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2000.

Wikipedia

 

Photo Credits:

 

Battle of Culloden: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Culloden

Battle of the Plains of Abraham: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/battle-of-the-plains-of-abraham

Bonnie Prince Escapes: http://www.illustrationartgallery.com/acatalog/info_JacksonDisguiseLL.html

Broadswords Rescued: Maclean, Fitzroy. Highlanders: A History of the Scottish Clans. New York: Penguin 1995.

Claymore: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Scottish_claymore_replica_%28Albion_Chieftain%292.jpg

Duke of Cumberland Portrait: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prince_William,_Duke_of_Cumberland

Lord George Murray: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_George_Murray_%28general%29

Satellite photos and battlefield ground shot: Google Maps

Wolfe Portrait: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Wolfe