November 5th remembered: the Catholic plot to blow up Britain’s parliament

James Jackson, author of historical thriller Treason, recounts the story of the conspiracy which sought to kill a king and his regime

Only seven of them were left, the remnants of a plot for political overthrow that had started in the gatehouse room of a Northamptonshire manor house and might have annihilated a king and his government and placed on the throne his nine year-old daughter as Queen Elizabeth II of England. Events were very different.

With their treasonous plans uncovered and their explosives expert Guy “Guido” Fawkes arrested as he guarded 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords – and having failed to incite a popular uprising as they fled across the Midlands – the conspirators prepared for their last stand. It was the morning of November 8th, 1605. The night before, exhausted and soaked through, the desperate men had reached Holbeche House south of Birmingham and placed their sodden gunpowder before the fire to dry: the resulting explosion had badly burnt three of them, blinded a fourth and left them in no doubt that this was the end. They must have been aware of the savage irony that the detonation caused here was the only one created by their epic and foiled plot. Outside were the Sheriff of Worcester and a posse of 200 armed militiamen. The great Powder Treason – known to us today as the Gunpowder Plot – was reaching its finale.

It might have worked. Posing as John Johnson, a manservant to the well-connected Sir Thomas Percy, Fawkes had been living for a year in a rented dwelling within the very precincts of the Palace of Westminster itself. After all, Percy was a kinsman of the powerful statesman the Earl of Northumberland and was a “gentleman pensioner”, a trusted bodyguard of King James; better still, Fawkes was an unknown outsider – what in modern parlance would be termed a “clean skin” – brought back as an explosives specialist from fighting as a mercenary for the Spanish in the Low Countries.

Across the river in Lambeth, a short boat-ride away, stood the home of Sir Robert “Robin” Catesby, a staunch Catholic and leader of the unfolding conspiracy. It was to this location the gunpowder was first brought and here also the quartermaster Robert Keyes resided to ferry the arsenal onward. So the Powder Treason grew.


Yet it went far beyond any plan to cause explosion and utter mayhem. Fawkes was just the patsy, the point-man, the name and the face of the historical bogeyman we all know today. For in Coombe Abbey, a country manor north of Warwick, sat the real prize: the child Princess Elizabeth attended by her own court and under the guardianship of Lord and Lady Harington. They were unaware that arrayed about their location were the estates and forward operating bases of several key conspirators – Robin Catesby at Ashby St Ledgers, John Grant at Norbrook in the village of Snittersfield, Robert and Tom Wintour at Huddington Court and Sir Everard Digby renting Coughton Court – and that, with the king and his government obliterated, an armed and mounted squadron of some hundred Catholic gentlemen intended to swoop and snatch the royal offspring to place her on the throne as a queen loyal to Rome and the Old Religion.

With hindsight, the whole enterprise might appear desperate and mad. Yet Catesby and his group – driven by faith and eager to fight back against enveloping persecution – believed they could alter the course of destiny and return England to its true and righteous path. Since donning the crown in 1603, King James I had proved himself a committed enemy of Catholicism and often railed against its “superstitious practices”. Swingeing laws had been introduced and recusancy fines imposed and across the land marauding packs of Poursuivants – the dreaded priest hunters – raided houses and scoured the countryside in search of hidden Jesuits and Catholic preachers from abroad.

To be a Catholic was to be no better than a traitor. King James needed their money to fund his lavish tastes and reward his coterie of male favourites. Recusants were a cash cow and an easy target. The Scots had arrived, flocking south with their monarch, and they were not universally popular: small wonder that gangs of disgruntled London youths called Swaggerers set out to rough up or kill these hated newcomers. Conflict was in the air and a tight-knit group of Catholics – most of them connected through blood or marriage – committed themselves to direct action.

These were devout and dangerous men who saw themselves as warrior-priests called to challenge the oppressors and ultimately save the nation. Each had particular skills and duties. Charismatic and driven, Catesby was a natural leader, while his second-in-command Thomas Percy and adjutant Tom Wintour were unwavering in support. Then there were the brothers Jack and Kit Wright, brilliant swordsmen and enforcers for the growing team; Robert Keyes, the unquestioning quartermaster and overseer of the gunpowder; Sir Ambrose Rookwood, tasked with acquiring ordnance and horses; Sir Everard Digby, whose dash and horsemanship earned him the role of leading the mounted band that would seize the Princess Elizabeth from her protective Warwickshire idyll. Matters were in train and the plotters believed God would deliver them victory.

They had not reckoned on the spymaster Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, Secretary of State and confidant of the king. He had been instrumental in securing the transition of James to the English throne and was the most adept and Machiavellian of operators. Every rival he neutralised; every enemy ended with his head in a noose or on the block. Sir Walter Raleigh, that old adventurer and courtier of Queen Elizabeth, had discovered this to his cost and now languished in the Tower. Others were bound to follow. For Cecil, the developing gunpowder plot was the perfect vehicle for exposing Catholic hierarchs as traitors and furthering his own career. The king needed him and he would prove his worth. Slowly the gunpowder treason developed and information began to flow. When Fawkes journeyed to Flanders in the spring of 1605 to recruit sympathisers to the cause, reports were to reach Cecil in his mansion on the Strand.

There were many innocents caught up in the plot and shadowy figures who never showed their hand. The roles of individuals such as William Shakespeare too are intriguing. Perhaps it is no coincidence that he was writing his tragedy King Lear at the time: the story of a tyrant monarch who lost everything because he refused to heed wise counsel and rewarded only those who flattered him the most. Look closely at the play. There is talk of a twin eclipse of the sun and moon that “portends no good” and that will result in treachery and civil war and overthrow. In the autumn of 1605 – shortly before Fawkes was discovered – there was just such a celestial event. Shakespeare would have known the chief conspirators well: he was, like them, a son of the Midlands and Stratford-upon-Avon was at the heart of recusant territory; he drank in the same tavern, the Mermaid on Cheapside; his greatest friend and drinking companion, the dramatist Ben Jonson, was even at a valedictory party thrown by Catesby shortly before the fateful discovery of the plot and spent time in jail afterwards. Yet the Bard – too canny or cautious, but perhaps with sympathies leaning towards the Catholic cause – seemed to escape the fallout.

Others were less fortunate. One casualty of the unfolding events was Fr Henry Garnet, Superior of the Jesuits and de facto head of the English Catholics and a close friend of Catesby. Appalled at the prospect of a terrorist spectacular and fearful for his flock and religion in the aftermath of such treason, he pleaded with Catesby to desist and even wrote repeatedly to the Pope in Rome asking him to denounce any who might be drawn to the cause of violence against a legitimate ruler.

Unlike Elizabeth I – seen by Catholics as the bastard offspring of the whore Anne Boleyn – King James was a king appointed by God who might one day return to the true faith. Garnet was a moderate voice drowned out by the noise of zealots. Eventually, his cat-and-mouse game to keep ahead of the authorities was lost and he was captured in the manhunt following the Gunpowder Plot. His courage and goodness shone through to the end: because of it, at the moment of his execution, the crowd showed their admiration by surging forward and clinging to his legs to speed his death and spare him the further agony of castration and disembowelment. He was neither the first nor last Catholic priest to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

How close the Gunpowder Plot came to succeeding and how much spy chief Robert Cecil knew of its existence will forever be a sourge of debate and argument for historians. There can be few doubts the “little pygmy” (as Elizabeth I had caustically dubbed him) had informants everywhere and was evangelical in his mission to protect the realm and counter the perceived Catholic threat. As the conspiracy widened and more members joined and the much-delayed date for the Opening of Parliament was pushed back to November 5th, 1605, so rumours spread and details filtered back to the brick mansion of the Secretary of State on the Strand. It was to this house that late on October 26, 1605 a young Catholic noble named Lord Monteagle came bearing a letter delivered anonymously to him by night warning of a a terrible and unseen blow soon to befall Parliament. The plot was betrayed and Cecil had the perfect and all-too-convenient device to advance his own interests and curry favour with the king. It was James who deduced that gunpowder was in play.

As Fawkes was captured and London came alive in the early hours of November 5th to the news, Catesby and his accomplices fled north through the dark. Exhausted after a ride of 80 miles, they met with the kidnap gang – almost a hundred heavily-armed horsemen waiting at the Red Lion Inn at Dunchurch south of Rugby – and announced that all was not lost. Even without a princess as captive, they would gather support and mount their uprising. Unsurprisingly, their numbers dwindled. Soon they were riding westwards, raiding Warwick Castle and country manors for fresh horses and arms and struggling on through the sleet and mud. The situation was bleak and already there was hue and cry and militias on their tail. Nothing was left but for the determined few to attempt flight into Wales.

They never made it. At Holbeche House – ancestral home of Humphrey Littleton – where today musketball holes still pockmark the walls, they made their peace and prepared for the inevitable.

On that fateful morning – shorn of support and yet fiercely committed to their enterprise – they rushed out with swords drawn and were picked off by surrounding marksmen. Catesby and his lieutenant Thomas Percy stepped through the front door, back-to-back and unflinching as they faced their certain death. A single musketball killed them both, although the ringleader survived long enough to crawl back inside and reach for a small picture of the Virgin Mary.

Cecil had won. He had already taken the precaution of removing the young Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey and sending her under armed escort to Coventry.

As we gather around bonfires and watch the firework displays, we rarely reflect on the earth-shattering pyrotechnics planned more than 400 years ago. Had it achieved its aims, the Powder Treason would have irrevocably changed Britain and altered the political and religious map. We should have learnt the lessons: terrorists can surprise and innovate and plan for blood-letting on an unimagined scale. Remember, remember, the Fifth of November. Maybe we really should.

As for the young Princess Elizabeth, she was never to be crowned as Queen Elizabeth II of England and became instead the ill-fated Winter Queen of Bohemia.

Treason, the latest historical thriller by James Jackson, is published in hardback by Bonnier Zaffre at £12.99