He and his fellow plotters were fanatical amateurs, obsessed by their beliefs, caught up in a sinister world of intrigue, treachery and betrayal, full of spies, double agents and informers controlled by King James’s veteran chief minister, the shrewdly manipulative Earl of Salisbury.
The heady Elizabethan days that followed the defeat of the Spanish Armada had gone. A new century brought England a new king, James I, imported from Scotland. His experiences had created a suspicious nature, and under his rule the atmosphere in England darkened. Among other concerns, he and his men were preoccupied by the threat to national security posed by Catholic conspiracy. Two recent plots against the king had been ruthlessly terminated by torture and scaffold.
Conspirators such as Robert Catesby, Tom Winter and Jack Wright were known suspects, already under surveillance. Soon Guy Fawke’s name also reached Salisbury’s ear. Salisbury, a fervant Protestant, almost certainly saw the proposed Gunpowder Plot as an opportunity to discredit the Catholic cause. Guy Fawkes was soon to become a doomed man.
In the lobby of the House of Commons at the Palace of Westminster hangs an entry from the Commons Journal for 5 November 1605:
‘This last Night the Upper House of Parliament was searched by Sir Thomas Knevett; and one Johnson, Servant to Mr Thomas Percy, was there apprehended; who had placed 36 Barrels of Gunpowder in the Vault under the House with a purpose to blow the King and the whole company, when they should there assemble. Afterwards, divers other Gentlemen were discovered to be part of the plot.’
Johnson was the name given to his captors by Guy Fawkes, the most notorious member of the gang of fanatical Catholics who had conceived the Gunpowder Plot, a spectacular plan by even modern terrorist standards. However, Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were not a highly trained assassination squad, but idealistic amateurs enraged by James I’s failure to respect their religion.
The Powder Treason, as it was then called, had little chance of success, soon coming to the attention of Sir Robert Cecil, the king’s Chief Minister, who cunningly waited and then pounced at the crucial moment. Fawkes was imprisoned at the Tower of London and the outraged king authorised torture in order to extract a confession to enable the other plotters to be captured. ‘The gentler tortures are first to be used unto him and so by degrees to the worst – and so God speed your good work,’ commanded the vengeful monarch, who interrogated Fawkes himself.
As Guy Fawkes began his sojourn in the Tower of London, the rest of the plotters gathered in the Midlands. Urged on by Catesby, they were, amazingly, still determined to press ahead with an armed uprising. When that proved futile they fled, for a last desperate stand, to Holbeach House in Staffordshire, owned by Stephen Lyttelton, one of their rapidly diminishing group of supporters.
Catesby and his bedraggled, exhausted companions arrived there late on 7 November. Unwisely, they attempted to dry gunpowder in front of a fire! The inevitable explosion happened, injuring Catesby and Ambrose Rookwood and blinding John Grant. Ironically, those who wanted to blow up Parliament only succeeded in injuring themselves.
The following morning Holbeach House was besieged by Sir Richard Walsh, High Sheriff of Worcestershire, and a large posse of heavily-armed men. The Wright brothers and Thomas Percy were short and killed. Catesby, badly wounded, crawled into the house and was later found dead, clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary. Winter, Rookwood and John Grant were captured. Other arrests followed.
Fawkes, meanwhile, suffered the excruciating agony of being manacled and hung by the wrists for many hours from the wall of a gloomy subterranean torture chamber beneath the White Tower, before being returned to his cramped cell in the Bloody Tower. The tormented Fawkes endured the pain of the manacles, but his resistance was broken after he was brutally stretched on the rack. Finally, on 31 January 1606, Fawkes was dragged through the streets to Old Palace Yard at Westminster, and he was hanged, drawn and quartered outside the very place he had tried to destroy.
The gunpowder, as it turns out, proved to be decayed, and would never have exploded.