Gunpowder, Treason and Prejudice: Guy Fawkes at the Tower of London

This weekend in 1605, the British government brought Guy Fawkes to the Tower of London. Curator Brett Dolman reflects on the Gunpowder Plot that almost succeeded in blowing up the Palace of Westminster during the early years of the reign of James I. This is a tale of the prejudice and persecution, terrorism and fear that haunted the country 400 years ago. Please be aware that this blog post contains references to torture that some people might find distressing.

Guy Fawkes leaving a trail of gunpowder by George Cruikshank, c1841. © London Metropolitan Archives, City of London (COLLAGE: the London Picture Archive, ref 311903)

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, T’was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament…

Guy – or Guido – Fawkes. It’s one of those names that still resonates in British culture… Fawkes was a Gunpowder Plotter who very nearly triumphed in an audacious scheme to assassinate the royal family and almost all of the ruling class, gathered for the state opening of Parliament on the 5th November 1605. He was a soldier – an explosives expert – hired by a radical group of impoverished Catholic gentry determined on returning the country to the ‘true faith’ through revolution. Fawkes is today both an historical bogeyman and at the same time a poster-boy for modern anti-establishment protesters, who consider him the ‘last honest man to enter Parliament’.

The old Palace of Westminster, target of the Gunpowder Plotters. Most of the palace was eventually destroyed by a fire in 1834. Drawn by J. Shury & Son, printed by Day & Haghe © Wikimedia Commons

We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

The failure of the Gunpowder Plot has been celebrated over the centuries in the UK as a seismic moment in British history when the Protestant monarchy was saved from the evil of Catholic conspiracies, sponsored by ‘devilish foreigners’. In the 21st century, the anniversary has been sanitised, cleansed quite understandably of its anti-Catholic messaging, reduced to a firework display and sparklers. Most Bonfire Nights no longer involve the burning of effigies of a ‘Guy’, or virulent religious bigotry. But they used to. Until quite recently. And the legacy of the Gunpowder Plot affected the anti-Catholic legislation and prejudice of the following centuries, and perhaps also shaped British identity.

Interrogation at the Tower

At the Tower of London on the morning of the 7th November, the authorities were still in a state of fearful confusion. Two days earlier, tipped off by an anonymous letter warning of a ‘terrible blow’, a small search party in the cellars beneath the Palace of Westminster had discovered 36 barrels of gunpowder and a man with a lantern and a long fuse. But they knew little else. The man, who called himself John Johnson, admitted his plot (he had been caught red-handed after all) but would not name his co-conspirators or disclose any further details. Brought to the Tower the day after his discovery, he had remained steadfastly unforthcoming through another 24 hours of questioning.

The Queen’s House at the Tower of London, the probable location of the majority of Guy Fawkes’ interrogations after his arrest © Historic Royal Palaces

On the 6th November, King James himself upped the stakes, instructing Sir William Waad, the Lieutenant of the Tower, that “the gentler tortures are to be first used unto him, and then by degrees, proceed to the lowest.

The Tower was, for centuries, a monument to state power and a place of fear. In the 1500s and 1600s, you only ended up here (as opposed to a ‘normal’ prison) if you had been labelled as an ‘enemy of the state’ – a traitor – either because of your treasonable actions, or simply because of your identity. Torture was used to get prisoners to loosen their tongues and to name their confederates.

Examples of Fawkes’ shaky signatures, probably immediately after torture, and a few days later © Wikimedia Commons

Johnson, after probably being shown the torture instruments – the manacles, the rack, the Scavengers’s daughter – gave up his real name, Guy Fawkes. This bought him some time but little else. Between the 8th and 9th November, he was almost certainly tortured. His frail signature on a confession followed and his fellow conspirators were identified, and the extent of the plot discovered.

Catesby’s Plot

While Fawkes was being questioned at the Tower, a parallel investigation swept through the houses of known Catholic ‘recusants’ (those who refused to attend the Church of England), some of whom had mysteriously left their London homes in the aftermath of Fawkes’ arrest. Known associates of Thomas Percy, the man who had rented the cellar where the gunpowder had been discovered, were pursued. The breadcrumbs led to the Midlands, where the other conspirators, led by Robert Catesby, were holed up at Holbeach House in Staffordshire.

Catesby was a charismatic firebrand who had hoped to blow up the Houses of Parliament and, in the wake of the ensuing chaos, lead a military uprising and, with help from abroad, re-establish England as a Catholic state, or at least to install a new pliant monarchy prepared to end almost a century of anti-Catholic persecution. In the event, both parts of the Gunpowder Plot failed. While Fawkes was being tortured at the Tower on the 8th November, Holbeach was besieged by government troops. Catesby, Percy and two other conspirators were shot dead, the rest arrested.

A 17th-century print of some of the key Gunpowder Plotters, by Crispijn van der Passe © National Portrait Gallery (NPG 334a)

Persecution and Paranoia

To understand the plotters’ motivation, you have to turn the clock back further to the days of Henry VIII and his fateful split with the Church of Rome, his declaration of a new English Church, and the subsequent wholesale theft and pillaging of property and money from Catholics who were not prepared to give up the old faith. King Henry’s actions set the country on a collision course with the Catholic powers of Europe, especially Spain, and the reign of Henry VIII’s daughter Elizabeth I was bedevilled by conspiracies, failed invasions, increasing state paranoia and further religious repression. A crucible for the shaping of radicalisation and desperate acts.

This explains what happened next at the Tower. Now that the immediate threat from the Gunpowder Plot had been extinguished, the authorities changed tack. Keen not only on discovering who else might have known about the conspiracy, but also on who they might blame: Catholic nobles, who might have bankrolled the plot, and Catholic priests, whose very presence in England was considered illegal and treasonable.

Over the next few months, more than 100 people were questioned, including family members and servants of high-ranking Catholics; captured priests were imprisoned and tortured. Altogether, 15 men were executed for treason, including Fawkes and the seven other surviving conspirators, and Henry Garnett, the leading Jesuit priest in England.

The Gunpowder Plotters remained at the Tower until their show trial and execution at the end of January 1606. Ambrose Rookwood inscribed his name into the walls of his prison chamber © Historic Royal Palaces

By God’s mercy he was catch’d
With a darkened lantern and burning match

James I believed he had been miraculously delivered from an assassination attempt, and took this as divine approval for his actions, both theological and political. In his mind, and that of the State, God had shown the way: round up Catholics, hold them to account, punish them if they won’t conform. And all of this took place against a very real backdrop of continuous religious turmoil across Europe.

Through the 1600s and 1700s, religious prejudice remained enshrined in English law. It was only in 1829 that (some) Catholics got the right to vote, and only in 2013 when a British monarch became permitted to marry a Catholic.

As one of my colleagues eloquently explains elsewhere on these pages when writing about the Jesuit priest John Gerrard, the past is not a foreign country. History can and should be used to explain our world today. As curators for Historic Royal Palaces, our mission is to stir spirits, but that doesn’t mean that those emotions need always to be jubilant, patriotic and proud; they can sometimes be darker, outraged and ashamed.

You can find out more about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot here.


Brett Dolman
Curator, Collections
Historic Royal Palaces

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