New BBC drama Gunpowder dramatises the events of one of the most famous thwarted assassinations in history – the Gunpowder Plot, where radical Catholics attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament to kill King James I and inspire an uprising.
But when making the drama, star Kit Harington and his fellow cast were surprised to find how little both they and the general public knew about the true events that transpired back in 1605, from the identity of the main plotter (actually Harington’s ancestor Robert Catesby and not Guy Fawkes, as most assume) to what actually happened to Parliament.
“When you ask people about the Gunpowder plot, they say Guy Fawkes,” Harington says. “And some of them don’t know whether the Houses of Parliament were blown up or not.”
In the finale, those people get their answer as the plotters are foiled and Parliament stays standing – and it’s fair to say that the BBC drama follows these particular events with impressive accuracy, barring SOME artistic license.
What is the background to the Gunpowder Plot?
When King Henry VIII took control of the English Church from the Vatican in Rome during the 1530s, he sparked decades of religious tension in England, with Catholics finding themselves repressed by the newly separate Protestant Church of England and later rules (introduced by Queen Elizabeth I) even fining, imprisoning or executing recusants (i.e., those who refused to attend Anglican services in England and Wales). Much of this repression is demonstrated in Gunpowder’s first episode.
By the time James I (aka James VI of Scotland) came to the throne in 1603, Catholics were hopeful that he might treat them more fairly, as he was perceived to have more sympathy for the faith that his late mother (Mary Queen of Scots) had practised, and preferred exiling practitioners of Catholicism to having them executed.
However, James did not make significant moves to end the persecution of Catholics, leaving a particularly desperate man – Robert Catesby – to devise a more drastic means to his end goal of a Catholic Britain.
Who planned the Gunpowder Plot?
The Gunpowder Plot conspirators
Despite Guy Fawkes’ strong association with the Gunpowder Plot, it was actually Robert Catesby who masterminded the plot, reputedly first coming up with the plan in early 1604 and recruiting likeminded people to his cause soon afterwards.
Catesby enlisted the likes of swordsman John “Jack” Wright (Luke Neal in the drama), Thomas Percy and his cousin Thomas Wintour (Edward Holcroft) in the early stages of the plan, and told Wintour his aim to destroy “the Parliament howse with Gunpowder…. in that place have they done us all the mischiefe, and perchance God hath designed that place for their punishment.” This dialogue is directly adapted into Gunpowder’s first episode.
When Wintour went to Flanders seeking help from the Catholic authorities in Spain, he found no assistance, but he did find Guy Fawkes (Tom Cullen), a competent soldier and committed Catholic, who he brought back to England in April 1604 to aid in the plot.
Tom Cullen as Guy Fawkes in Gunpowder (BBC)
Thomas Percy was recruited soon after, and the five conspirators held their first meeting on 20th May 1604, probably in the Duck and Drake Inn just off the Strand, where they swore an oath of secrecy and began their plans. Later additions to the group included Thomas Wintour’s brother Robert, Catesby’s servant Thomas Bates (who discovered the plot by accident), John Grant, John Wright’s brother Christopher, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham and Everard Digby.
While some rumours exist of the conspirators trying to dig tunnels for their assassination attempt, eventually they bought the tenancy to the undercroft beneath the House of Lords instead, storing 36 barrels of gunpowder there by the 20th July 1605. The intention was to wait until the state opening of Parliament (when the King would be in the House of Lords), killing him and his closest advisors and giving the plotters the chance to replace them with a new Catholic-friendly monarchy.
However, the state opening was repeatedly delayed until the 5th of November due to fears of the Plague, by which point Catesby’s finances were becoming strained (potentially why the wealthy Tresham was introduced to the plot at a later time).
The plan at this stage was for Fawkes to light the fuse and escape across the Thames on a boat, with an uprising beginning in the Midlands during which the Princess Elizabeth would be captured. Following this, Fawkes would head to the continent and explain to the Catholic powers what had transpired.
More or less all these events are depicted accurately by Gunpowder, with a few exceptions and additions – for example, Robert Emms’ Father John Gerard was not captured and rescued in the run-up to the plot, as depicted in the series’ second episode (though a similar event took place a few years before), and he was not present for the plotting itself.
How did the Gunpowder plot go wrong?
Kit Harington and Tom Cullen in Gunpowder (BBC, HF)
Unfortunately for the plotters, on Saturday 26th October a letter found its way to Lord Monteagle, Tresham’s brother-in-law, warning him to stay away from the state opening.
The letter read:
My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament; for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.
Monteagle immediately brought the letter to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (played by Mark Gatiss in the drama), who eventually showed it to King James. Noting the word “blow” and aware that there had been stirrings for some time, James suspected “some strategem of fire and powder” in a similar kind of explosion to that which had killed his father Lord Darnley in 1567.
Cecil had already had similar suspicions; a search was conducted above and below Parliament to look for anything suspicious. Eventually Fawkes, who had been left to light the fuse while his fellows rode to the Midlands for the planned uprising, was discovered.
Fawkes was arrested, giving his name as John Johnson (as he does in the finished drama), and the barrels of gunpowder were discovered under Parliament. Fawkes was brought to the King on the morning of 5th November, than taken to the Tower of London to be tortured, and while his resolve held for a while he broke late on 7th November, confessing his part in the plot.
By this point, the names of the other conspirators had already been learned from the interrogation of servants.
Interestingly, though, Gunpowder’s final episode does slightly change the history of the Monteagle letter – unlike in the drama, the letter’s discovery was known to the plotters some time before November 4th, but they decided the wording was vague enough that they would not be discovered.
It did, however, mean that Catesby cancelled one of his more reckless plans – going on a hunting trip with the King just a few days before he was scheduled to blow him to high heaven, a plot thread also excised from Gunpowder (where Catesby is a wanted man much earlier).
What happened to the other Gunpowder Plot conspirators?
A 1754 depiction of Catesby and Percy’s attempted escape from Holbeche House
Despite popular imagination the story doesn’t end with Fawkes’ capture. While Fawkes was being tortured, Catesby and some others of the plotters were riding to the Midlands, raiding Warwick Castle for supplies and collecting weapons. The news had reached them by this point that the assassination attempt had failed, and after receiving little support from friends and family (afraid of being implicated in the treason themselves), the group holed up in Holbeche House in Staffordshire.
In a slightly ironic twist, while they were there some of the gunpowder they had transported for their weapons caught fire, burning and injuring several of those present (including Catesby, as demonstrated in Gunpowder’s final episode).
While some of the plotters fled at this point Catesby refused to let himself be captured, and instead decided to stage a last stand. The house was besieged by the Sheriff of Worcester Richard Walsh (not Sir William Wade, as in Gunpowder) and his company of 200 men on 8th November, and Catesby was struck down by a musket shot alongside Percy. After being shot Catesby managed to crawl back into the house, where his body was found clutching a picture of the Virgin Mary. This slightly melodramatic death is changed in Gunpowder, but the rough details remain the same.
Catesby and Percy were buried near Holbeche, but the Earl of Northampton commanded that the bodies be exhumed and decapitated, with the severed heads put on display outside Parliament.
An execution scene from Gunpowder (BBC)
The remaining plotters were rounded up, arrested and tortured alongside some of their family members, while the government used the revelation of the plot as a reason to further increase the level of persecution aimed at Catholics. King James’ survival also increased his personal popularity and that of his family, while Catholic powers abroad denounced the plotters as atheists and heretics.
After being found guilty of high treason, on 30th January Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Thomas Bates were dragged through the streets of London to St Paul’s where they were hanged, cut down while fully conscious then castrated (with the genitals burnt in front of them), disembowelled and quartered (chopped into four pieces).
The next day Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes, and Guy Fawkes were hanged, drawn and quartered opposite Parliament itself, with Jesuit priest Father Henry Garnet (who had some knowledge of the plot via confession, as depicted by Peter Mullan in Gunpowder) executed in May of the same year – not the same day, as Gunpowder suggests.
However, it is accurate that Fawkes leapt from the scaffold and broke his neck as he does in the drama, ensuring himself a quick death despite his injuries and weakness from multiple torture sessions.
To this day the Gunpowder Plot is commemorated by bonfires, fireworks and the creation of Guy Fawkes effigies – and the Parliamentary cellars are still searched the day before each State Opening of Parliament.