Bayard & Holmes
~ Jay Holmes
On November 4, 1605, the night before King James I of England VI of Scotland was to open a session of Parliament, a search of the basement of the House of Lords turned up thirty-six barrels of gunpowder and a man by the name of Guy Fawkes, who was in possession of fusing materials for it blowing up. Had the gunpowder detonated, it would have left a crater in place of the House of Lords. A number of government ministers immediately and opportunistically announced the foiled terrorist plot was a Jesuit scheme. While there had, indeed, been Jesuit Catholic priests involved in plotting against King James in earlier plots, the real roots of the Guy Fawkes Plot predate King James I’s birth.
To understand the Guy Fawkes Plot, a.k.a. the Gunpowder Plot, we must first consider the tumultuous reign of King Henry VIII. If you’re already thoroughly familiar with the political and religious dynamics of this famous period of history, feel free to skip about half way down this article to The Fawke Up.
England’s Long and Painful Journey to the Guy Fawkes Plot
King Henry VIII Sows the Seeds
Henry VIII of England, a.k.a. Henry Tudor, was a passionate and impetuous fellow. Unlike his youngest daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, he allowed himself to be vulnerable to flattery and petty royal brown-nosing. This often caused Henry to make poor choices in appointments of men to high offices.
In 1509, Henry married his older brother Arthur’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. Twelve days later, they were coronated King and Queen of England. Catherine gave birth to Prince Henry in 1511, but baby Henry did not survive a full two months. In the subsequent two decades of their marriage, Catherine suffered three still births and delivered one live birth, Princess Mary.
When Henry grew impatient for a male heir, he pursued his infatuation for a younger woman, Anne Boleyn. For many years, he attempted to have his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon annulled by Pope Clement VII so that he could wed Anne. Queen Catherine was opposed to the annulment, as was her nephew the King of Spain, Emperor Charles V. Since Pope Clement was, at the time, the reluctant “guest” of Emperor Charles V, it’s no surprise that he declined to annul the marriage of Queen Catherine and King Henry.
Henry and Anne were secretly married on November 14, 1532, with a formal public marriage following on January 25, 1533. Five months later on May 23, the newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer declared Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s marriage null and void. Five days later, Cranmer declared that Henry and Anne Boleyn’s marriage was valid.
Pope Clement VII then excommunicated both Henry VIII and Archbishop Cranmer. Henry appointed himself the head of the Church of England, and the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church formally separated in 1534. This separation was not universally popular, and it set off a century of violence between different church factions.
Catherine had been a very popular queen so Henry’s scheme, while it succeeded in allowing him to take Anne as his wife, came at a high price. Henry created and stoked many resentments both in England and across Europe by banishing the Catholic Church from England and by abandoning his popular Queen Catherine.
Anne Boleyn gave birth to a baby girl, the future Queen Elizabeth I of England, on September 7, 1533. Anne then proceeded to have three miscarriages with no more live births.
By 1536, Henry decided to pursue another of his many sexual infatuations, Jane Seymour. Henry accused Anne of treason and of having various love affairs. The historical evidence has never indicated that Anne had been disloyal to Henry in any way. That didn’t stop the royal lackeys that Henry appointed to try Anne’s case from convicting her.
On May 19, 1536, Anne was beheaded in the Tower of London. Henry’s marital machinations to that point had created many enemies and financial losses for the Crown and for England.
Henry went on to acquire four more wives. Each subsequent marriage and dissolution created yet more political rivalries and enemies for Henry and for England.
His third queen, Jane Seymour, died shortly after giving birth to a son, the future King Edward VI. His marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was annulled within six months as unconsummated. Henry gave her a generous settlement and dubbed her the King’s Beloved Sister. She and Henry remained on good terms, and she outlived all of his other wives. Henry had his fifth wife, child bride Catherine Howard, beheaded within two years of marriage. Henry’s sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, had better luck, as Henry was in declining health and had slowed his pace of finding new wives. She got to Henry’s deathbed on January 28, 1547, with both her marriage and her neck intact.
Henry VIII had inherited a prosperous kingdom, and he left behind a deeply divided and impoverished land.
Through his impetuous and narcissistic actions as king, Henry did a thorough job of seeding the kingdom with deep religious dissension and political bitterness. He allowed an assortment of religious “reformers” to pursue varying degrees of vindictiveness and violence while they each in turn pretended to want religious reform for the people of England. He entangled himself with a mix of ambitious schemers who were quick to use those religious reformers and counter-reformers of various persuasions to further their own economic and political positions. The reformers, the schemers, and Henry created a legacy of turmoil for Henry’s son Edward VI to inherit.
King Edward VI In No Position to Repair
King Edward VI of England was nine years old when he became England’s monarch, and he was in no position to repair the English economy or end the religious strife in his kingdom. After five years of nominal reign, he died in 1533. He had named his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his heir. The succession was disputed, and after eight days as queen, Jane Grey was deposed and arrested with the support of English Catholics and some English Protestants.
Queen Mary I Deepens the Divide
Henry VIII’s oldest daughter, Mary I, ascended the throne of England. Jane was tried for treason, convicted, and sentenced to death. Mary wisely spared Jane Grey’s life, but subsequent plotting by Jane Grey’s family and supporters forced Mary’s hand, and Jane’s execution was carried out.
At the age of 37, Mary I of England married King Phillip II of Spain, but their union did not gain England as much as was hoped, as powerful members of Spanish society had already acquired the trade concessions with the New World, preventing England from benefiting from Spain’s New World trade. Mary I died without children in 1558, and she was succeeded by her half- sister Elizabeth I.
In the violent process of Mary’s succession, yet more political and religious animosity was created in England. Mary I reigned for five years, during which she reinstated the Catholic Church as the official religion of England. Her suppression of Protestants was so cruel she is known to this day as “Bloody Mary.”
Queen Elizabeth I Holds the Line
Elizabeth I reigned from 1558 to 1603. Free from any loyalty to the Spanish Crown, she allowed privateering (sanctioned pirate raids) against Spanish commerce with the New World. She had to walk a tight rope between seemingly-genuine diplomacy with Spain and sanctioned privateering against Spain. Eventually, the balancing act failed, and though Spain was busy with the New World and embroiled in wars against the Ottoman invaders in Europe as well as conflicts in France and Flanders, in July of 1558, a Spanish Armada entered the English Channel with the intention of docking in Flanders and invading England.
Fortunately for Elizabeth I and England, the wind changed direction at the right moment, and the English were able to scatter the Spanish Armada with the use of fire ships and through the excellent tactics of English Pirate-come-Admiral Sir Francis Drake. The following year, Elizabeth authorized a major counter-strike against Spain, but the English invasion force suffered a costly defeat with the loss of approximately 13,000 men and 40 ships.
In addition to England’s direct conflicts with Spain and its conflicts by proxy in France and The Netherlands, Elizabeth faced problems in Ireland. The main problem was (and remains) that the Irish were Catholic and preferred to remain both Irish and Catholic, as opposed to becoming subjects of England. In Elizabeth’s time, Ireland was a political complication and a distraction from the urgent tasks of reforming England’s economy and resolving the ongoing religious strife at home.
On March 24, 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England died without leaving an heir.
She had inherited a kingdom divided by religious strife. She wisely cultivated the support of the majority of her subjects, and in so doing managed to prevent popular support for various plots against her throne. Elizabeth I took the position that she could not hope to see into the hearts of people and determine the sincerity of their religious beliefs. She publicly downplayed differences between Protestantism and Catholicism as being technicalities that did not justify war. Not all of the English Noblemen or Elizabeth’s subjects had agreed with her position, but she seemed to have preferred to reign without dealing with the religious discord created by her father.
Most historians treat Elizabeth I kindly. Given the internal disasters that she inherited at home, including plots against her throne by Catholics and some Protestant factions and the challenges from England’s rivals in Europe, she did well to survive and maintain England’s independence. If Elizabeth I had been anything like her impetuous, narcissistic father, English people would be speaking French or Spanish today.
While Elizabeth reigned for forty-five years with some substantial successes, she was never able to achieve an effective religious solution for England. The Protestants remained in charge, but at a great cost. The continued repression of Catholics created a ripe field for dissent, as well as for plots against the Crown by Catholics and by opportunists who might attempt to benefit from Catholic resentments against the English establishment.
Thus was the state of England when James I of England and IV of Scotland took the English throne in 1603.
The Fawke Up
Many Catholics hoped that James I would treat Catholics more kindly than his recent predecessors had. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, was Catholic and had been executed by Elizabeth I for her involvement in poorly-hatched plots against Elizabeth. Some Catholics hoped that James might take the opportunity as the new King of England to convert to Catholicism and allow for religious freedom in England. Educated Englishmen knew better. James had spent his time as King of Scotland supporting the Scottish Protestant church against Catholicism, and he had no intention of becoming a Catholic.
Catholics were soon disappointed, and some rather untalented terrorists devised two feeble plots. As terrorists go, these plotters were only a threat to themselves.
The Bye Plot and The Main Plot
Puritan Protestants and secular Catholic preachers formulated the first terrorist plot, known as the “Bye Plot.”
The terrorists planned to kidnap King James and hold him in the Tower of London until he agreed to religious reforms. The plot itself was childish. They apparently ignored the fact that thousands of soldiers and Royal Guards would easily prevent such a feeble scheme from succeeding. Before they could attempt any kidnapping, though, Catholic priests warned the government, and the plotters were rounded up and interrogated.
In the process of the investigation, a second plot was uncovered, “The Main Plot.”
The Main Plot conspirators intended to replace James I with his cousin, Lady Arbella Stuart. It seems that the plotters never even got as far as planning the details of James’s removal.
While these two early plots against James I can be dismissed as half-baked schemes that never presented any real threat, another, much more serious terrorist plot formed during this time, which is now known as the Guy Fawkes Plot, or the Gunpowder Plot.
The Guy Fawkes Plot
By 1604, Europeans, and Englishmen in particular, were accustomed to political terror carried out by means of kidnappings, poisonings, sword attacks, arsons, and the occasional suffocations in beds with pillows. However, in February of 1604, an angry Englishman chose to bring European terror tactics to a new level.
Robert Catesby decided he’d had enough of religious oppression in England and enough of absolutist kings like James. He planned on placing barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords and detonating them during the opening of Parliament. This would have sent James I and anyone else in the building to their final great religious debate in the sky. Catesby and his co-conspirators would then lead an uprising in the Midlands of England and place King James’s twelve-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, on the throne as a Catholic monarch under the thumb of a Catholic regent.
Catesby began to gather support from among his trusted friends and associates, and they recruited an experienced English-Catholic soldier by the name of Guy Fawkes to implement the detonation part of their terrorist plot while they worked out the details of the proper timing for kidnapping the young Elizabeth and consolidating their power in London.
The Fortunate and the Unfortunate
Fortunately for Catesby, he had many friends and associates that he could recruit to the plot. Finding more co-conspirators can empower a terrorist plot and turn it from fantasy to reality. In fact, finding co-conspirators can actually become an addiction. Every co-conspirator recruited gives a positive reinforcement to the plotters and a serious brain rush to the recruiter. With more manpower, more brain power, and more financing, it becomes easier to achieve the goals of any given plot. Catesby’s plethora of potential co-conspirators made it easy for him to gain plenty of support in both financial and manpower terms.
Unfortunately for Catesby, all these co-conspirators came with a fatal downside. Catesby committed the mistake that so many terrorists throughout history have made—he organized over a dozen leaders and a still-unknown number of minor players. It was a formula for disaster.
Two Essential Requirements
Whenever too many people become involved in a plot, someone inevitably will give it away. Either accidentally or intentionally, someone will say the wrong thing to the wrong person, and the target of the terrorist plot will be warned.
There are two essential requirements for recruiting co-conspirators.
First, one must recruit the necessary people required for the task at hand and no more. Second, one must only share the minimum information required for each individual to carry out their part. For example, the person purchasing the gunpowder need not know where and when it will be used, the person detonating the gunpowder need not know where or whenthe gunpowder was purchased, and the person in charge of kidnapping the princess need not know anything about the gunpowder at all. Unfortunately for Catesby and his growing troupe of terrorists, he ignored these two basic rules for conducting a successful plot.
A Plot Too Long
People with an axe to grind against the English government were a dime a dozen, but not all of them were of like mind on the details of how to grind that axe.
Events beyond Catesby’s control then presented another serious problem. The date of Parliament’s opening caused delays in action. Delays never help when keeping a plot on task. The longer all the co-conspirators must keep their secrets, the less likely it is that they will.
Originally, Parliament was to be opened in February of 1605, but due to fears of plague, it was delayed until October of 1605. Experienced and rational plotters would have recognized the delay as being too much for the plot to withstand. They would have disbanded the plot and moved on rather than wait for the virtually inevitable security leak. Catesby and his impassioned followers, though, were not dissuaded from their course. As the Parliament date approached, the opening was pushed back again until November. Catesby and his co-conspirators again brushed off the delay and forged on.
One or more of the co-conspirators decided that blowing up that many people just to eliminate King James I and his principal ministers was immoral. It is possible they had a crisis of conscience or that, as terrorists often do, they created trouble in their lives and, pressed for a solution, they sold out the plot. Either way, they talked.
One of the scheduled attendees for the opening ceremony, a Catholic by the name of William Parker, Baron of Monteagle, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend the opening ceremony of Parliament. James I was still out of London on a hunting trip, so Parker shared the letter with the King’s most trusted assistant, the Lord of Salisbury.
The plotters soon became aware of the letter, but most of them were convinced that the plot would still come off since the letter had not shared tactical details. Also, the powder had already been moved to the basement of the House of Lords and was hidden under stacks of firewood. They were convinced they could still do it.
They were wrong.
End of the Man
The night before the opening of Parliament, Guy Fawkes was discovered in the basement of the House of Lords with fusing material. A quick search of the firewood turned up the three dozen barrels of gunpowder.
Arrests were made, and although Fawkes resisted several days of torture, the plotters began to fall into the hands of the government.
The accounts of who was captured and precisely when and how vary, but in the end, the majority of the plotters were captured, tortured, tried, convicted, and hanged, but not until death. After hanging and while still alive, they were brought down from the noose, castrated, and drawn and quartered. Their decapitated heads were placed on spikes for public entertainment. Guy Fawkes, himself, managed to avoid the most gruesome aspects of his execution by jumping from a ladder as he climbed to the scaffold, which broke his neck.
Two Jesuit priests who had actually tried to stop the plot were rounded up as co-conspirators and then tortured and executed. For a while, anti-Catholic opportunists called the plot “the Jesuit Plot,” but over the years, that title lost out to the more accurate names of the “Gunpowder Plot” or the “Guy Fawkes Plot.”
After the executions, as things settled back into their normal routine in London, some commentators on the Guy Fawkes Plot developed the theory that the entire plot was an elaborate “false flag” operation by the government, conducted to help James I consolidate his authority. A few people have persisted with this theory into present times, but the historical evidence does not support the “false flag” theory.
Beginning of the Legend
In January 1606, November 5 became a national holiday in England to commemorate the failure of the Guy Fawkes Plot to kill King James I. It is still celebrated with bonfires each year, though it is unknown how many of the heavy-drinking, costume-wearing attendees to the modern-day bonfires are aware of the details of the plot. The Guy Fawkes Mask, a.k.a. the “Anonymous Mask,” was once only popular in the United Kingdom on Guy Fawkes Day, but it has now become a recognized symbol of dissidents around the globe.
The net impact of the Guy Fawkes Plot was to cause stricter persecution of Catholics and non-conformist Protestants in England. Fortunately for the Catholics in England, James I did not go as far as his virulently anti-Catholic advisers wanted him to go.
It would require a few more centuries for Catholics and non-conformist Protestants to gain religious equality in England. Most English historians theorize that even if the Guy Fawkes Plot had been successful, it would not likely have inspired a national uprising against the English government.
In this instance, as is often the case, the terrorists were more talented at forming a bomb plot than they were at impacting laws and policies in favor of their cause.
What do the main intelligence agencies do and where do they operate? How do they recruit personnel? What are real life honey pots and sleeper agents? What about truth serums and enhanced interrogations? And what are the most common foibles of popular spy fiction?
With the voice of over forty-five years of experience in the Intelligence Community, Bayard & Holmes answer these questions and share information on espionage history, firearms of spycraft, tradecraft techniques, and the personalities and personal challenges of the men and women behind the myths.
Though crafted with advice and specific tips for writers, SPYCRAFT: Essentials is for anyone who wants to learn more about the inner workings of the Shadow World.