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Gunpowder, treason, and plot

November 2021 | by Clive Anderson

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2021 is the twentieth anniversary of the shocking events of 9/11 which took place in New York.

Sadly, many terrorist attacks have been perpetrated throughout history. The year 1605 is one example. England faced a crisis when extremists plotted to blow up the king, the royal family, Bible translators, and Parliament in one gigantic explosion in Westminster.

If the plot had succeeded, then the history of England, Europe, and the rest of the world would have been very different, for there would have been no King James Bible, no Pilgrim Fathers, and the prevailing international language would probably have been Spanish.

Henry VIII

This famous king has left his mark on English history. In 1534, King Henry finally severed ties with the Catholic Church in Rome and proudly proclaimed himself supreme head of an independent ‘Church of England’ under God.

On the title page of the translation of the Bible which Henry commissioned (from Latin into English), the king is shown to be in direct communication with God, thus eliminating the need for any intercessors (be they popes, priests, or any other clergy).

Henry VIII showed by this that the interests of the king in England and almighty God in heaven were identical. This was a revolutionary idea to set before the people.

The king’s advisors, led by Thomas Cromwell, created the theory of Royal Supremacy, and Henry VIII used this new power to sanction the dissolution of the monasteries and nunneries, thus gaining a great deal of wealth through his actions.

The Act of Supremacy stated that Henry was ‘the only supreme head in earth of the Church in England’. His Treason Act backed this up and meant all opposition was punishable by death.

Abbeys, monasteries, and priories were closed at an astonishing rate and monks were forced to declare that their way of life was a vain, superstitious round of dumb ceremonies. Any resistance to this was punishable by execution.

These things enraged Rome in general and the pope in particular, so in 1535 Pope Paul III made Archbishop Fisher (a Roman Catholic bishop, theologian, and Chancellor of the University of Cambridge) a cardinal. In retaliation, Henry swore to send ‘Fisher’s head to Rome to fit his new hat’. Fisher was beheaded, and his head was placed on a spike on old London Bridge in 1535. It was later joined by Sir Thomas More’s.

Changing monarchs

After Henry’s death he was followed by his son, the Protestant Edward VI, then a daughter, Catholic Queen Mary I, and then another daughter, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, who died childless in 1603 and without an obvious heir.

The crown passed to a first cousin twice removed: James VI of Scotland, who became King James I and adopted the title King of Great Britain.

James VI and I
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James I

A six-week triumphal progress brought the new king to London early in May 1603. King James came to the throne with the daunting task of following the Tudors who still dazzled in popular memory. He was a small, awkward, loudmouthed, pedantic, ungainly, and uncouth man, who was described as ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’ by King Henry IV of France.

A plot to change England

The Gunpowder Plot came about because of a proclamation which James had issued on 24 October 1603. This proclamation called for a two-day conference of senior clergy that would convene at Hampton Court Palace in January 1604. At the conference, James tried unsuccessfully to accommodate as many divergent views as possible, and, in trying to please all, he ended up pleasing none.

The king and his bishops had never liked the Geneva Bible, especially its marginal notes. When it was suggested by John Reynolds that a new authoritative version of the Bible be published, it appeared that James had been given a gift that would answer any critic who said the Hampton Court conference had not produced anything worthwhile.

The Douai/Rheims Bible translation was being worked on, and there was a very real danger that many copies of it would enter England to the detriment of the Protestant cause. So approval was given for a new Bible, and the King James (‘Authorised’) Version became the only significant achievement readily accredited to James.

Within a few weeks of the conclusion of the Hampton Court Conference, increasingly harsher penalties were imposed on Catholics. In February 1604, James publicly announced his ‘utter detestation’ of Catholicism. Within days, many priests and Jesuits were rounded up, expelled, and recusancy fines were reintroduced for those who refused to accept the king’s authority.

Thus, the stirrings of The Powder Treason began to be felt in the minds of some, not least Robert Catesby, known as ‘the prince of darkness’.

Without doubt, Guy Fawkes was the most famous of the plotters because he was the one who was caught ready to ignite the gunpowder and, if required, blow himself up, thereby becoming a suicide bomber.

However, the brains behind the plot was Robert Catesby, who was just over six feet tall, well built and handsome. This, along with his renowned charm, made him cut a dashing and imposing figure.

His family had a long and interesting history. For many years, they had desired political power and at various times wielded it in a significant way.

Robert Catesby’s father lacked long-term political judgment and had backed the wrong side, causing him to be imprisoned for years. This helped to build up resentment, and, when James I became King of England, the hopes of many families like the Catesbys had been built up and they expected a golden age to dawn for them.

When it did not happen, Robert Catesby threatened, ‘The nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy.’

Previously in 1602, Catesby along with others had begged for financial and military aid from Philip III of Spain. Catesby wanted a Catholic England with a Catholic monarch, not a ‘false Scots urchin’ (Elizabeth I’s phrase for James).


The now-famous date of the fifth of November was when a thorough search was made of the cellar beneath the House of Lords and the subsequent discovery of Guy Fawkes, carrying a lantern and dressed in a dark hat and cloak as well as boots and spurs as though ready for rapid flight.

Transported to the Tower of London, Fawkes endured torture while the search went on for the other conspirators. Those who were apprehended endured a dreadful death as a deterrent against treason.

Verdict of history

If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded and a Catholic monarch had been reinstalled, English history would have been very different. 1611 would not have seen the publication of the Authorised Version, and the Puritans would have faced suppression, if not death.

The First Great Awakening would probably not have been possible, and people like John Bunyan, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones would not have flourished in their honoured ways.

Remember, remember the fifth of November:

Gunpowder, treason, and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

should ever be forgot.

Clive Anderson is the author of Gunpowder, Treason and Plot: The Gruesome story of Guy Fawkes (published by Day One).

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