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The Gunpowder Plot

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Guy Fawkes standing over a keg of gunpowder holding a lantern, sporting a fine beard

The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy to assassinate King James I and to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The plotters were Roman Catholics angered by the monarch's intolerance of other religions and his reinforcement of the recusancy1 law which fined members of the public for failing to attend Anglican2 services.

A Known Agitator

The leader of the plotters was Robert Catesby, a known agitator who had already been imprisoned twice for supporting opposition to Elizabeth I. In early 1603, Catesby conceived a plan to destroy Parliament by setting light to barrels of gunpowder hidden beneath the building. A nearby house was rented and it was intended to dig a tunnel from there to one of the cellars under the House of Lords by which to smuggle the gunpowder in. Though work began on this tunnel, it was abandoned in March 1605 when an opportunity arose to rent one of the cellars directly.

By this time, Catesby and his co-conspirators had enlisted the help of Guido Fawkes, a soldier freshly returned from several years spent fighting with the Spanish army in the Netherlands. Fawkes's relative anonymity and his undoubted military expertise were considered invaluable to the plan.

Financing the plot, however, proved difficult. Gunpowder was expensive and not easily obtained. Catesby was forced to bring others into the conspiracy, in order to raise additional funds.

The Informant

One of these men, Francis Tresham, is believed to have sent a warning to his brother-in-law not to attend the House of Lords on 5 November, the day James I was due to open Parliament and the day the plotters intended to set off the gunpowder. Lord Monteagle informed the authorities and on the 4 November Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed in the cellar with several barrels of powder. He was arrested and interrogated at some length. Eventually, he revealed the identities of the other conspirators.

Catesby meantime had left London for Staffordshire, where he had called a meeting at Holbeche House to persuade others to join his cause. Government troops arrived at the house on 8 November and Catesby was killed resisting arrest.

Guilty Of Treason

A special commission was formed to investigate the plot and Guido Fawkes - more commonly known as Guy Fawkes - and the other conspirators were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. They were executed opposite the Parliament building on 31 January, 1606.

From that time onward, 5 November was established as a day of public thanksgiving. Effigies of Guido Fawkes were burnt annually on numerous bonfires across the country, a tradition that continues in Britain and some other British Commonwealth countries, to this day.

1Roman Catholics in England incurred legal and social penalties in the 16th Century and afterwards for refusing to attend services of the Church of England.2A member of the Church of England or of any of the churches related to it.

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