The Gunpowder Plot
Repression of Catholics had begun in England after Henry VIII moved away from Rome. Under Mary of course the boot was on the other foot, but when Elizabeth I came to the throne Catholics were seen as potential traitors and enemies of the established order.
When James I succeeded Elizabeth he decried Catholicism, but in fact acted with tolerance, ending recusancy fines (for Catholics who refused to attend Anglican services) and appointing some senior Catholic figures to positions of authority. But Catholics remained second class subjects.
Faced with such a situation the Catholic Robert Catesby decided on violent action. He would wipe out the king and the senior nobility in one blow, and raise a rebellion to retake the country for his faith.
Catesby and his fellow plotters recruited Yorkshire-born Guy Fawkes , an experienced military man who was serving in the Spanish army in Flanders when they brought him in.
The original plot involved renting a house near Parliament, and tunnelling beneath the Lords to set explosives. The work and the opening of Parliament were delayed by the sudden plague in London in 1604. Eventually Catesby and his friends were able to rent a cellar in the bowels of the Houses of Parliament when it was vacated by a coal merchant. They moved 36 barrels of gunpowder in, enough to have blown everyone at the State Opening to kingdom come.
As time passed more plotters were initiated into the scheme, which may have been their fatal error, for one of their number, probably Francis Tresham, wrote anonymously to Lord Monteagle urging him to avoid the opening of Parliament. The authorities were alerted, and in the subsequent search Guy Fawkes and his powder were discovered.
Fawkes resisted torture for days, but the leaders were already under suspicion. Some died at a shootout in Staffordshire , and they were the lucky ones, for most of the rest - at least one died of illness in The Tower , weakened by his treatment - were tortured, tried, inevitably found guilty and sentenced to death by being hanged until near death, then emasculated and eviscerated.
The upshot of the plot was that Catholics remained to some extent pariahs as regards politics and power in Britain for another two hundred years and more. This whole state of affairs is recalled by our November 5th fireworks and bonfires , and more officially by Parliament being searched by the Yeomen of the Guard before every State Opening .
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