‘That Horrid Conspiracy’ – commemorating the Gunpowder Plot in early modern Britain

In 1605, the British Isles were scandalized by a Catholic attempt to blow up the king in Parliament, which became known us the Gunpowder Plot.

The leading men belonged to the Midland gentry, whereas higher ranking members of the Catholic opposition, most notably Lord Monteagle, were not directly involved or even to some degree loyal to the king. This allowed contemporary commentators – and above all the royal government – to consciously separate dutiful members of the nobility and Parliament from clandestine traitors.

Illustrated prints, which also spread to Germany and the Netherlands, made sure to show the conspirators’ collusiveness in the dark of night, seen by no one but the eyes of God. Furthermore, Catholics and the Pope himself were singled out as the true external cause of all internal commotion.

Guy Fawkes, who was unjustly remembered as the chief conspirator, had in fact been a mercenary and spent more than ten years in the Low Countries fighting for Spain before he returned to England. His regiment on the continent had been commanded by Sir William Stanley, another English Catholic in exile. And some of the gunpowder for the plot was also imported from Flanders.

Without money, supplies and above all intelligence from abroad, the plotters would hardly have come as far, and even though the personal background of Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters was hardly mentioned in contemporary prints, the exteriorization of domestic conflict became a most successful theme of anti-rebellion propaganda in England, Scotland and Ireland.

The execution of the Gunpowder plotters, Dutch print, after 1605, detail

The execution of the Gunpowder plotters, Dutch print, after 1605, detail

Although such propaganda had already had precedents in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and especially in relation to Irish uprisings, it was now completely irreversible and shaped British politics for the two centuries to come. The alleged Popish Plot of 1679 recalled the events of 1605 and immediately caused great uproar and extensive media response throughout England:

Barlow, Thomas. The Gunpowder-Treason; with a Discourse of the Manner of Its Discovery … Likewise King James’s Speech to Both Houses of Parliament … Now Reprinted: A Preface Touching That Horrid Conspiracy, by the Right Reverend Father in God Thomas, Lord Bishop of Lincoln, and by Way of Appendix, Several Papers or Letters of Sir Everard Digby … Never before Printed. London: printed by Tho. Newcomb and H. Hills and are to be sold by Walter Kettilby, 1679.

Morton, Thomas. An Exact Account of Romish Doctrine in the Case of Conspiracy and Rebellion: By Pregnant Observations Collected out of the Express Dogmatical Principles of Popish Priests and Jesuites. Written and Printed Immediately after the Discovery of the Gunpowder Treason. And Now upon the Discovery of the Present Popish Plot … Reprinted and Published. London: printed for John Starkey at the Mitre in Fleet-street, near Temple-Bar, 1679.

And even in the course of the Glorious Revolution, the Gunpowder Treason
was fiercely debated both in pro-Stuart and Williamite papers:

‘Quest. I. Whether the Gunpowder-Treason Was Only, as Some Tell Us, a Plot of Cecil’s Making – and What’s the Reason Why the Word FACTION, Etc. Charged upon the Papists, in the Common-Prayer-Book, Made in King James the First’s Time, after the Discovery of the Plot, Shou’d Be Left out in Our Divine Service for That Day, for above These Twenty Years Last Past; and Those Words Being Not Repeal’d, Why Are They Not Read Still?’ Athenian Gazette or Casuistical Mercury, Issue 19. 29 November 1691.

Nevertheless, the Gunpowder Plot has also brought everlasting fame to conspirator Sir Everard Digby, whose dignity and bravery in the face of death impressed many of his contemporaries. Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, his letters written in the Tower and his touching last dying speech were still re-printed and sold all across the British Isles. Despite his deplorable acts of disloyalty and his Catholic faith, Digby became an English icon of humble self-assurance and the freedom of conscience long before human rights were generally accepted.

Anon. Papers or Letters of Sr Everard Digby, Chiefly Relating to the Gunpowder-Plot, and Written by Him during His Imprisonment in the Tower, Etc. [Another edition]. London: s.n., 1850.

The execution of the Gunpowder plotters, Dutch print, after 1605

The execution of the Gunpowder plotters, Dutch print, after 1605

Selected historiographical essays:

Edwards, Francis:
The Gunpowder Plot: A Lecture Delivered on 10 November, 1972.
Ilford: The Royal Stuart Society, 1972.

Kampmann, Christoph:
Ein großes Bündnis der katholischen Dynastien 1688? Neue Perspektiven auf die Entstehung des Neunjährigen Krieges und der Glorious Revolution.
In: Historische Zeitschrift, ISSN 0018-2613, Bd. 294 (2012), 1, S.31-59

Lamont, William:
Richard Baxter, ‘Popery’ and the Origins of the English Civil War
in: History 87 (2002), S. 336-352

Maginn, Christopher:
The Baltinglass rebellion, 1580: English dissent or a Gaelic uprising?
in: The Historical Journal 47 (2004), S. 205-232

Ó hAnnracháin, Tadhg:
Conflicting Loyalties, Conflicted Rebels: Political and Religious Allegiance among the Confederate Catholics of Ireland
in: The English Historical Review 119 (2004), S. 851-872

Rose, Jacqueline:
Robert Brady’s Intellectual History and Royalist Antipopery in Restoration England
in: The English Historical Review 122 (2007), S. 1287-1317

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1 Response

  1. Andrew Miller says:

    Great post, I love reading about the Gunpowder plot. I am not sure if there is a movie done about this, but if there isn’t I wish they would make one because it is a tragic but exciting story.

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