In 1602, as Queen Elizabeth I's reign was drawing to an end, English
Catholics looked forward to better times. For decades, the authorities had
regarded Catholics as potential enemies of the state.
The status of Catholics
could not get advancement at court; Catholics unprotected by rank or wealth
were often harassed and even attacked. They were obliged to attend Church of
England services and those who refused, known as recusants, were heavily
Catholic hopes were pinned on Elizabeth's successor, James VI of
Scotland. Although he was Protestant, he was the son of Catholic heroine and
martyr, Mary Queen of Scots.
In 1602, Thomas Percy, a young nobleman from the
influential Catholic family which formed the Earldom of Northumberland, rode secretly to Edinburgh and received what he
thought was James's assurance that he would allow Catholics the freedom of
However, James was well aware of anti-Catholic sentiment in England, and
when he succeeded to the throne as James I in 1603, he did not repeal the
laws against recusants.
The following year, under pressure from Parliament,
he expelled Catholic priests from the country. Catholics felt betrayed, and
on 20 May 1604, five men met to plot James's overthrow.
The plot is hatched
Four of the plotters were young men from well-connected recusant
families: Thomas Percy, Jack Wright, John Winter and their leader, the
charismatic Robert Catesby.
The fifth, older man was a Yorkshire-born
mercenary soldier who had just returned from fighting for the Catholic cause
in the Netherlands. He called himself Guido Fawkes. Catesby had recruited
him for his expertise with gunpowder.
Their plan, devised by Catesby, was staggeringly ambitious: to blow up
the Houses of Parliament during its next opening ceremony.
would kill not only the king but the country's lords, bishops and judges.
And crucially, the heir to the throne would also die, plunging the country
into a succession crisis. In the upheaval, Catesby hoped that Catholicism
would re-establish itself.
The blast is prepared
Thomas Percy installed Guido Fawkes in his lodgings in Westminster.
Throughout the summer and autumn of 1604, they laid in supplies of gunpowder
and planned the attack.
After a number of delays, Parliament's opening was
finally set for 5 November 1605, which gave Catesby time to plan a
widespread Catholic uprising. He proposed to raise a troop of cavalry from
the stables of rich Catholic families.
After the explosion, he would lead it
to Coventry and kidnap James's elder daughter, Elizabeth. The Catholic
population would rise up in support of them and they would then install
Elizabeth as queen and rule England through her as a Catholic country.
During the summer of 1605, Percy leased a cellar beneath Parliament House.
Gunpowder, firewood and fuses were smuggled in, while Catesby began
recruiting potential cavalry leaders.
In October, he approached Francis Tresham, who he hoped would rally the Midlands. But this proved to be a
misjudgement. Tresham had many friends in the House of Lords; horrified by
the violence of the plot, he tried to persuade Catesby to abandon it.
On 26 October, Lord Monteagle, a closet Catholic married to Catesby's
first cousin, Elizabeth Tresham, was handed a letter that had been
delivered by a mysterious stranger.
The anonymous letter urged Monteagle to
'retire yourself into the country for ... they shall receive a terrible blow
this Parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.' By his own
account, Monteagle immediately took the letter to James I's secretary of
state, Robert Cecil.