The plotters knew that, if their plans succeeded, chaos would
immediately engulf England. Order would have to be restored and, with it,
the Catholic faith. The appointment of a protector would be essential, to
rule in the name of the puppet Queen Elizabeth.
There was one obvious candidate – the powerful and influential Earl of
Northumberland, a Catholic sympathiser. One of the conspirators, Thomas
Percy, was his kinsman and employee.
But the plotters made no effort, via Thomas Percy, to persuade
Northumberland not to attend the opening of Parliament. Nor did
Northumberland's behaviour in early November suggest that he had any inkling
of their intentions.
The conclusion must be that the conspirators 'left all at random'. They
would wait to see who survived the blast.
Francis Tresham was the plotter on whom the mastermind of the Gunpowder
Plot, Robert Catesby, had to work the hardest.
Tresham asked Catesby a question: If Parliament was blown up, what would
Catholics do afterwards – 'What strength are they of themselves?' Tresham
also argued that there was no foreign power to back the vulnerable Catholic
minority against a Protestant backlash – in August 1605, Spain had signed a
treaty with England, ending years of debilitating fighting.
Catesby answered simply: 'It must be done.'
The Monteagle letter
Parliament had been originally scheduled to meet on 3 October 1605, but
the tail-end of an epidemic of bubonic plague in London caused the event to
be postponed for a month.
Although Northumberland was not warned of imminent danger, during the
extra month's delay another member of the House of Lords, Lord Monteagle, a
closet Catholic, did receive a fateful letter that remains the subject of
Monteagle was married to Robert Catesby's first cousin, Elizabeth
Tresham. On 26 October, he was handed an anonymous letter that had been
delivered to one of his servants by a mysterious stranger.
It urged Monteagle to 'Retire yourself into the country for ... they
shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament and yet they shall not see who
By his own account, Monteagle immediately took the letter to James I's
spymaster, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury. On Friday, 1 November, Cecil
showed it to his royal master, who had been away on a hunting trip.
The following day, the decision was taken to search the Houses of
Parliament 'above and below' – but two more days passed before this was
done. After the discovery of the plot, Monteagle received land and a pension
worth £500 a year.
Who wrote the Monteagle letter? The balance of opinion is that it was a
concocted document, but we will never know exactly by whom. It was truly a
'dark and doubtful' communication, possibly fabricated by Monteagle himself
with the connivance of Cecil.
Certainly Cecil's leisurely approach to interpreting its meaning and
showing it to the king suggest his complicity. The plot was real enough, but
what was happening behind the scenes as Cecil's intelligence machine moved
into action? The Monteagle letter, whatever its origin, doomed the plotters
Francis Tresham's doubts proved well founded. After the discovery of the
plot, Catesby, Thomas Winter and seven companions fled to the Midlands where
they had intended to raise the flag of revolt with a troop of cavalry.
During their progress, they received no support from fellow-Catholics,
despite their repeated claim that the king was dead.
A posse led by the sheriff of Worcestershire – and raised with
suspicious speed – tracked the conspirators' dwindling band to Holbeach
House in Staffordshire. In a fire fight, Catesby and three other
conspirators were killed.
The remaining plotters were taken to London and, after a show trial,
condemned to death and executed.
A damp squib?
Even if the plot had not been discovered and the stockpile of gunpowder
had remained untouched beneath the House of Lords, it is highly unlikely
that the promised explosion would have occurred.
By November, Guido Fawkes' gunpowder would have 'decayed' from having
been left too long and, in all probability, would have been ineffective.