History Files


Early Modern Britain

Gunpowder Plot: What If...?

Channel 4 History, December 2006



'That heavy and doleful tragedy which is commonly called the Powder Treason.'
Sir Edward Coke, prosecuting counsel at the trial of the plotters.

On the night of 4 November 1605, the earl of Suffolk, lord chamberlain of the household of James I, led a search of the maze of cellars and basements that lay under the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster.

Here the search party discovered a man claiming to be John Johnson, a manservant standing guard over his master's winter fuel supply. In fact, Johnson was a professional soldier and explosives expert named Guy (or Guido) Fawkes, and the casks and wood faggots he was guarding concealed 36 barrels of gunpowder.

Fawkes' mission had been to blow up the Houses of Parliament where, the next day, James I accompanied by his queen, Anne of Denmark, and heir, Henry, Prince of Wales was to open the new session. A handful of men had threatened to change the course of history.

What would have happened if the plot had succeeded?

To ensure the success of the plot, it would have been imperative for Parliament to meet in October 1605, so that the gunpowder would have been fresh and in working order.

So let's assume that Guido Fawkes lit the fuse, stood well back and watched as the House of Lords and all within it blew up to the heavens. What then?

Scenario 1

The massacre of Catholics at the hands of vengeful Protestant militias and vigilantes an outcome feared by Francis Tresham follows the blowing-up of the Houses of Parliament. This has important consequences...

  • There are, almost certainly, no English Civil Wars.
  • Assuming that the king, Queen Anne and Henry, Prince of Wales, were killed in the blast, James I's younger son, Charles, becomes king as Charles I at the age four instead of 24.
  • The murder of his parents gives Charles an abiding hatred of Catholics. This religious stance makes him popular in England and Scotland (certainly more popular than the Anglo-Catholic views that guided him after his accession in 1625).
  • Anti-Catholicism brings Charles into conflict with Irish Catholics. The probable outcome is a military victory against the rebellious Irish (one gained long before it was achieved by Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army in 1649-50).
  • Thus Charles emerges as the popular ruler of a Protestant absolute monarchy like that of Sweden. Oliver Cromwell remains an obscure East Anglian landowner, of passing interest only to local historians.

Scenario 2

  • Shocked by the brutal elimination of their rulers by the Gunpowder plotters, but reassured by promises of religious toleration from the new Catholic government, the English people accept the new religious establishment.
  • Charles is educated by the Jesuits, who are careful to distance themselves from the violent methods used by the plotters.
  • In turn, the young king becomes a Catholic, a conversion that suits his innate desire for beauty and harmony. The majority of his subjects eventually follow the king's lead. Toleration of the remaining Protestants is then withdrawn (as it was in France).
  • Charles I's relations with Catholic Ireland are good and those with Protestant Scotland correspondingly bad, leading to a Scottish declaration of independence. The Scots have to be brought in line by military force. In the long run, the respective histories of Scotland and Ireland are very different from what they might have been, the Irish Troubles being transposed to Scotland.
  • In England, the Catholic ascendancy results in the withering of Parliament's power and the development of an absolute monarchy like that in Spain or France.
  • This leads to an English revolution in the eighteenth century (like that in France).
  • Rather than remain the historic enemy of France, the English make common cause with the empire created by Napoleon Bonaparte. The British are then absorbed into a peaceful European Union that precedes its modern version by over 150 years.


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