'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 thirty-six 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
Why didn't the plot succeed?
The royal succession
Central to the plans of the plotters – led by Robert
Catesby – was the kidnapping of James I's nine year-old daughter,
Princess Elizabeth, who was housed at Coombe Abbey near Coventry,
under the guardianship of Lord and Lady Harington. The plotters
planned to declare Elizabeth queen, raise her as a Catholic and secure
her marriage to a Catholic bridegroom.
But the conspirators were ignorant of the fact that
Elizabeth had no Catholic sympathies. As an adult, she was to become
and remain a staunch Protestant. Elizabeth's youth also required the
plotters to appoint a protector to govern in her name. Here they were
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
To celebrate the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, bonfires were
lit, a practice which has continued ever since, albeit with
effigies of Guy Fawkes being added to the mix