'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
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
What would have happened if the plot had
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
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
- 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).
- Therefore 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
- 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
- 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 of the
twentieth century 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 (and Brexit is never mentioned).