The Gunpowder Plot

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Three illustrations in a horizontal alignment. The leftmost shows a woman praying, in a room. The rightmost shows a similar scene. The centre image shows a horizon filled with buildings, from across a river. The caption reads "Westminster". At the top of the image, "The Gunpowder Plot" begins a short description of the document's contents.

In 1604 a group of conspirators tried to assassinate the King by blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

When Elizabeth I of England died in 1603, she left behind a kingdom bitterly divided along religious lines. Under her guidance, the Anglican Church grew in power and closer to Protestantism. At the same time, Catholics were marginalized. When James VI of Scotland took the throne and became James I of England, most Catholics hoped he would bring a more tolerant religious attitude. They were quickly disappointed.

Because of this, in 1604, the Catholic Robert Catesby decided to organized a conspiracy to assassinate the king, kidnap his children, and start a revolution. Catesby organized a small group of fellow plotters, most notably, Guy Fawkes a former soldier and demolitions expert. In May of 1604, the group rented a house next to the House of Lords with the idea to mine under House of Lords and plant explosives. Before they could fully put this plan into action, they had the luck of finding and renting a cellar already underneath the Parliament. By March of 1605, the conspirators had packed the seller with 1800 pounds of gunpowder, enough to reduce Parliament and much of the surroundings to rubble.

Here the luck of the conspirators ran out. A series of incidents delayed the start of Parliament. The conspirators decided it was wiser not to remain together in London and left Guy Fawkes alone to oversee the gunpowder. Then, days before Parliament was due to open, one of the Lords received an anonymous letter, advising him not to attend. This led to a further delay of Parliament and a search of the grounds. On the morning of November 5, Guy Fawkes was found and arrested. He freely admitted his intent to kill the king.

Due to the extreme nature of this attempted crime, King James authorized the use of torture on Fawkes. Guy Fawkes grimly held his tongue for several days before succumbing on the rack and naming his fellow conspirators. Over the next few months, all of the conspirators were killed or captured. A trial was held on January 27, 1606. All were found guilty and sentenced to death by being hanged, drawn, and quartered, the traditional punishment for traitors. Four men were executed on January 30, with Fawkes and two others being put to death a day later.

The incident proved to be a disaster for the Catholic population of England, especially after it was revealed that one of the conspirators had told a Jesuit Priest of the plot during confession. Catholics would continue to suffer and be persecuted in England for hundreds of years. They would not even be allowed to vote until 1829.

In England today, November 5 is called Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, or Fireworks Night. It is traditionally celebrated by the burning the effigy of Guy Fawkes on a large bonfire and letting off fireworks all night long.