Was there really a Gunpowder Plot,
or were the "conspirators" framed by the King's men?
There was no doubt an attempt to blow up Parliament on November 5th 1605. But Guy Fawkes and his associates may have been caught in a Jacobean sting operation which would have served the authorities by casting Catholics, or Recusants, as an enemy to be pursued.
By the time Queen Elizabeth died, after ruling for about fifty years, most people only remembered living under her rule. When James I succeeded to the throne, many saw an opportunity for change. Those who felt particularly hard done by, both by Elizabeth I and James I, even felt that the situation was so bad as to require, in Fawkes' own words, "a desperate remedy": it was an opportunity to simply replace the current king.
These were unstable times indeed, with several smaller plots being discovered in the years preceding 1605. In fact, many of the Gunpowder plotters were known as traitors to the authorities. For this reason, it would have been difficult, if not unlikely, for them to gather 36 barrels of gunpowder and store them in a cellar under the house of Lords without the security forces getting suspicious.
Furthermore, the letter warning one of the members of government to stay away from Parliament is believed today to have been fabricated by the king's officials. Historians suggest that the King's officials already knew about the plot, that one of the plotters in fact revealed the key points of the plot to the authorities. The suspected turncoat? Francis Tresham.
The letter, then, would be a tool created by the King's officials to explain how, at the last minute, the king found out about the Plot and stopped it just before it wreaked its havoc on Parliament and himself. At the same time, the letter was vague enough to give the officials all the latitude they wanted in falsifying confessions and to pursue their own anti-Catholic ends.
There are two fundamental problems with the letter. Firstly, the letter was unsigned. Any and all of the conspirators, once apprehended, might have saved themselves from torture and perhaps even death if they could claim to have written it. None did. Not one of the conspirators who was caught appears to have known about the letter. Secondly, the letter was very vague in its content. It said nothing about the details of the planned attack. Still, the king and his men knew exactly the where and when to catch the conspirators and stop the explosion just hours before it was to take place.
How did they know?
At about midnight on the night of November 4-5, Sir Thomas Knyvet, a justice of the peace, found Guy Fawkes lurking in a cellar under the Parliament building and ordered the premises searched. Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found, and Fawkes was taken into custody. After being tortured, Fawkes revealed he was a participant in an English Catholic conspiracy to annihilate England’s Protestant government and replace it with Catholic leadership.
Did You Know?
From 1604 to 1611, King James I sponsored an English translation of the Bible that became known as the Authorized King James Version.
What became known as the Gunpowder Plot was organized by Robert Catesby, an English Catholic whose father had been persecuted by Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) for refusing to conform to the Church of England. Guy Fawkes had converted to Catholicism, and his religious zeal led him to fight in the army of Catholic Spain in the Protestant Netherlands.
Catesby and the handful of other plotters rented a cellar that extended under the House of Lords building, and Fawkes planted the gunpowder there. However, as the November 5 opening meeting of Parliament approached, Lord Monteagle (1575-1622), the brother-in-law of one of the conspirators, received an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on November 5. Monteagle alerted the government, and hours before the attack was to have taken place Fawkes and the explosives were found. By torturing Fawkes, King James’ government learned the identities of his co-conspirators. During the next few weeks, English authorities killed or captured all the plotters and put the survivors on trial