What Is the Truth of the Gunpowder Plot?

Nancy Bilyeau
8 min readNov 1, 2021

The conspiracy in 17th century England has taken on many meanings

On Thursday, May 20, 1604, five Catholic men gathered at a house behind St. Clement’s Inn to rage against the decades of repression suffered by their friends and families, nursing their grievances against the new Protestant king of England, James I.

Earlier, one of them, Robert Catesby, had told them of his desire, which was to strike back against the King, his ministers, and the entire ruling class by blowing up the Houses of Parliament with lit gunpowder they stashed beneath the building. His cousin, Thomas Wintour, had recoiled at the scale of the slaughter and asked whether it was necessary. Catesby had assured him it was, for “the nature of the disease required so sharp a remedy.”

Another conspirator, Thomas Percy, reacted to criticism of the plan with the anguished cry, “Shall we always, gentlemen, talk and never do anything?”

With that, they agreed and took an oath of secrecy, setting themselves on a tragic course that would end in failure when Guy “Guido” Fawkes, another of the core five plotters, was discovered just before midnight on November 4, 1605. Fawkes was standing in a cellar next to 36 barrels of gunpowder that, when lit, could have detonated the House of Lords and, as Fawkes defiantly snarled under interrogation: “blow the beggarly Scots back to their native mountain.

The five men would all die, executed for high treason with noted ferocity, either on the scaffold or shot and killed by the King’s soldiers who tracked them down.

The planned date of the explosion, November 5th, became a holiday celebrating providential delivery, with the visage of Guy Fawkes passing into a bizarre form of immortality. The Gunpowder Plot itself has taken a place in the culture that, at different junctures, seems both more and less important than the actual historical events: conspiracy, detection, and punishment.

“Remember, remember, the 5th of November: gunpowder, treason, and plot.” English children learned those words when very young. By the 19th century they delighted to buy a Guy Fawkes mask, which often came with candy. As for the adults, on Guy Fawkes Day, they paraded around with an effigy too, one that would be burned at night in…

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Nancy Bilyeau

Passionate about history, pop culture, the perfect bagel. Author of 5 historical novels. Latest book: ‘The Orchid Hour' www.nancybilyeau.com