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An anonymous letter saved King and Parliament

Summary:
The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is commemorated on November 5th, when it was uncovered and prevented following a tip-off by an anonymous letter to Lord Monteagle warning of “a terrible blow” to be inflicted, and urging him not to attend Parliament. The letter was handed to Lord Monteagle’s servant by a stranger in the street.The Gunpowder Treason Plot was an attempt by a group of dissident Catholics to assassinate King James I & VI and his Cabinet by blowing up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on 5th November. They intended to initiate a popular revolt and to install Elizabeth, James’s 9-year-old daughter, as a Catholic monarch to succeed him. The plotters, led by Robert Catesby, smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into the Palace of Westminster. This was not difficult in

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The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is commemorated on November 5th, when it was uncovered and prevented following a tip-off by an anonymous letter to Lord Monteagle warning of “a terrible blow” to be inflicted, and urging him not to attend Parliament. The letter was handed to Lord Monteagle’s servant by a stranger in the street.

The Gunpowder Treason Plot was an attempt by a group of dissident Catholics to assassinate King James I & VI and his Cabinet by blowing up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on 5th November. They intended to initiate a popular revolt and to install Elizabeth, James’s 9-year-old daughter, as a Catholic monarch to succeed him.

The plotters, led by Robert Catesby, smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into the Palace of Westminster. This was not difficult in the early 17th Century, because the place was a rabbit warren of assorted chapels, stores and chambers, and had merchants and lawyers, plus others, living and trading in the lodgings, shops and taverns within its precincts. Guy Fawkes, a 10-yar military veteran, was put in charge of the explosives.

A search of the buildings at the King’s request found Fawkes, whom they assumed to be a servant, next to a large pile of firewood in an undercroft below the House of Lords. Fawkes said it belonged to Thomas Percy. Alarmed at the name, a known Catholic agitator, the King ordered a more thorough search, so the party returned. They found that the firewood concealed the barrels of gunpowder, and in Fawkes’ pocket were several slow-burn matches and touchwood.

The explosives would have totally destroyed the House of Lords and probably killed most of those inside it, but the plot was thwarted. Catesby was killed when they attempted to round up the plotters, but Fawkes and the others were tried and convicted and subject to the ritual hanging and disembowelment of the day. A Jesuit, Father Henry Garnet, was tried, convicted and executed for knowing of the plot, possibly via a confessional which he could not divulge.

Historians have speculated the “what if it had succeeded?” The actual result was some tightening of laws against Catholics, but many important and loyal Catholics were allowed to continue in their posts throughout King James's reign. The historian Ronald Hutton concluded that the plot, if successful, would have caused an angry backlash and persecution of Catholics. Most English people were loyal monarchists, making a successful rebellion unlikely. He suggests that England might have become more Puritan in its Protestantism, like several European countries. Instead it went on to pursue civil and parliamentary reform, and eventually, over 200 years later, to enact full Catholic Emancipation.

The failed plot was commemorated for centuries with the ringing of church bells and the lighting of bonfires on November 5th. It has morphed into ‘bonfire night’ or ‘Guy Fawkes night’ and is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires. Children used to make Guy Fawkes figures by stuffing old clothes to make dummies. They would go on the streets with them, asking passers-by for “a penny for the guy.” It is less common now, though I did it as a child to collect money for fireworks. Fawkes came to achieve another immortality because the word “guy” came to mean an oddly-dressed person in the 19th Century, after these ill-dressed figures. It is now used to refer to any male person, presumably because all of them are now oddly-dressed.

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