The Gunpowder Plot of 1605: Henry Garnet and the Jesuits

Drawn into Treason

Father Henry Garnett
Father Henry Garnett. Wikimedia Commons

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was an attempt by Catholic rebels to kill Protestant King James I of England, his eldest son and much of the English court and government by exploding gunpowder beneath a session of the Houses of Parliament. The plotters would then have seized the king’s younger children and formed a new, Catholic, government around which they hoped England’s Catholic minority would rise and rally.

In many ways the plot was to have been a climax of Henry VIII's attempt to take control of the English church, and it's final failure, and Catholicism was heavily persecuted in England at the time, hence the desperation of plotters to rescue their faith and freedoms. The plot was dreamed up by a handful of plotters, who didn't initially involve Guy Fawkes, and then the plotters expanded as more and more were needed. Only now was Guy Fawkes included, because of his knowledge of explosions. He was very much the hired hand.

The plotters might have tried to dig a tunnel underneath the Houses of Parliament, this is unclear, but then they moved on to hiring a room beneath the building and filling it with barrels of gunpowder. Guy Fawkes was to detonate it, while the rest put their coup into effect. The plot failed when the government were tipped off (we still don't know by who) and the plotters were discovered, tracked, arrested and executed.

The lucky were killed in a shoot out (which involved the plotters partly blowing themselves up by drying their gunpowder near a fire), the unlucky were hanged, drawn and quartered. 

The Jesuits are Blamed

The conspirators feared that a violent anti-Catholic backlash would happen if the Plot failed, but this didn't occur; the King even acknowledged that the plot was due to a few fanatics.

Instead, the persecution was limited to one very specific group, Jesuit priests, which the government decided to portray as the fanatics. Although the Jesuits were already illegal in England because they were a form of Catholic priest, they were especially hated by the government for encouraging people to remain true to Catholicism despite the legal onslaught aimed at turning them Protestant. For the Jesuits, suffering was an integral part of Catholicism, and not-compromising was a Catholic duty.

By portraying the Jesuits, not just as members of the Gunpowder Plotters, but as their leaders, the post-plot government of England hoped to alienate the priests from the mass of horrified Catholics. Unfortunately for two Jesuits, Fathers Garnet and Greenway, they did have a connection to the plot thanks to the machinations of leading conspirator Robert Catesby and would suffer as a result.

Catesby and Henry Garnet

Catesby's servant, Thomas Bates, reacted to news of the plot with horror and was only convinced once Catesby had sent him to give confession to Jesuit, and active rebel, Father Greenway. This incident convinced Catesby he needed a religious judgement to use as proof, and he approached the head of the English Jesuits, Father Garnet, who at this point was also a friend.

Over dinner in London on June 8th Catesby led a discussion which enabled him to ask "whether for the good and promotion of the Catholic cause, the necessity of time and occasion so requiring, it be lawful or not, amongst many Nocents, to destroy and take away some innocents also". Garnet, apparently thinking that Catesby was just pursuing an idle discussion, answered: "That if the advantages were greater on the side of the Catholics, by the destruction of innocents with the nocents, than by the preservation of both, it was doubtless lawful." (both cited from Haynes, The Gunpowder Plot, Sutton 1994, p. 62-63) Catesby now had 'the resolution of the case', his official religious justification, which he used to convince, among others, Everard Digby.

Garnet and Greenway

Garnet soon realized that Catesby meant, not only to kill someone important, but to do it in a particularly indiscriminate way and, although he had supported treasonous plots before, he was far from happy with Catesby's intent.

Shortly after, Garnet actually found out exactly what this intent was: a distraught Father Greenway, the confessor to Catesby and other plotters, approached Garnet and begged the Superior to listen to his 'confession'. Garnet at first refused, guessing correctly that Greenway knew of Catesby’s plot, but he eventually relented and was told all.

Garnet Resolves to Stop Catesby

Despite having lived, effectively on the run, in England for years, having heard of many plots and treasons, the Gunpowder Plot still deeply shocked Garnet, who believed it would lead to the ruin of him and all other English Catholics. He and Greenway resolved upon two methods of stopping Catesby: firstly Garnet sent Greenway back with a message expressively forbidding Catesby from acting; Catesby ignored it. Secondly, Garnet wrote to the Pope, appealing for a judgement on whether English Catholics could act violently. Unfortunately for Garnet, he felt bound by confession and could just give vague hints in his letters to the pope, and he received equally vague comments back which Catesby also ignored. Furthermore, Catesby actively delayed several of Garnet's messages, stranding them in Brussels.

Garnet Fails

On July 24th 1605 Garnet and Catesby met face to face at White Webbs in Enfield, a Catholic safehouse and meeting place rented by Garnet's ally Anne Vaux. Here, Garnet and Vaux tried again to forbid Catesby from acting; they failed, and they knew it. The plot went ahead.

Garnet is Implicated, Arrested and Executed

Despite Guy Fawkes and Thomas Wintour stressing in their confessions that neither Greenway, Garnet nor other Jesuits had any direct involvement in the plot, the prosecution at the trials presented an official government, and largely fictional, story of how the Jesuits had dreamt up, organised, recruited and supplied the plot, aided by statements from Tresham, who later admitted the truth, and Bates, who tried to implicate the Jesuits in return for his own survival.

Several priests, including Greenway, fled to Europe, but when Father Garnet was arrested on March 28th his fate was already sealed and he was executed on May 3rd. It only slightly helped the prosecutors that Garnet was overheard admitting in prison he'd known what Catesby was planning.

The Gunpowder Plot can't be blamed exclusively for Garnet's death. Just being in England was enough to get him executed and the government had searched for him for years. Indeed, much of his trial was concerned with his views on equivocation – a concept many people found strange and dishonest - rather than gunpowder. Even so, government lists of the plotters had Garnet's name at the top.

The Question of Guilt

For decades, much of the general public believed the Jesuits had led the plot. Thanks to the rigours of modern historical writing, this is no longer the case; Alice Hogge's statement "...perhaps the time has come to re-open the case against the English Jesuits...and restore their reputation" is noble, but already redundant. However, some historians have gone far the other way, calling the Jesuits innocent victims of persecution.

While Garnet and Greenway were persecuted, and while they didn't take an active part in the plot, they weren't innocent. Both knew what Catesby was planning, both knew their attempts to stop him had failed, and neither did anything else to stop it. This meant both were guilty of concealing treason, a criminal offense then as now.

Faith Versus Saving Lives

Father Garnet claimed he was bound by the seal of confession, making it sacrilege to inform on Catesby.

But, in theory, Greenway had been bound by the seal of confession himself and shouldn't have been able to tell Garnet details of the plot unless he was himself involved, when he could mention it through his own confession. The question of whether Garnet learnt of the plot through Greenway's confession, or whether Greenway simply told him has affected commentator's views of Garnet ever since.

For some, Garnet was trapped by his faith; for others, the chance the plot might succeed sapped his resolve to stop it; for others going further still, he was a moral coward who weighed up breaking the confessional or letting hundreds of people die and chosen to let them die. Whichever you accept, Garnet was the superior of the English Jesuits and could have done more if he'd wished to.