The Gunpowder Plot: Treason in 17th Century England

an illustration of the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, 1605, by unknown artist. (National Portrait Gallery/Wikimedia Commons)

The Gunpowder Plot was thought up and driven on by Robert Catesby, a man who combined an ambition unconstrained by doubt with a charisma powerful enough to convince others of his plans. By 1600, he had been wounded, arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London following the Essex revolt and had only avoided execution by charming Elizabeth and paying a £3,000 fine. Rather than learn from the lucky escape, Catesby had not only continued plotting but benefited from the reputation this gained him among other Catholic rebels.

Catesby's Gunpowder Plot

Historians have found the first hints of the Gunpowder Plot in a meeting in June 1603, when Thomas Percy – the good friend of Catesby's who engaged his daughter to Catesby's son - visited Robert, ranting about how he hated James I and wanted to kill him. This was the same Thomas Percy who had acted as a go-between for his employer, the Earl of Northumberland, and James VI of Scotland during Elizabeth's reign and who had spread lies about James' promise to protect Catholics. After calming Percy down, Catesby added that he was already thinking of an effective plot to remove James. These thoughts had evolved by October, when Catesby invited his cousin Thomas Wintour (now often spelled Winter) to a meeting.

Thomas Wintour had worked for Catesby at least once before, during the last months of Queen Elizabeth's life, when he traveled to Spain on a mission funded by Lord Monteagle and organized by Catesby, Francis Tresham, and Father Garnet. The plotters had wanted to arrange a Spanish invasion of England should the Catholic minority rise in rebellion, but Elizabeth died before anything was agreed and Spain made peace with James. Although Wintour's mission failed, he did meet several émigré rebels, including a relation called Christopher 'Kit' Wright and a soldier called Guy Fawkes. After a delay, Wintour answered Catesby's invite and they met in London together with Catesby's friend John Wright, the brother of Kit.

It was here that Catesby first revealed to Wintour his plan – already known to John Wright - to free Catholic England without any foreign assistance by using gunpowder to blow up the Houses of Parliament on an opening day, when the King and his followers would be present. Having wiped out the monarch and government in one swift action, the plotters would seize either of the King's two underage children – they would not be at Parliament – start a national Catholic uprising and form a new, pro-Catholic order around their puppet ruler.

After a long discussion the initially hesitant Wintour agreed to help Catesby, but maintained that the Spanish could be persuaded to help by invading during the uprising. Catesby was cynical but asked Wintour to travel to Spain and ask for help at the Spanish court, and while there, bring back some trustworthy help from among the émigrés. In particular, Catesby had heard, perhaps from Wintour, of a soldier with mining skills called Guy Fawkes. (By 1605, after many years on the continent, Guy was known as Guido Fawkes, but history has remembered him by his original name).

Thomas Wintour found no support from the Spanish government, but he did get high recommendations for Guy Fawkes from an English spymaster employed by the Spanish called Hugh Owen, and the commander of the émigré regiment, Sir William Stanley. Indeed, Stanley may have 'encouraged' Guy Fawkes to work with Wintour, and the two returned to England towards the end of April 1604.

On May 20, 1604, supposedly at Lambeth House in Greenwich, Catesby, Wintour, Wright and Fawkes gathered. Thomas Percy also attended, famously berating the others for inactivity upon his arrival: "Shall we always, gentlemen, talk and never do anything?" (cited from Haynes, The Gunpowder Plot, Sutton 1994, p. 54) He was told a plan was in the offing and the five agreed to meet in secret in a few days to take an oath, which they did at Mrs. Herbert's Lodgings in Butcher's Row. Having sworn to secrecy, they received mass from Father John Gerard, who was ignorant of the plan, before Catesby, Wintour, and Wright explained to Percy and Fawkes, for the first time, what they were planning. Details were then discussed.

The first stage was to rent a house as close to the Houses of Parliament as possible. The plotters selected a group of rooms in a house next to the River Thames, enabling them to take gunpowder up via the river at night. Thomas Percy was chosen to take the rent in his own name because he suddenly, and wholly coincidentally, had a reason to attend court: the Earl of Northumberland, Percy's employer, had been made Captain of the Gentlemen's Pensioners, a sort of Royal Bodyguard, and he, in turn, appointed Percy as a member in Spring 1604. The rooms were owned by John Whynniard, Keeper of the King's Wardrobe, and already being rented to Henry Ferrers, a noted recusant. The negotiations to take the rent proved difficult, only succeeding with help from people connected to Northumberland.

A Cellar under Parliament

The plotters were delayed from occupying their new rooms by some of the Commissioners James I had appointed to plan a union of England and Scotland: they'd moved in, and weren't going until the King said so. To keep the initial momentum going, Robert Catesby hired rooms next to the Thames in Lambeth, opposite Whynniard's block, and began stocking it with gunpowder, wood and related burning matter ready to be sailed over. Robert Keyes, a friend of Kit Wright, was sworn into the group to act as a watchman. The commission finally finished on December 6th and the plotters moved in swiftly afterward.

Quite what the plotters did in the house between December 1604 and March 1605 is a matter of debate. According to later confessions by Guy Fawkes and Thomas Wintour, the plotters were trying to tunnel underneath the Houses of Parliament, intending to pack their gunpowder into the end of this mine and detonate it there. Using dried food to minimize their comings and goings, all five plotters worked in the house but made slow progress because of the many feet of stone wall between them and Parliament.

Many historians have argued that the tunnel was a government fiction invented to portray the plotters in an even worse light, but others are quite certain it existed. On the one hand, no trace of this tunnel was ever found and no one has ever adequately explained how they concealed the noise or the rubble, but on the other, there's no other plausible explanation for what else the plotters were doing in December given that Parliament had been scheduled for February 7th (it was postponed until October 3rd on Christmas Eve 1604). If they weren't trying to attack it through a tunnel at this stage, what were they doing? They only hired the infamous cellar after Parliament had been delayed. The debate found between Gardiner (tunnel) and Gerard (no tunnel) in the early nineteenth century is echoed today by writers such as Haynes and Nicholls (tunnel) and Fraser (no tunnel) and there is little compromise, but it is entirely possible that a tunnel was started but swiftly abandoned because, even if all the tunnelling accounts were believed, the plotters acted entirely amateurishly, not even consulting maps of the area, and found the task impossible.

During the period of alleged tunneling, Robert Keyes and his store of gunpowder were moved into the house and the plotters expanded in number. If you accept the tunnel story, the plotters expanded as they recruited extra help for digging; if you don't, they expanded because their plans for action in both London and the Midlands needed more than six people. The truth is probably a mixture of the two.

Kit Wright was sworn in a fortnight after Candlemas, Catesby's servant Thomas Bates sometime after that, and Robert Wintour and his brother in law, John Grant, were invited to a meeting of both Thomas Wintour and Catesby, where they were sworn in and the plot revealed. Grant, brother in law to the Wintours and owner of a house in the Midlands, agreed immediately. In contrast, Robert Winter protested hard, arguing that foreign aid was still essential, that their discovery was inevitable and that they would bring severe retribution down onto the English Catholics. However, Catesby charisma carried the day and Wintour's fears were allayed.

In late March, if we believe the tunneling accounts, Guy Fawkes was sent to scout the Houses of Parliament for the source of a disturbing noise. He discovered that the diggers were actually a story adrift, digging not under the Parliament rooms, but beneath a huge ground floor space which had once been a palace kitchen and which now formed a huge 'cellar' beneath the House of Lords chamber. This cellar was basically part of Whynniard's land and was rented to a coal merchant to store his wares, although the coal was now being emptied on command of the merchant's new widow.

Either aching after weeks of digging or acting to a different plan, the plotters pursued the lease of this ready-made storage space. Thomas Percy initially tried to rent via Whynniard, and eventually worked through a complicated history of leases to secure the cellar on March 25, 1605. The gunpowder was moved in and completely hidden underneath firewood and other flammable material by Guy Fawkes. This stage complete, the plotters left London to wait for October.

The only drawback to the cellar, which was ignored by the day to day activity of Parliament and thus a surprisingly effective hiding place, was damp, which reduced the effect of the gunpowder. Guy Fawkes appears to have anticipated this, as at least 1,500 kilograms of powder was removed by the government after November 5th. 500 kilograms would have been enough to demolish Parliament. The gunpowder cost the plotters roughly £200 and, contrary to some accounts, did not have to be brought straight from the government: there were private manufacturers in England and the end of Anglo-Spanish conflict had left a glut.

The Plotters Expand

As the plotters waited for Parliament there were two pressures to add recruits. Robert Catesby was desperate for money: he'd met most of the expenses himself and needed more to cover further rental fees, ships (Catesby paid for one to take Guy Fawkes to the Continent and then wait until he was ready to return) and supplies. Consequently, Catesby began targeting the wealthiest men within the plotters circles.

Equally importantly, the plotters needed men to help with the second phase of their plan, the uprising, which needed horses, arms and bases in the Midlands, close to Coombe Abbey and the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth. Stately, competent and not going to the opening of Parliament, she was considered by the plotters as a perfect puppet. They planned to abduct her, declare her Queen and then install a pro-Catholic Protector who, aided by the Catholic rising they believed this would trigger, would form a new, very un-Protestant government. The plotters also considered using Thomas Percy to seize the four-year-old Prince Charles from London and, as far as we can tell, never made a firm decision on either the puppet or the protector, preferring to decide as events unfolded.

Catesby recruited three more key men. Ambrose Rookwood, a young, rich head of an old household and first cousin of Robert Keyes, became the eleventh main plotter when he joined on September 29th, allowing the conspirators access to his large stable. The twelfth was Francis Tresham, Catesby's cousin and one of the richest men he knew. Tresham had been involved in treason before, had helped Catesby organize Kit Wright's mission to Spain during Elizabeth's life and had often promoted armed rebellion. Yet when Catesby told him of the plot on October 14th, Tresham reacted with alarm, considering it certain ruin. Bizarrely, at the same time as trying to talk Catesby out of the plot, he also pledged £2,000 to help. An addiction to rebellion was by now often deeply engrained.

Sir Everard Digby, a young man with a potentially wealthy future, pledged £1,500 in mid-October after Catesby played on his religious convictions to overcome Digby's initial horror. Digby was also required to rent a house in the Midlands especially for the rising and provide a 'hunting party' of men, probably to abduct the princess.

Guy Fawkes traveled to the continent, where he told Hugh Owen and Robert Stanley of the plot and ensured they would be ready to aid in the aftermath. This should have caused a second leak because Captain William Turner, a double agent, had wormed his way into Owen's employment. Turner met Guy Fawkes in the May of 1605 where they discussed the possibility of using a unit of Spanish soldiers waiting in Dover in the uprising; Turner was even told to wait in Dover and await Father Garnet who, after the uprising, would take the Captain to see Robert Catesby. Turner informed the English government of this but they didn't believe him.

By mid-October 1605, the main plotters began congregating in London, frequently dining together; Guy Fawkes returned and took charge of the cellar under the guise of 'John Johnson', a servant of Thomas Percy. A new problem arose at a meeting when Francis Tresham demanded they save certain Catholic Peers from the explosion. Tresham wanted to save his brothers in law, Lords Monteagle and Stourton, while other plotters feared for Lords Vaux, Montague, and Mordaunt. Thomas Percy was worried about the Earl of Northumberland. Robert Catesby allowed a discussion before making it clear that there would be no warning to anyone: he felt it was risky, and that most victims deserved death for their inactivity. That said, he may have warned Lord Montague on October 15th.

Despite their best efforts, the plotters' secret leaked out. Servants could not be stopped from discussing what their masters might be up to, and some of the plotters' wives were now openly worried, asking each other where they might flee if their husbands brought England's wrath down upon them. Equally, the necessities of prepare for an uprising - dropping hints, gathering arms and horses (many families grew suspicious by the sudden influx of mounts), making preparations – left a cloud of unanswered questions and suspicious activities. Many Catholics felt something was being planned, some – like Anne Vaux - had even guessed Parliament as the time and place, and the government, with its many spies had arrived at the same conclusions. Yet by mid-October, Robert Cecil, Chief Minister and hub of all government intelligence, seems to have had no specific information about the plot, and no one to arrest, nor any idea that a cellar below Parliament was filled with gunpowder. Then something changed.


On Saturday 26th of October, Lord Monteagle, a Catholic who had escaped from his involvement in the Essex plot against Elizabeth with a fine and who was slowly integrating back into government circles, was dining at Hoxton House when an unknown man delivered a letter. It said (spelling and punctuation has been modernized):

"My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this Parliament; for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country [county] where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.2 (Cited from Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot, London 1996, p. 179-80)

We don't know what the other diners thought, but Lord Monteagle rode immediately to Whitehall, where he found four of the king's most important advisors dining together, including Robert Cecil. Although one remarked that the Houses of Parliament were surrounded by many rooms which would need searching, the group decided to wait and get directions from the king when he returned from hunting. James I arrived back at London on October 31, where he read the letter and was reminded of his own father's murder: in an explosion. Cecil had been warning the king for a while about the rumors of a plot, and the Monteagle letter was a perfect fillip for action.

The plotters also learned of the Monteagle letter - Thomas Ward, the servant who had accepted the letter from the stranger, knew the Wright brothers – and they debated fleeing to the continent on the ship they had waiting for Guy Fawkes, who was to go abroad once he had lit the fuse. However, the conspirators took hope from the letter's vague nature and lack of names and decided to continue as planned. Fawkes stayed with the powder, Thomas' Percy and Wintour remained in London and Catesby and John Wright left to prepare Digby and the others for the rebellion. As for dealing with the leak, many of Catesby's group were convinced Francis Tresham had sent the letter and he narrowly avoided being harmed in a heated confrontation.

On the afternoon of November 4th, with less than twenty-four hours to go, the Earl of Suffolk, Lord Monteagle and Thomas Whynniard inspected the rooms surrounding the Houses of Parliament. At one stage they found an unusually large pile of billets and faggots attended by a man who claimed to John Johnson, a servant of Thomas Percy; this was Guy Fawkes in disguise, and the pile concealed the gunpowder. Whynniard was able to confirm Percy as the leaseholder and the inspection moved on. However, later that day Whynniard is alleged to have wondered aloud why Percy would need so much fuel for the small rooms he rented.

A second search was organized, to be led by Sir Thomas Knyvett and accompanied by armed men. We don't know if they were deliberately targeting Percy's cellar or just going on a more thorough exploration, but just before midnight Knyvett arrested Fawkes and, upon examining the pile of billets, found barrel after barrel of gunpowder. Fawkes was immediately taken before the king for examination and a warrant issued for Percy.

Historians don't know who sent the Monteagle letter and its nature – anonymous, vague and mentioning no names – has allowed just about everyone involved to be named as a suspect. Francis Tresham is often mentioned, his motive being an attempt to warn Monteagle which went wrong, but he is usually ruled out by his deathbed behavior: despite writing letters to try and earn forgiveness and protect his family, he made no mention of the letter which had made Monteagle a hero. The names of Anne Vaux or Father Garnet also arise, perhaps hoping Monteagle would look the other way – his many Catholic contacts – in an attempt to stop the plot.

Two of the more convincing suspects are Robert Cecil, the Chief Minister and Monteagle himself. Cecil needed a way to draw out information about the 'stir' he had only vague knowledge of, and knew Monteagle well enough to be sure he would present the letter to the government so as to aid his rehabilitation; he could also have arranged for the four Earls to be conveniently dining together. However, the letter's author makes several veiled hints to an explosion. Monteagle could have sent the letter in an attempt to earn rewards, having learned of the plot through a warning by Francis Tresham. We are unlikely to ever know.


News of the arrest spread quickly throughout London and people lit bonfires – a traditional act - to celebrate the treason being thwarted. The plotters also heard, spread the news to each other and hastily left for the Midlands…apart from Francis Tresham, who seems to have been ignored. By the evening of November 5th the fleeing plotters had met up with those congregating for rebellion at Dunchurch, and at one stage around a hundred men were present. Unfortunately for them, many had only ever been told of the rebellion and were disgusted when they learned of the gunpowder plot; some left immediately, others slipped away throughout the evening.

A discussion on what to do next saw the group leave for sources of weapons and a secure area: Catesby was convinced they could still stir the Catholics into an uprising. However, they hemorrhaged numbers as they traveled, the less implicated men growing dispirited by what they found: scores of Catholics horrified at them, with few offering aid. They were less than forty by the day's end.

Back in London, Guy Fawkes had refused to speak about his companions. This staunch demeanor impressed the King, but he ordered Fawkes to be tortured on November 6th, and Fawkes was broken by November 7th. During the same period Sir John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice, raided the homes of every Catholic known to have suddenly left, including that of Ambrose Rookwood. He soon identified Catesby, Rookwood, and the Wright and Wintour brothers as suspects; Francis Tresham was also arrested.

On Thursday 7th the fleeing plotters reached Holbeach House in Staffordshire, home of Stephen Littleton. Having discovering that an armed government force was close behind, they prepared for battle, but not before sending Littleton and Thomas Wintour to seek help from a neighboring Catholic relative; they were refused. Hearing this, Robert Wintour and Stephen Littleton fled together and Digby fled with a few servants. Meanwhile, Catesby tried to dry gunpowder in front of the fire; a stray spark caused an explosion which badly injured both him and John Wright.

The government stormed the house later that day. Kit Wright, John Wright, Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy were all killed, while Thomas Wintour and Ambrose Rookwood were injured and captured. Digby was caught soon after. Robert Wintour and Littleton remained at large for several weeks but were eventually caught too. The captives were taken to the Tower of London and their houses were searched and plundered.

The government inquiry soon spread to the arrest and questioning of many more suspects, including the plotters families', friends and even distant acquaintances: simply having met the conspirators at an unfortunate time or place led to interrogation. Lord Mordant, who had employed Robert Keyes and planned to be absent from Parliament, Lord Montague, who had employed Guy Fawkes over a decade before, and The Earl of Northumberland - Percy's employer and patron - found themselves in the Tower.

The trial of the main plotters began on January 6th, 1606, by which time Francis Tresham had already died in prison; all were found guilty (they were guilty, but these were show trials and the result was never in doubt). Digby, Grant, Robert Wintour, and Bates were hung, drawn and quartered on January 29th at St. Paul's Churchyard, while Thomas Wintour, Robert Keyes, Guy Fawkes and Ambrose Rookwood were similarly executed on January 30th at the Old Palace Yard Westminster. These were far from the only executions, as investigators slowly worked their way down through the tiers of supporters, men who had promised aid to the rebellion such as Stephen Littleton. Men with no real connections also suffered: Lord Mordant was fined £6,666 and died in Fleet debtors’ prison in 1609, while the Earl of Northumberland was fined the colossal sum of £30,000 and imprisoning him at the king’s leisure. He was freed in 1621.

The plot provoked strong feelings and the majority of the nation reacted with horror at the sheer indiscriminate killing planned but, despite the fears of Francis Tresham and others, the Gunpowder Plot was not followed by a violent attack on the Catholics, from the government or the people; James even acknowledged that a few fanatics had been responsible. Admittedly Parliament – which finally met in 1606 – did introduce more laws against recusants, and the plot contributed to another Oath of Allegiance. But these actions were motivated as much by an existing need to appease England's anti-Catholic majority and keep Catholic numbers low than revenge for the plot, and the laws were poorly enforced amongst Catholics loyal to the crown. Instead, the government used the trial to vilify the already illegal Jesuits.

On January 21st, 1606, a Bill for an annual public thanksgiving was introduced into Parliament. It remained in force until 1859.

The Thirteen Main Plotters

With the exception of Guy Fawkes, who was recruited for his knowledge of sieges and explosives, the plotters were related to each other; indeed, the pressure of family ties was important in the recruitment process. Interested readers should consult Antonia Fraser's book The Gunpowder Plot, which contains family trees.

The Original Five
Robert Catesby
John Wright
Thomas Wintour
Thomas Percy
Guido 'Guy' Fawkes

Recruited before April 1605 (when the Cellar was filled)
Robert Keyes
Thomas Bates
Christopher 'Kit' Wright
John Grant
Robert Wintour

Recruited after April 1605
Ambrose Rookwood
Francis Tresham
Everard Digby

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The Gunpowder Plot: Treason in 17th Century England." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Wilde, Robert. (2021, September 8). The Gunpowder Plot: Treason in 17th Century England. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Gunpowder Plot: Treason in 17th Century England." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).