The Denouement of the Gunpowder Plot

An early 17th century illustration depicting the conspirators engaged in the Gunpowder Plot.

It should be pointed out that following the deaths of Francis Walsingham (1590) and William Cecil (1598) the role of spy networks and their allegiances had changed considerably and created an intelligence vacuum both for the state and for Catholic recusants. There was no longer a unified state provision and Sir Robert Cecil had taken over the duties that Walsingham had cleverly constructed to defend and protect the sovereign even though King James was not really a Papal target for assassination as was Elizabeth 1st previously. One particularly useful spy, Thomas Phelippes renowned for his cipher skills, who was previously employed by Robert Cecil, had been recruited by the Earl of Essex although he was subsequently imprisoned. Amongst other things he was responsible for uncovering the Babington plot and was a paid spy for Walsingham. In fact the Pope had no wish to eliminate James, rather he wished to gradually convert him back into his mother’s faith, although James was clearly and unequivocally resistant to the idea. Similarly, Phillip IIIrd of Spain was anxious to conclude a peace with James and was not prepared to risk all as his predecessor had done with his numerous failed armadas at great cost to the Spanish state. James’ wife, Anne on the other hand was known to display an interest in Catholic affairs and literature while Prince Henry (also known to be a hostage target for the plotters) was a life-sworn Protestant and anti-Catholic, even refusing a betrothal for the hand in marriage of the Infanta Isabella. As matters transpired and further plots unravelled James took a very hard-line stance towards Catholics on a par with what Elizabeth had sustained for the large part of her forty four year reign. His accession to the English throne signalled nothing had changed with his proclamation issued on the 22nd of February 1604 outlawing all Jesuit priests, recusants, spies and insurgents and tough restrictions imposed being punishable by fines, imprisonment, torture or hanging. In other words it was business as usual and Catholics were expected to shut up and put up with all the travel restrictions, excruciating fines and loss of liberties that accompanied the state strategies against them. Then secretly Robert Taylor was recruited by either Sir William Stanley or Father Garnet to uncover who else in London could be counted upon to support, further or finance the grandiose plot, and as a result he was teamed up with Anthony Skinner, previously a servant of Dr. William Allen at Douai. Taylor and Skinner then met up with Father Henry Garnet and Robert Persons, both integral to the success of the plot. To begin with the conspirators looked around the vicinity of the House of Parliament for a house to rent from which they could ostensibly launch their plan and found one currently used by Henry Ferrers and owned by John Whynniard, a yeoman of his Majesty’s wardrobe. Thomas Percy arranged to obtain the lease on the pretext that his position in the King’s pensioners required him a property where he might reside within the ambit of the court.

A 18th century engraving depicting the Houses of Parliament

Coincidentally, the house was currently being used for a commission to discuss the Union of Scotland and England appointed by the sovereign James himself. When the commission’s business was completed on the 6th of December 1604, Thomas Percy signed a lease and later gained access to the property on the 24th of May 1604 and arranged for others to obtain a site across the river Thames where the gunpowder could be stored temporarily until they had obtained access to the cellars below the House of Commons, where Parliament was expected to reconvene on the 5th of November, 1605. The basic plan was to dig a tunnel from the cellar of the rented property to the cellars below the House of Commons and then transport the gunpowder in barrels by boat across the river Thames to the Parliament yard. Other conspirators were recruited including John Wright, his brother Christopher and Robert Keyes, a Jesuit convert since the work anticipated was hard labour under adverse conditions. The work of digging and shoring up the tunnel was undertaken by Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Winter and John Wright each taking turns in tunnelling and keeping watch. After digging non-stop for a week the very first real obstacle they encountered was the foundation wall of the Parliament cellar, made of stone and several feet thick. Shortly after Candlemass Christopher Wright was engaged in the task as well and by the middle of March they had only penetrated halfway through the stone wall itself with hammers and stone chisels. This part of the task generated a great deal of noise with hammers and chisels being employed and there were tradesmen and inhabitants nearby the excavation who might have raised the alarm. At this stage of the plan Robert Winter and John Grant were engaged but with some reservations even though they had taken an oath of secrecy, they argued that the plan would not fully succeed without support from some great men at home or abroad. Having finally penetrated the foundation wall they continued to tunnel blindly underground until one day they heard a strange rumbling sound as if the floor above them was about to collapse. As none of them had an exact map of the cellars and floors above they relied mostly on guesswork on how deep and in which direction to dig and they were unsure whether they were anywhere near their target, the floor of the House of Commons. Digging upwards at this point they discovered that they were in a cellar previously used for storing coal, and that the noise they heard was the sound of coal being deposited for storage and they realised that someone, possibly a coal merchant had rented the space for storing coal that was being used in the Parliament buildings. Guy Fawkes was sent to investigate who was the tenant and whether the lease to the coal store, previously a kitchen, could be obtained. As matters turned out a certain Ellen Bright had temporarily rented the space to store coal for sale and was intending to vacate the property soon. Having discovered this Thomas Percy was again sent to acquire the lease from the 25th March 1605 which had an entrance onto the Parliament yard where they could more easily transport the twenty barrels of gunpowder and therefore abandon the tunnel (which had taken months of hard work to establish) as a means of transferring them. Therefore it seemed that destiny or the “hand of God” had intervened to make their initial task much easier and fortuitous with their own entrance to the coal cellar. As a result they resolved to obtain even more barrels of gunpowder bringing the total to some 36 barrels to be transported by boat across the Thames from their depot, an outbuilding near Thomas Percy’s lodgings.

An artist’s depiction of the Parliament Fire of 1834

No one knows where they obtained such a large quantity of gunpowder, precisely what quality it was except that altogether it cost some £200. It was rumoured that it came from the Tower of London itself and would have weighed some 18 cwt and was five times the actual amount required to demolish a large part of the building and some of the surrounding buildings because the ensuing “back-blast” would have travelled back down the tunnel and would no doubt have blown up Whynniard’s property where they were secretly ensconced. After delivering the barrels covertly at night by boat to Parliament yard and placed them in the cellar they decided to cover them with rubble and sticks to conceal them from any prying eyes. Thomas Percy held the key and together with Robert Catesby they journeyed to Bath to take the waters and restore their vigour physical well-being. Guy Fawkes was enlisted to keep watch over the entrance to the cellar in their absence and await further orders since Parliament had been prorogued until the 3rd of October. The plotters were now totally exhausted after their “extreme tunnelling experience” which in the end turned out to be wholly unnecessary, but they nevertheless felt they were being rewarded by God for their tireless efforts and faith in the plot. Furthermore, they required more funds and extraneous support either from Flanders or Spain. Meanwhile Robert Catesby informed Thomas Bates of his plan and asked for his support but Bates was hesitant when he was told what it actually involved and whether the Vatican would approve of such an act. Catesby was obliged to seek Catholic approval for his plan and went to confess his involvement to Father Henry Garnet, the master of equivocation, but still very much a “pawn” in the game as far as Catesby was concerned, and Thomas Bates did very much the same with Father Greenway. Before any confession was made and in casual conversation over a glass of wine the question arose as to whether it was morally justifiable that a number of innocent individuals or parties would be killed in the execution of a conspiracy, and whether they should warn fellow “Catholic friends” of their intentions and for them to decline their attendance at Parliament on the 5th of November. At this point Catesby had not fully divulged the extent of his plan but was merely ‘sounding out’ whether Garnet would approve or disapprove of any incidental casualties of the plot. Father Garnet’s reply was as follows:

“That if, at the taking of a town possessed by the enemy there happened to be some friends, they must undergo the fortunes of war, and the general and common destruction of the enemy”.

A further meeting took place at Fremland between Robert Catesby, Lord Monteagle, and his cousin Francis Tresham with Father Garnet in attendance saying:

“I wished him to look at the lawfulness of the act itself, and then he must not have so little regard for Innocents that he spare not friends and necessary persons for the Commonwealth”.

Having probably guessed Catesby’s intentions from Thomas Bates’ confession Father Greenway went to Fremland to meet with Father Garnet in order to determine his knowledge of the plot and its implications to Catholics at home should it succeed or fail. After some argument and deliberation Greenway told Garnet what he suspected had been in the minds of the conspirators and what the awful ramifications would be if they were successful. Father Garnet was shocked and beside himself declaring: “The Pope will send me to the galleys!”. It was agreed therefore that they should either inform the Pope of the plot or seek papal approval for the plot before anything else was determined. Another meeting took place at White Webbs, Enfield late July 1605 where Garnet and Greenway attempted to persuade Catesby to make some attempt at papal approval but Catesby would not hear of it saying that without doubt the Pope would not admonish him since his plans were for the common good of his religion in England. The outcome of this conversation was that Catesby agreed that an emissary be appointed to enquire further of the Pope’s opinion and position in light of the proposed plot and Sir Edmund Baynham was elected for this purpose but Catesby also craftily suggested that Baynham should carry letters from Henry Garnet as a cover. Secretly Catesby told Baynham that he should delay his journey as much as possible while the conspirators final plans were awaiting the big day in November, to which Baynham winked in approval. It was in late September that Baynham arrived in the Spanish Netherlands with introductions from Lord Monteagle.

A 16th century engraving depicting the House of Commons Meeting Hall of Parliament

This was a rather remarkable situation since for six months the damp Parliament cellars were primed with 36 barrels of deadly gunpowder, enough to destroy five Parliaments and simply awaiting Guy Fawkes to ignite the 15 minute fuse on the appointed day with no one as yet having detected what the conspirators were planning to do. It was for the Jacobeans equivalent to the 21st century “Twin Towers Conspiracy” which would never succeed. The main reason was that the state intelligence networks and circles were insufficient for such a discovery but vague reports of the plan were known to some, it was just that the dots had not been connected to reveal exactly what was being contemplated and by who or when it might occur. In the Spring of 1605 intelligence reports arrived naming Robert Spiller in company with Guy Fawkes and soon after Spiller had made contact with the French Ambassador, Comte de Beaumont, Christopher Harlay who was himself an intimate of the Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Somehow the disaffected spy, Thomas Phelippes must have got wind of the meeting and naturally assumed something was afoot and wrote pseudonymously to Hugh Owen who, with the company of Sir William Stanley and Father Baldwin in a ciphered communication (to disguise his identity, using the pseudonym “Vincent”) but a reply was not forthcoming. However, Phelippes then sent copies of his letters to Robert Cecil who, realising what was implied had Phelippes arrested and questioned further. The encrypted letters had been de-coded by Sir Thomas Windebank who discovered a correspondence between Robert Persons and Sir Anthony Standen. Subsequently, Robert Cecil sent Phelippes to the Tower to await further investigation and elucidation. If Phelippes had been left alone he would no doubt have uncovered the critical meeting in the Spanish Netherlands in March 1604 between Thomas Winter and Guy Fawkes before they arranged to meet Robert Catesby in Lambeth, London in May. Unfortunately, Hugh Owen made the grave error of employing Captain William Turner, a professional soldier with past experience in Ireland, the Low Countries and France but regardless he was still being employed as a double agent by Robert Cecil. In May 1605 therefore Turner got to meet Guy Fawkes in Holland to report to the Marquis Ambrogio Spinola, a Spanish commander who was in contact with 1,500 Spanish troops moored at Dover awaiting transfer to the Spanish Netherlands. The intention being of course not to send them there but for them to act as a vanguard for a much larger Spanish invasion once the Parliament House had been blown up. The plan was for the Spanish troops to move to Rochester crossing a strategic bridge over the Medway and then immobilising the English fleet currently at anchor there. Meanwhile, Robert Catesby had managed to sell Bushwood Hall to Sir Edward Greville in order to raise much needed finance to hire a ship for the conspirators to exit down the Thames and back to the Netherlands and from there to support the planned uprising in the Midlands. Then Catesby made a series of journeys throughout the regions consolidating and recruiting additional support without revealing exactly what was intended and when, but that they should remain alert and be notified in time for their participation. Money was required for munitions, arms, horses and to recruit whatever additional agents were needed. The extremely wealthy, Sir Everard Digby and Francis Tresham were amongst those that Catesby had cautiously revealed the nature of the plot partly to gauge their reaction and secure additional finance. When Catesby had returned to London he gave a dinner near the Strand at William Patrick’s ordinary inviting along Lord Mordaunt, Sir Josceline Percy (Henry Percy’s brother), Francis Tresham, Thomas Winter, John Ashfield, the playwright Ben Jonson and Sir John Roe. It was there that perhaps Ben Jonson got wind of the plot and had a hand in uncovering it for King James’ benefit. A few days later Catesby and his band rode back to Stratford to reside at Clopton at the home of Ambrose Rookwood. It seems that the next stage in the plan was to somehow “trick” Catholic MP’s and other friends into not attending Parliament on November 5th. To celebrate and prepare for the final stage of the plan the conspirators were all invited to attend a dinner at the Mitre Tavern, Bread Street, West Cheapside and those in attendance were Lord Mordaunt, Sir Joscelyn Percy, Sir William Monson, Sir Mark Ive, Mr. Robert Catesby, Dr. Taylor, Mr. Pickering of Northants, Mr. Hakluyt, and Spero Pettingar.

It is not entirely certain how and in what manner the “penny finally dropped” thereby revealing the absolute certainty that a plot was being hatched and highly imminent, the crucial details of which Catesby had made sure would only be available to a close circuit of plotters. It was reported that alongside Catesby there were twelve core conspirators which was symbolically paralleled with Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles but equally there must have been an even larger number of secondary agents as well as leading Catholic nobles who were privy to a greater or lesser degree of Catesby’s Gunpowder treason. The conventional story goes that it was Lord Monteagle (in a coded and enciphered message) that first revealed the plot to the authorities in particular to Lord Salisbury. But other theories suggest that Thomas Phelippes, a cryptographer by profession was the man responsible in order to protect Monteagle from any retaliation that might ensue from Catholics at home. Because the “Monteagle Letter” was purposely written in a “hand disguised” and simply delivered to Monteagle it was suggested that the state had produced the letter, not realising the extent to which the plot had extended partly to “smoke out” the plotters and to delay their plans because release of the letter publicly would surely produce panic and anxiety for Catesby and his extensive cabal of conspirators. They in turn suspected Francis Tresham and he was invited to a meeting at White Webbs in order to be questioned on the matter. But Tresham consistently denied he had any part in writing the letter or in exposing the plot. Thomas Howard, the Earl of Suffolk was charged with the task of searching day and night the chambers and ante rooms of the Houses of Parliament.

A 17th century engraving depicting the execution of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators

With the key held by Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes was recruited to call upon the property at irregular times to ascertain whether the barrels had been discovered and was relieved to find everything was still there, although possibly deteriorating somewhat after such a long time in a damp cellar. Meanwhile, Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland who was probably informed and implicated in the plot agreed to go to a dinner at Syon House on Monday 4th November. The scientist Thomas Harriot was duly arrested on suspicion of being involved because he had cast James 1st’s horoscope to deduce if he were a fit and competent King. By this time late afternoon on the 4th November Thomas Howard was again making his inspection of the Houses of Parliament and accompanying buildings in order to uncover the actual location where the plotters were attempting to blow up Parliament. They finally arrived at the coal cellar to find a pile of rubble and building material there and coming across Guy Fawkes they asked him who rented the property and to what purpose. He simply replied that he was the servant of Thomas Percy and was engaged by him to watch over the store. To which they then removed themselves not realising that underneath the pile of rubble were 36 barrels of extremely explosive material. The man who actually discovered what was underneath that pile was Sir Thomas Knyvett, a magistrate and gentleman of the Privy Chamber who lead an armed group just before midnight when Guy Fawkes as usual came to inspect the “hidden haul” but alerted by the sound of barking dogs came face to face with Knyvett and his guard who promptly arrested Fawkes and then made a thorough search of the rubble only to unearth the 36 barrels cleverly concealed underneath. Fawkes was searched and found to have on his person a watch, some matches and the necessary kindling required to delay the blast for fifteen minutes, enough time to escape safely from the blast. Fawkes was then manacled and led away for questioning around four o’clock in the morning of the 5th November, just a few hours away from the re-opening of Parliament.

The Dove of Peace set in a stained-glass triskelia

Now, it has been recorded by Shakespearean scholars that Shakespeare’s Scottish play, “Macbeth” which was performed for King James 1st, contains several topical allusions to the Gunpowder plot itself. However, scholars disagree on which parallel narrative is enclosed in Shakespeare’s own dramatic plot whereby a Scottish King is forcibly deposed by assassination for it might easily reflect the incident in which Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Queen of Scots, was blown up after his capture by Lord Bothwell. The play also contains references to equivocation (viz: Henry Garnet, a Catholic priest who espoused equivocation) whereby the drunken porter responds to someone “knocking on the door” (Act 2, scene 3):

Knocking within. Enter a Porter
“Here’s a knocking indeed! If a
man were porter of hell-gate, he should have
old turning the key.”
Knocking within. Knock, knock, knock!
“Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub?
Here’s a farmer, that hanged
himself on the expectation of plenty: come in time;
have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.”
Knocking within. Knock, knock!
“Who’s there, in the other devil’s
name? Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale;
who committed treason enough for God’s sake,
yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come in, equivocator.”

Knocking within. Knock, knock, knock!
“Who’s there? Faith, here’s an
English tailor come hither, for stealing out of
a French hose: come in, tailor; here you may roast your goose.”
Knocking within. Knock, knock;
“Never at quiet! What are you?
But this place is too cold for hell.
I’ll devil-porter it no further:
I had thought to have let in some of all professions that go the primrose
way to the everlasting bonfire.”

Academics diverge and disagree on exactly when the play was written or composed, some suggest before the accession in 1604 of James 1st, others suggest it reflects the “Gowrie Conspiracy” of 1601, while others claim it was sometime after the “Gunpowder Plot” in 1606. The references to a “tailor”, then a “farmer” suggest the names Taylor (which could be Robert Taylor, recruited by Father Henry Garnet) and Farmer, however the numerous references to ‘two-fold balls and treble sceptres’ refers to the emblem employed in the Union of Scotland and England. The Earl of Gowrie was infamous for his interest and preoccupation with occult practices and in 1604 a lost play was performed “Tragedie of Gowrie” by the Admirals Men and earlier in 1602 Charles Massey’s “Malcolm, King of Scots”, another lost play. The witchcraft references were added later presumably by Thomas Middleton after the play was first composed but still suggest an attempt to impress the new King who took an unusual interest in witchcraft when he was “spooked” by a coven of witches when he returned from Denmark and ran into a storm off the Scottish coast. The witch scenes mention Aleppo, and the voyage of a ship known as the “Tyger” which actually did set sail. The Oxfordian E.T. Clark maintains that Macbeth was written even earlier immediately after the publication of Hollinshed’s Chronicles in 1589-90 because the murder of Duncan actually parallels the assassination of Henri, Duke of Guise by King Henri IIIrd of France. Furthermore, the academic makes three plausible claims, a) that Lady Macbeth was based on the character of Catherine de Medici, Henri’s mother; and that the apparition of the eight Kings may refer to Catherine’s own clairvoyant vision of the future Kings of France; and finally that the ‘two-fold balls and treble sceptres’ refers to the three kingdoms of Henri Navarre’s accession in 1598. (See “Shakespeare’s She-Wolves”).

In Act 5, scene 5:

“I pall in resolution, and begin
To doubt the equivocation of the fiend
That lies like truth:”

The Fire that subsequently burnt down the Houses of Parliament

When the porter opens the door he comes face to face with Macduff who asks him:

“What three things does drink especially provoke?”

“Marry, sir, nose-painting, sleep, and
urine. Lechery, sir, it provokes, and un-provokes;
it provokes the desire, but it takes
away the performance: therefore, much drink
may be said to be an equivocator with lechery:
it makes him, and it mars him; it sets
him on, and it takes him off; it persuades him,
and disheartens him; makes him stand to, and
not stand to; in conclusion, equivocates him
in a sleep, and, giving him the lie, leaves him.”

This passage could very well be a “mocking” reference to Father Henry Garnet who was known to be fond of drink, was involved in a sordid affair with Anne Vaux, was guilty of treason and presumably being refused entrance to heaven, was now thought to be at Hell’s Gate (Inverness Castle). To what extent did Shakespeare have any prior knowledge regarding the plot or the closure of the Blackfriar’s Theatre to curb street riots and public insurrection? Two other Shakespeare plays that feature assassinations were “Julius Caesar” and “Richard IIIrd”, the latter having been commissioned for performance prior to the “Essex Rebellion” in 1601. Bearing in mind that if the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded then both Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton and William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke would have surely died in the explosion. On top of which Shakespeare clearly disapproves of the Earl of Northumberland, Henry Percy known as “The Wizard Earl” and his dynastic line and his possible pre-knowledge and involvement of the plot in his Henry IVth history plays. Alan Haynes, the author of “The Gunpowder Plot” (Sutton Publishing) suggests there are clues in the names Taylor and Farmer as Garnet had often used the pseudonym “Farmer” the other Jesuit priest arrested at Hindlip with Garnet was Father Oldcorne and Robert Keyes who are named in the passage:

“If a man were a porter of hell-gate, he should have ‘old’ turning the key”.

The phrase “Chief Devil”, ‘the devil in the vault’ etc, was undoubtedly a coded reference to Guy Fawkes himself who stood guard over the vault where the explosives were kept. Aside from the conspirator Robert Taylor, the ‘tailor who stole French hose’ could very easily have been the Welshman, Hugh Griffin, a tailor by trade who propagandised the notion that Garnet’s face was found in a bundle of straw that had been drenched with Garnet’s blood at his execution and when dried had produced his “Sacred Facsimile”. The sacred bundle of straw became for Catholics an object of veneration and Griffin was subsequently questioned by the Archbishop of Canterbury but never implicated in the plot. Strangely enough the 5th of November also coincides with the publication of Sir Francis Bacon’s “Advancement of Learning” and has led some researchers to conclude that somehow Bacon was the secret author of Shakespeare’s canon. (See: “Sir Francis Bacon versus Edward de Vere”). Francis Bacon may have had a role given the “Group Theory” about Shakespeare authorship and elsewhere is considered to have collaborated more than most people imagine to produce more than 40 plays and several volumes of poetry. But the references to equivocation and the allusions made to Henry Garnet, Robert Keyes, Guy Fawkes and Robert Taylor could very easily have been added later after the branded publishing house known as “William Shake-speare” had completed and registered the play.

“We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was…”

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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,