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“Remember, remember the fifth of November of gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gun powder treason should ever be forgot.” — Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

Despite the efforts of the Jesuits at the end of the 16th century many Catholic recusants inevitably ended up converting to Protestantism in Elizabethan England. However, on March 24th of 1603 Queen Elizabeth died and James VI of Scotland became James I of England. Then King James relaxed the persecution of Catholics, but only for about a year. By the summer of 1604, his devotion as a Protestant and a politician became clear. Thomas Percy who had previously pleaded with King James became outraged at the lack of concordance. Following that, an edict ordered all Catholic priests to leave England. So, a radical named Robert Catesby decided to take decisive action.

On Sunday, May 20th of 1604 Robert Catesby invited Thomas Wintour, John Wright, Thomas Percy, and Guy Fawkes to his house to help devise a plan to re-establish Catholicism in England by destroying the House of Lords during the official State Opening of Parliament. At that moment the men all swore an oath to each other and to their revolutionary cause. The sheer scale of the assassination attempt was absolutely unprecedented. The men planned to blow up all the heirs to the throne and the whole of Parliament as well as judges and even Bishops. No matter what it would take, they wanted nothing less than to create a political vacuum.

As the only man among them with any military experience Guy Fawkes became the go-to demolitions expert. It was quickly decided that they needed to acquire a great deal of gunpowder to accomplish their daring mission. Fortunately for them, there was a tremendous surplus from the Spanish Catholic war against the Protestant Dutch. So they were easily able to secure small batches by purchasing a barrel at a time until they had accumulated 36 in total. After that, the men rented a house next to Parliament to serve as their base of operations. The Catholic rebels then set up shop in the warren among private tenements and government buildings.

After that, the men rented a space with a cellar that was the old Palace of Westminster kitchens. It ran directly under the House of Lords and was exactly what they needed. The vault was leased to Thomas Percy and then turned over to Guy Fawkes who was operating under the assumed name John Johnson. As the only anonymous member of the group Guy Fawkes became the primary custodian of the powder. He shipped the barrels across the River Thames and loaded them into the cellar vault. The containers were then hidden under a great deal of firewood.

Guy Fawkes and the others were incredibly nervous, and rightly so. A man named Robert Cecil was the 1st Earl of Salisbury and an evangelist for State Security who had spies lurking all over the streets of London. However, the plague ravaged the city in the summer of 1605 so the terrorists dispersed and left the gunpowder behind after the opening of Parliament was delayed until November 5th. Guy Fawkes, in particular, fled to the Netherlands but was soon discovered by one of Cecil’s men named William Turner. England was slowly becoming more and more aware of their presence. Unbeknownst to Fawkes, he returned to London in July to pick up where he had left off as John Johnson.

With the extra time from the delay, Catesby had been hard at work adding to the plot. He brought in more people which on the one hand offered more resources but on the other also more secrets to have to keep. So, just as one might have suspected, sure enough, Francis Tresham ended up divulging sensitive information. Just ten days before Parliament was to open he sent an anonymous letter to a member known as Lord Monteagle. He was advised against attending the sitting on the 5th of November. It turned out that the thirteenth man who had been brought into the plot was very unlucky indeed. Tresham and Monteagle were actually brothers-in-law, so Francis just couldn’t bring himself to let the man die.

Then, Cecil soon got his hands on the letter and began to look into the possibility of a rebellion. Aware of what was going on Guy Fawkes stayed away from the gunpowder until October 30th. Then on November 1st Robert Cecil showed the letter to King James who immediately ordered a search of the city. By the 4th of November in 1605 Guy Fawkes was in the vault and the slow-burning fuse was prepared. Then a search party came to the cellar to ask him some questions and to take a look around. The inspectors noted the firewood but still didn’t actually suspect anything. Then King James sent them back for another look shortly after midnight on November 5th. During that second search, they finally uncovered the barrels of gunpowder. Only hours before he was poised to strike the plot was busted.

Guy Fawkes was immediately captured and taken to King James, and a warrant was issued for Thomas Percy. On November 6th in the Tower of London Guy Fawkes was tortured to make him reveal the names of his co-conspirators but he refused to snitch on them. At first, he was only manacled and the torture couldn’t break him. So King James ordered him to be racked and late on the 7th of November the interrogation finally began to work. Guy Fawkes revealed his true identity. The next day King James learned of the Catholic uprising in the Midlands, where the conspirators engaged in a shootout with the Sheriff of Worcester and his posse. There Catesby and three others were gunned down, meanwhile, the rest of the plotters were arrested.

On the 9th of November news reached London that the gunpowder plot was finally over. That same day Guy Fawkes signed a full confession and King James opened Parliament where he took full credit for saving the country. On January 31st of 1606, the remaining terrorists were all publicly executed. The men were hung, drawn, and quartered for their treasonous actions against the State. Guy Fawkes was taken up to the gallows last. After that, he was disemboweled and even decapitated. Finally, his head was put on a spike for all to see as a warning against further dissent.

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An Autodidact Polymath

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