Remember This about November Fifth


Last fall, a macabre news item made for squeamish reading: At an auction in England in November, more than $11,000 was paid for a 17th-century book containing the trial proceedings of Jesuit superior Fr. Henry Garnet and others allegedly involved in the famous "Gunpowder Plot" of 1605. The accounts were collected by the king’s printer months after Fr. Garnet’s trial and execution for treason.

The book, called A True and Perfect Relation of the Whole Proceedings Against the Late Most Barbarous Traitors, Garnet a Jesuit and His Confederates, comes in a wooden box and is about four inches thick. The macabre part? It is bound with the priest’s own dried skin (a practice not uncommon for criminals of the time).

The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy to blow up Parliament and King James I in the late fall of 1605. The plot was undertaken by a small group of Catholics fanatically determined to bring an end to persecution of Catholics and Protestant hegemony in England.

Used as grist for the English Protestant government propaganda machine, the Gunpowder Plot acquired an importance far greater than the ill-fated conspiracy itself. The Gunpowder Plot became the father of a thousand anti-Catholic urban legends and was instrumental in creating the culture of anti-Catholicism in England that still permeates popular American culture (see "Catholic Conspiracy Theories," This Rock, January 2007). And most Americans don’t know a thing about it.

Hatred of All Things Catholic

The Gunpowder Plot is debated to this day. Some see it as a widespread Catholic plot instigated and led by the Jesuit priests living underground in England—much like it was painted in the 1606 trials of the conspirators. Others argue that there was no conspiracy at all; it was a government-inspired fabrication created by double-agents to use in the propaganda war against Catholics.

Conspiracy theories aside, here’s what we know of the Gunpowder Plot. It began in an atmosphere of harsh anti-Catholic persecution. After the excommunication of Queen Elizabeth in 1570 and the threatened invasion of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Catholics were viewed with suspicion in England. They were an alien force that could rise up at any moment on papal orders, overthrow the Crown and eradicate English Protestantism. Or at least that was the excuse.

While English leadership would always argue that its concern with Catholicism was purely political and not based on religious beliefs, in fact it harbored a deep hatred of all things Catholic. As the 17th century began, a host of harsh legal penalties punished Catholics in England for practicing their faith. Mass could not be legally celebrated anywhere. Those laity caught attending a clandestine Mass could face heavy fines or jail. Priests caught saying Mass—or simply exposed as priests—were jailed, deported, or executed as traitors. Even rosary beads were considered contraband. Children could not be baptized or married according to Catholic rites. Every person over the age of 16 was required to attend the local Protestant Church every Sunday or face heavy fines.

Mass, therefore, was said in secret in private homes by priests who were hidden by the Catholic community itself. Those Catholics willing—and able—paid the fines for not attending Protestant services. Others remained Catholic at heart, attending Mass when they could, but went to Protestant services either because they could not afford the fines or because they feared public retribution.

Hopes Raised—and Dashed

But by the turn of the 17th century, many within the English Catholic community had some hope for relief. With childless Queen Elizabeth growing older, they pinned their hopes on a successor that would lift these onerous restrictions.

While some daydreamed of a Catholic prince or princess from the Continent—a foreign invasion by an alliance of Catholic sovereigns—others fixed their hopes on King James VI of Scotland. Son of Mary Queen of Scots, whom many believed to be a martyr for the faith after her execution in 1587 for allegedly plotting to overthrow Elizabeth, James was the most likely successor.

He was married to a Catholic convert, Anne of Denmark, and rumors swirled within Catholic circles (including the Holy See) that James might be open to conversion himself, or at the very least open to Catholic toleration. James did absolutely nothing to discourage such rumors and, particularly with the papacy, encouraged them. After James, while in Scotland, misled Pope Clement VIII about his potential conversion, the pope certainly looked favorably on him.

So when Elizabeth died on March 24, 1603 and James was formally declared her successor, Catholic hopes soared. Such hopes dimmed almost immediately, however, as Catholics noticed that, in honor of his succession, the new King James granted routine pardons to everyone but murderers and Catholics.

When the first Parliament of his reign was called for the spring of 1604, King James made his position on Catholics very clear. In February of 1604 he demanded that all priests be thrown out of his realm, and in March he complained bitterly of alleged Catholic growth to Protestant leaders. In April a bill was introduced to class all Catholics as outlaws.

Clever like a Fawkes

A younger generation of Catholics in England had grown up with Elizabeth’s persecution and the hope for relief under her successor. Sick of a world where advancement could only come through denying the faith, a small number had become truly militant. They longed for a new Spanish invasion after the disastrous defeat of the Spanish Armada. Among those who travelled to Spain in the hopes of securing a promised invasion was a young soldier named Guy Fawkes.

Once James was enthroned and a Protestant succession secured through his heirs, the desperation among these young Catholics only grew. The Spanish, looking to end the age of conflict with England, were making it clear through negotiations with the new monarch that they were willing to sell out their fellow English Catholics. The pope, who had also made his desire for peace known, disapproved any acts of violence. The Jesuits in England made very clear that they supported the papal position.

By and large, this reflected the position of English Catholics. Though their hopes were dashed by the apparent hostility of King James to Catholic toleration, they knew that any violence would only make a bad situation intolerable. The Bye Plot of 1603, a scheme to hold the king in the Tower of London until he granted Catholic toleration, had involved disgruntled Catholics. But the Plot was nipped primarily because underground Jesuit priests tipped off the government. King James was so grateful that he extended some pardons to a few Catholics jailed for their faith.

In May 1604, a group of disaffected young Catholics held a meeting. Abandoned by Spain, the plotters believed that every peaceable means had been tried and failed. The decision was made to blow up King James and his Parliament, a plan they believed would lead to a foreign invasion, a Catholic uprising, or the restoration of a Catholic monarchy. After making their pledge, they attended a Mass celebrated by a Jesuit priest who was completely ignorant of what had taken place.

Parliament was suspended out of fear of the plague, so the handful of plotters spent their time drawing a few more into the conspiracy. Fawkes began to stockpile gunpowder in the cellar of a house that extended under the Parliament building. In a world overrun with spies and double-agents, Fawkes was already known to English authorities as a dangerous man.

Catholics Reveal the Plot

In late June of 1605, Fr. Henry Garnet heard the confession of another Jesuit priest, who revealed to him the outline of a plot that had been confessed to him earlier. Horrified, Fr. Garnet—who could not reveal what he knew because of the seal of the confessional—wrote to Rome asking the new pope, Paul V, for a blanket papal condemnation of violence. When it was announced that Parliament would be delayed again, Fr. Garnet believed that the danger had passed.

He was mistaken. The plotters proceeded, even when an anonymous letter was sent to a Catholic lord, warning him to stay away when Parliament opened in the fall. The lord passed the letter on to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, secretary of state to Elizabeth and King James, and a persecutor of all things Catholic.

On November 1, 1605, Cecil informed the king of the mysterious letter. The cellar under Westminster was searched, cords of firewood to ignite the blast were discovered, and Fawkes, found skulking about, was arrested. The rest of the conspirators fled. The Gunpowder Plot was foiled. The core conspirators were tracked down and a number were killed in an ambush. The survivors were arrested.

It was at this point that Cecil began his campaign to recast the Gunpowder Plot as a Jesuit conspiracy, though the Jesuits in England had been outspoken against violence. Taking advantage of the paranoia after the plot was revealed, Cecil made certain that the Gunpowder Plot was not viewed as a conspiracy by a handful of fanatical Catholics. Instead, it became a vast Catholic intrigue against the throne and English Protestantism caused by "the perfidious and cursed doctrine of Rome." The Venetian ambassador described the anti-Catholic talk that was everywhere in London: "Here they attend to nothing else but great preparation for the annihilation of the Catholic religion."

Annihilate the Catholics

After the original plotters were executed, a virtual pogrom against Catholics began, focusing on the Jesuits. Fr. Garnet was eventually arrested, tortured, and executed on trumped-up charges of complicity. He refused to renounce the faith and was venerated as a martyr for generations. Though never formally canonized, to this day many believe him to be a saint.

The impact of the Gunpowder Plot on English thinking was so great that not until 1828 would Catholics be finally "emancipated" in England and allowed a full range of common English rights, including the right to vote. As a point of comparison, in America that number of years would have denied Catholics the ballot from 1776 to the incumbent candidacy of the second George Bush.

Fact Check

A few quick points to remember about the Gunpowder Plot:

  • Prior to his accession, King James I deceived Catholics about what toleration he would allow, even misleading the pope about a possible conversion. His duplicity had its own role in generating the Gunpowder Plot.
  • The Gunpowder Plot, although real, was not a widespread Catholic conspiracy. Most Catholics were horrified when it was discovered, knowing that it would lead to heightened persecution. That it most assuredly did—over two centuries’ worth.
  • The actual conspirators were a small handful of young Catholics. While it cannot be said for certain what involvement double-agents might have had in an era where men such as Robert Cecil were creating the world’s first police state in England (aimed specifically at Catholics), there were young Catholic men willing to engage in the plot, even if they were duped.
  • The Jesuits in England did not devise, guide, or lead the Gunpowder Plot. In fact, they tried to deter any violence based on the limited knowledge they had of the plot. The Jesuit superior in England thought he had successfully put the plot to rest.
  • Cecil’s attack on the Jesuits was a calculated plot against all things Catholic. His propaganda campaign was meant to show that the enemy was not limited to the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, but comprised the Catholic Church itself.
  • The Gunpowder Plot established the climate for the infusion of anti-Catholicism into every.aspect of English life.
  • The number of Catholic urban legends created as a result of the Gunpowder Plot is legion. Standard stereotypes and canards include the conniving Jesuit, priests seducing innocent women, the sacrament of penance as a tool to "forgive" sin before the sin has been committed, Catholic plots to overthrow states, Catholics owing a secular allegiance to the papacy, Catholics as unreliable aliens—the list goes on and on.

Shortly after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered, Parliament declared that November 5 would be celebrated annually as a day of thanksgiving. It became known as "Guy Fawkes Day" and the common practice was to have bonfires and to burn the pope in effigy—a practice that continues in parts of England to this day.


Robert P. Lockwood, director of communications for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, is  the author of A Faith for Grown-Ups: A Midlife Conversation about What Really Matters (Loyola Press).

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 5.