What was the Gunpowder Plot?

We all know fireworks and bonfires are a big part of November 5th. The celebration often called the Guy Fawkes Night is a particularly British festival. While many may be familiar with Guy Fawkes, what about the actual plot? What was the Gunpowder Plot about, who was behind it and why did it fail?

In this blog on the Gunpowder Plot, we examine what happened on November 5th and afterwards. What came of the big plan to kill the King?

The Plot

English Catholics faced persecution during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. When she died in 1603, many hoped James I would be more tolerant, given his Catholic mother. However, James I disappointed them. This led some Catholics, led by Robert Catesby, to plan a rebellion. Their main idea was the Gunpowder Plot: to blow up Parliament and kill the King, hoping for a better ruler for Catholics.


The plotters considered tunnelling under Parliament but settled on storing 36 barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords. They held meetings from 1601 to 1603, but the plot took shape in January-February 1604. By March 1605, they rented the cellar under Parliament, intending to ignite it during the November 5th Opening of Parliament.

The Conspirators

The group’s leader was Robert Catesby, who was charismatic and easily convinced others to follow his violent plans. He enlisted the help of his close friends Thomas Wintour, Jack Wright, and Thomas Percy. Guy Fawkes later joined, having military experience in the Netherlands and Spain.

Guy Fawkes was tasked with acquiring and hiding the gunpowder barrels and setting the fuse on the planned night. His escape route was along the Thames, but things didn’t go as expected.

Towards the end, others joined the Gunpowder Plot, including Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham, and Everard Digby. In total, there were 13 conspirators, but the five original members are the most well-known.


The Plot is leaked to the King

The plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill James I progressed smoothly, but it wasn’t the only Catholic rebellion underway. Many smaller plots were uncovered, as the King and his spies were vigilant.


Several conspirators were already under suspicion as traitors. As the plot advanced and gunpowder was placed beneath Parliament, an anonymous letter reached Lord Monteagle, Francis Tresham’s brother-in-law. The letter urged him to avoid the Parliament opening. Though unclear who sent it, Lord Monteagle shared it with Robert Cecil, the King’s chief minister.


Despite discovering the letter, the conspirators pressed on with their plan. Eventually, the letter reached James I, raising suspicions of imminent danger. The King and the Privy Council decided to search the Parliament premises.

What happened on November 5th?

On November 5th, just after midnight, a second search of the cellars and vaults took place. Guy Fawkes was discovered holding a fuse and matches, and later, the 36 gunpowder barrels were found.

Fawkes, using the name John Johnson, attempted to claim innocence, but the King remained sceptical and ordered his torture. Interestingly, on November 5th, the country lit bonfires to celebrate the King’s safety. This tradition led to the night being commonly known as Bonfire Night.

The Aftermath

Upon learning of Guy Fawkes’ arrest, the other conspirators flee London for the Midlands. Fawkes holds out until the next day before revealing his true identity and those of his fellow plotters.

Authorities locate the conspirators at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, where they engage in a final standoff. Outnumbered and outgunned, Catesby, Percy, and the Wright brothers perish in a shootout. The survivors are taken to the Tower of London for questioning and later put on trial.

In court, the remaining plotters are convicted of treason and sentenced to public hanging as a deterrent to potential future threats against the King.

Fireworks over London

The story is quite an action-packed drama. It’s also a rather quirky occasion to celebrate – are you honouring the attempt to stick it up to the Parliament or the fact the plotters didn’t succeed?

Well, whatever your take on the plot is, the occasion is perfect for bonfires and fireworks. So, let’s enjoy the night, organise a massive party and brighten the dark November night sky with fireworks.

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