This series has five easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Guy Fawkes’ Confession.
If successful, this plot would have destroyed the British government, killing the Members of Parliament, the King, the King’s Ministers, and the aristocracy present in The House of Lords. The conspirators’ goal was not terrorism but an outright coup. Guy Fawkes, the principal villain in the story is remembered for the annual Guy Fawkes Day in Britain and the source of the word “guy” in everyday use in our language.
Gardiner’s story is based mostly on Gawkes’ confession.
This selection is from What the Gunpowder Plot Was by Samuel R. Gardiner published in 1897. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Samuel R. Gardiner specialized in English history in the seventeenth century.
Place: House of Lords, London
Before examining the evidence, it will be well to remind my readers what the so-called traditional story of the plot is, or, rather, the story which has been told by writers who have in the present century availed themselves of the manuscript treasures now at our disposal, and which are for the most part in the Public Record Office. With this object I cannot do better than borrow the succinct narrative of the Edinburgh Review.
[1: January, 1897, p. 192.]
“Early in 1604 the three men, Robert Catesby, John Wright, and Thomas Winter, meeting in a house at Lambeth, resolved on a Powder Plot, though, of course, only in outline. By April they had added to their number Wright’s brother-in-law, Thomas Percy, and Guy Fawkes, a Yorkshire man of respectable family, but actually a soldier of fortune, serving in the Spanish army in the Low Countries, who was specially brought over to England as a capable and resolute man. Later on they enlisted Wright’s brother Christopher, Winter’s brother Robert, Robert Keyes, and a few more; but all, with the exception of Thomas Bates, Catesby’s servant, men of family and for the most part of competent fortune, though Keyes is said to have been in straitened circumstances, and Catesby to have been impoverished by a heavy fine levied on him as a recusant.
[2: This is a mistake. The fine of three thousand pounds was imposed for his part in the Essex rebellion.]
“Percy, a second cousin of the Earl of Northumberland, then captain of the Gentleman Pensioners, was admitted by him into that body in — it is said — an irregular manner, his relationship to the earl passing in lieu of the usual oath of fidelity. The position gave him some authority and license near the court, and enabled him to hire a house, or part of a house, adjoining the House of Lords. From the cellar of this house they proposed to burrow under the House of Lords; to place there a large quantity of powder, and to blow up the whole when the King and his family were there assembled at the opening of Parliament. On December 11, 1604, they began to dig in the cellar, and after a fortnight’s labor, having come to a thick wall, they left off work and separated for Christmas.
“Early in January they began at the wall, which they found to be extremely hard, so that, after working for about two months, they had not got more than half way through it. They then learned that a cellar actually under the House of Lords, and used as a coal cellar, was to be let; and as it was most suitable for their design, Percy hired it as though for his own use. The digging was stopped, and powder, to the amount of thirty-six barrels, was brought into the cellar, where it was stowed under heaps of coal or firewood, and so remained, under the immediate care of Guy Fawkes, till, on the night of November 4, 1605 — the opening of Parliament being fixed for the next day — Sir Thomas Knyvet, with a party of men, was ordered to examine the cellar. He met Fawkes coming out of it, arrested him, and on a close search found the powder, of which a mysterious warning had been conveyed to Lord Monteagle a few days before. On the news of this discovery the conspirators scattered, but by different roads rejoined each other in Warwickshire, whence, endeavoring to raise the country, they rode through Worcestershire, and were finally shot or taken prisoners at Holbeche in Staffordshire.”
[3: Off and on, a fortnight at the end of January and beginning of February, and then again probably for a very short time in March.]
[4: Fawkes was absent part of the time.]
It is this story that I now propose to compare with the evidence. First of all, let us restrict ourselves to the story told by Guy Fawkes himself in the five examinations to which he was subjected previously to his being put to the torture on November 9th, and to the letters, proclamations, etc., issued by the Government during the four days commencing with the 5th. From these we learn, not only that Fawkes’ account of the matter gradually developed, but that the knowledge of the Government also developed; a fact which fits in very well with the “traditional story,” but which is hardly to be expected if the Government account of the affair was cut-and-dried from the first.
Fawkes’ first examination took place on November 5th, and was conducted by Chief Justice Popham and Attorney-General Coke. It is true that only a copy has reached us, but it is a copy taken for Coke’s use, as is shown by the headings of each paragraph inserted in the margin in his own hand. It is therefore out of the question that Salisbury, if he had been so minded, would have been able to falsify it. Each page has the signature (in copy) of “Jhon Jhonson,” the name by which Fawkes chose to be known.
The first part of the examination turns upon Fawkes’ movements abroad, showing that the Government had already acquired information that he had been beyond sea. Fawkes showed no reluctance to speak of his own proceedings in the Low Countries, or to give the names of persons he had met there, and who were beyond the reach of his examiners. As to his movements after his return to England, he was explicit enough so far as he was himself concerned, and also about Percy, whose servant he professed himself to be, and whose connection with the hiring of the house could not be concealed.
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