Monday, November 5, 2007

Remembering the 5th of November

The story of Guy Fawkes; Real Truth turns 2
November 5, 2007

The seeds of discontent at the treatment of Catholics in England, which ultimately led to the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, were first sown in the late 1520s during the reign of Henry VIII. Henry had been declared Defender of the Faith by the pope and had written tracts against Protestantism. However, dissatisfied with the Pope's refusal to grant him a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Henry broke away from the See of Rome, extinguished all papal power in England, and executed his investiture as the head of the Church of England. This was followed by the methodical Dissolution of the Monasteries, under the supervision of Thomas Cromwell, which aided the English war chest and was instrumental in eroding the English power of the Catholic Church. Henry's Church of England was initially not Protestant, but remained closer to his traditional belief of Catholicism.

In the turbulent years that followed Henry’s death, England swayed back and forth on a theological pendulum. Henry's successor, his son Edward VI, steered the Anglican Church down the path of Protestantism, whereas his sister "Bloody" Mary I attempted to violently restore England to Catholicism through severe Protestant persecution, until Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, when the tide was again reversed.

Fearful of a now encroaching Catholic Europe, Elizabeth embarked upon a systematic course of repression and persecution of Catholics within her own country, in an attempt to ensure that there was no discontented populace which could assist a foreign invasion, or which could be seen as a beacon if a foreign invasion occurred. When the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Elizabeth had all but extinguished the hopes for an end to persecution of those Catholics in England who saw Spain as their great ally. The previous year she had had her rival, the deposed and imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, executed in order to prevent underground Catholic cells rallying to Mary’s cause and attempting to depose Elizabeth. Such activities as this had been only too evident in the Babington Plot of 1586 which uncovered Mary's coveting of the English crown and which was subsequently a main reason for her eventual execution. Mary's claim to the English throne came through her grandmother Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's eldest sister, who had married James IV of Scotland.

When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, there was disagreement about her right to follow Mary I. Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn, was according to some, not legally married, because Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon was not legal as it would not be ratified by the Pope (the reason Henry broke away from the Catholic Church). So, upon Anne Boleyn's execution for treason, Elizabeth was separately declared a bastard, then removed from the succession by an act of the Privy Council. However, Henry placed her back in the succession, but never legitimized her.

Towards the end of Elizabeth's reign, the Catholic strongholds in the north of England, who had been instrumental in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536/37 and the Norfolk and Northern Uprising of 1569, began sending envoys to both Phillip II of Spain and James VI of Scotland (the son of Mary Queen of Scots). It had become illegal to talk of the succession, yet James was commonly seen as Elizabeth's heir by both Protestants and Catholics, by virtue of closeness of blood to Henry VIII.

The Essex Rebellion of 1601 brought the names of many of those who were at the forefront of the Catholic cause to the attention of the Government, including that of Robert Catesby, who was later to become the leader of the Gunpowder Plot. The Catholics, relieved at the prospect that the son of a Catholic monarch had seemingly been guranteed the throne after Elizabeth's death, had acquired from James the promise of toleration in the event that he did succeed Elizabeth. However, their embassies to Spain, dubbed the Spanish Treason, had been met with a lukewarm response by the Spanish Government, and in fact England and Spain signed a peace treaty soon after the last of these embassies had returned home.

When James eventually succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 as James I, there was initial celebration by the Catholic leaders, who under Elizabeth had been persecuted to such an extreme that any sign of Catholic sympathy risked the severest of penalties, including death. James, however, was not to be their saviour. No sooner had the Hampton Court Conference ended -- with no compromise being given to either the Puritan faction or the Catholics -- than James re-introduced the harsh penalties for recusancy.

Within a few weeks of this, the five core members of the Gunpowder Plot -- Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Thomas Wintour, John Wright and Guy Fawkes -- met together and swore an oath on the Holy Sacrament to blow up James and the Houses of Parliament when next the Parliament sat. Catesby was the charismatic son of Sir William Catesby, a prominent leader in the Catholic community who had been tried and imprisoned in 1581 for harbouring Father Edmund Campion, the English Superior of the Jesuits. Thomas Percy was descended from the Earls of Northumberland, who had come to prominence in earlier Catholic uprisings involving Mary Queen of Scots, and now worked for his kinsman Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland. Wintour and Wright, also members of the gentry, had both experienced first-hand the severity of the anti-Catholic government. Fawkes was a soldier who had spent more than ten years fighting in the Low Countries under the flag of Spain in the regiment of English exiles led by Sir William Stanley, himself a self-imposed Catholic exile.

The conspirators first hired lodgings which were close to Parliament House, and began digging a tunnel that they hoped would take them under their target. Some modern theorists claim that authenticity of the tunnel story is dubious, and its brief mention in the plotters’ confessions never confirms its existence one way or the other. Popular belief, though, indicated that the tunnel soon became unusable due to water seeping in from the Thames, or that the thick walls of the Parliament buildings prevented further advancement, so a cellar was soon acquired by Thomas Percy within the Parliament buildings. In this cellar the conspirators placed 36 barrels of gunpowder which were carefully hidden by billets of wood and pieces of iron.

The exercise was becoming costly and more hands were required, so Catesby drew more accomplices into the inner circle of the plot, including his servant Thomas Bates, John Wright's brother Christopher Wright, and Thomas Wintour's brother Robert Wintour. In the ensuing months, Parliament's sitting was continually delayed, allowing Fawkes to return to Flanders to get more powder to replace the powder which had begun to spoil, and Catesby to organise further support (and, some claim, to meet with Jesuit priests, including leaders of the order such as Father Henry Garnet and Father John Gerard. John Grant, Sir Everard Digby, Robert Keyes, Ambrose Rookwood, and Catesby's cousin Francis Tresham were subsequently brought into the plot. Tresham was the son of Sir Thomas Tresham, one of the leading Catholics of the later Elizabethan period, and one who had suffered greatly for his faith at the hands of the government. Grant was the brother-in-law of Robert and Thomas Wintour, and Digby, Keyes and Rookwood were also disaffected members of Midland Catholic families. All but Fawkes and Bates were related either by blood or marriage.

On the 26th of October 1605, ten days before Parliament was due to sit, an unknown messenger delivered a letter to William Parker, Lord Monteagle at his house in Hoxton, outside London. Monteagle had been a staunch Catholic whose ardour had cooled after he had obtained favour under the new regime. The "Monteagle Letter" was an attempt to warn Monteagle not to attend the opening of Parliament because of a great calamity that would consume it. Monteagle at once delivered the letter to Robert Cecil, James’ Secretary of State. Within hours, word was received by the conspirators that the letter existed. Catesby and Thomas Wintour immediately suspected that Tresham had written the letter, although Tresham convinced them that he had not been the author.

Over the next few days, the conspirators played a waiting game. Through their own efforts, and through information that found its way to them, they concluded that the letter had not alerted the government to their plans, and they continued with their actions. On the night of the 4th of November 1605, the day before Parliament was scheduled to open, Fawkes was caught in the cellar beneath the Parliament buildings with the powder. On his person were found the tools necessary to fire the powder train. He was immediately arrested and brought before the king. Over the next few days, Fawkes was tortured, until gradually he began to reveal details of the plot. At first he maintained the facade of John Johnson, servant to Thomas Percy, but in time he revealed his true identity and the names of his fellow conspirators.

In the early hours of 5 November 1605, news spread of Fawkes’ capture. The remaining plotters saddled their horses and left London for the midlands in twos and threes, except for Tresham who had decided to remain in London. The conspirators arrived in Dunchurch in Warwickshire and rendezvoused with a group of followers who had been gathered by Digby ostensibly as a hunting party. This group -- which numbered about 60, although this figure varied depending on the source consulted -- arrived at Holbeche House on the Staffordshire border in the evening hours of the 7th of November. Holbeche was owned by the recusant Littleton family who had been involved in many of the Catholic uprisings, as well as the Essex Rebellion, and it was to be the last stand of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators.

That evening, several of the plotters were injured by an accidental explosion which occurred while they were drying powder in front of an open fire. This accident lowered their morale even further. Between this evening and morning of the following day, several members of the group fled, while others still tried valiantly to rally support from the surrounding area. Just before midday on the 8th of November, the Sheriff of Worcester arrived with a posse of men and surrounded the house. After several attempts to have the conspirators surrender, a skirmish developed. Catesby, the two Wrights and Thomas Percy were all fatally wounded. The remaining known conspirators were apprehended (except Robert Wintour and Stephen Littleton who had fled), imprisoned in Worcester jail, and then transported to London to await trial. Four days after the siege at Holbeche, Francis Tresham was arrested in London and sent to the Tower of London. After spending two months on the run, Wintour and Littleton were eventually apprehended at Hagley House.

Thomas Wintour, the most senior of the plotters still alive, made his celebrated confession at the end of November. Conjecture exists today as to the authenticity of this confession, and it should be understood that the two primary sources from which most of the factscome down to us today come from this confession and the confession of Fawkes. By the 23rd of December, Francis Tresham had succumbed to a urinary tract infection and had died in the Tower. The mysterious circumstances surrounding this death still generate debate over Tresham's true role in the Gunpowder Plot, and whether he was in fact poisoned or whether he was allowed to escape.

The government now made extensive plans to track down the Jesuit priests, led by Henry Garnet, who they were still convinced were the masterminds behind the plot. Although all the plotters categorically denied any involvement by Garnet and his Jesuit colleagues, Robert Cecil was still trying to pin the blame on the Jesuits as justification for the Government’s severe anti-Catholic legislation.

Garnet was eventually captured at Hindlip, home of the recusant Thomas Habington, along with the Jesuit Edward Oldcorne and Nicholas Owen, a Jesuit lay-brother who was skilled in the building of "priest holes". The information on Garnet's whereabouts was supplied by Humphrey Littleton, who had been with the plotters on the 8th of November, and was now trying to buy himself a pardon. This attempt was ultimately to no avail, as Littleton was eventually executed for complicity in the Plot.

On the day of Garnet's capture, the 27th of January 1606, the trial of the eight surviving conspirators began. None denied the charge of treason, and all were condemned to be executed. On Thursday the 30th of January, Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant and Thomas Bates were executed in St. Paul's Churchyard. The following day, Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes and Guy Fawkes were executed in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster. All eight men were hanged, drawn and quartered as was customary for traitors. Those who died at Holbeche were exhumed, and their heads removed to be displayed on pikes. Father Henry Garnet was executed on the 3rd of May 1606.

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