328 Apology, Explosion, Satisfaction

There’s so much to talk about! James’ first, management-by-irritation of parliament of 1604 and the passive aggressive Apology and Satisfaction right back at him. And – the Gunpowder Treason and Plot! Hear all about it!

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So we come to 1604, king, queen family and household all in place, religion sorted – according to the king’s satisfaction at least. Next up, a bit delayed, was the tradition of a new monarch on the block, as it were – the opening of parliament, a little delayed by plague.

Now James had a couple of objectives for his new parliament. There was the most clearly stated objection – to redress his subjects’ grievances. Now, I’m not doubting James to a degree – he had been very clear in advice to his son that a king should reign well. But James was also to show that he had limits for his enthusiasm to meet his subjects’ needs, and considerably more enthusiasm for his subjects meeting his needs. The thing that James felt most enthusiastic about was his second object becoming king of a unified Britain, and he found it difficult to believe anyone else would not be as excited as him about that prospect.

Whether James’ expectations, hopes and fears were realistic, must be up for doubt. It must of course be that Salisbury and his English advisers had prepped James thoroughly on the English parliament procedures and personal hygiene habits. But it is entirely possible that James was expecting something just a little more like home, and without wanting to spoil the plot, he was to find the English version of parliament more than a little irritating. Let us consider why that might me.

So, the Scottish parliament was unicameral, one chamber, rather than 2 as in England. It was composed of the traditional 3 estates – Nobles, Church, Towns although church was a moveable feast and much debated but for the moment let us make that so. The agenda for the Scottish parliament was set by a small group called the Lords of the Articles, and to a degree that made it easier for the king to control the agenda – he could bring stuff forward at the last minute as MPs could not, and he could usually nix topics he didn’t like so they wouldn’t come up. Parliaments met for a much shorter period – 2 to 3 weeks; as opposed to often several months in England. The 1604 parliament for example would be adjourned 21 times, prorogued five times and not finally dissolved until February 1611.  The tradition in Scotland was not for debate – proposals were simply voted on. Finally, the power of parliaments was not quite what it was in England; it had become accepted in England that Statute law required Parliamentary approval as well as royal assent; and that statute law so enacted was superior to royal proclamations, which should be used merely for administrative orders. James was to kick against this, and he had a surprising large number of supporters in his views to be fair, because in Scotland, the king could make law, though he usually did this through a sort of mini, royally selected meeting of his nobility called Conventions. These conventions were even more easily controlled, having as they did a large proportion of royal councillors therein. In addition, the Conventions could agree taxes; now there’s a thing, since it had become again accepted for centuries that taxes could only be granted in England by Parliament; although watch this space again on that. There will be disagreement on this aspect of England’s parliament, though you may gasp and clutch your pearls if you are a long time listener – since I doubt I could count the conversations we’ve had about parliament voting subsidies for the monarch.

Now; it doesn’t do to over emphasise the difference between English and Scottish parliament – the implication sometimes is that the Scottish house was a push over. It was not. So, while the Lords of the articles worked away on the agenda, parliament sat, so by the time voting came about parliament had at least been discussing general issues and attitudes. Also, it’s clear that successful monarchs, James among them had to work hard to manage parliaments effectively to get the right results; and finally the Scottish Parliament had demonstrated very clearly in 1560 that it could make wholesale and radical changes, as it did with the Reformation parliament; and it would show its teeth again to James’ son.

That having been said, the English parliament was the largest representative assembly in Europe, with 78 lords and 467 commons; this meant that it was far too large to be packed with government placemen. It also had a tradition of debate, and of thereby being able to control its own agenda; so for example one of the first things the 1604 parliament would debate would be what their grievances were, so that the king could redress them. So, there they were beavering away essentially setting the agenda, and it probably wasn’t going to set the king alight with joy.

However, James had all the fun of the fair opening parliament and giving a speech – and make no mistake, James was a man that liked talking. He had three themes – Peace, religion and law. Peace was quite a category, peace abroad so interesting, that means we need to stop kicking the Spanish, and indeed stop being kicked by the Spanish; but Jimmy slipped a fast one in there – peace internally too, which he figured meant that his two realms needed to become just one; I imagine in this that James is treating England and Wales as one unit, though it’s not clear where Ireland sat in his thinking. Incidentally, he stressed descent from Henry VII, the man who had united Lancaster and York – yup that old chestnut, but for James of course it was particularly important; he was making the point that he was not a foreigner from an alien land, he was part of a royal English house.

It turns out that James’ other two themes, religion and law also rather played into James’ top priority, which wasn’t really to relieve his subjects’ grievances, but to become instead the King of Britain

I am the husband and all the whole Isle is my lawful wife

He said, and followed up with

Unus rex…Unus Grex and una lex

Which as you’ll now of course means one king, one people and one law in some dead language. Don’t shout at me Latin lovers but you know Romanes Eunt domus and all that. In a letter of November 1604 to Salisbury, as we are of course calling Robert Cecil now, he explained that he really did mean

Specifically…the uniting of both the laws and parliaments of both the nations

So, nothing major then. However, at the opening of parliament he only asked that the parliament set up a commission to look at the issues relating to union and report back – clearly, he was eager not to scare the horses. But he also asked for a change in his style ‘I shall be known, he declared as the black vegetable’. No, I shall be known as the King of Great Britain. Sadly, that didn’t go down as well as he’d hoped; in fact urged on by one of their members in particular, one MPs in particular asked a difficult question; if all the laws of the land, made by the parliament of England, would be still applicable to a place called Britannia. Now the one member in particular was a man called Edwin Sandys.



You might recognise the name, from the story of the usurpation of Queen Jane’s throne by Mary Tudor; you might remember the Duke of Northumberland throwing gold coins into the air in Cambridge market place laughing manically with despair, while next to him stood the Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University – Edwin Sandys. Now Edwin survived – mainly by legging it to the continent, and he became one of the Marian exiles in Zurich – he seems to have enjoyed it. On Mary’s death he returned, and landed himself a job as Bishop of Worcester, then Bishop of London and finally Archbishop of York no less. And all of this as one of the more radical protestants, and a man with a talent for falling out with people. He was none the less an active parliamentarian, but he died in 1598 with more than a suspicion of having feathered his own nest; though very probably balanced by an impressive job as pastor of his dioceses. Anyway, he married Cicely Wilford, a woman of Kent, and Cecily had nine children I think – the second surviving of whom was also called Edwin.

Edwin Junior appeared to offer no great signs of leadership; for the first 40 of his years he lived a thoroughly unremarkable life of a member of the Gentry, spending some time working with the great theologian Richard Hooker and at the Middle Temple studying law, and marrying amd carelessly losing 3 wives to the grim reaper before he married Katherine. The 1604 parliament, though, was to prove the making of the man. Not in any grand, flag waving kind of way; but as the quiet, measured, assured and reasonable man of business in parliament; reasonable, but no pushover. So, James’ proposal for a change in style and union was proceeding relatively smoothly, when Edwin got onto his hind legs and spoke with careful authority. He pointed out how important the question was – describing it as ‘the weightiest cause’ parliament had ever considered’. He outlined a series of objections, including the legal issue, but most remarkable was his assertion that ‘The King stands not alone’ and that ‘England sits here representatively only’. Well James would have bristled a bit at the first one, but the second bit was the word of a deep and strong believer in representative government; on a matter like this, Edwin was saying, MPs needed to consult with the constituents they represented. This would characterise Sandys’ approach; he was articulate and measured, but always ready to pick up the cudgel on behalf of Parliament’s privileges and authority, and he would be a leading figure in parliament for the next 20 years. Interestingly, one of the things that allowed this ordinary figure to gain so much weight, was a failure of management of parliamentary process and debate by the Privy Council; because since James had ennobled so many of them, they were all sitting in the House of Lords. It’s interesting, or at least I find it interesting, since there are plenty of commentators who say we over focus on the Lower House in James’ reign, and it was the Lords where real strategic decisions were made; and also because it surely shows the importance of England’s bicameral parliamentary structure. If the Lords had all been present, who knows how freely their tenants and proteges would have felt and been able to debate? Incidentally, I can never say ‘commentators’ without recalling that joke about Princess Potato wanting to marry the potato Eddie Waring, and her Dad telling her she can’t because he’s just a common tater. But I don’t think anyone knows who Eddie Waring was any more.

Anyway, as a result of Sandy’s intervention, the King of Britain can was duly kicked down the road to the next session; meanwhile James was shocked when the Judges ruled on the contention the claim of English votes for English laws only, let’s call it a 17th century EVEL, was absolutely correct, make James King of Great Britain, and you’d have to start all over again with the law making.

James was already feeling irritated therefore with his parliament; there’d been something of a bust up over the appointment of one of the MPs which was disputed; James figured he should rule on it, the Commons claimed it was their right to determine their own composition thank you very much. Meanwhile, the thing the parliament did focus on, perhaps unsurprisingly, were their grievances. It might be with Salisbury’s private prompting that they came up with a list, and it is a list which contains many happy echoes of our medieval podcast episodes. Do you remember Wardships and Purveyances? The rights of monarchs to hold minors in wards, get their revenue and sell them off to the highest bidder; and the right to extract supplies for their armies by force. Ah, happy days. Well no one liked them now any more than they ever had, wanted to kill them – along with the plethora of Monopolies granted to courtiers as well, the latter a more early modern sort of issue.

Which all sounds fine, except you could hardly expect the king to accept this without a quid pro quo, an alternative way for the king to raise the revenue he’d lose. And this the parliament could not agree. Now if you are looking for an argument to support the monarchy in the looming barney other wise know as the civil wars, here’s one for you. The English monarchy was progressively becoming poorer; partly this was an Elizabethan legacy, since she and Burghley had consistently failed to modernise the taxation system. Obviously, this was most popular with the ordinary folk of England; and since there was no mouseshit so mean as Elizabeth, it hadn’t seemed to be a problem. Elizabeth had left debts of about £300,000, the same as Mary, and Elizabeth had fought a war against Europe’s greatest empire for 18 years or so; and most of that £300k was covered by loans to be repaid and a subsidy in the process of being collected.  But under James it would be a mega problem. And the truth is that Parliament would simply not agree to pay the monarchy what they needed; it was a consistently narrow minded attitude, which would take the chaos of civil war to resolve.

Well, James was thoroughly irritated by the whole lot of them – the lack of enthusiasm for his claim to be Emperor of a greater Britain, the determination to make decisions about their own composition, their money dithering. So on 30th May he called the members of the lower house to Whitehall and gave them a rocket about their contrariness and what he called ‘giddy-headedness’. We don’t know exactly what he said, but here are a couple of possible bones of contention. As far as James was concerned, kings came first, parliament later – so parliament was at best a junior partner. Secondly, all parliamentary privileges proceeded from the king and therefore, as I was constantly told at school, privileges can be taken away – you know like being able not to wear jackets on a hot day, but in this case, the right to make laws which could be considered more important than the jacket thing. He also considered that laws came from king not parliament – based on the requirement for royal assent. Parliament was just a tool.

Well this would have put the back of the august members of parliament good and proper and I’m not even joking. Many of them believed that parliaments went back to before Roman times, and predated kings, and that their privileges were therefore theirs by ancient right. There were plenty of lawyers in parliament who firmly believed that the constitution was a matter of balance and it was their job to maintain said balance. Meanwhile, with all the dithering Salisbury dropped the wardship ad purveyance scheme and the lower house felt seriously mislead. So, they decided to write to the king, what they called The Form of Apology and Satisfaction’ as a justification for their approach so far.

Now as it happens the Apology and Satisfaction was never finally agreed by the Commons; for some it was too aggressive, for others it didn’t go far enough. But it doesn’t do to underplay it’s importance; James knew of its existence; and it was quoted extensively in later parliaments, because it formed a fundamental statement of how parliament saw itself and the constitution. They roundly rejected the idea that their rights and privileges were held by the grace of the king – they were their ‘right and due inheritance’; it insisted on their right to be the sole judge of election returns, on the freedom of elections, of parliamentary speech and immunity of MPs from arrest. It was essentially a conservative document, in the sense that the way MPs saw it was that they were faced by an innovative king, seeking to arrogate new powers to himself. And that it was parliament that sought to maintain the status quo, against the background of rising absolutism on the continent. This is interesting from a historiographical perspective to boot; the old whig tradition was of a centuries long battle between king and parliament determined to wrest power from the king. But innovation as we have often said was still a dirty word in 17th century England. It was the king who was innovating in the minds of MPs.

Well James had heard enough, and threw a bit of a hissy fit, and in July prorogued parliament; I think you probably know this, but proroguing means that parliament still exists, no new elections are needed, there’s just a postponement of sessions. I think I’m right I saying this parliament actually lasts until 1611.

Anyway, we were talking hissy fits. So in his winding up speech James thanked the lords for their help, and then turned to the lower house

I will not thank where I think no thanks due…you see I am not of such a stock as to praise fools…You see how in many things you did not well. The best apology maker of you all, for all his eloquence, cannot make all good. You have done things rashly …I wish you would use your liberty with more modesty in time to come

Well, burn, flea in ear or what. I am imagining 467 MPs slinking away, tail firmly between legs, maybe between two files of Lords holding sticks and carrying out a decimation. There have been many bunnies happier than James; he complained that in Scotland although he ‘ruled amongst men not of the best temper’, whatever that means, they at lasted respected his proposals, whereas the English seemed determined ‘to find fault with his propositions’. We are admittedly, a cussed lot. On 20th October he announced that his style was now King of Great Britain either way. It seems that although James was aware of and quite skilled in managing politics, he really had not managed the parliament well, and I’m not sure he ever got the ship back on an even keel; it’s difficult to think of Elizabeth and Burghley ending a parliamentary session in such a state.

Well, James had also mentioned external peace of course, and there’s a thing. Peace with Spain had been impossible while there was war going on in Ireland and while the succession in England was unresolved; it was simply way too tempting for the Spanish to chance their arm in supporting the rebellion. However once Tyrone had submitted and James had succeeded to the throne, the way to peace was opened. James of course had a different perspective to the English; Scotland had never been at war with Spain, and one of the first things he did was to order the end to hostilities at sea.

Salisbury was very much on board with the strategy, and it was really his negotiation. Cecil had adjusted to the new regime with James, albeit his style was different to Elizabeth; James had his areas of interest – Foreign policy and religious discussion first and foremost; but outside of that he was very much prepared to let the Privy Council lead the way; he had more important things to do with his time. These better things were referred to in a letter by the ABY, Matthew Hutton which unfortunately became public – they involved extravagance and an absolute obsession with hunting. James probably spent half of his time away from London; he wasn’t keen on London, and honestly the hunting was poor there, though these days there are more foxes in London than Suffolk I suspect. But generally James headed for East Anglia, often around Newmarket, which Salisbury found a pain since contact was difficult; generally court only joined James when he was on an official summer royal progress. But there was a benefit; without James there, Salisbury, a man with a talent for administration, had room to breathe, spread his wings, take it to the limit, all that sort of thing. The Privy Council was dominated by 3 others in addition to Salisbury; the earl of Worcester was master of the Horse and therefore had the king’s ear because he was always with him while hunting – so he was a vital link. And then there were the Howard’s – the Earl of Northampton and the Earl of Suffolk. The four of them worked with James’s idiosyncrasies – he particularly liked discussing business while walking around; he called them his de-ambulatory councils, which reminds me a bit of those dramas we used to have where high powered business men would snap ‘walk with me to their underlings which always struck me as most unlike the real world of business but then I’ve never thought the media have any real idea of what business is like.

Salisbury dominated the negotiations with Spain. Initially there was some resistance – some thought the Dutch should be included, and felt England were deserting them; but in fact James had asked them to be involved, and they’d said they’d only do so if recognised as a separate state first – which of course the Spanish would not suffer. And so they stayed away. Salisbury was very clever. He offered only vague concessions; rather than formal toleration for Catholics for example, he offered only vague commitments from James personally. He ducked any question of recognising a Spanish monopoly of new World Trade – and therefore cleared the way for English merchants to trade with the Windies; over the next decade English trade boomed with Spain and in the med, and exploration of north Americas could restart. The treaty of London was signed in August 1604, and closed off with a grand banquet thrown by James, where the idea of a Spanish marriage, and Spanish match was first mooted, between the Prince Henry and Infanta of Spain.





The reaction of the public, though, was not particularly enthusiastic; it seems the English had rather enjoyed fighting the Spanish. There were no public celebrations and bonfires all was quiet and a bit sullen. Peace huh. Oh well, I suppose we’ll just have to go back to trading legally, bit of a bore.

Now then, when the 1604 session of parliament had been prorogued by the distinctly grumpy king in July 1604, the honourable members, as well as the less honourable and even the frankly disreputable ones, had been told to write a date for the next session of 5th November 1605.  So presumably some of the more anxious ones scrawled in their diary ‘Remember, Remember the 5th of November. Although this being 17th century England, we have absolutely no idea how many different ways they spelled it. But not long before that memorable,  a chain of events which started with a note being handed to a servant of a Catholic lord, Lord Monteagle, meant that after the words remember Remember the 5th of November they would then scrawl ‘Gunpowder Treason and Plot’. And to find out why they might have scrawled this, although it’s a racing certainty that I am making the diary entry thing up, we will have to go back a step or to.

Just to address you personally here, you may well of course have guessed that I am about to embark on a recounting of the tale of the Gunpowder plot. I have to confess that my shoulders are sagging a little under the weight of history and expectation; since I imagine that my fellow English folk will have done the event multiple times in their school career, or at least once, and probably some sort of project as a 9 year old with impressions of Guido Fawkes’ signature after he had been tortured, maybe on some sort of document stained with tea. So telling the tale again is a weight of expectation, but of course to everyone else you may well be think ‘Gunpowder what? Guido who?’ So, you know, onward.

My abiding memory of the Gunpowder Plot is very definitely of Guy Fawkes, I suppose because we, you know, burn him every year. The solid burgers of Swyncombeshire all gather, drink beer, eat sausages and talk about the weather while the effigy of a man goes up like a torch and we all cheer and let off the fireworks in celebration. It’s all more than a little gruesome, but you know, anything for a sausage. But really, the genesis was not with old Guido, but with one Robert Catesby, of a prominent Catholic family, and interestingly a descendant of William Catesby, chum of Richard III and executed in Leicester after Bosworth. Robert was a tall, good-looking man, charming, charismatic, almost mesmeric. For his chum Lord Monteagle he was

‘the dear Robin whose conversation gave us such warmth’ and ‘the only sun that must ripen our harvest’.[1]

However, as the Jesuit John Gerard noted, he was also very wild; and as another Jesuit wrote

‘He was beside himself with mindless fanaticism…he was wasting time when he was not doing something to bring about the conversion of the country’.

Catesby had got involved in Essex’s rebellion, and so was a well-known trouble-maker to the new regime. His friends Monteagle and Thomas Winter had been part of the seemingly inexhaustible stream of Catholic noblemen who had beaten a path to Spain to ask for material help in an invasion or rebellion; I seem to have written that so many times, I should have it ready on the clipboard to paste into the script. Anyway, during the Essex thing, Catesby had managed to save himself through the good offices of one of his other mates – one Francis Tresham, son of Thomas Tresham, a very influential and rich Catholic nobleman in Northamptonshire; which was generous of Thomas, because while paying all his recusancy fees, and building the intriguing Triangular Lodge, it’d also cost him £1000 to dig his own son, Francis, out of the Essex rebellion, let alone Catesby.

So as we’ve heard, after high hopes, James had turned out to be just another Protestant. In addition, Catholic rebels had been deserted by their greatest hope – the Spanish; despite all their pleading, Philip went ahead and signed that peace with no mention of toleration. One of the pleaders who’d turned up at Phillip’s court was a product of St Peter’s School in York – one Guy Fawkes, and he’d been disappointed like all the rest. Fawkes had sold up and took himself to the Netherlands to fight for Spain and the Faith in 1596; a Jesuit after the plot had, um, blown up, described him as something of a paragon

devout, patient, ‘pleasant of approach and cheerful of manner, opposed to quarrels and strife … loyal to his friends’


‘a man highly skilled in matters of war

Though opposed to quarrels and strife. Obs. Obviously this is not a particularly reliable account; the same Jesuit wrote highly favourable accounts of all the conspirators.  And how skilled was Guy at military matters seems a little questionable – he’d not risen very high in the ranks of the Spanish army in 6 years of fighting in the Spanish Netherlands, but I guess he’d know his way around a barrel of gunpowder. And that knowledge earned him a dinner invitation to some lodgings in the Strand in London, from one Robert Catesby. There he was given communion by John Gerard, a Jesuit who apparently knew nothing of the plot, and met up with John and Christopher Wright, Thomas Winter and Thomas Percy. And there, a plot was hatched. At the opening of the next session of parliament they would blow the whole lot of ‘em sky high, James, Prince Henry, hopefully Prince Charles, and all those scurvy MPs. Obs it was a shame there would be some Catholics among them, but hey, collateral damage was inevitable and

‘rather than the project should not take effect, if they were as dear to him as his own son … they should be also blowen up’

Catesby had rented rooms in a house next to the parliament, from where they were going to tunnel under parliament – and then a room came up for rent which was right under the place! Well that’s a bit of providence if you like. While everyone was being converted into very small pieces, a group in the guise of a hunting party would ride out from a hideout in the midlands, capture the 9 year old daughter of James and Anne, Princess Elizabeth at Coventry, and she’d be told exactly what to do while Catholicism was restored, or else. It’s a great plan. What could go wrong?

Once they had the basement rented under the houses of parliament, all they had to do was transport the gunpowder over from another Catesby house in Lambeth guarded by one Robert Keyes, over to Westminster, and then enjoy the summer in the countryside; the plot grew, with recruits such as Sir Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, and Francis Tresham. If Catesby did suffer scruples about the mayhem he planned, and many of his fellow plotters appear to have had, he was cleared of them by the Jesuit Henry Garnet who told him

the multitude of innocents, or the harm which might ensue by their death, were not such that it did countervail the gain and commodity of the victory.

To be fair to Garnet, Catesby phrased the question as a theoretical one; he didn’t wander in and say ‘hey I’m planning to blow up 600 or so folks, give me a pass from God on that would you’; Garnet would contend that he knew nothing of the actual plot.

In October 1605, the conspirators gathered in London. Thomas Winter learned he was supposed to attend parliament in the entourage of Monteagle, which must have been a worry but then I guess he could just throw a sickie; but it turned out that Prince Henry would not be at the opening ceremony, which was disappointing, so they’d have to capture him afterwards. Rats. Then Winter bought more alarming news. Monteagle’s servant had been handed a note on 27th October. The note said

‘As you tender your life, devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this Parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time.’

Who’d written this note – the Monteagle Letter, which still survives, by the way? Suspicion among the plotters fell on Francis Tresham, since he was fond of his brother in law, Monteagle, and they roasted the lad on 1st November. But he fiercely denied it, and we don’t know for sure. So the plotters talked it through – fight or flight? What would Monteagle do – afterall, he was a good Catholic and had even tried persuade Spain to invade his own country, so surely he wouldn’t shop them? And the note was hardly specific, Monteagle would probably think it the work of a crank anyway. It was Thomas Percy who probably swung the argument on the night of 3rd – they’d see it through. It was fight. So Guy Fawkes, with the pseudonym John Johnson, took his way to the cellars with a slow match and a timer, and waited.

What was happening behind the scenes? Well Monteagle had not ignored the note. He had instead handed it on to Salisbury. Salisbury had shared it with the Privy Council but no one was very convinced. But the Earl of Suffolk and Monteagle did a search, and in the cellars they did find a big man in a store room with a remarkably large consignment of wood. But the man was a lovely chap, and convinced them all it belonged to his boss Thomas Percy, so nothing about which knickers should be placed in any kind of twist. When they got back to court though, Monteagle pondered all of this and wondered aloud – ‘why did Thomas Percy, of all people, have so much wood in a Westminster cellar? I know the lad of course – he’s a Catholic by the way’.

Well that awoke James’ suspicious nature and he sent Sir Thomas Knyvett down for a closer look. Picture the scene – its midnight in a dark, damp cellar. Guy Fawkes is down there, slow match, timer, must be tense, thinking back to his earlier interview – did he convince them all? Next a crashing at the door, as Thomas Knyvett and his men burst in. Knyvett was unconvinced by the fully booted Jackson, had him arrested, dragged back the faggot of wood and hey whaddya know! Corned gun powder. Barrels of the stuff. Enough to blow everyone to kingdom come.

By the time the news hit the capital on 5th Catesby, Percy, Rookwood, Thomas Wintour and the Wright brothers were flown – racing north with all the speed they could manage to their midlands rebellion, to raise a Catholic fire and seize the new queen in waiting, Elizabeth II! They were to meet Everard Digby and the Catholic Gentry, cunningly disguised as a hunting party, at Dunchurch in Northampton. Dishevelled, Catesby arrived at the Inn, while behind him the hue and cry started. He urged the Gentry to rise with him and no doubt there was much politeness, but as they all rode away, the vast majority of the gentry, simply took other directions to Catesby and went home for a cup of cocoa and an early night. The increasingly small and desperate band rode on from Catholic house to Catholic house; Digby wrote to Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior, for his blessing, and received reply from his messenger that instead of blessing the venture Garnet had been horrified and

‘marvelled they would enter into so wicked actions and not be ruled by the advice of friends’.

Digby was shocked. Catesby clearly hadn’t given him this impression. He rode on westwards heading with his desperate band to a safe house where they could make a last stand, Holbeach house in Staffordshire.

While this was going on, Guy Fawkes was having his finest hour. Very brave, totally defiant and enormously uncommunicative. From 7th to 9th, while the Privy Council feared a rebellion in the Midlands, all they got from Fawkes was abuse of the Scots, and that if he’d succeeded he’d have been delighted to blow the king back to his ‘northern mountains’. He was almost certainly tortured during these dangerous days, if his signature is anything to go by. Apparently, James asked that he should be tortured as gently as possible, so I suppose they started with a bit of tickling maybe, or telling him endless Dad jokes, not sure. Shouldn’t joke really, he was afterall tortured. In defence of the Privy Council and indeed the English state, this was 1605 and England’s record on judicial torture was better than most given common law – I say that because we have a telly series a while ago where the phrase ‘dark time in our history’ was used, usually a sign of what I believe is now called presentism. Fawkes was the only one of the rebels tortured.

Anyway back in Holbeach House, the brave and daring rebels, having daubed V for Vendetta on their foreheads presumably had on the way half inched a load of gunpowder from Warwick Castle. This probably seemed like a good idea at the time – after all, revolutionaries and gunpower do generally go well together. In this case it proved a rather poor one. They managed set a load of it off, which burned a load of people and terrified the rest and resulted in more rebels remembering they’d left the gas on back home and better nip off and deal with it instead of bringing down the evil protestant king, and it brought the law down on their necks a good deal earlier than it might have done, in the form of Richard Walsh, the Sheriff of Worcestershire, who came along to find out if he could please have his gunpowder back.

Like Butch and Sundance, at 11 in the morning on 8th November, the rebels charged the posse. A defiant Catesby, kissed his gold crucifix, brandishing his sword, and was killed by the same bullet that also mortally wounded Thomas Percy, fired by one John Street. The Wright brothers also died, but Ambrose Rookwood, Thomas Winter and other were injured and dragged away for questioning. Tradition has it that Catesby crawled back in the house and died clasping an image of the virgin…but come on!


On the 5th, as news spread, the good citizens of London celebrated their deliverance, and lit bonfires all over the city. It was quite a party, as someone wrote, with a ‘great ringing and as great store of bonfires as ever I thincke was seene’ and James was convinced God had delivered him. Parliament declared a national day of thanksgiving, which is nice, and so Bonfire night was born. Quite why just another failed plot against the state has been so long celebrated is a bit of a poser, but despite the various objections I personally am very glad it has, enjoy setting off multiple enormous cakes of fireworks and building the village fire each year, and the butcher’s sausages are simply the bee’s buttocks. There are explanations though and theories, mainly connected with an association between Bonfire night and Protestantism; in the 17th century the Pope or the Devil were commonly burned; on Catholic emancipation in the 19th century, die-hards evoked the spirit of the 5th November. But by then England was becoming more secular and in 1790 there’s a record of small urchins doing their normal confidence trick of begging in the street so that they could burn Guy Fawkes – and so it was Fawkes that started to be burned. Which is so much better of course – but not very strategic, should be Catesby really. Oh well. Incidentally a family member lives in Lewes – and by all accounts that party is WILD.

Meanwhile back at the 17th century ranch, Parliament was adjourned because of the fuss, and didn’t meet properly again until January 1606…when it was again adjourned for the trial of the traitors. Francis Tresham had been found in London, but died of illness before the trial. The trial was an occasion of great spectacle, people paid for a good seat, or any kind of seat. Edward Coke was in his prosecuting pomp, and Everard Digby, Robert Winter, John Grant and Thomas Bates were executed on 30th January 1606 at St Paul’s Churchyard, on 31st January 1606. Thomas Wintour, Ambrose Rookwood, Robert Keyes and Guy Fawkes were executed at Westminster, in the Old Palace Yard. Henry Garnet was found, treated rather handsomely in the Tower, but no one was prepared to believe he could really have been so naive and not known, and so was executed on 3rd May 1606. John Gerard escaped the Tower.

So there we are ladies and gentlemen, the Gunpowder Treason and plot, and the creation of a little piece of English cultural life.

[1] Childs, Jessie. God’s Traitors (p. 272). Random House. Kindle Edition.

14 thoughts on “328 Apology, Explosion, Satisfaction

  1. I just saw the movie. The Last Duel, another Ridley Scott film.
    Super! Set in France 1380s.
    It just came out over here in the US.

  2. Great episode. I do love a bit of political tension, especially when I’m at a safe distance in time and/or space.
    I share your slight bemusement at why the Gunpowder Plot is still so famous. It’s strange for a nation to have absorbed a failed terrorist attack as a cultural landmark. I also find the sympathy for the conspirators odd: surely anyone can see they were fanatical chancers who were prepared to kill a lot of people in the hope of a revolution that would never have happened anyway.

    1. I suppose it was a drama and they wanted to make a name; and also the modern thing, surely, is to be on the side of the underdog, so it fits with the modern zeitgeist

    2. I might be spitballing here but I think that the fact it was, in some ways, the last plot of its kind did play into its celebrity…

      By 1605 Spain had more or less accepted that England would be Protestant, France was more or less allied with London, pretty much everyone was recognising James as king and there was no longer any credible Catholic claimant anyway. Add to this the fact that James’ trouble with parliament somewhat foreshadowed what was to come and I can see how the Gunpowder Plot can have winded up being remembered as the end of an era, the last moment where the Catholic-Protestant clash was the key political question before it was replaced by the Crown-Parliament clash, although religion would of course still play a key role in the politics of England!

      1. I think you may have a point there. If there’d been another major attempt 50 years later, it would have likely taken precedence in the public’s imagination.
        In a way, the Gunpowder plot is militant Catholicism’s last gasp. By this point, a couple of generations had passed since the start of the Reformation and Protestantism was here to stay. As you say, the Civil Wars were fought between different branches of Protestantism. Charles I was never a Catholic, despite his enemies accusations.

  3. As Sam and you say, odd that one plot among so many, including those against Elizabeth, should have so long a cultural afterlife. Possibly because it fed anti-Catholic hysteria against the later Stuarts?
    As to Parliament’s failure to finance the government sufficiently, the problem with James etc. was that Parliament had no way to ensure that new subsidies didn’t get handed off to the latest pretty face to attract James. Elizabeth could always tel “how many beans made five”. If you don’t update tax assessments, parsimony is the only way to balance the budget. James’ profligacy exacerbated the problem he inherited and left a bigger problem for Charles.
    Finally, God’s Traitors is an excellent book.

    1. Yes I think you are right with James – essentially parliament had no confidence the money would be well spent.

  4. Hello! This is of very little importance, I’m sure, but there is a phrase that you have used occasionally in previous episodes and again in this one, ‘mean as mouseshit’. It had always amused me, but this time after hearing it, my curiosity was peaked enough to finally search the phrase to learn it’s origins, and I was stumped that there seems to be no trace of it on google, urban dictionary, etc. Could you help to elaborate on the origins/meaning of that particular phrase? Many thanks, and great podcast!

    1. Oh dear I am caught! The only provenance I know of is a family friend many decades; a lovey man called Dr Bayley, heart surgeon. A very funny man who perfectly off set and jollied along my rather gloomy father. We did love him; his daughter was my ‘Academic Mother’ at St Andrews’. It was his phrase – he’d use it while Dad tried to outfumble him when it came to paying for the drinks at the bar (though my Dad was a generous man, actually, if devilishly thrifty). I think it’s a rather nice image. Mouse shit IS rather small, insignificant and ‘mean’ in the wider, insignificant sense. Though I have been challenged in these pages on that point by those who have been subjected to generous amounts of it!

  5. Ah yes claming descent from that most English of kings, Henry the 7th, born in Wales and spent most of his life in France

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