It’s Guy Fawkes Night! But should it be called Guy Fawkes Night? Robert Catesby was behind the Gunpowder Plot, not Guy Fawkes. In fact, there’s a theory that someone else was behind it – Sir Robert Cecil, England’s Secretary of State…
Today is the 409th anniversary of the day a Catholic terrorist conspiracy to blow up King James I and the House of Lords was foiled. On November 5th 1605, a man named Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars beneath Parliament, getting ready to light 36 barrels of gunpowder.
Investigations, interrogations and a confession from Guy Fawkes under torture revealed the names of all thirteen conspirators, who were apprehended. Some, including lead conspirator Robert Catesby, were killed prior to capture; the rest were gruesomely executed for treason.
And thereafter the event became known as the Gunpowder Plot. Initially it was commemorated each year with anti-Catholic, sometimes violent celebrations, but these were eventually nurtured into the more social festivities we know today, with bonfires and firework displays.
Robert Catesby’s motives were straightforward. After James I, a Protestant, became king, Catholics believed that he was going to be more tolerant of them than his predecessor, Elizabeth I. But even though James himself was more moderate in his views, persecution of Catholics continued. So Robert Catesby and his fellow conspirators decided to take drastic action.
But were the thirteen men the only players in the plot?
A government conspiracy?
There were conspiracy theorists at the time who believed that Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury and Secretary of State, was involved. They claimed he had secretly nurtured the plot from behind the scenes to incite anti-Catholic feeling in the country and provide cause for James to enact more severe anti-Catholic laws.
Here are some reasons why conspiracy theories about Cecil and the government’s involvement in the plot became popular…
1. Cecil had a motive
It’s widely held that Cecil hated Catholics. He served under Elizabeth I, who was much stricter with them. When Elizabeth died, James came to the throne with a softer attitude, and his mother – Mary, Queen of Scots – had died for the Catholic cause. Cecil was worried that James might be lenient with the Catholics and planned to use the Gunpowder Plot to convince him that Catholics could not be trusted.
2. The government had a monopoly on gunpowder
Guy Fawkes and the conspirators managed to get hold of 36 barrels of the stuff. A tall order. Given the government’s control over most of the gunpowder in England, how could the conspirators get hold of so much of it without being noticed?
3. The conspirators moved in next door
Thomas Percy, one of the conspirators, had contacts within the government, which is how he was able to rent a house really close to the Houses of Parliament. It’s also how he was able to purchase a lease to the cellars under the House of Lords, allowing the barrels of gunpowder to be transported there.
Did these ‘contacts’ know of Percy’s plans? Why would they allow Percy – a known Catholic – to move in so close to the heart of the English government? Did these contacts help the plotters move what was a very sizeable amount of gunpowder into place?
4. Cecil’s strange actions
Lord Monteagle received an anonymous letter warning him not to come to the Houses of Parliament on 5th November, and that Parliament would receive a ‘terrible blow’. Monteagle took the letter to London and delivered it to Cecil.
But this happened on 26th October. Cecil decided not to inform the king about the letter until he returned from a hunting trip on 1st November and then played dumb about its implications. The cellars were not searched until 4th November, and the first search was hardly thorough. They found Guy Fawkes and let him go! They failed to find the gunpowder, even though it was there, hidden under piles of coal and faggots.
It was James himself who ordered a second, more thorough search in the early hours of November 5th. The search party found Fawkes again, his pockets filled with touchwood, slow matches and a pocket watch. This time the gunpowder was found and Fawkes was arrested.
Some people argue that Cecil was actually behind the ‘Monteagle letter’. Still to this day, the writer is unidentified.
5. Cecil’s secret meetings with Catesby
On his deathbed, George Bartlet, one of Robert Catesby’s servants, admitted that Catesby had met with Robert Cecil several times before November 5th 1605. No evidence has yet come to light to support Bartlet’s confession, but if true it demonstrates that Cecil was most definitely manipulating Catesby in some way.
The mystery persists
We may never know the true extent of Cecil’s involvement in the Gunpowder Plot. We’re unlikely to turn up new evidence four hundred years on.
It’s a conspiracy theory that will always be exactly that.
Happy Guy Fawkes Night!
Next week: How the Roswell UFO Incident turned into the world’s biggest conspiracy theory… It’s the second in a series of articles, the first of which you can read here.