Guy Fawkes, Catholics and The 36 Barrels

When Mary Tudor took the English throne in 1553 her reign was hailed as the dawn of a new day for Catholicism in England. Catholics throughout the country looked forward to seeing the former glory of the Papacy restored under Mary’s iron fist. But their hopes were bitterly disappointed when the Queen died five years into her reign leaving behind a Protestant heir, her sister Elizabeth. The militant advance of Catholicism in England came to a sudden grinding halt and to add insult to injury, Catholics had to watch the daughter of Anne Boleyn take the throne.  Her reign of a little more than 40 years provided the stability that Protestantism needed to firmly establish itself as the national religion. When she died she left no heirs and James VI of Scotland was proclaimed King of England, taking the English throne as James I in 1603.

James was the son of Mary Stuart also known as Mary, Queen of Scots. His great-grandmother had been Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor and it is through this connection that he came by his claim to the throne of England. Though his mother, Mary Stuart’s family had been staunch Catholics, he himself was a Protestant. The sentiment among English Catholics was aptly summarised by Hugh Owen, an English Catholic living in exile in Spain. He wrote; “I perceive there is no hope at all of amendment in this stinking King of ours. An ill quarter to look for righteousness: at the hands of a miserable Scot”. In other words, English Catholics at home and abroad had all but given up any hope of seeing the Papacy restored to its rightful place of authority in England.

Westminster, England

One of the first things James I did when he came to the throne was to commission the translation of the Bible into the English language. Tyndale’s translation of the Bible through excellent was incomplete and there were whisperings of a new English translation of the Bible that had been produced by the press of the Jesuit training school in Reims. Tyndale’s translation had been based upon Erasmus’ Latin translation of the Bible which was a more accurate rendering of the text whereas the Rheims version was based upon the authorized Latin version of the Catholic church which was Jerome’s Vulgate. The King appointed a commission of scholars for this task and they began their work in 1604. In the midst of this pro-Protestant environment, there was 

obvious Catholic disenchantment with not just the Monarchy but also the Parliament as well. So it was that a fairly diabolical plot was hatched by Robert Catesby to get rid of the King and the Parliament in a single blow. The plan was nothing if not dramatic, Catesby and his accomplices including the infamous Guy Fawkes would attempt to dispose of the monarchy in the most flashy way possible by using gunpowder to blow up Parliament house. This would not only eliminate the king but also the heir apparent to the throne and some of the King’s closest Protestant advisors.

The group rented a ground floor vault directly under the House of Lords and ferried all their gunpowder from Catesby’s house in Lambeth to Westminster. Fawkes, a former explosives expert in the Spanish navy, was the man designated detonate the entire load. The plot was uncovered by William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, who received an anonymous tip-off on the night of the 4th of November imploring him not to present himself at parliament the next day for, as the letter reads, “God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time”.

In the early hours of the morning on the 5th of November 1605, Fawkes was discovered, fully dressed and ready to ride at a moment’s notice, with a watch, a match and 36 barrels of gunpowder crowded into the tiny vault directly under Parliament house. Fawkes, though caught red-handed was a small fish in the grand scheme of things. The mastermind behind the plot had been Catesby. Interestingly enough if Catesby and his gunpowder plot been successful the work on the King James Bible which had begun in 1604 would have been stopped before its completion in 1611. Regardless of the plottings and devisings of Catesby and his associates England was spared a bloody takeover and the king was safe. The entire episode was a testament to what can happen when religion and politics mingle.

 To Catesby and his associates, the matter of restoring Catholicism to England was one of eternal importance. Thus the concept of waging a holy war on the Crown in order to see eternal good come upon the nation was not looked on as radical but necessary. In such cases, as these, the end amply justified the means in the minds of each player. They paid for their warfare with their lives but their story lives on as a warning to us of the necessity of keeping matters of conscience separate from matters of state.

Further Reading

  • Myers, H.H (1997) – Battle of The Bibles
  • Childs, J. (2014) – God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England

Recommended Listening

  • The English Reformation and The Puritans – Michael Reeves