Dr. Ralph Brief: The Gunpowder Plot
The Gunpowder Plot was a conspiracy by thirteen Catholic partisans to blow up the House of Lords, whose members were in session with King James I on November 5, 1605. The King’s Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, warned by a letter, discovered barrels of gunpowder hidden under the parliament building. That conspirator’s name was Guy Fawkes, and it was his job to light the fuse that would detonate the explosion. After long interrogation – Fawkes held out so long that he won King James’s admiration – and then torture, he identified his fellow conspirators, who were hunted down.
Those conspirators who were not killed were captured, tortured, and put on trial where they were all sentenced to death, some by drawing and quartering. The Plot was an outgrowth of the religious strife between Catholics and Protestants that had been dividing England for seven decades, ever since Henry VIII divorced Katherine of Aragon in a trial that took place at the Blackfriars in 1529. The Pope refused to honor that divorce and Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, so in 1535 Henry proclaimed himself the head of a new Church of England. Through his reign, and that of his son Edward, the new Church became increasingly Protestant, but at Edward’s death in 1553, Henry’s Catholic daughter Mary I came to the throne and made England Catholic again. When Mary died five years later, Henry’s other daughter, Elizabeth I, again established a Protestant church.
The “Elizabeth Religious Settlement” helped stabilize matters, but religious turmoil continued. When Elizabeth I died in 1603, there was one big question hanging over the nation. What would the new King James I, who came from Calvinist Scotland but whose wife was Catholic, do about religion in England?
The conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot were Catholics, disappointed in their hope that the new king would return England to Catholicism. So, they decided to do it themselves. In Equivocation, you will meet two of these conspirators: Thomas Wintour and the Plot’s leader Robert Catesby. You will also meet Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit Priest who denied having any direct knowledge of the conspiracy. His Treatise on Equivocation, a work found in the possession of one of the plotters, provides the name of this play, in which playwright Bill Cain looks at the interplay of terrorism, religion, politics, and art.
Soon after the plotters (and others) were punished, Parliament passed the “Observance of the 5th November Act,” an occasion that became increasingly an excuse for anti-Catholic violence. Today Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day is roughly the equivalent of our Fourth of July, an occasion to celebrate nationhood with bonfires and fireworks.