THE GUNPOWDER PLOT THICKENS……..
Just over 400 years since he was executed, was Yorkshire’s most famous plotter framed? Martin Hickes sheds light on a possible Jacobean ‘sting’.
EVERYONE remembers, remembers Guy Fawkes and the fifth of November, and in Yorkshire, the home of history’s most famous plotter, his effigy will top thousands of bonfires.
Every schoolboy and girl knows of York-born Fawkes, and his explosive plot to blow up King James I’s Parliament.
Fawkes, caught red-handed, and surrounded by gunpowder in the dark corners of the old Houses of Parliament, was, with his co-conspirators, later hung drawn and quartered for his infamous plotting.
But now, experts raking over the embers of history, are wondering if the biggest act of 17th C would-be terrorism might have been the ultimate cunning plan.
Fawkes’ guilt and presence within the House is not in question. But when it comes to examining who lay behind the plot, experts say there may well be some fire behind the smoke of history.
Some now think there is a whisp of a chance that Fawkes’ fate lay not so much in a botched Catholic plot, but perhaps due to the shady actions of a group of ‘agents-provocateurs’, whose goal was to discredit the Catholic faction and to boost the influence of the new King James I.
James I came to the throne as a result of the heirless death of Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth was a staunch Protestant, and while James, from Scotland, promised to relax England’s anti-Catholic laws, the Catholic faction in 1605 was horrified when it seemed he was planning to introduce even more Draconian legislation.
Robert Catesby, a Northamptonshire catholic, felt the time was right to strike a blow for the old faith.
In May 1604, he and Thomas Wintour enlisted the help of a mercenary named Guy Fawkes, from Yorkshire.
With his vast experience of dangerous situations, Fawkes was to be the man of action. Catesby persuaded relatives, friends and colleagues to enter the conspiracy and to help finance his plans.
Robert Wintour, Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Ambrose Rokewood, Robert Keyes, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and Catesby's servant, Thomas Bates all joined in the hazardous plot.
History conventionally has it that the plot was sprung after a mystery man – possibly one of the conspirators in an act of conscience – delivered an unsigned letter at night to a fellow Catholic colleague, warning him to stay away from Parliament on Nov 5.
The warning letter, received by Lord Monteagle, was handed to the Secretary of State Robert Cecil, who then had Parliament searched on Nov 4. The rest, of course, is history.
Fawkes confessed, albeit having been showed the rack, and was tried and executed.
Catesby, the master plotter, died in a gunfight, and only one Francis Tresham - a suspected double agent and significantly the last to join the plotters – escaped.
But some historians now think the letter may have been a fabrication, with Cecil and his agents behind the plot; in effect, the most subtle and elaborate of Jacobean ‘stings’.
Cecil certainly lost no time in turning the affair to James I’s advantage, claiming it as God's deliverance and proof that he was on the side of Protestant England.
Dave Herber, of the well-regarded Gunpowder Plot Society, says:
“History tells us a certain story of the Gunpowder Plot which has become synonymous with tradition. Fawkes, Yorkshire and intrigue certainly lie at the heart of such, but what is more fascinating is what lies behind the official record. It’s a mystery which has persisted for more than 400 years.
“Firstly, there is some speculation that the plot was indeed a creation of Sir Robert Cecil and that the entire escapade was an attempt to denounce Catholics further, along with their Jesuit brethren, and many authors of note have written on such.
“Cecil was certainly no stranger to manufacturing sedition. Some believe that he needed his equivalent of the ‘Babington Plot’ – the old plot to overthrow Elizabeth.
“As for the letter, my own personal belief is that it was not written as traditional history tells us, rather it was composed by the govt via Lord Monteagle himself, in an elaborate means to garner favour with James I.
“Monteagle barely escaped a charge of treason in 1601 and was fined an extravagant amount of money instead.
“It was likely he would have spent the rest of his life paying it off, yet he managed to maintain a luxurious lifestyle despite such apparent hardship. He saw a new king as his chance of moving up in the cut-throat political world of the court.
“Tresham was dying, and likely knew it. He was aware that he had a fatal ailment and had already arranged for a passport to travel overseas and seek respite or a miracle cure before being drawn into the plot.
“Why did he need to keep such an act of betrayal secret when he would have believed it would ultimately cost his family their name and most of their property?
“Instead he was arrested, imprisoned, and died a perceived traitor yet with the stain of treason still over the family name, surely a worse case scenario for a man whose time was almost up anyway.
“This is where I believe investigation needs to begin again – rather than assuming that Tresham was the betrayer, it needs to be proved beyond all doubt who actually was. “
Those who suspect the traditional story of history hold that Fawkes’ confessional signature was forged, while the identity of both the author of the letter and its deliverer remains pivotal.
Within days of the arrest of the plotters, highlighting the outrage, James I asserted, perhaps conveniently, the so-called ‘divine right of kings’, which gave absolute power to the monarch and which would ultimately lead to the spark of the English civil war 40 years later.
The fog and smoke of history still swirls around the truth of November 5. But perhaps, not for the first time in history, a plotted act of terror quickly ushered in a new order which would cause political fireworks for years to come.
· Some think Fawkes’ actions may have influenced Shakespeare’s Macbeth, written around 1605, which has the divine right of kings and regicide at the heart of its plot.
· The town of Scotton and Stonyhurst College, near Clitheroe, traditionally do not have bonfires as they have strong links with Fawkes.
· While other countries celebrate pagan bonfires on the same date, the strongest links with Fawkes are in the UK.
· Bonfire comes from a contraction of the word bone-fire, practised by ancient Celts at this time of year.