Friday, November 05, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Gunpowder Plot

The most serious terrorist threat in British history wasn't last month or even last year, nor was it even remotely Islamic in nature; in fact, it was over 400 years ago - and it was a band of Roman Catholics, fine Christians all, who were responsible for plotting mass murder most heinous...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOn this day in 1605 a certain Justice of the Peace named Thomas Knyvet discovered Guy Fawkes in the undercroft of the Houses of Parliament among 36 barrels of gunpowder, kindling, and touchpaper. Although he said his name was 'John Johnson' when he was captured, Fawkes didn't try to deny what he was doing; the point of the Plot was to kill the King and Queen along with most of the Protestant aristocracy at the State Opening of Parliament, then install the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth on the throne as a Catholic monarch.

Typically, the thwarted plot unleashed a wave of hatred directed at all Catholics in Britain, who were persecuted for more than 200 years as a result; the hatred of Papists was then imported to the American colonies, where it lasted a hundred and fifty years longer still. Although England had been on the threshold of Catholic Emancipation the day before it, the day after the Gunpowder Plot such an action had become unthinkable. The terrorists had, in true terrorist tradition, succeeded brilliantly in undermining their own cause even as they failed to undermine Parliament in any way.

The plot itself had been masterminded by Robert Catesby, who was by then no stranger to treason; four years earlier he had conspired with the Earl of Essex to assassinate Elizabeth I, but because his role in that matter was minor he was merely deprived of his property and not his head as was Essex. Immediately after the arrest of Guy Fawkes, Catesby (along with a few of his fellow plotters) fled to Holbeach House near Kingswinford in Staffordshire, where he died two weeks later during a fracas with arresting officers under Richard Walsh, the sheriff of Worcester.

Other plotters included Thomas Winter (also spelled Wintour), Robert Winter, Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy (also spelled Percye), John Wright, Ambrose Rokewood, Robert Keyes, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham, Father Henry Garnet (the group's confessor), and Catesby's servant, Thomas Bates; for his part, Fawkes was the demolitions expert, having had much experience in the use of explosives when he served as a mercenary in the army of Archduke Albert of Austria, during the Dutch Revolt.

Had the plot been successful it would have not only destroyed the Palace of Westminster but the equally priceless Westminster Abbey as well, and would have blown out every window in a 1 km radius; as it is, the old palace stood for another couple of centuries, when in October 1834 it was destroyed by an accidental fire.

Amazingly, Fawkes was rated #30 on a 2002 list of the 100 Greatest Britons, which shouldn't surprise me since Oliver Cromwell came 10th, but it does dismay me nonetheless; I wonder if, 400 years from now, Britons will feel the same about Abu Hamza al-Masri or even Osama bin Laden...
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