Around midnight on Monday 4th of November 1605, Sir Thomas Knyvett was ordered to carry out a search of the rooms below the hall in which Parliament, crammed with MPs and Lords, would be opened the following day by King James. There he met a man coming out of a room packed with firewood who gave his name as John Johnson. Knyvett arrested him and searched the wood to find hidden within it 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to blow up the entire Palace of Westminster and everyone in it. Johnson carried fuses and a timer. He was taken straight to the Tower of London to be questioned.
King James’ men had decided to search the Palace because of a letter that Lord Monteagle had received a few days before. Monteagle took the letter straight to the government.
Look at the letter and other documents below and see if you can unravel this Gunpowder plot.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, followers of the Roman Catholic religion in England had faced serious difficulties including harsh fines and the risk of imprisonment or violence. Catholic priests, vital to the practice of the religion, were banned and government spies tried hard to round up those who were secretly working in the kingdom.
When James I came to the throne Catholics in England thought that things would get better for them, but James kept all of Elizabeth’s tough laws against Catholics. Very early in his reign a group of Catholic noblemen decided that the King would have to be killed for things to change.
On 26th October 1605 Thomas Ward, a servant of the Catholic Lord Monteagle, was given a letter by an ‘unknown man’ to give to his master. When Monteagle read the letter he found it was a warning to stay away from the opening of Parliament, due in a few days. He gave the letter directly to the Privy Council and the King in Whitehall.
Although the conspirators knew the letter had been passed to the government they decided to go ahead as planned, trusting that their explosives expert was unknown to the authorities. The plot did not succeed.
This lesson is suitable for History Key stage 3 unit 1: Section 1: Who is the most important person I know about in history? Or unit 22: units 1- 6: The role of the individual for good or ill?
Additional simplified transcripts are provided to support all pupils as the language used within the documents is often challenging. Teachers could adapt this lesson if they wish to carry out a group-based activity. Small groups could work on printed versions of the different sources and present to the rest of class. They could also work in small groups at a whiteboard and present to the class that way. Alternatively, teachers might wish to approach the topic through the last task (5d) alone.
Teachers could use the evidence to construct a role play activity investigating the plot with the key characters: King James, Lord Monteagle, ‘Johnson’, Percy and others.
After the explosion, the plan was that some of the plotters would lead an uprising in the Midlands. They would kidnap Princess Elizabeth, James’ nine year old daughter, from her household at Coombe Abbey, to use as a figurehead through whom they could rule the country and restore the rights of Catholics. However, their explosives expert was disturbed as he arrived to light the fuse…
The trial of the eight surviving conspirators was held in the same room they had tried to blow up: Westminster Hall, within the Parliament building. All eight were found guilty and by the end of January 1606, all eight had been executed. The plotters were hung, drawn and quartered. Their heads were then set upon poles as a warning to others. Teachers might wish to discuss with their pupils what would have happened if the plot had succeeded.
As result of the plot, James I became more popular having survived an attempt on his life. However, it became harder for Catholics to practise their religion or play a part in society. Finally, there is no doubt that Guy Fawkes is remembered incorrectly as the main plotter, a myth perpetuated as generations of children celebrate Bonfire Night.
The documents in this lesson are all taken from SP 14/216, the ‘Gunpowder Plot Book’, a collection in three volumes, of the most significant government documents relating the plot.
The image of James I and VI used is from KB 27/1522.
The Gunpowder Plot
More background and resources on the plot produced by Parliament.
Civil War and Revolution
What if the gunpowder plot had succeeded?