Gunpowder Plot

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Changing power of monarchs, Crime and Punishment, Revolution and Rebellion, Significant individuals, The Stuarts

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the documents tell us about the Gunpowder Plot?

Potential activities: Examine the documents. Hold a debate about or mock trial of the plotters to explore the political ideas.

Download: Lesson pack

Can you uncover the plans of the plotters?

Around midnight on Monday 4 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.

Use this lesson to see if you can unravel the secrets of these original documents about the gunpowder plot.


Tasks

History Hook – Starter Activity

1. This is the letter sent to Lord Monteagle a few days before parliament.

  • What two steps does the writer want Lord Monteagle to take?
  • Why does the writer suggest that Lord Monteagle should follow this advice?

2. This is a copy of the examination of John Johnson.

  • Who do you think John Johnson might be?
  • What did Johnson plan to do to parliament?
  • Name one of the other plotters whom Johnson mentions
  • Was Johnson worried about any Catholics who might have been there?

3. This is a proclamation (royal demand) made after the plot was discovered.

  • Why does the government want Thomas Percy to be captured alive?
  • Who else has Thomas Percy tried to blow up apart from the King and Parliament?
  • Why do you think the plotters might have wanted to kill these other people?
  • Read the description of Thomas Percy. Do you think it is enough information for him to be found?

4. Soldiers tracked Thomas Percy to Holbeach House in Staffordshire. This is a statement given by Thomas Wintour, another one of the plotters who was there:

  • Who were the plotters present at the house?
  • What happened when the ‘company beset’ (soldiers attacked) the house?

5. Guy Fawkes/John Johnson has been questioned and given more information. Read this extract and answer the following questions:

  • What was the plotters’ plan for Princess Elizabeth?
  • Does this support the evidence provided in Source 2?
  • Why do you think Fawkes seems to have changed his story?
  • Finally, look at all of the sources again and write a report on the plot including the following:
    • Who was involved?
    • What was the plan?
    • Did it have any weaknesses?
    • What was the outcome?

Background

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.

After the explosion, the plan was that certain plotters would lead an uprising in the Midlands. They would kidnap Princess Elizabeth, James I’s nine year old daughter from her household at Coombe Abbey. Using her as a figurehead, they would 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.

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.


Teachers' notes

This lesson contains a History Hook starter video to hook students into the lesson.

This lesson introduces students to the famous plotter’s letter sent to Lord Monteagle warning him not to attend Parliament. It is worth getting students to try and read the document, however transcripts and additional simplified transcripts are also provided. The second source is an extract from the examination of John Johnson, also known as Guy Fawkes. A government proclamation then details the search for the plotters and the last source explains what happened to some of them. Teachers may wish to use the lesson for a group-based activity or pair working. Work on the topic could be extended by the following activities:

  • Use the evidence to construct a short video drama/documentary investigating the plot with the key characters: King James, Lord Monteagle, ‘John Johnson’, Thomas Percy and others.
  • Questions for discussion: What was the significance of the plot for the reign of James I? What could have happened if the plot had succeeded? See external link below.
  • Explore other aspects of the reign of James I using other documents from The National Archives in related resources.

Sources

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.


External links

The Gunpowder Plot
More background and resources on the plot produced by Parliament.

Civil War and Revolution
What if the gunpowder plot had succeeded?

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 1
An event beyond living memory that is significant nationally; Significant people.

Key stage 3
The development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Early modern 1485-1750

Curriculum topics: Changing power of monarchs, Crime and Punishment, Revolution and Rebellion, Significant individuals, The Stuarts

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the documents tell us about the Gunpowder Plot?

Potential activities: Examine the documents. Hold a debate about or mock trial of the plotters to explore the political ideas.

Download: Lesson pack

Related resources

James I

What were the key areas of dispute?