British History,Monarchs of Great Britain,King Arthur

The Gunpowder Plot: Background
by David Herber



The seeds of discontent at the treatment of Catholics in England, which ultimately led to the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, were first sown in the late 1520s during the reign of Henry VIII. Henry had been declared Defender of the Faith by the pope and had written tracts against Protestantism. However, dissatisfied with the Pope's refusal to grant him a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, Henry broke away from the See of Rome, extinguished all papal power in England, and executed his investiture as the head of the Church of England. This was followed by the methodical Dissolution of the Monasteries, under the supervision of Thomas Cromwell, which aided the English war chest and was instrumental in eroding the English power of the Catholic Church. Henry's Church of England was initially not Protestant, but remained closer to his traditional belief of Catholicism.

In the turbulent years that followed Henry’s death, England swayed back and forth on a theological pendulum. Henry's successor, his son Edward VI, steered the Anglican Church down the path of Protestantism, whereas his sister "Bloody" Mary I attempted to violently restore England to Catholicism through severe Protestant persecution, until Elizabeth I ascended the throne in 1558, when the tide was again reversed.

Fearful of a now encroaching Catholic Europe, Elizabeth embarked upon a systematic course of repression and persecution of Catholics within her own country, in an attempt to ensure that there was no discontented populace which could assist a foreign invasion, or which could be seen as a beacon if a foreign invasion occurred. When the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, Elizabeth had all but extinguished the hopes for an end to persecution of those Catholics in England who saw Spain as their great ally. The previous year she had had her rival, the deposed and imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots, executed in order to prevent underground Catholic cells rallying to Mary’s cause and attempting to depose Elizabeth. Such activities as this had been only too evident in the Babington Plot of 1586 which uncovered Mary's coveting of the English crown and which was subsequently a main reason for her eventual execution. Mary's claim to the English throne came through her grandmother Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII's eldest sister, who had married James IV of Scotland.

When Elizabeth succeeded to the throne, there was disagreement about her right to follow Mary I. Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn, was according to some, not legally married, because Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon was not legal as it would not be ratified by the Pope (the reason Henry broke away from the Catholic Church). So, upon Anne Boleyn's execution for treason, Elizabeth was separately declared a bastard, then removed from the succession by an act of the Privy Council. However, Henry placed her back in the succession, but never legitimized her.

Towards the end of Elizabeth's reign, the Catholic strongholds in the north of England, who had been instrumental in the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536/37 and the Norfolk and Northern Uprising of 1569, began sending envoys to both Phillip II of Spain and James VI of Scotland (the son of Mary Queen of Scots). It had become illegal to talk of the succession, yet James was commonly seen as Elizabeth's heir by both Protestants and Catholics, by virtue of closeness of blood to Henry VIII.

The Essex Rebellion of 1601 brought the names of many of those who were at the forefront of the Catholic cause to the attention of the Government, including that of Robert Catesby, who was later to become the leader of the Gunpowder Plot. The Catholics, relieved at the prospect that the son of a Catholic monarch had seemingly been guranteed the throne after Elizabeth's death, had acquired from James the promise of toleration in the event that he did succeed Elizabeth. However, their embassies to Spain, dubbed the Spanish Treason, had been met with a lukewarm response by the Spanish Government, and in fact England and Spain signed a peace treaty soon after the last of these embassies had returned home.

When James eventually succeeded Elizabeth in 1603 as James I, there was initial celebration by the Catholic leaders, who under Elizabeth had been persecuted to such an extreme that any sign of Catholic sympathy risked the severest of penalties, including death. James, however, was not to be their saviour. No sooner had the Hampton Court Conference ended -- with no compromise being given to either the Puritan faction or the Catholics -- than James re-introduced the harsh penalties for recusancy.

The Plot

Reproduced by kind permission of the Gunpowder Plot Society


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