The Journal for MultiMediaHistory
Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1997. 52-minute VHS video. Editor, Ralph Tittley. Narrator, Peter Twist. Presents a dramatized recreation of the plot by Catholic dissidents to blow up the British Parliament in 1605.

Image from 'The Gunpowder Plot,' Films for the Humanities, 1997.
Image from The Gunpowder Plot,
Films for the Humanities, 1997.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, featuring the historian David Starkey, provides an interesting and well-detailed explanation of the events still celebrated with Guy Fawkes� Day. Through a mix of reenactments, historical commentary, and thorough analysis of early seventeenth-century social and political attitudes, the video explains both why there was a Catholic conspiracy to blow up the Parliament buildings and destroy the British government in 1605, and why it did not work. The video argues that the plot had no chance of succeeding, and that its conspirators were dupes in the Earl of Salisbury�s plan to increase King James I�s power in England by exaggerating the extent of fanatical Catholic conspiracies against him. James I�s frightened subjects would rally even closer to him, threatened by the Catholic bogeyman. The religious intolerance central to definitions of English identity and Protestantism produced the plot by creating and enforcing penal laws against Catholics. These attitudes also created a political need for a dangerous conspiracy, by defining the national identity both positively, as English and Protestant, and negatively, as vehemently non-Catholic. By fearing Catholicism, English Protestants reaffirmed their self-definition.

Katherine of Aragon - Image from 'The Gunpowder Plot,' Films for the Humanities, 1997
Katherine of Aragon. A frame from The Gunpowder Plot.
The video begins with a short discussion of the problems created by Henry VIII�s need for a male heir and Katherine of Aragon�s inability to give him one. That need directly led to the English Reformation, when Henry separated from the Catholic church in order to divorce Katherine. Henry�s religious beliefs, however, probably did not change; his split from the church was political, not religious. His death was followed by a period of religious instability, as Henry�s three children in turn moved England toward Puritanism, then back toward Catholicism, and finally to moderate Anglicanism under Elizabeth I, which alienated both Catholics and Puritans.

English Catholics put up with Elizabeth because she had no children, and the closest heir to the throne was her Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. Even after Mary�s execution in 1587, English Catholics centered their hopes on her son, James VI of Scotland. James was a Protestant, but the English Catholics firmly believed that he would alleviate the penalties against them for his mother�s sake. James used these hopes to broaden his support in England, but dashed them shortly after he took the throne, when he strengthened the penal laws against Catholics. Feeling betrayed, the English Catholics launched several ill-conceived plots against him, disregarding the overwhelming Protestantism of England and the sheer improbability of success. Catholic plots were always directed against the king, on the somewhat weak grounds that if the head of the government were destroyed, the rest of the government could be rebuilt in any way desired. The Gunpowder Plot was the most well-conceived of these plots, because it would have destroyed the whole central government as well as the monarch, leaving the country in a shambles, and perhaps forces sympathetic to Catholicism would have taken control.

The plot was hatched by Sir Robert Catesby, a Catholic gentleman who had been involved in the Earl of Essex�s rebellion in 1601�another Catholic plot�but had escaped with his life by selling his estate in order to meet the fines levied against him. In 1604, he originated the Gunpowder Plot, designed to kill the king and Parliamentary leaders by blowing up the center of government, the Parliamentary buildings. He quickly enlisted the help of four men: John Wright, one of his fellows from Essex�s rebellion; Thomas Winter and Guy Fawkes, Catholic soldiers; and Thomas Percy, steward to the Earl of Northumberland. They formulated their plans, gained more followers and swore an oath to follow through with them, unaware that they were playing right into the government�s hands.

Sir Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, played a central role in the plot, unbeknownst to the conspirators. Salisbury welcomed plots against the king because, when discovered, they strengthened the king�s position as leader and protector of his people. He learned about the plot from Lord Monteagle, Thomas Winter�s employer and a Catholic who had obtained the rights to his title by agreeing to spy for the government amongst his fellow Catholics. Monteagle learned of the plot and informed Salisbury, who was able to piece together the general outline of the plan and watched eagerly, trying to let the plan develop to its fullest extent before revealing it. The plotters rented a building next to the Houses of Parliament and planned to tunnel through the basement and plant gunpowder under the Parliament. Unfortunately, the building was too close to the Thames and their tunnel kept flooding. Salisbury, hoping the threat would develop further, arranged for a vacancy in a vault under Parliament; taking it as evidence of God�s endorsement of their plan, the plotters quickly rented it. Thirty-two barrels of gunpowder were hidden amongst firewood and other supplies, and Guy Fawkes was chosen to light the fuse when the king appeared at Parliament.

A nervous plotter on watch. From 'The Gunpowder Plot,' Films for the Humanities, 1997.
A nervous plotter on watch.
From The Gunpowder Plot, 1997.
The plotters almost lost their nerve when they argued over whether or not to warn Catholic lords to absent themselves from Parliament that day. Despite worries that they would expose their plans, the plotters sent subtle warnings to their fellow Catholics. Ironically, Catesby himself warned Monteagle, the man who had revealed the plot to Salisbury. Salisbury decided to have the plot discovered on 5 November, which James I believed was his lucky day. That took some doing: he had to assiduously avoid meeting with Thomas Percy who had lost his nerve and decided to reveal the conspiracy in hopes of getting a reward from Salisbury. After being put off several times in his attempts to confess to Salisbury, Percy returned to the plot. Salisbury arranged for an anonymous letter to be sent to Monteagle, warning him of danger at Parliament, which Monteagle then showed to the king and his court. A search party was organized, and Guy Fawkes and the gunpowder were discovered in the nick of time. Fawkes was tortured to reveal the names of his fellow conspirators; Salisbury wanted to be sure to reveal the full extent of the plot, in order to make it more threatening. Even though he held out for five days before giving their names, Fawkes� fellows did not take advantage of the opportunity to escape, and all were captured or killed at the Holbeche House in the West Midlands, where they had gathered to decide their next move.

Ironically, the Gunpowder Plot had little effect on seventeenth-century England. Most English Catholics wanted to be left alone, not to change society. They were content to pay the fines assessed by the penal codes, stay out of politics altogether, and try to carry on with their daily lives as best they could. They were not surprised when the Gunpowder Plot failed, and many of them were probably glad that it had not disrupted their lives and turned their countrymen even more vigorously against them. James I�s attitude toward Catholics was unchanged by the Plot; he knew several members of the government were secretly Catholic and took no action against them. Since he saw himself as a moderate, he actually became more tolerant toward Catholics later in his reign, trying to avoid religious persecution while maintaining a Protestant country. The plotters not killed at Holbeche House were publicly executed in January 1606; their execution provided a public celebration. Guy Fawkes� Day is still celebrated on 5 November, although it has lost most of its anti-Catholic symbolism; now there are simple bonfires rather than popes being burned in effigy. The celebration represented the pro-king, pro-Anglican, anti-Catholic mob prevalent in the early modern period. It was an embrace of tradition, rather than a significant departure from it.

Historian David Starkey from 'The Gunpowder Plot,' Films for the Humanities, 1997
Historian David Starkey.
From The Gunpowder Plot.
The video is creative, stimulating, and well-made. However, it does have a few flaws. It concentrates entirely on England when discussing British attitudes toward church and state in the seventeenth century, and within that concentration, the focus is on London.It would be interesting to see how well that fits into attitudes in the British Isles more broadly. Also, David Starkey�s analysis of religious intolerance seems too easy. He argues that since people took religion more seriously then than they do now, they were more likely to be intolerant, and links this to modern examples of religions that take themselves seriously and are more intolerant than religions that do not. However, most religions take themselves seriously; religious intolerance may have more to do with whether or not a religion considers gaining converts central to its mission. There are many religions that do not actively seek converts, or act against those who do not believe as they do, but treat themselves very seriously.

On the whole, though, the video is very informative about both the Gunpowder Plot and seventeenth-century English society, and at fifty-two minutes long, fits nicely into most class periods, making it an exceptional teaching tool.

Kristen D. Robinson
University of Kentucky


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Video Review of The Gunpowder Plot of 1605
Copyright © 1998 by the Journal for MultiMedia History.

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Contents: JMMH, Volume 1 Number 1 ~ Fall 1998