Word of the plot had reached Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, the Secretary of State, who had informed the King. The King took the threat seriously enough to order Suffolk’s search. When he was questioned, Fawkes gave the name of his ‘master’, the owner of the firewood, as being Thomas Percy, a known Catholic plotter. When this was revealed to the King it prompted the second search, led by Knyvet.
This time 36 barrels of gunpowder were found beneath the firewood, Fawkes was arrested and a search for the remaining conspirators was set in motion. Eventually they were all killed or captured. Those who were captured were put on trial and sentenced to death by being hung, drawn and quartered. Fawkes escaped this grizzly fate because he fell off the scaffold and broke his neck. Whether it was an accident or a deliberate suicide was never clear.
What I have always wondered was what would have happened if the plot hadn’t been uncovered? What, in historical terms, would now be different if the King had been killed on 5th November 1605, as planned?
The most likely candidate for that would have been one of the men who had been Regent when James himself had still been a child. He came to the throne of Scotland in 1567 when he was only 1 year old. Unfortunately, all four of his Regents were dead by 1605. James had no siblings, so his councillors would have had to find a suitable candidate, assuming that they, too, hadn’t perished in the explosion. The Scottish faction at court would have wanted a member of the Stewart family to hold the office, while the English would have wanted an English aristocrat. Relations would no doubt have been strained.
James, on the other hand, understood how paranoid the political establishment in England was about Catholicism, and refused to restore Catholic rights of worship and, in fact, wanted a more restrictive regime for English Catholics. While individual Catholics (known as recusants) weren’t persecuted for their religion, they were heavily fined if they didn’t attend the Anglican church for worship, while Catholic priests were still being hunted as it was believed that they were agents of the Pope, sent to foment treason.
Across the English Channel, in the Spanish Netherlands, the Spanish were engaged in a lengthy war against the Protestant Dutch. It was where Guy Fawkes had served, on the Spanish side, and gained his military experience. It was still a theoretical possibility that the Spanish might make another attempt to invade England, as they had done during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, just 17 years earlier. Perhaps the English political establishment had a right to be worried.
So, with a child King on the throne and a Regent ruling in his place, would the Regent have been more, or less, sympathetic to the Catholic cause?
But what effect would this have had on the infant Charles? Having seen his father killed would he have been as favourable to Catholics as he was perceived to have been when he came to the throne in 1625. He was married to the Catholic Henrietta Marie of France, but would that marriage have been allowed if James had been killed? Might the Regent not have found a nice Protestant Princess for him to marry? Or, if there were no suitable candidates, perhaps a member of the English or Scottish aristocracy?
These are important questions, because they would affect Charles’s behaviour in later life. Events such as those could well have made him more favourably disposed towards the changes that Parliament demanded, his refusal of which led to the English Civil War in 1642 and ultimately to Charles’s own execution in 1649.
Without a Civil War, Parliament wouldn’t have been so powerful and many laws that changed the way we were governed might never have been passed. Those same laws can be traced through history to our present day Constitutional Monarchy. It might even be argued that the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) and the French Revolution (1789) might never have taken place when they did, had the English Parliament not already challenged the Divine Right of Kings.
I’m not saying that they wouldn’t have happened at all, merely that they might have been delayed by some period of time as the rate of change in British and European politics might have been slowed.
And as for us, how would our world look today? How similar, or different, would it look right now? We can't know the answer to that, so much of the rest of the world's history is bound into ours that it's difficult to trace the threads of our past. But Catholic churches in this country were pretty much non-existent until the mid 19th century. Would there be so many today if we still harboured resentment for the Catholics who had murdered our King?
Just as an aside, the TV series Gunpowder, which has aired on the BBC over the last 3 weeks, had a scene in it which showed Robert Catesby, the leader of the plot, sitting at the side of a broad river running through his estate at Ashby St Ledger in Northamptonshire. There is a picturesque stone arched bridge in the background. Unfortunately, as someone who lives in that local area, I can tell you that there is no river there and definitely no bridge of that style. Even the closest rivers, the Nene (to the South) and the Avon (to the North), are mere trickles as they pass through that part of the county.
There are a couple of small streams, a couple of ponds and there is a bridge, but not the one shown on TV. OK, poetic licence if you like, but it ain’t history, or even geography.
It makes me wonder what else the programme makers got wrong!
You can find out more about the manor house and grounds at Ashby St Ledgers by clicking the link.