Snapshot of History: The Letter that Betrayed the Gunpowder Plot

It’s the 5th November and you know what that means – it’s Guy Fawkes Night! So in line with the occasion this month’s history topic is all about the Gunpowder Plot. Click below to find out how the plot was discovered…

If videos aren’t accessible to you, or they’re just not your thing, you can read the full script below.

VIDEO SCRIPT

Remember, remember the fifth of November,

Gunpowder treason and plot.

We see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

And so begins the popular English rhyme about the 1605 Gunpowder plot. It’s safe to say this event has not been forgotten, as every year on the 5th November local communities in Britain create a bonfire to remember the event. A dummy of Guy Fawkes, the most famous conspirator, is often placed on the bonfire and these days there is usually a fireworks display too!

Ask anyone ‘who was involved in the Gunpowder plot?’ and they will likely say Guy Fawkes, but he was one of 13 conspirators, led by Robert Catesby. 

One of these men unintentionally betrayed their co-conspirators.

They wrote anonymous letter. 

This letter changed the course of English history. 

But first a little bit of context!

In 1605 England was a Protestant country led by King James VI of Scotland and I of England. He had only been on the English throne for 2 years at this point, so it was the very early Stuart period. Since the English Reformation in the 1530s the country had experienced serious religious division between Protestants and Catholics. Now that is a HUGE topic in itself, but for the purposes of this story all we need to know is that Catholicism was no longer the state religion, and many Catholics were persecuted. They thought under James’ rule things could be different, but this turned out not to be the case. 

This led to the Gunpowder Plot, where the 13 conspirators: Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, Francis Tresham, John Wright, Christopher Wright, Guy Fawkes, Thomas Winter, Robert Winter, Thomas Bates, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby, Robert Keyes and John Grant, planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament, which would kill many including the King. A classic example of religious terroism, which unfortunately is still happening today. 

So back to our anonymous letter. 

Who received it? What did it say?

It was sent to William Parker, Lord Monteagle in October of 1605 and read: 

My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this Parliament; for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burnt the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.” 

The writer of the letter clearly felt Parker could be trusted to keep the secret. Parker himself had a background as a Catholic plotter, but since James’ ascension to the throne had converted to Protestantism and declared he was “done with all former plots”. Whether Parker truly changed his religious outlook is a question only he could answer, but the conspirator who wrote the letter clearly thought it was a superficial change. They must have felt strongly enough about Parker’s wellbeing that they decided to risk the conspiracy. This letter was what effectively stopped the plot, as rather than burning it as requested Parker passed it onto the Chief Minister Robert Cecil. From there the plot unravelled, all the conspirators were caught and met unsavoury ends.

So who unwittingly betrayed the plot? Well the answer to that is most likely Francis Tresham.

This is based on some pretty strong evidence.

  1. Parker was married to Elizabeth Tresham who was Tresham’s sister, therefore making Parker his brother-in-law. This alone is a pretty strong reason for Tresham to want to warn him. As the letter reads “out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation” which must mean Tresham’s sister Elizabeth. 
  1. It’s thought that the conspirators didn’t bring Tresham into the plot until as late as the 14th October 1605, as they didn’t know if they could trust him. Their motivation for involving him seems to have been monetary based. Tresham’s father had just died which meant he had inherited property and money, which the conspirators hoped they could utilise.  
  1. Tresham tried to dissuade his friends from pursuing the conspiracy, and was very aware that ruin faced them all if the plan didn’t work. He didn’t purposefully dob them in, and instead tried to pay them off to stop them continuing. His efforts came to no avail, as even once Catesby and Winter learned of the anonymous letter they still proceeded with the plot. 

What Catesby didn’t seem to realise was now that the letter was out there, the plot was doomed. We know he knew of the letter by the 1st November as he asked Tresham about it although Tresham denied writing it.  

Admittedly the letter was only half-believed at first by the privy council, but it was still enough for them to look into it and thus discover Guy Fawkes in the cellar. Although Fawkes’ cover story was initially successful he was found in the cellars a second time and was arrested. The conspirators were eventually tracked down and either died in a shoot out at Holbeach House or arrested and executed in 1606. 

And the betrayer Tresham? Well he died of an illness in December 1605 whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London. 

So today on the 5th November, if you give the Gunpowder plot any thought, remember the power of letters and how one letter changed the course of English history.  

Thanks for reading, I’ve love to hear your thoughts and comments below!

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Sources:

Written in History: Letters that Changed the World by Simon Sebga Montefiore 

Parliament Website: The Gunpowder Plot: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/parliamentaryauthority/the-gunpowder-plot-of-1605/ 

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Robert Catesby Mark Nicholls

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Parker, William, thirteenth Baron Morley and fifth or first Baron Monteagle by Mark Nicholls

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Tresham, Francis by Mark Nicholls 

Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night: http://www.bonfirenight.net/index.php 

Image Credits

Francis Tresham after Unknown artist stipple engraving, published 1804 NPG D28153 © National Portrait Gallery, London. ttp://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/advanced-search.php Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ & https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/legalcode 

Tower of London from the Shard. Image courtesy of Duncan under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

All other images in this video are in the public domain.

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