Gunpowder, Treason and Anniversaries

The longest surviving annual national anniversary is 5 November, established as a day of thanksgiving over four hundred years ago and outliving its official abolition in 1859. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that although some traces of its original form continue to exist (most notably the lighting of bonfires), today’s commemoration of the event is a far cry from its original form and purpose.

The Gunpowder Plot

Old Palace Yard, Westminster
Old Palace Yard, Westminster

The story behind the anniversary – the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 – is well known. It origins lay in the plans of Robert Catesby, a Northamptonshire gentlemen, devised in early 1604, to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament and kill not only King James VI and I, but also the heir to the throne, Prince Henry, as well as many courtiers, lords and MPs. A house neighbouring the old Palace of Westminster, where parliament was held, was rented by one of the plotters – Thomas Percy, cousin to the 9th earl of Northumberland – with the aim of tunnelling into the foundations of the palace, laying gunpowder and detonating it. Unfortunately, the walls proved too thick for the conspirators to make much progress before parliament was due to open and the plot looked like it would fail.

The undercroft beneath the House of Lords, as illustrated in 1799. At about the same time it was described as 77 feet long, 24 feet and 4 inches wide, and 10 feet high.

There it might have ended had it not been for an unexpected change of fortune. First, plague hit the capital, delaying the opening of parliament (initially to February 1605 and then to November). The plotters had a reprieve. Second, in January 1605, a vault beneath the House of Lords fell vacant and was rented by Percy. Now the gunpowder – about 900kg brought in under cover of night from a house in Lambeth during the summer of 1605 – could be packed directly under the conspirators’ prime target.

An anonymous letter, sent to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, was instrumental in revealing the plot’s existence.


But the plotters’ luck did not hold. An anonymous letter to William Parker, Lord Monteagle (probably from one of the plotters, Francis Tresham), warned the peer to stay away from the opening parliament. Monteagle reported the letter to some of James’s councillors, who then told the king. An initial sweep of the palace on 4 November, led by the Lord Chamberlain, the earl of Suffolk, did not discover anything amiss, even though the earl saw Guy Fawkes in the vault and asked him about a large pile of firewood (behind which the gunpowder hid). Fawkes merely said that it belonged to Percy. However, when Monteagle expressed surprise that Percy was renting the vault and noted that he was Catholic, James ordered another, late-night, search of the premises and the gunpowder was found.

Guy Fawkes

Celebrations for the plot’s discovery were immediate. James ordered bonfires to be set and bells rung on 5 November, both common forms of celebration. On 10 November, William Barlow, bishop of Rochester, preached a sermon on the plot at Paul’s Cross, the public preaching place in St Paul’s Churchyard which could accommodate an audience of up to 6000 people. Official thanksgiving services were also ordered to be observed in all parish churches around this time.

The Gunpowder Plot was a significant moment in James’s English reign. The plot’s eleventh hour discovery was widely regarded as a sign of divine providence and established the king’s credentials as protestant champion at a time when he was under fire from both some Catholics, who had expected a degree of toleration, and puritans who were disappointed that the Hampton Court Conference (1604) had not led to the reform of the church for which they had long wished. It also fed into growing popular anti-catholicism. For both of these reasons, a bill was introduced in the House of Commons by Sir Edward Montagu on 23 January 1606 to establish an annual thanksgiving. It made swift progress through both houses – passing through the Commons in just two days – and quickly became law. It is probable that the thanksgiving was also observed in Scotland. Though the earliest known order of thanksgiving we have dates to 1628, it indicates that the thanksgiving had been kept in James’s reign. An attempt to establish annual thanksgivings in Ireland was not made until 1614 but, for some reason, the bill did not receive English approval (as all Irish acts of parliament had to at this time).

Guy Fawkes and the Conspirators
Guy Fawkes and the Conspirators

If the fate of the annual thanksgiving in Ireland was (at least initially) problematic, in England it was enthusiastically embraced, celebrated with church services, bonfires, bell-ringing and feasting. After the ‘discovery’ of another plot in 1678 – the so-called Popish Plot which was largely the fabrication of Titus Oates who duped a paranoid and anti-Catholic parliament – anti-Catholic processions and the burning of effigies of the pope also became staples of the commemoration. Unsurprisingly, when (the Catholic) James VII and II succeeded his brother, Charles II, to the throne in 1685, there were attempts to restrict the celebration of the day. The privy council issued an order to discharge all bonfires that had not been permitted by the crown. In Edinburgh, the lawyer John Lauder of Fountainhall, complained that there were neither ‘bells nor bonfires’ on 5 November, in contrast to the previous years. A fillip was delivered three years later when William of Orange, husband of James’s eldest daughter, Mary, landed at Torbay on 5 November. William’s initial aim may just have been to force James to support the Dutch in a war against France but, ultimately, he claimed the throne, securing the protestant church. 5 November once again seemed to reveal God’s providential support of England and Protestantism. This was certainly how William’s propagandists spun the prince’s claim to the throne.

Though initiated by parliament, the annual thanksgiving for the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot was not the first such annual celebration, either official or unofficial. From at least 1564, parishes, led by St Peter Westcheap in London, had celebrated Elizabeth’s accession on 17 November. It was argued to mark the restoration of the ‘true church’ (i.e. Protestantism) after the hiatus of Mary’s Catholic rule (1553-8). Though never officially recognised, and thus never an official holiday, Accession Day grew in popularity, first, after the collapse of the Northern Rising in the winter of 1569 (which was quickly portrayed as a Catholic conspiracy) and, second, after the ‘defeat’ of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Indeed, it continued to be marked at least periodically in some parishes after Elizabeth’s death in 1603, though this was not always (as some historians have argued) as a subtle criticism of James and Charles.

Gowrie Day

Falkland Palace, Fife

But it was James himself who established the first official annual thanksgiving: Gowrie Day, celebrated on 5 August. This too was a commemoration of the king’s escape from Catholic conspiracy, though the precise circumstances of the plot are rather muddy. The events occurred in Scotland in 1600, prior to James’s accession to the English throne (and hence had been marked in Scotland from that time). On 5 August, James VI travelled from his palace at Falkland in Fife to Gowrie House in Perth, allegedly lured by a story of discovered treasure told to him by Alexander Ruthven, brother of John Ruthven, the third earl of Gowrie. After the king’s arrival, he was separated from his attendants, dined with the Ruthven brothers, before being threatened by Alexander Ruthven. James managed to alert his courtiers, who rushed to his assistance; amid the ensuing violence, the brothers were killed. James emerged unscathed.

Gowrie_Conspiracy, Luyken
The mayhem at Gowrie House imagined by the Dutch illustrator Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

Though these are the bare facts of the story, much is unexplained. James’s relationship with the Ruthven family had long been tense for a variety of reasons, but the king’s account of why he visited Gowrie House and precipitated the confrontation are not fully clear. Nevertheless, James interpreted the event as an attack on his life and one that had been thwarted by divine providence. He ordered thanksgivings on 30 September and 5 October. On 15 November 1600, the Scottish parliament passed an act appointing an annual thanksgiving day to be observed on 5 August. The day was to be marked with services in the kirk and sermons, in the morning in rural parishes and in the morning and afternoon in urban ones. Scots were also expected to ‘spend the rest of the said day in all civill and lauchfull glaidnes … provyding thay use na exces, sclanderous or insolent behaviour’.

The commemoration of Gowrie day in Scotland was initially mixed, partly because James’s account of events was not fully accepted. In 1602, some ministers in Fife neglected to observe the day and James was forced to request that the General Assembly, the governing body of the Scottish Kirk, require observance of the day in all kirks. On the other hand, James also planned to prevent ‘riotous celebration’ of the day, but never issued the proclamation that he proposed. He was less dilatory in England. A little over a month after acceding to the English throne, James issued a proclamation for the apprehension or William and Patrick Ruthven, brothers of the deceased earl who had fled to England. On 12 July, the privy council instructed Archbishop Whitgift of Canterbury to order the annual observance of Gowrie Day in the province of Canterbury (roughly the southern half of England, as well as Wales); it is likely that similar instructions were issued for the province of York (the northern half of England). The council left the nature of thanksgiving worship to Whitgift’s discretion, and a form of prayer was duly published. It borrowed from forms issued in England for the thanksgivings for the failure of the Parry Plot (1585) and of the alleged plots of Dr Lopez and Patrick O’Cullen (1594). As a result, the Gowrie conspiracy became part of the English discourse on providence and the monarchy. In 1608, in his preface to a printed account of the trial of George Sprot (a Scottish notary implicated in the Gowrie conspiracy), George Abbott, who was later archbishop of Canterbury, praised God for protecting King James from both plots. But evidence from churchwardens’ accounts which record the payments for bell-ringers, candles and prayer books used during the celebrations suggests that Gowrie Day was not celebrated as widely as 5 November and, unlike its more famous successor, it did not survive James’s death in 1625.

lewes bonfire
Bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, southern England

5 November had greater longevity. It continued to be a potent symbol capable of sparking partisan conflict, most famously when Henry Sacheverell preached the anniversary sermon in front of the Lord Mayor, aldermen and council of London on the anniversary in 1709. With the other official anniversaries – the Restoration (29 May), Ireland’s delivery from the rising of 1641 (23 October) and the fast marking the execution of Charles I (30 January) – it was formally abolished in 1859 (Restoration day was abolished in Scotland in 1689). Nevertheless, it continues to be marked through popular celebrations. Though it is shorn of much of its confessional and partisan significance, the day and the figure of Guy Fawkes himself, is still used in some places to represent or articulate political dissent on the left and the right of the political spectrum.

Natalie Mears is a senior lecturer in early modern history, specialising in sixteenth and early seventeenth century English political and religious history. With her Durham colleagues, Professor Philip Williamson and Professor Stephen Taylor, she is co-investigator of British state prayers, fasts and thanksgivings, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which is investigating the nature of special worship (including anniversary occasions like the Fifth of November) from the 1530s to the present day. The first volume of three of the edition on these occasions, National prayers: special worship since the Reformation. Volume 1: special prayers, fasts and thanksgivings in the British Isles, 1533-1688, was published by the Church of England Record Society in 2013. 

AHRC state prayers


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