The Primate Diaries

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I know of no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

On this day, in 1604, Guy Fawkes was arrested in his attempt to overthrow the English monarchy by blowing up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I (who would have been present at the time). Since his arrest Fawkes’ crime has been condemned as terrorism motivated by fanatical Catholic outrage against the Protestant regime of James I. However, is the religious angle enough to explain his actions and those of his conspirators? What was at the root of his discontent and is there anything we can learn today from this event, more than four hundred years ago?

Francis Bacon is widely credited with being the intellectual father of the scientific method. He strongly felt that gathering evidence and using inductive reasoning was the best approach to understanding first principles at work in the natural world. However, strangely enough, he argued that this same reasoning didn’t apply in trying to understand the causes of political violence. In his 17th century treatise A declaration of the practises & treasons attempted and committed by Robert late earle of Essex and his complices, he stated it was:

[A] vaine thing to thinke to search the rootes and first motions of treasons, which are knowen to none but God that discernes the heart, and the Divell that gives the instigation.

While he may have been using such a flippant remark for effect, it certainly isn’t a position that is widely held in modern day criminology, or the social and natural sciences in general. In fact, this approach has been used to understand the very Gunpowder Plot that Bacon was to experience first hand. While Guy Fawkes, that iconic face immortalized by the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta, is the most recognizable figure involved in this conspiracy, scholars have identified many more and highlighted how their conflicting motivations make this far from a cut and dry case.

According to a recent study in The Historical Journal entitled, “Strategy and Motivation in the Gunpowder Plot” by Cambridge University historian Mark Nicholls, Guy Fawkes was in charge of implementing what was a much more elaborate plan. Robert Catesby was a Northamptonshire gentleman that instigated the plan and brought in Fawkes, a soldier who had fought in siege warfare under the Spanish, as the point man for the operation. Another individual, Thomas Percy, was an estate officer to the earl of Northumberland who was known by the British royalty and allowed access to the court. It was through Percy that the plotters were able to rent a ground-floor vault directly underneath the House of Lords where the barrels of gunpowder, iron bars, hammers, mauls, and stones were eventually stacked.

From May 1604, when Percy and Fawkes were recruited, until November 1605, eight men were brought into the Plot, either . . . to help with the logistics of tunnelling under Westminster, or . . . to provide money for the purchase of gunpowder and military supplies. The point to bear in mind, again, is that Catesby’s canny search for men with different skills and resources resulted in a group which came to the Plot with different levels of enthusiasm, and prompted by subtly differing motives.

It has typically been assumed that Catesby, as a Catholic, was primarily motivated to assassinate the Protestant king and return Catholic reign to the country. However, since Catholics were the minority in England, it seems strange that it wouldn’t have occurred to him that such an attack would motivate the majority to condemn anyone associated with the action (even if connected only indirectly by religion). Any Catholic monarchy set up in this way would not have stood for long. Likewise, Fawkes, having served on the side of Catholic Spain, was viewed to have put his religious convictions ahead of any other consideration. After he was captured, however, Fawkes suggested somewhat different motivations:

The people, of themselves, would have come together, Fawkes insisted ; the plotters had planned, he said, to appeal to mass sentiment: they would have been ‘glad to have drawne any of what relligion soever unto them … they meant to have made use of all the discontented people of England’.

Nicholls suggests that, while religion was important for the Gunpowder plotters, it was politics that truly motivated their outrage. This is further supported through the declaration that the plotters drafted for when they planned to raise the king’s daughter Elizabeth to the throne in his place. According to Nicholls there was no mention of religious alteration of any kind. Instead the focus was on “discontented people” based on the lack of political and economic freedom:

They had proposed to combine under the vague banner of ‘Freedom from all manner of Slavery’, but also, if Everard Digby is to be believed, under a more specific pledge to end ‘Wardships and all Monopolies’. . . The plotters had also intended to recruit prisoners in the Tower, men like the puritan Lord Grey and the Elizabethan favourites Sir Walter Ralegh and Lord Cobham, none of them known for their Catholic sympathies, but all plausibly portrayed as victims of the new regime.

The issue of monopoly was one that had, as recently as 1601, been debated in Parliament and dealt with granting sole rights of trade to specific well connected corporations (what we might today refer to as “no bid contracts” for companies such as Halliburton). The land and property of Catholics was being confiscated by the crown and, increasingly, economic pillage for a government badly in need of funds was extending such theft beyond the Catholic minority.

In laying the blame for the plot at the door of the Catholics, the English crown could justifiably claim that Catholic Spain was behind the plotters. In fact, Fawkes had visited Spain in 1602 to seek Phillip III’s support for an armada, but he returned feeling rejected and “utterly disenchanted with Catholic Spain.” So while religion certainly played it’s role in the plot, since Catholics experienced the greatest amount of political persecution, it may not have been foremost in the minds of the plotters.

In one of his confessions, Fawkes mentioned a proclamation drawn up by the plotters which contained their rallying call to England: it would, he said, have ‘ protested agaynst the union, and in noe sort to have meddeled with Religion therein ‘.

According to Nicholls, these plotters were “witnessing a catastrophe” of political persecution and they sought to appeal to as many discontented groups as they could in order to develop a groundswell of resistance against tyranny. Knowing full well that they represented the minority as a faction, they relied upon the general revulsion of the population and a desire to resist oppression.

The Plot may well have been the work of desperate men, but however desperate those men never really constituted the ‘ idiot fringe’ of extremist fanaticism, represented in popular and much academic opinion. . . There is scope to suggest that the ringleaders were pragmatists, informed by history, and in step with the politics of the age.

So, however much Bacon may have dismissed such plotters as men who were simply instigated by “the Divell,” or those who sought to explain their violent tactics as motivated solely by religious fanaticism, what remains clear is that there was a genuine desire for political liberty that lay behind such desperate action. By disregarding these concerns, it may have helped settle the question for some, but it didn’t address the primary reasons that lay behind the act itself. As we contemplate acts of political violence today, it might be wise to think more critically about what truly motivates the people involved.


ResearchBlogging.orgNICHOLLS, M. (2007). STRATEGY AND MOTIVATION IN THE GUNPOWDER PLOT The Historical Journal, 50 (04) DOI: 10.1017/S0018246X07006383


  1. #1 John Gathly
    November 5, 2009

    When will ‘Anonymous’ blow up Parliament? Or at least the Church of Scientology in LA?

  2. #2 Paula
    November 5, 2009

    Wow! I came to this post from reading Effect Measure and seeing the title, which I thought would relate to last year’s election and our joyous (if apparently sadly misplaced) dancing in the streets, and thought was a spin on the old “remember, remember” popular song of 1960 or so. And instead found this remarkable, fascinating piece. Thank you. Two questions: 1. Is this, then, an old folk rhyme long predating the popular 1960 (or so) song? 2. Some of the discussion assumes that Fawkes was sincere in each of the points mentioned in his confession, but would someone in that position and with his commitment not cover some facts, perhaps to protect others, if possible?

  3. #3 EMJ
    November 5, 2009

    As far as I know the rhyme dates back to the 17th century. Guy Fawkes Night is still celebrated throughout many parts of England as well as in many of England’s former colonies such as New Zealand, the Caribbean and South Africa.

    As far as Fawkes’ confession goes, it’s hard to know exactly how much to believe since he was probably tortured. But I think the fact that the declaration, written before the plot failed, has no mention of establishing a Catholic monarchy is telling.

  4. #4 Paula
    November 5, 2009

    Thanks for the swift reply. Agreed re the declaration as indication. Now I am wondering if the popular song I mentioned took its beginning “oh try to remember, [something something] November” from this folk-rhyme. In any case, a super post–thanks again.

  5. #5 HP
    November 5, 2009

    Paula — Not to distract from Eric’s fine post, but the song you are trying to think of is “Try to Remember” from the musical The Fantastiks. I don’t think it has anything to do with Guy Fawkes, except in the way these things tend to get stuck in people’s long term memories and sneak out in unexpected ways when doing something creative, like writing songs. “Grist for the mill,” as I like to say. Anyway, if infecting someone else with an earworm helps you to get rid of it yourself, I hope you know that I’m sitting here going “Try to remember the kind of September when life was . . .” Oh, what were the rest of those lyics? “Try to remember the kind of September when . . .”


    It could be worse, I suppose. It could be “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

  6. #6 Kasey
    November 6, 2009

    Thanks a lot for all of the information. After all reading your post we had to celebrate the Holiday last night. Check it out. It is funny. You will like it No Questions Asked!

  7. #7 Don
    November 6, 2009

    I couldn’t remember why the fifth of November was of significance until coming upon your post. Thanks for the reminder.

    Looking back at today’s current events do you suppose the shooting at Fort Hood maybe some how inspired by Fawkes, or purely just coincidence?

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