Was The Gunpowder Plot a Government Conspiracy?

Remember, remember the fifth of November! Most people have heard the story of the Gunpowder Plot; how twelve Catholics tried to alleviate the persecution of Catholics in England–by blowing up the House of Lords in an attempt to kill King James I and half of parliament. But today I’m here to offer an unusual historical theory; that the conspirators had been set up by the government to cause King James to increase his persecution of Catholics.

For those not familiar with the plot here is a basic outline of the conspiracy; on October 26, 1605 the Catholic Lord Monteagle received a poorly written, anonymous, letter essentially warning him not to attend Parliament’s opening on November 5. Monteagle brought the letter to Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury who passed it to King James who thought that a passage in the letter involved gunpowder. The cellars of Parliament were checked and Guy Fawkes was found on November 4 and arrested. The following day thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were found and after three days of torture Fawkes revealed the names of the other conspirators who were soon captured. Eventually, they were all executed for treason and James, who had a ridiculous fear of gunpowder, cracked down even harder on Catholics in Britain. The story sounds simple enough; just a genuine conspiracy by twelve lunatics: Robert Wintour, Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Christopher Wright, John Wright, Francis Tresham, Everard Digby, Ambrose Rookwood, Thomas Bates, Robert Keyes, Hugh Owen, John Grant, Robert Catesby and of course Guy Fawkes.

But, in the 1670’s the country was once again gripped by anti-Catholic hysteria stemming from the so-called Popish Plot, which claimed to reveal a massive conspiracy to assassinate the king, start civil wars, and pave the way for a French invasion of England. The fact that the Popish Plot is also called the Oates Plot shows what virtually everyone agrees today and did by the 1680’s; that the government had made the entire thing up to create distrust against Catholics. Twenty Catholics were ultimately executed for allegedly being tied to the plot.

The common questions raised by supporters of the idea that the gunpowder plot was a government set up are as follows: one, gunpowder was a government monopoly so how did the conspirators acquire so much of it? More importantly, how did they smuggle it to the house next to parliament from which they tunneled underneath the House of Lords? Who rented a house so close to parliament to Catholics? Why were two leading conspirators killed outright rather than captured for interrogation?
They’re many good counter-arguments to the points made above. True, only the government could sell gunpowder, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a black market for it. Not to mention the fact that Catholic France would have been a ready provider for potential rebels of England; although, this does not explain why Robert Cecil did not allow an investigation of several barrels of gunpowder missing from the Tower of London. (1) The conspirators also had government contacts and alias that would have made it easier to rent the house next to parliament and, once it was discovered that the tunnel idea wouldn’t work, to rent the cellar under parliament where the gunpowder was set to blow. (2)
Yes, two conspirators, Thomas Percy and Robert Catesby, were killed outright rather than taken in for questioning, but this was because they got into a firefight with their pursuers. One of whom, received a rather large pension probably because he killed two would-be assassins of the King, not because he killed two men who knew too much.

There are, of course, more difficult to debunk claims such as why was a half dug tunnel never found under the house the conspirators rented; why did the house’s owner die inexplicable on November 5th and why were several members of the conspiracy captured before Fawkes ratted them out? (3)

The two most mysterious events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot are arguably the aforementioned Monteagle Letter and the death of Francis Tresham. It is believed that Monteagle’s cousin, Francis Tresham, wrote the letter to warn him, but the authorship of the letter is still up to debate. The fact that Monteagle had the letter read aloud by his servant is also somewhat suspicious. And the most obvious point, why would anyone in their right mind give such an obvious warning to someone in a position to foil their plot?

The next issue revolves around, once again, Francis Tresham; as C. N. Turnman wrote;
“Here was an important member of the gang who could know a great deal about other conspirators who were not actually yet caught. Once arrested, he was locked in the Tower of London – England’s most feared and secure prison. Tresham was locked in a cell by himself. He died on December 23rd 1605, and he was found to have been poisoned. How did he get the poison? Did he knowingly take it? Or did someone want to silence him before he talked? It is possible that Tresham had the poison on him and took it rather than suffer the butchery of being hung, drawn and quartered. If someone else had access to him, and fed him poisoned food or whatever, he would have been a very important person as only the most important would have had access to this valuable prisoner.” (4)

In light of the fact, that Guy Fawkes did not mention being set up in his confession (maybe because he thought no one would believe his confession given under torture) and instead stuck to his story of being asked to join the plot by Thomas Wintour in 1604. Wintour is also the only one to give a confession of the plot’s events from beginning to end and he too makes no mention of any government conspiracy. Thus, if the government did set up the plotters it is more likely that someone in the government, perhaps noted anti-Catholic Robert Cecil, discovered the plot early on and secretly aided them, while simultaneously setting a trap to make it appear he had uncovered a massive plot against the king.

At the end of the day, while the questions raised are interesting, none can prove that the government or Cecil or anyone else was behind The Gunpowder Plot. Still, even if we cannot know for sure what really happened almost four-hundred and ten years ago I think it is good if we all remember that there is another side to the story of one of the most infamous conspiracies in history.

References:
(1) “Christ the Lord of History” by Anne Carroll pp 295
(2) BBC Bitesize
(3) “Christ the Lord of History” by Anne Carroll pp 296
(4) History Learning Site

Bibliography:
Mysterious Universe.org
The Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent.com

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