Gunpowder Treason and Plot

Today (5 November) is Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night.

Nowadays we get so caught up in watching brilliant firework displays and roaring bonfires that we give little thought to the reason behind our celebrations; join us as we travel back to 5 November 1605.

On this day, authorities foiled a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, a scheme intended to assassinate King James I and other senior officials.



Having received a tip-off, the king's forces stormed a cellar under the Houses of Parliament where they found Guy Fawkes sitting amongst 36 barrels of gunpowder. From that evening onwards the British people began a tradition to commemorate the anniversary of the failed gunpowder plot.

Over the past 410 years, historians have studied the infamous events leading up to that day, and various conspiracy theories have surfaced to cast doubt over our understanding; there do seem to be a few mysterious anomalies:

How did the plotters obtain such a large quantity of gunpowder without arousing suspicion?

After suffering under Queen Elizabeth's rule and now under King James's, a group of Roman Catholic activists grew angry and agitated and began plotting small rebellion attacks.

These 'traitors' were well known to the police; and it is for this reason it would have been difficult, if not unlikely, for the gunpowder plotters to have obtained 36 barrels of gunpowder (the distribution of which was monitored tightly by the government themselves), transported them two miles across London, and stored them under the Houses of Parliament all without arising suspicion.

Was the intercepted letter genuine?

Today the warning letter which served as the tip-off to the kings' men is believed to have been fabricated. Historians suggest that the king's officials already knew about the plot, and the letter was a tool created to explain how, at the last minute, the king found out about the plot and stopped it.

The two fundamental problems with the letter are:

  • It was unsigned. Any of the conspirators might have saved themselves if they claimed to have written it, but none of them did; they didn't even seem to know about it.

  • The letter was very vague. It supposedly said nothing about the details of the planned attack, yet the king and his men knew exactly where and when to catch the conspirators mere hours before the attack was due to happen.


We may never know the answers to these questions, and opinion will always remain divided between those who support the government conspiracy line and those who believe that it was simply an ambitious plan which went very wrong.

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