The Revealing of the Gunpowder Plot

Written by: Isabelle Sher.

The author wishes the reader to know that the details of this event are to this day shrouded in mystery. We will likely never know if Lord Monteagle was one of Cecil’s spies, if he had some part in the writing of the anonymous letter, or whether he knew anything of a plot at all.

It was well known that Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, was not to be trusted. The same had been said of his father who had served in Her Majesty’s court before James was crowned. It was a time of great division; everyone sensed it, everyone talked about it, but there was little anyone could do about it. The long-standing injustices felt by the followers of the old religion would not be silenced by the king’s more tolerant outlook. It was sceptics such as Cecil who were fully aware of the dangers of complacency. 

That was why Lord Monteagle was so useful; he had much to prove, he had wasted his youth in ambitious plotting, in dreams of heroism, in the restoration of what he knew to be the truth. William Parker, Lord Monteagle, was done with all that now. He was a changed man; he would no longer risk his life for religion. At thirty years of age, those youthful games had to be at an end. Could he deny that Catholicism was a part of him? No, he could not. His wife was a Tresham, his sister now a Habington. Catholic blood flowed powerfully through their veins. It bound them together. They were a silent force that would not be supressed. And besides, with danger came advantages, and crucially the favourable attention of Robert Cecil himself. William was a part of a network so vast and so secret it was unlikely Cecil himself knew how far it extended, though he was its master. It was advantageous in such times as these to turn a blind eye, not only to those around you, but to one’s own decisions. Oftentimes he felt as if he were host to several William’s within his own mind who knew not the secrets of the other. It couldn’t only be him who felt that way.

The nights were closing in early now. Winter would soon be upon them. Parliament opened in ten days. William’s Hoxton home was well-lit, a good fire blazed in his study. He took up the letter once more. His hands were unwavering, calculated and practiced:

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 have 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 receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet 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 past 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. 

William sighed. He must not let himself dwell, to dwell was dangerous. The warning contained within that letter was very real. Equally real was a rare opportunity for increased favour. William knew where this would ultimately lead, that there would be no hope of reconciliation now. James was an idealistic king, such tensions that lay in this country would not be resolved by union nor by tolerance. And there was no one more keenly aware of that than Cecil himself. For only one moment did William hesitate, contemplating the reality of what he was about to do. Condemning men; friends, to certain death. But it was only a moment. His loyalty was to the king, and more importantly, in line with Cecil’s will. The contents of the letter had to be exposed. He could already visualise the piercing, half-accusing expression that was a permanent feature of that little man’s face. A crooked little man, with a mind that surpassed them all. It was a family trait; it was why you kept on their side. To oppose the monarchy was one thing, but to oppose Cecil was to secure your own fate on the scaffold.

Just hours before the state opening of parliament, Thomas Knyvet and Edward Doubleday were tasked with searching the undercroft, whereupon Guy Fawkes, under the alias of John Johnson, was found having hidden thirty-six barrels of gunpowder.

Image: Festivities in Windsor Castle by Paul Sandby, c. 1776

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