The Gunpowder Plot
Everard Digby, who owned Donington le Heath Manor House at the end of the sixteenth century was one of the plotters. The sections below gives a summary of the background and events of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
James I and the Catholics | the Plotters | the Plot unfolds | the torture of Guido Fawkes | the Conspirators Last Stand | the Final Retribution
James I and the Catholics
When James I, became King of England (as well as Scotland) in 1603, many Catholics believed they would now be allowed freedom of worship, after decades of discrimination under Elizabeth I. Although James was the son of the strongly Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, he was a supporter of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Church of England and he seemed to genuinely want both Catholics and Protestants to live peacefully together. However, his advisers soon persuaded him to re-introduced the fines imposed on Catholics by the Protestant Elizabeth. The Catholics knew that Parliament was as much behind these fines as the King, and the Members of Parliament were the very men who enforced the hated fines and were punishing them for practising their religion. Some MP’s however, did have Catholic sympathies and tried, with very little success, to get the anti-Catholic laws abolished.
Since the founding of the Church of England by Henry VIII in 1536, England was a difficult place to live if your religion was not that of the state. Many people were killed under Mary and Elizabeth Tudor because of religion. In England under James I people were expected to swear to an ‘Oath of Supremacy’ to the Church of England and to attend services on a Sunday. People who refused to accept the authority of the Church of England were called ‘Recusants’ and were heavily fined (if they could afford it) or flung into prison.
It was not only Catholics who were punished, fines were imposed on other Christian sects such as the Puritans. The Puritans eventually settled for voluntary exile to the Americas so they could practice their religion without interference from the State (and to get away from the Popish practices they considered rife in England!). Catholics however, were not about to run away. Until Henry VIII had forced the creation the Church of England in 1536 (largely so he could divorce his Catholic queen), England, like most of Europe, was a Catholic country. Because of this most of the population were traditionally Catholic and many refused to give up their faith.
The Catholics had made several attempt to take power from Protestant England. The pilgrimage of grace in 1535, the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the Essex plot in 1601 had all failed miserably. With the accession of James I Catholic hopes were raised as they hoped he would be sympathetic to their cause. His mother, Mary Queen of Scots was a devout Catholic and prior to his accession he had hinted his support for Catholics. Also his wife was a Catholic convert who corresponded with the Pope and told him that she would do everything she could to protect the Catholics in England. Being a shrewd politician, James did not actually commit to anything. He knew that he needed to keep everyone on his side as long as possible. He also knew that excommunication by the Pope could cause considerable problems for his reign, as Catholic France and Spain needed little excuse to declare war on England.
For the average citizen ‘Recusancy’ meant they could not celebrate the holy Catholic sacraments of baptism, marriage and death without being punished. For the gentry there was the added problem of being unable to get a post in Government or Court without swearing the oath of supremacy. For devout Catholics this was impossible as the oath asked them to accept that the King and not the Pope was head of the church. Many families were forced to appear loyal to the church in public in order to maintain their position in society and celebrated the Catholic sacraments in private. However, many wealthy families openly refused to go to church and were almost bankrupted by heavy fines.
To practice the catholic faith you needed a priest. The Jesuits had provided these priests but they were expelled from the country by James I on 22nd February 1604. Many priests stayed on in England, at the risk of arrest and execution. They disguised themselves as servants or travelling merchants and lived in secret in Catholic households. These homes were fitted with ‘priest holes’ by loyal servants, who were also Catholic, so that if necessary they could hide the priests undetected for days. Catholic families also married into each other so they could practice their religion and educate their children in Catholicism.
Women played a leading role in preserving the faith, it was they who helped to hide the priests, invited other Catholics into their homes to celebrate mass and also boldly refused to go to church. Some wealthy women even rented out properties in the country so they could easily hide priests and hold meetings. At that time women were not considered capable of thinking for themselves, so their husbands, who were often openly Protestant for the sake of their careers, were responsible for them. They had to pay the fines and often claimed with exasperation that they could not persuade their wives to give up Popish ways, but after all they were only foolish women! This provided the perfect cover, the men paid the fines and appeared loyal to the state whilst their wives and children were living as Catholics and keeping the faith alive.
Page Last Updated: 13 May 2013