It's Bonfire Night tonight – Sunday, November 5 – and an ancestor of the current Marquess of Salisbury at Hatfield House helped capture Guy Fawkes and foil the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

"Remember, remember, the 5th of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot..."

Everyone remembers the fifth of November for Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, but one part of the history that may have been ‘forgot’ is Hatfield’s role in the Guy Fawkes story.

The current 7th Marquess of Salisbury, who lives at Hatfield House, is a direct descendant of the man who played a part in thwarting the plot to kill King James I in Parliament more than 400 years ago.

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil is the great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great (11 times) grandson of the monarch’s Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury.

The politically influential Robert Cecil was the son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the chief adviser of Queen Elizabeth I.

And Lord Salisbury’s ancestral seat at Hatfield was also exchanged for the former Cecil's home at Theobalds, near Cheshunt in Hertfordshire, during King James I's reign.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, in a painting at Hatfield House.Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, in a painting at Hatfield House. (Image: Alan Davies)

Sir Robert Cecil was one of the chief architects of Scottish monarch James’s accession to the throne of England in 1603 following the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth spent much of her childhood on the Hatfield estate, along with Henry VIII's other children, the future King Edward VI and Queen Mary I.

All that remains today of the Tudor palace at Hatfield is The Old Palace.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: The Old Palace at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.The Old Palace at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. (Image: Alan Davies)

After Elizabeth I died in March 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that her successor, Scotland's King James VI, would be more tolerant.

James, however, angered Catholics after failing to offer them the toleration they craved. 

Anti-James sentiment reached boiling point for Gunpowder Plot mastermind Robert Catesby, a devout Catholic, in 1604. He concocted the infamous plot to blow up Parliament and kill King James I the following year.

The unsuccessful attempted regicide was intended as the first step in a rebellion, during which James’ nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, would be installed as a ‘puppet’ head of state and Catholic queen.

Who were the Gunpowder Plot conspirators?

Robert Catesby’s co-conspirators included Thomas Wintour (also spelt Winter), Robert Winter, John Wright, Christopher Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and Thomas Bates.

The gunpowder were prepared by Guy ‘Guido’ Fawkes, a soldier with years of military experience gained by fighting with the Spanish against the Dutch in the Spanish Netherlands.

The assassination attempt failed when a few of the conspirators baulked at the prospect of blowing up fellow Catholics in Parliament.

They warned a number of their co-religionists – a move that sealed their fate. William Parker, the 4th Baron Monteagle, whose former home Whitehall is in London Road, Royston, received an anonymous letter while at his house in Hoxton, east London.

He later told Robert Cecil, who hatched a plan to catch the assassins in the act.

Despite being aware of the letter, the conspirators went ahead with their plan to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on November 5, 1605.

Guy Fawkes had ventured abroad earlier in the year, but was back in London by October to finalise the plan, and was ready on November 4 to carry it out.

When the undercroft beneath the Palace of Westminster was searched later that day Fawkes was found looking after a large pile of firewood. His explanations were initially accepted.

However, a second search of the basement later that evening found the barrels of gunpowder under the wood.

Fawkes was placed under arrest, and his possessions were searched. He was found to be carrying a pocket watch and slow matches. Enough barrels of gunpowder to destroy the building above were hidden beneath the pile of firewood.

Guy Fawkes was interrogated several times, but admitted almost nothing - much to the admiration of the King.

He gave his name as 'John Johnson' - the false identity he'd adopted while pretending to be Thomas Percy's servant.

Fawkes was later moved to the Tower of London, and subsequently tortured under orders of the King.

On November 7, 1605, Fawkes finally confessed that he had not acted alone, and the full extent of the conspiracy was eventually unearthed over the following days.

The plotters were arrested. Found guilty of high treason, Fawkes and the other surviving conspirators were executed in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, on January 31, 1606.

Catesby and Catholic agitator Percy had already been killed in a last stand while they resisted capture at Holbeche House, in Staffordshire. Their bodies were exhumed and their heads were impaled on spikes outside the House of Lords.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: A bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night.A bonfire for Guy Fawkes Night. (Image: Archant)

Hatfield and the Cecils

Welwyn Hatfield Times: Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. (Image: Alan Davies)

King James I, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, succeeded Queen Elizabeth I after her death in 1603, with chief minister Robert Cecil paving the way behind the scenes.

The first monarch of the Stuart era coveted Theobalds, the palace near Cheshunt where William Cecil, Lord Burghley, had regularly entertained Queen Elizabeth.

William Cecil was Elizabeth’s chief adviser until his death in 1598. That role was subsequently taken up by his son, Robert Cecil.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at Hatfield House.The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at Hatfield House. (Image: Alan Davies)

In 1607, King James I acquired Theobalds in exchange for Hatfield Palace, Elizabeth’s childhood home.

A draft Parliamentary Act of exchange survives in the Cecil Papers at Hatfield House, dated May 1607.

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, demolished three-quarters of the palace at Hatfield and built today’s Hatfield House in its place.

The present Jacobean house was completed in 1611.

Welwyn Hatfield Times: The North Front of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire.The North Front of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. (Image: Alan Davies)

The Old Palace, where Queen Elizabeth I had held her first Council of State in 1558, is all that remains of the original building.

Among the treasures inside Hatfield House is the famous Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth.

It was while she was living in the Old Palace, in 1558, that Elizabeth learned of her accession to the throne.

Today, Hatfield House is the home of the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury.