Remember, remember... The story behind the Gunpowder Plot, Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night
PUBLISHED: 12:29 05 November 2017 | UPDATED: 12:29 05 November 2017
It’s Bonfire Night tonight – Sunday, November 5 – and the story of Guy Fawkes, the infamous Gunpowder Plot conspiracy and Robert Cecil’s attempts to prevent the blowing up of Parliament will be told in the third part of Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents on BBC Two on Monday.
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 story.
The current Marquess of Salisbury, who lives at Hatfield House, is a direct descendant of the man who helped uncover the plot to kill King James I.
He is the great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great (11 times) grandson of the gnarled monarch’s Machiavellian Secretary of State, Robert Cecil.
And Lord Salisbury’s ancestral seat at Hatfield House was also swapped for the original Cecil home at Theobalds, in Waltham Cross.
Robert Cecil was one of the chief architects of Scottish monarch James’ accession to the throne of England in 1603 following the death of Queen Elizabeth I, who had spent much of her childhood in Hatfield at The Old Palace.
The story of spymasters Robert Cecil, and his father William Cecil, is told in three-part historical series Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents, the final episode of which is being shown on BBC Two on Monday, November 6 at 9pm.
King James I, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, succeeded Elizabeth I after her death in 1603.
He 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.
After Elizabeth I died, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant.
However, King James angered Catholics after failing to offer them the toleration they craved. Instead, he persecuted some in a series of grisly public executions for political advantage.
Anti-James sentiment reached boiling point for Gunpowder Plot mastermind Robert Catesby, a devout Catholic, in 1604.
Agitator Catesby concocted the plot to blow up Parliament and kill the reigning monarch the following year.
The plot was intended as the first step in a rebellion, during which King James I’s nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, would be installed as a ‘puppet’ Catholic head of state.
Catesby’s co-conspirators included Thomas Wintour (also spelt Winter), Robert Wintour, John Wright, Robert Keyes, Christopher Wright, Thomas Percy, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Sir Everard Digby, Francis Tresham and Thomas Bates, Catesby’s servant.
The explosives were prepared by Guy ‘Guido’ Fawkes, a man with years of military experience gained by fighting with the Spanish against the Dutch in the Spanish Netherlands.
The assassination attempt ultimately failed when conspirators baulked at the prospect of blowing up fellow Catholics in Parliament.
They resolved to warn 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 delivered it to Secretary of State Robert Cecil, who presented his intelligence to King James I and also hatched a plan to catch the assassins in the act.
The conspirators heard of the letter the following day, but still went ahead with their plan, especially after Fawkes inspected the undercroft beneath Parliament and found that nothing had been disturbed.
Later, on November 5, a search party discovered Fawkes in a cellar beneath Parliament with the 36 barrels of gunpowder.
He was placed under arrest, and his possessions were searched. He was found to be carrying a lantern, pocket watch and matches.
Enough barrels of gunpowder to decimate the building above were hidden beneath a pile of firewood.
Under torture, on November 7, 1605, Fawkes confessed that he had not acted alone and the full extent of the attempted coup was unearthed.
The plotters were all executed, apart from Catesby and Percy, who were 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.
These days, on the night of November 5 we commemorate the capture of Guy Fawkes with bonfires and fireworks, and by burning an effigy of Guy.
In 1607, King James proposed an exchange of Elizabeth’s childhood home at Hatfield with Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who agreed.
Robert Cecil demolished three-quarters of the palace at Hatfield and built today’s Hatfield House in its place.
The Old Palace, where Queen Elizabeth I had held her first Council of State in the Banqueting Hall in 1558, is all that remains of the original building.
• Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents can be seen on Monday, November 6 at 9pm on BBC Two.