James VI & I: Life Story

Chapter 19 : The Catholics & the Gunpowder Plot

At the same time as mollifying the Puritans, James had tacitly let it be assumed by Catholics that he would allow the practice of their religion. He had no inclination towards religious persecution ‘…[I will] never agree that any should die for an error in faith’ and during the period prior to his accession he was in close contact with the Earl of Northumberland, who, although nominally Protestant, was certainly a Catholic sympathiser. The new King likewise welcomed Lord Henry Howard, brother of the late Duke of Norfolk, and a suspected Catholic, to his Privy Council and soon granted him the Earldom of Northampton. There was also the Catholic Earl of Worcester and Northampton’s cousin, Lord Thomas Howard, soon to be Earl of Suffolk. Suffolk, and more particularly his wife, were known as Catholic sympathisers.

There was also the matter of Queen Anne’s religion. At some point, she seems to have converted to Catholicism, and in the early days of the English reign, was eager for Prince Henry Frederick to marry a Catholic. Initially, James relaxed the recusancy laws, and intimated that he would turn a blind eye to Catholics who worshipped privately. Before long, the numbers of Catholics who ceased attending church was so great that James assumed that wholesale conversions were taking place, rather than that Catholics were pouring out of hiding. Alarmed, he back-tracked and became absolutely insistent that the law requiring Catholic priests to leave the country should be rigorously enforced.

The Catholic faction was divided: on the one hand were the secular priests who were content to live under James and swear allegiance to him as King, on the other were the Jesuits who wanted to overturn the Protestant succession and sought nothing less than the unravelling of the Reformation. These two parties were at daggers drawn and on a number of occasions betrayed each other. In particular, an early plot, known as the Bye Plot, which centred on the idea of kidnapping James in 1603, was betrayed by the Jesuits (although the specifics are rather more complex). The Bye plot was related to another, marginally more feasible plot, termed the Main Plot.

The Main Plot centred on the replacement of James with his cousin, Lady Arbella Stuart. The government alleged that it was concocted by Henry Brooke, 12th Lord Cobham (brother-in-law of Cecil) and was funded by the Spanish government – although why the Spanish government would prefer the Protestant Arbella to the Protestant, but generally sympathetic James, was never made clear. Sir Walter Raleigh, against whom James had been strongly influenced by Cecil, Northampton and Suffolk, was accused of involvement – although, again, why such a notorious enemy of Spain should involve himself in such a plot was not explained very satisfactorily. Leanda de Lisle in her book ‘After Elizabeth’ discusses the ins and outs of the Main Plot in detail. One result of the plot was the long-term imprisonment of Raleigh, who remained in the Tower for thirteen years.

The most famous of all the Catholic plots, and the one that had the most damaging effect on public perceptions of Catholicism for four hundred years after it occurred, was the Powder Treason, as it was known – now called the Gunpowder Plot.

The plot was led by Robert Catesby, who had been fined for recusancy on numerous occasions. Catesby was a member of a circle of Northamptonshire gentry that included the Treshams, Vaux, and Throckmortons in a web of intermarriage. In 1601, he had been involved in the Essex Rebellion, for which he was fined 4,000 marks (about £2,600).

The plot itself was brilliant in its simplicity – to blow up Parliament with the King, the Queen, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York inside, and to replace them with the Princess Elizabeth, who would be a puppet queen for a Catholic government. Planning the plot took some time and effort – a house was rented with cellars from which the cellars under Westminster could be reached, gunpowder was brought in, and tunnels dug.

Over time, more and more conspirators had to be drawn in. One of them, possibly, although not certainly, Sir Francis Tresham, was uncomfortable with the idea that Catholic as well as Protestant members of the Parliament who would be killed. Tresham’s brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, received a letter warning him to stay away. It has been postulated that Monteagle wrote the letter himself to reveal the plot and gain favour.

Monteagle took the letter to James and Cecil (now Earl of Salisbury). The cellars were searched, and a man subsequently named, after extensive torture, as Guy Fawkes, was found with the gunpowder. Despite fleeing London, the majority of the conspirators were found (including Thomas Percy, brother of the Earl of Northumberland), tried and executed at the end of January 1606. Northumberland was sent to the Tower, where he remained for seventeen years and was fined £30,000.

James himself, whilst he maintained that the plot was the work of a few, and was not the responsibility of the many loyal Catholics in the country, became determined to force Catholics to choose sides. In 1606, the Oath of Allegiance was published. Catholics were required to swear that, so far as temporal matters were concerned, the Pope had no power to overthrow kings or to interfere in political matters outside his own temporal state. Many Catholics believed this, but the Oath led to controversy both at home and in Europe. James was not the only king who wanted to eradicate Papal interference in secular matters.

A full account of the plot may be read in Jessie Childs’ ‘God’s Traitors’. For the rest of James’ reign, he continued to tolerate individual Catholics amongst his friends, ministers and court, but public advocacy, failure to conform to the laws or attempts to convert Protestants were punished with all the rigour of the law.