The Gunpowder Plot

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Part 1: Religious Troubles

It has become known as the Gunpowder Plot. If it had succeeded, it would have brought down Parliament, literally.

The Gunpowder Plot was foiled, however, and the 36 barrels of gunpowder hidden underneath the Houses of Parliament did not explode, killing the king and his family and much of the English Government. But the explosion could have happened.

The plan was audacious and widespread. It involved skullduggery and secret tunnels and the purchase of illegal explosive materials. It was what most people would call treason. These men, 13 in all, sought, in the most violent way possible, to the king and replace him with a monarch more favorable to the practicers of the Catholic faith.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland became, as well, King James I of England (left). His predecessor was Queen Elizabeth I, who was well known for her embrace of the Church of England, which her father, King Henry VIII, started. Tension between Catholics and non-Catholics was still very high in England and had been since Henry broke with the Catholic Church in 1534.

Henry's Act of Supremacy had declared the king the head of both Government and Church. Elizabeth's Religious Settlement specified large fines and other stiff penalties for people who did not publicly swear allegiance to the monarch, in both political and religious terms.

Consistency was not to be found in the monarchs' policies, however. Rules changed, sometimes several times over, such that people didn't know sometimes from one week to the next whether, if they were Catholics, whether they had to hide that fact and if so, how much. Prescribed texts and practices of worship changed as well, sowing confusion.

As well, the monarch who preceded Elizabeth was Queen Mary, a noted Catholic, who tried to reverse many of her father's religious policies. Mary was on the throne just five years, and the gap between Henry's death and Elizabeth's ascension was just 11 years; so many people found themselves in favor, then out of favor, then in favor again, and vice versa.

One very public and violent challenge to Elizabeth's Protestant rule was the assault of the Spanish Armada, sent by Spain's Catholic king, Philip II. The English victory over the might armada allowed England to continue as a Protestant country and allowed Elizabeth to continue in her Protestants-first policies.

When James became king of England, English Catholics thought that they had a friend in the kingship, since James's mother was Mary, Queen of Scots, a noted Catholic. James, however, had professed to being a Protestant and so, more often than not, acted to marginalize or actively discourage the practice of the Catholic faith within England's borders. (In some cases, James approved or did not stop punishments of practicing Catholics; in other cases, he did the opposite.)

James was very much in favor of the idea of divine right when it came to kingship. He firmly believed that he ruled Scotland and England at the behest of the Christian God, and he published his theory in a pamphlet titled The True Law of Free Monarchies. Provided that English people acknowledged this, he was quite happy to stop the prosecution of English Catholics.

James was no stranger to plots against him. Ruling in Scotland, he survived attempts on his life, including one in which he was captured and imprisoned. Two plots against the king in the first year of his English reign, the Bye Plot and the Main Plot, had different means to the same end. The developers of the Bye Plot (who happened to be Catholic priests) envisioned kidnapping the king and holding him in the Tower of London until he agreed to be more tolerant toward members of their faith. The Main Plot had in mind a wholesale forced abdication. Neither plot was successful. James pardoned all but one of the people behind the Main Plot. To punish the perpetrators of the Bye Plot, James expelled all Catholic clergy.

Part 2

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David White