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This time it's another from our How and Why History series, our sister podcast. You can check out how and why on its own feet, or you can listen to them once a week here. This one is all about the gunpowder plot and Guy Fawkes. If you like it, check out how and why history. There's a new episode every Tuesday and Friday. In fact, this Friday, we look at the life and times of Joan of Arc. And also there's 30 more of these on the history hit TV channel.
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Let's remember remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot on 5th of November 16, 05, a planned assassination attempt on King James. The first was thwarted. A group of English Catholics had planned to blow up the House of Lords during the state opening of parliament. The name of the man caught guarding the gunpowder became legendary Guy Fawkes.
Remember, remember the 5th of November? Gunpowder, treason and plot. We see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be fagots. Guy Fawkes Guy. It was his intent to blow up King and Parliament. Three school barrels were laid below to prove old England's overthrow by God's mercy. He was catched with a dark lantern and burning match. So hello boys. Hello, boys. Let the bells ring. Hello, boys. Hello, boys. God save the King.
And what shall we do with him? Burn him.
But how and why did the gunpowder plot come about? Why did Guy Fawkes become the most famous of the plotters? And what were the repercussions for Britain's Catholics? I'm Rob Weinberg, and to ask the big questions about this most famous of failed assassination attempts, I've been speaking to Dr. Lione James at the University of Kent. This is how and why history.
Veronica, thanks for joining us. Q. What was the gunpowder plot and how did it come about?
The Gunpowder plot was a Catholic plot to essentially kill King James, the first at the state opening of parliament on the 5th of November. Sixty five. And it was more about killing the king than actually blowing up parliament. But obviously the state opening was a moment at which knew the king would be in a particular place. It was also aimed at killing his son, his eldest son, Prince Henry, because he was equally Protestant heir.
And it came about for a number of reasons, really, partly to do with the fact that James was newly king of England. So a change of dynasty had taken place. And it was partly to do with the fact that peace with Spain had just been agreed in sixty four in terms of the change of dynasty Catholics in England under Elizabeth, the first had had quite a troubled couple of decades. They'd face quite a lot of persecution, something like a hundred and eighty nine Catholics have been executed over the last few decades.
That's the sort of the worst case scenario on a sort of more regular basis. Catholics were fined for not attending church, so there was a lot of persecution of English. Catholics and Catholics in England were looking to James to see if perhaps their situation might relax a bit more because he was the son of Catholic Mary, queen of Scots. He was married to a Catholic and of Denmark. So there were really very hopeful that this change in history would mean that they had a change of fortune.
Unfortunately for them, James was sort of a national broker of international broker of peace. Actually, one of the things about James is the fact that he styled himself Wrex Pacifica's. He liked to make peace with other European powers. So one of his first aims when he became king was to kind of deal with the ongoing conflict that England have been engaged in with Spain since the mid eighties. So James basically made peace with Spain and Spain had always been seen as the sort of saviour, the potential saviour of English.
Catholics and English Catholics hoped that the Spanish would invade England, restore Catholicism and put a Catholic monarchy. And so when James is on the throne and he's made peace with Spain, it looks less likely. And what happens actually in the first couple of months of James's reign is there are a couple of plots against him, Catholic plots not necessary to kill him, but to perhaps kidnap him and get him to adjust his policy towards Catholics. So in the aftermath of those plots, James doesn't persecute Catholics sort of rigorously, but he does reinstate the fines, starts fining.
Catholics are not attending church services. So the mood is quite quickly different. So it goes from one of hope to one of pessimism. And it's in this context that the gunpowder plot is kind of formulated. So I think the really interesting thing for me about this plot is that everything to do with it is very much an English thing. But actually the context of it is very European.
One, was it the first assassination attempt by Catholics on Protestant rulers in Europe? No, it wasn't. No, Elizabeth, the first herself. There had been several attempts or even seven or eight attempts on her throughout the course of her reign, mainly Catholic ones. There had been lots of plotting against Elizabeth. Obviously, Mary, Queen of Scots, erm already mentioned she was heavily involved in a few of those. So no it wasn't. And there had been know other European rulers.
William of Orange for example. Fifty eight years he was killed by a French Catholic, Henry, the fourth of France, who notoriously was a bit equivocal about his religion, started off looking like he was a Protestant, then had to sort of change his mind for political reasons. In the end, he was assassinated in 16, stabbed to death a Catholic. So no assassinations, religiously motivated assassinations were a thing in this period.
So this was a Catholic plot against a Protestant king who were the main players?
Well, that's another interesting question, because, you know, we know this is the Guy Fawkes. You know that Guy Fawkes is very heavily associated with the gunpowder plot. But actually, it was masterminded by someone else. It was masterminded by someone called Robert Katsuaki. Who was the gentleman from the sort of Midlands and of England, so he was very much an English Catholic when he got a bit of form actually he'd been involved in a previous plot against Elizabeth, the Essex Rebellion towards the end of Elizabeth.
Right. So he'd got a track record of plotting, but he was very disillusioned with the change of regime. And he wanted to find out whether there be any interest in any of the Spanish troops to help him launch this coup against the king. And that's why Guy Fawkes comes in, because he was actually recruited in Flanders and Guy Fawkes kind of got involved almost not accidentally, but he wasn't the main orchestrator of the plot.
So why did he become the most famous of the plotters? He became the most famous of the plotters because essentially he was the one who was given responsibility for guarding the gunpowder. And the reason he was given this job was because he was the one who had at the time they used the phrase his face was the least well known so people wouldn't recognize him. And one of the reasons why they wouldn't recognize him was because he was of relatively low birth. And that's partly to do with his background.
I mentioned that he was recruited in Flanders by this John Winter. Guy Fawkes is really interesting personal story. He was a Yorkshiremen by birth and he was actually brought up a Protestant for the first probably decade of his life until his father died. His father, having been a Protestant and his mother remarried into a Catholic family. And it was at that point that he seems to have been heavily impressed by Catholicism and thereafter became a Catholic. And in the early nineties, he was so convinced that, you know, Catholicism was the way forward that he actually sold his house in Yorkshire and went off to the low countries to fight in the Spanish army against the Dutch.
So fighting in the Catholic army against the Protestant Dutch.
So when this John Winter was scouting in Flanders on behalf of Katsuaki, Guy Fawkes pops up and he seems to have all the right sort of characteristics for getting involved in the plot.
The Duke of Suffolk carried out the search there, having seen all the lower rooms he found in the vote under the upper house, great stores of log's faggots and Coles and asking why not keep out of the wardrobe? To what use? He had put those lower rooms in cellars. He told him that Thomas Percy had hired both the house and part of the cellar will vote under the same and that the wood and coal. Therein was the sage gentleman's own supply.
The Army commander found Thomas Percy's man, Guy Fawkes, standing outside his clothes and boots on, and so did a time of night. He decided to arrest him. Then he went and searched the house where after he had made them turn over some of the billet Sancho's, he found one of the small barrels of powder and afterwards all the rest to the number of thirty six barrels, great and small, and then searching. The fellow whom he had taken found three matches and all of the tools wanted to blow up the powder ready upon him.
Who tipped off parliament? That's a good question. We think it was someone called Francis Tresham, who was another one of the 13 actual co-conspirators that we know of the case we had organized. And he wrote a letter to a cousin of his who was in the House of Lords, somehow, Lord Monteagle, and warned him that it may be a good idea to stay away from the state opening of parliament. And this letter came into the hands of members of the king's sort of closest group of advisers, the Privy Council, and they started to investigate and to put out feelers and find out more.
And as part of that investigation, they searched underneath the houses of parliament. And it's here that they found Guy Fawkes guarding the various barrels of gunpowder and they sort of questioned him and then ended up arresting him. And the rest is, as I say, is history.
But how much explosives did they actually find with Guy Fawkes and how did he get it unnoticed?
Yeah, I mean, that's a really good question, because it was a lot it was supposedly thirty six barrels of gunpowder, which equated to an old style, I think you'd call it eighteen hundred weight or something, which I think now is about a metric ton. So it's a lot.
Would it have brought down power. It definitely would. And this is where, you know, Guy Fawkes was important because he was a soldier. So he knew what he was doing. He knew about explosives, he knew about what would be needed. So he was an essential part of the planning of the plot. But no, I mean that if it had exploded, it would have been very effective. But how they managed to get it over without being discovered earlier was because Kate Spee had actually rented a house opposite the houses of Parliament.
So he had rented a house in Lambeth Box, all that kind of area. And that's where the gunpowder was originally stored. And obviously, Lambeth is not far across the water from Westminster. So he would under cover of darkness, they transported all the barrels across.
They did it at night, basically got it into the basement of the other house that he was renting right within the precincts of Westminster. You know, obviously would be able to do it now. But in those days, it was society was different.
So Guy Fawkes got caught.
And the other conspirators know and I always feel slightly sorry for Guy Fawkes in this respect because he does seem to have been sort of hung out to dry in a way, if that's not a pun, according to what happens to him at the end, when it became obvious that the plot had been discovered, the senior ringleaders like KDP, they actually left town. Guy Fawkes was arrested in the early hours of November and Katsu and his friend heard about this and is co-conspirators heard about it.
They left. They fled back to his country house in the Midlands and they were planning to kind of launch a coup there. They tried to raise a few Catholic, you know, to get the Catholic gentry onside and kind of lord to sort of mini rebellion. But it all fell flat and they are killed in the process of putting that down. So Faulkes is really one of only two people who are left behind who are actually arrested and then interrogated.
And it was Fork's and this John Winter who originally recruited him. And it's from their interrogations that we know so much about how the plot was actually put together. So, yeah, poor old Guy Fawkes, he was really the fall guy for people who are higher up the social hierarchy than he was. Was the Catholic clergy aware of the plot?
I think specifically we know that there was one Catholic priest who definitely knew about it, and that's because Robert Casey had given confession to this priest. So he obviously later on he gets caught and divulges the fact that he knew about it and he's eventually executed generally. I think Catholic clergy in England were obviously aware that there had been previous attempts to overthrow Protestantism and put a Catholic monarch on the throne. So I'm sure they would not be surprised by this, basically.
But we only know of one who's really closely associated with it.
And were there then repercussions for Britain's Catholics following the gunpowder plot?
Not really, which is another interesting feature of the aftermath of it. And that's partly because James the first was a really clever, very astute politician. He knew that this was an extremist plot. He didn't blame the whole Catholic population for this. So he took the view that he would severely punish the offenders, the people who are closely involved in it. But actually, there was no massive retribution, no sort of huge persecution of Catholics thereafter. And it's really interesting that over the course of his whole reign, twenty five Catholics were executed, quite a few of them associated with this plot.
And the other plots that took place, which compared with the nearly two hundred under Elizabeth, is a lot less. So he was he was very sensible in terms of recognising that this was extremist rather than a general problem going.
Did this event in particular become. So memorialised is Guy Fawkes Night with all of its attendant fireworks and burning of the guy.
Again, this is a sort of interesting feature of the whole plot, really the reason that it became so embedded in the English calendar, if you like. It was partly to do with James himself.
In the aftermath of the plot. He essentially passed an act of parliament called the Thanksgiving Act. And this act said that on the 5th of November, every year, a special church services should be held to celebrate, to give thanks for the fact that he'd been delivered from almost near death. And people were obviously newly reminded of the fact that the 5th November represented a Protestant triumph over Catholicism, if you like. That continued really with on the religious side for a couple of hundred years.
Bonfires were a very 17th century thing. So on many occasions, royal weddings, famous battles being fought, coronations, people would light bonfires in the streets and have parties. And that actually started quite spontaneously almost at the moment of the plot itself. So from the very early days when the news of the failed plot became known, people did have bonfires in the streets and that has continued in the early days. It wasn't Guy Fawkes who was kind of burned as an effigy on these bonfires.
It was actually the pope. And that continued for quite a while. It wasn't until the 19th century, really, that we start to get the emergence of Guy Fawkes being the effigy on the bonfire, and it starts to become known more openly as Guy Fawkes Night on a more general basis. But the 5th of November is a really interesting date, really, because it became embedded in the in the English national calendar from six five onwards, essentially, and it became associated with English.
Protestantism was actually used in terms of propaganda as well as strategic moments across the century. If there you know, it was a symbolic the 5th of November of the triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism. When William a third invaded the country, Dutch William had invaded the country in sixteen eighty eight to try and clear up the mess from Catholic James. The second he invaded on the 5th November, he chose that date specifically to kind of remind people of here we are again, we're kind of putting down the potential Catholic aggressor.
It was kind of effectively woven into the fabric of English life in this way. So partly to do, James, partly to do with bonfires being a way of celebrating anyway in the third. In conclusion, was it a completely foolhardy plan? Did the plotters have any chance of replacing the country's Protestant government with Catholic leadership?
I think there are two answers to that question. I think it was a they probably had more chance of actually blowing up parliament than they did of really replacing James with any Catholic alternative, because there wasn't really a Catholic alternative, because part of the plot was not really well thought out in terms of who would replace James. There was talk of perhaps putting one of his younger children on the throne, like Charles Duke of York, who was future Charles, the first, who was about four or five at the time, possibly him or possibly James, his daughter, Elizabeth, who was about nine.
But, you know, this was complex. They weren't adults. It would have involved, you know, having some kind of Regency government.
So it wasn't really that well thought through. And in that sense, it was foolhardy, but potentially it could have worked. You know, Guy Fawkes hadn't been discovered for old Guy Fawkes, but. Yeah. Lowney James, thank you very much for joining us.
Thank you. How and why history? It's 25 years since Father Ted was on the telly. That's a long time. I mean, it's nearly 26 years. So the lads in on hostage are releasing a set of four commemorative lamps. We can get them at our post office or up on post.com. Father Ted, send them to people. You know why we just had lunch. Oh, right. They're actually stamps. Yeah. A great bunch of stops and laughs and fun sundlun unposed for your world.