Was the gunpowder plot a damp squib?

Find out if Fawkes and Catesby’s plot could have ended with a fizzle and not a bang..

England 1605. Protestant King, James 1, sits on the throne and any hopes the Catholic population had of greater religious tolerance have long faded since the introduction of even more laws levelled against their faith.

Enter Guy Fawkes, a battle-hardened veteran of the Eighty Years War and an expert with gunpowder. Fawkes was to team up with disaffected Catholic, Robert Catesby, who’d previously tried unsuccessfully to get Spain’s King Philip II to support an invasion of England. Their next plan of action was the Gunpowder Plot, the intention was to blow up the King and his supporters when they all attended the opening of parliament. After that, they would install his nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as Queen of England who they would later marry off to a Spanish prince and secure England as a Catholic nation once more.

At first, the plotters planned to place the explosives under the House of Lords by digging a tunnel from a nearby rented house. As this project ran into difficulties, they took the opportunity to rent a coal storeroom in the House of Lords underneath the King’s throne. Guy Fawkes hid the barrels of gunpowder in the room and had the job of igniting it at the right moment, only to be captured red-handed after a tip-off from an anonymous note. But even so, had Fawkes not been captured there was a good chance that the plot would not have succeeded…



Was the gunpowder plot a damp squib?
A rented coal cellar directly beneath the King’s throne was the site of the deadly stash


The 36 barrels of gunpowder were placed in position by July 1605 and were intended to be detonated on the opening of Parliament scheduled for the 3 October. The event was delayed for a month due to the still-lingering dangers of the bubonic plague in the city. This meant that the gunpowder was slowly decaying, and it was later declared fully separated into its component parts when it was retrieved and examined at the Tower of London. A fact that seemed to indicate that, had Guy Fawkes lit the fuses, the only result would have been a pathetic splutter of fire rather than a huge explosion.


The anonymous letter was rumoured to have been sent by plotter Francis Tresham, who’s brothers-in-law were to present at parliament that day


However, in 2005, some 400 years later, a documentary called The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend tested what would have happened if Fawkes had actually lit deteriorated gunpowder. It found that even a heap of such powder caused an explosion. When gunpowder is contained in barrels, it has even more explosive force and causes a cannoning effect that blows the top off before the sides of the barrel blast out  – enough to reduce the House of Lords to a pile of rubble.  So had it not been for that note, sent to the Catholic Lord Monteagle, Great Britain could be a very different place today. Take a look at our timeline below and learn more about how the plot unfolded.

Gunpowder timeline_logo

Originally published in issue 14 of How It Works – written by Nigel Watson

Learn more
How do fireworks make shapes?