In 1605 a group of provincial English Catholics led by Robert Catesby tried to blow up Parliament and assassinate King James 1 only to be foiled by an anonymous tip-off from one of their own number. But what would Great Britain, and the wider world, be like today had the House of Lords been reduced to smouldering rubble? We asked history expert and author Sinead Fitzgibbon to give us her opinion…
What if the Gunpowder Plot had been successful?
Had the plot been successful the country’s first major colonisation of the New World – the establishment of Jamestown in Virginia in 1607 – may never have happened. Perhaps the French or Spanish would have gotten there first. And had England failed to settle America, would we have then been in a position to colonise the West Indies? Without the profits generated from this colony, Britain might not have had the financial means to expand its horizons in the 19th century. Had the British not settled America in the 17th century, would English be the global language it is today? Probably not. Perhaps we would now live in a world where French is the language of Hollywood and we in Britain would be the ones straining to read the subtitles on the big screen.
“…would English be the global language it is today? Probably not. Perhaps we would now live in a world where French is the language of Hollywood…”
How close were Catesby and his co-conspirators to succeeding?
Given the fact that Guy Fawkes, along with his hoard of gunpowder, was discovered by the King’s men just a few hours before the fuse was due to be lit, some might say that the plot came very close to succeeding. Further investigation, however, reveals a very different story. Before its dramatic conclusion in the early hours of 5 November 1605, the Gunpowder Plot had been in the planning stages for over 18 months. During this unusually long gestation period, the original five conspirators found it increasingly difficult to deflect suspicion and keep their scheme under wraps. As time went on, necessity forced them to reveal their plans to various friends and family members. On 26 October 1605, an anonymous letter was sent to one Lord Monteagle warning him not to attend the upcoming opening of Parliament as ‘they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament and yet they shall not see who hurts them.’ Monteagle raised the alarm and the King was informed. The Gunpowder Plot was, thanks to this letter, discovered a full nine days previously.
What would blowing up the Houses of Parliament have done to the political landscape of the day?
Had the powder combusted properly and wiped out prominent members of the royal family and the country’s political elite as planned, I doubt the country’s political landscape would have greatly changed in the long term. Indeed, the fact that Catesby believed otherwise was naïve in the extreme. Common sense dictates that the powerful Protestant ruling families would surely have hunted down the perpetrators, while Protestant vigilantes, galvanised by the act of terror inflicted on their fellow men in Westminster, would have sought revenge against ordinary Catholic civilians. If anything, a successful Gunpowder Plot would have made life worse for English Catholics, not better.
“If anything, a successful Gunpowder Plot would have made life worse for English Catholics, not better.”
How do you think British Catholics would have reacted to the untimely death of the Protestant James I?
The majority of 17th century Catholics would have viewed Catesby’s actions in the same way Northern Irish Catholics reacted to the murderous campaigns of the IRA during the Troubles – that is, with abhorrence. Also, it’s worth pointing out that James was not uniformly despised by the Catholic community; many still held out hope that he would be persuaded to lessen the restrictions placed on the Roman religion by his predecessors. After all, his mother was the Catholic martyr, Mary Queen of Scots. Protestants would have been outraged by the regicide, and I believe many would have taken the law into their own hands in an attempt to exact revenge. It’s not difficult to envisage an eruption of anti-Catholic riots throughout the country.
How do you think the assassination of James I would have affected Britain’s relationship with other countries?
By the 17th century, relations between Protestant Britain and Catholic Spain had been strained for decades. Tensions had begun to escalate during the initial stages of the Reformation when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon [daughter of Spain’s Ferdinand and Isabella], and had peaked with the failed invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588. Even after 1588, some English Catholics continued to hope that the Spanish would one day succeed in overthrowing the country’s Protestant rulers. This intervention never materialised, thanks in large part to the strain imposed on Spain’s military resources by the Dutch wars.
It’s difficult to say how Spain would have reacted had Catesby’s scheme borne fruit. Perhaps it would have tipped the balance in favour of the longed-for Spanish intervention. Maybe Philip III would have sought to capitalise on the plotters’ triumph by attempting to install himself or a member of his family on the English throne – after all, his sister, Isabella, had once been touted by some prominent English Catholics as a possible successor to Elizabeth I. But while this scenario was possible, I don’t believe it was very probable. By this point in the proceedings, Spain had largely abandoned English Catholics to their fate – indeed, the court of Philip III had previously declined to offer Catesby any assistance in his quest to mount a rebellion. More broadly, I think the Gunpowder Plot would have had a significant impact on Britain’s relations with the wider world, in that Catesby’s scheme may well have put paid to the country’s early colonial ambitions.
James I was a Scottish King – if the assassination had succeeded how would Scotland have reacted?
This is an interesting point to consider. James had been Scotland’s monarch for 35 years before succeeding Elizabeth I to the throne in 1603. And given that Scottish Calvinists had gone to great lengths to install James as king in the first place, I doubt they would have taken his assassination lightly. A Scottish invasion of England may well have been the result.
Who would have been the most likely successor to James I if a Catholic monarch was placed on the throne?
In a bid to add legitimacy to his coup, it was Catesby’s intention to install James and Anne’s nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne as a puppet monarch. Catholic guardians would have been appointed to oversee her re-education in the Roman faith, while a regent would look after affairs of state until she came of age. She would then have been married off to a Catholic prince from one of Europe’s royal dynasties, re-establishing a Catholic line of succession. Again, this was a very ill-conceived plan, as it was unlikely Elizabeth would have been as pliable and cooperative as Catesby hoped.
“A Scottish invasion of England may well have been the result.”
What if James I had died but the Protestants retained control – who would have been crowned then?
James’s eldest son, Henry, was due to attend the opening of Parliament along with his parents on the fateful day. Assuming he too had been killed, the next in line to the throne was the youngest son, Charles [Elizabeth would have been precluded from the line of succession thanks to the laws of male primogeniture]. Just as Catesby had planned with Elizabeth, the Protestant establishment would have looked after the boy’s, and indeed the country’s interests until he reached the age where he could rule in his own right.
What effect would either outcome have had on the future lineage of Britain?
In the case of Charles, there would have been no impact on the future line of succession, as he was destined to take the throne anyway. In 1612, he became heir apparent when his older brother, Prince Henry, died of suspected typhoid fever [Charles eventually succeeded his father to the throne on the latter’s death in 1625].
It is less clear what would have happened to the line of succession had Catesby succeeded in his plan to install Princess Elizabeth as monarch. Would Charles have tried to oust his sister once he came of age? Possibly. Perhaps Elizabeth would have willingly abdicated in favour of her brother, given he was the rightful heir. We shall never know. Elizabeth was, however, to leave her mark on England’s royal lineage. When the House of Stuart eventually gave way to the House of Hanover [childlessness having done what a revolution, a beheading, and an abdication had failed to do], it was Anne’s grandson, George I, who became the first Hanoverian king. There’s a pleasing synchronicity in that, wouldn’t you say?
“Perhaps Elizabeth would have willingly abdicated in favour of her brother, given he was the rightful heir. We shall never know.”
Besides James I, there were some notable historic figures present in the house on the day. What would the knock-on effect of these collateral deaths have had on the history books?
Had the architects of the Gunpowder Plot achieved their aims, the untimely death of Francis Bacon would have been a significant loss to posterity. A polymath who wrote prolifically, his works greatly influenced the development of philosophical, scientific, and legal thinking. The biggest loser, however, would have been our English language. Both James VI and Bishop Bancroft had a part to play in the compilation of the King James Version of the Bible (KJV), which was destined to form part of the bedrock on which our modern language is built. Although work had started on the KJV in 1604, it wasn’t finished until 1611, and you could argue that the project might never have reached completion had these two men perished in November 1605. The other great contributor to our language was, of course, William Shakespeare. It is sobering to consider that, without the patronage of King James [who funded Shakespeare’s acting company, The King’s Men], some of the greatest works of dramatic tragedy may never have been written. Certainly Macbeth, written in 1606 and widely thought to have been inspired by the Gunpowder Plot, may never have seen the light of day – because, as the contemporary writer Sir John Harington famously said, “Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason.”
What would Britain have been like today, politically and religiously?
When all is said and done, I don’t believe Protestantism would have been supplanted had the Houses of Parliament gone up in flames on that November day in 1605. I think the country’s Protestant majority would have scuppered Catesby’s plans, and Charles would have succeeded his father to the English and Scottish thrones. Puritanism may have flourished as a reaction to the atrocity, and perhaps Oliver Cromwell would never have had his day in the sun. From a global perspective, the picture may well have been very different. Had the political upheaval resulting from a successful Gunpowder Plot diverted attentions away from colonial expansion, the British Empire may never have got off the ground. It is entirely feasible to suggest that country might never have become a major player on the world stage; instead it may have been destined to play second fiddle in a French or Spanish speaking world. In short, Great Britain might never have achieved the requisite degree of greatness to justify its lofty name.
“In short, Great Britain might never have achieved the requisite degree of greatness to justify its lofty name.”
Sinead Fitzgibbon is an Irish author and writer whose published history books include A Short History Of London, The Queen and The Gunpowder Plot: History In An Hour. She graduated from university with a degree in economics, working in investment banking in Sydney, Australia for six years before returning to the UK to pursue a career as a writer in 2007. She has a particular interest in art, literature and of course, history.
First published in All About History issue 5, written by Ben Biggs