What Would Have Happened if Guy Fawkes Had Succeeded?

by JoHarrington

It's one of the great 'what ifs' of history. What would Britain have been like if the Gunpowder Plotters had blown up the House of Lords on November 5th 1605?

Everyone knows what would have happened if Guy Fawkes had blown up Westminster. We've seen it play out in 'V for Vendetta'. The streets would have been filled with revolutionaries, bringing down the old world order.

Except it's unlikely that would have happened at all. Nor would Alan Moore have chosen Guy Fawkes as his central unifying character, as our perception of that day would have been very different.

So how might it have played out? Let's go on down the other trouser leg of time and find out.

What was the Gunpowder Plot?

Before we can change history, it's as well to establish what actually happened.

Image: Guy FawkesJust after midnight, in the early hours of November 5th 1605, Guido Faukes was arrested in Westminster. 

He had been in an undercroft, which stretched under Parliament House, home of the House of Lords.  In his possession were thirty-six barrels of gunpowder. Without much prompting at all, he confessed his intention to blow up Westminster Palace.

But this wasn't just any old session, it was the State Opening of Parliament.  In attendance were the King, the Queen and the heir to the throne; every Member of Parliament (except one from Lyme Regis, who'd sent his apologies on account of a flare up of his gout); every English bishop; a cohort of lesser Lords and petitioners; all of the advisers and servants of the above; plus those there for the spectacle.

They were all informed that a terrorist plot had been foiled, which would have resulted in the death of them all. Then they went on with the order of the day, which was mostly agreeing to pass ever more stringent anti-Catholic laws.

King James I (and VI of Scotland) officially set the parliamentary session in progress. All present swore loyalty to him.  In the House of Lords, they set about clamping down on the Catholic religion within the realm.  In the House of Commons, a debate ensued about trade with the Spanish (with whom England had been at war for the past eighty years).  It was agreed that merchants should be protected.

Meanwhile, Guido Faukes spent his last miserable months in the Tower of London. He was tortured for information, then horrifically executed. A national hunt for his co-conspirators resulted in a siege at Holbeche House, in the Black Country; and ultimately the death of every named Gunpowder Plotter, either there or judicially in London.

The whole episode passed into legend, and spawned the tradition of Bonfire Night in Britain.  Guy Fawkes himself became an iconic figurehead in the fight against injustice and governmental corruption. At least he did after he'd finished being a demonized symbol of religious fanaticism and terrorism.

JW Turner's 'The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons'

The reason I have so many illustrations of Parliament being destroyed is because it was. Westminster Palace burnt down in 1834.
The historical Guy Fawkes has been kept famous by centuries of British Bonfire Nights, and the success of V for Vendetta and Anonymous. But who was the real Guy Fawkes?

What if Guy Fawkes had Lit the Fuse?

Here we go, back in time and off into a parallel universe. Sir Thomas Knevett has not wandered into the undercroft. Guy Fawkes was never stopped.

Image: Westminster being destroyedNo-one in Parliament House that day would have survived the explosion.

If they weren't vaporized, then bits of their bodies would have rained down on Old Parliament Square and the River Thames.  The building itself would be in ruins, its stone walls and oak pillars ripped apart and thrown high into the sky.

Their descent would prove fatal for anyone underneath.

In addition, the blast would have destroyed the warren-like surrounding streets.  These were packed with merchants, homes, offices and studies, and all the other businesses of a vibrant city.  Nearby Westminster Abbey would have become a death trap for anyone in its vicinity. All of its stained glass would shoot in shards at a great velocity.

Westminster Palace, where the House of Lords was situated, housed the biggest library in England at the time, as well as priceless works of art and other cultural items.  They would be just so much fuel to the raging inferno.

Every building within a two mile radius would have had its windows blown out. If that involved glass, then we would have been seeing casualties throughout that blast area.

The nature of the city residences was to be too close together and largely wooden. The Great Fire of London would be brought forward sixty-one years; and the capital would sustain just as much damage.

This would not have merely destroyed a building full of royalty and politicians. It had the potential to unleash destruction upon the whole of the capital city.

Books about the Great Fire of London

London had had many fires in the past, but nothing like what happened in September 1666. It was the biggest urban disaster in Europe since the Huns attacked Rome.

The Immediate Response to the Explosion of Parliament

It doesn't matter what the historical age or society, when an emergency this big occurs, all needs to be made safe.

Image: Westminer in flames 1834I think that we can assume that the initial hours would have been spent in shock and damage limitation.The heart of Westminster would have been strewn with dead bodies and, presumably, friends and relatives desperately searching for confirmation that their loved ones were amongst them.

But radiating out from Westminster Palace, many people would be injured and/or trapped.  Flying debris and glass would ensure it. They would all need tending or removing to safety.

Meanwhile, an inferno was still raging and that would have to be dealt with too.  With no organized fire brigades, this would need to be a co-operative venture amongst volunteers.  Luckily, Westminster Palace is right next to the River Thames, so there would be no shortage of water.

In 1666, a human chain of people snaked from the river bank to wherever the fires had spread. They passed buckets and bowls of water up towards the flames.  There's no reason why this scene wouldn't have happened in 1605 too. Unfortunately buckets of water aren't too effective when whole buildings are ablaze.

A frenzied hive of activity would be playing out down wind of the flames. Westminster was a center of trade and industry, so warehouses would be endangered, as well as family homes.  All that could be saved would be loaded onto carts and hurried away.

Naturally that would lead to the narrow streets becoming blocked and travel times prolonged accordingly.  Tempers would be frayed.  Isolated violence would break out in back-streets.

The more canny planners would attempt to create a fire break, pulling down buildings in the direct path of the fire, in order to save those further ahead. 

However, all of this would be leading to a huge problem.  It was November and therefore winter. The days and nights would be very cold in England, hence not great for suddenly finding yourself homeless.  In 1666, Londoners camped upon the slopes of Primrose Hill.  This would not be an option in 1605, unless they all wanted to freeze to death.

The first major problem after the injuries and fire would be shelter.  Those who could afford it would leave for homes outside London - their own residences or staying with friends. Hotels and inns for miles around would enjoy a profiteering boom.  The ugly side of human nature possibly might see prices rising steeply for over-crowded rooms.

My guess is that the majority of people would cross the River Thames. Remember that this isn't an ordinary fire.  Westminster Palace has just been exploded and no-one would yet know why, or what was going to happen next.  But north of the river would seem much more dangerous than south of it.

The heroes of the hour might well be in Southwark. This was an area filled with theaters, brothels and other houses of ill repute. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was just down the road, and he would be an eye-witness.  Serious civic brownie points and possible goodwill in the future might come from opening up rooms and providing beds there. 

Churches would also be great centers for asylum, which would be perfect for all concerned in the circumstances.  It would place the displaced in a position where they could hear news; and calm those who thought that this actually was the end of the world.

However, there were no fireplaces nor other sources of heating in those large stone buildings. Those huddled in the pews would be shivering come night-fall.

Eventually it can be expected that official refuges would be provided, perhaps White Hall Palace, if it had survived the fire. Law, order and governance in the capital city could not be done while everyone was displaced, desperate and panicking.  White Hall Palace (today's Whitehall) was used as a refuge for commoners during the Great Fire of London a generation later.

It would all be done in the name of the King, though whether James or his four year old son Charles, would depend upon if it was announced that the former was dead.

Books about Jacobean London

Learn more about the society and city at stake here. A successful Gunpowder Plot would have ended it all immediately.

What Would London Look Like Today?

13,200 homes were burnt down during the Great Fire of London.  Along with them were 44 churches, some quite ancient, and much of the historic architecture and collections in the city.

All of this would have been lost in 1605 instead, but with no Christopher Wren around to orchestrate the rebuilding.

In short, the city would not look like it does today.  It would probably resemble something like York, Gloucester or Chester, but on a much bigger scale. 

(Though the Great Fire could still happen in 1666, then we'd be back to normality there; and Wren would have an even stronger case for removing the narrow medieval streets for health and safety reasons.)

A Life of Christopher Wren

How Would Londoners Have Reacted to the Catastrophe?

It's fairly easy to piece together what would likely have happened next, though, of course, no-one can say for certain.

By looking at how people reacted when news spread about the foiled Gunpowder Plot, then adding in what their grandchildren did during the Great Fire, we can make some deductions.

The probability is that each individual acted in varying ways. The whole spectrum of human emotion was there to find and feel.

A large number would be too busy mourning, and picking through the ruins of their lives, to react in any other way.

As for the general mood, once the initial necessities of reacting to the emergency were out of the way, I believe that the next stage would almost certainly have been a more furious kind of panic.  This would not have been a good time to have been Spanish or French in Jacobean London, nor, indeed, any other nationality.

Britain had just spent the last few decades at war with Spain. It was only James ascending the throne which had produced a peace treaty. Philip III of Spain was waiting to see how it would play out. James was positioning himself as the peacemaker of Europe, mediating between the Protestant north and the Catholic south of the continent.

A successful Gunpowder Plot would have put a stop to that immediately. Lynch mobs would take to the streets and any foreigner found would be declared a terrorist and attacked.  If they were Spanish or French, they would not have survived.

We do know that there were Spaniards in Westminster that day.  The House of Commons was hearing a petition from merchant envoys about renewing trade links with Britain's erstwhile enemy. A date was set for considering the Incorporation of the Spanish Company. 

That obviously would not have happened, but the envoys were still there. If they couldn't escape the country quickly enough, then it can expected that the mob would find them. Then there would be a very diplomatically sensitive and ugly series of assassinations.

This nearly happened in reality.  On November 5th 1605, once the word was out about the foiled plot, Londoners reached the false conclusion that it had been orchestrated by the Spanish monarchy.  Sir William Wade reported to Lord Salisbury that, 'The people exclaim against the Spaniards and their Ambassadors. Precautions to be taken against a tumult.'

In the chaos of the immediate aftermath of a successful plot, then Wade, as Lord Lieutenant of the Tower of London, might not have been able to spare the guards.  His full resources would surely have been exhausted in protecting the crown jewels, and receiving any high ranking refugees or prisoners from the fall-out.

Lord Salisbury would have been dead.

Nor would it have been only foreigners who would have been in trouble. As soon as the intelligence leaked out that it wasn't a Spanish act of war, then the real culprits would have been exposed. 

Now every Catholic in Britain would be in danger of their lives.  A whole generation had been raised to distrust them, now they really would seem like the devil within.  Not just in London, but rippling out across the whole Isles, recusant homes would be besieged, looted and burned.

November 5th 1605 was always so much more than Guy Fawkes blowing up Parliament. Assuming that he had lit the fuse, would there have been a Catholic Uprising?

Books about the Causes of Mob Rule and Riots

This could well have been the immediate situation in a panicked and disordered England, after the blowing up of Parliament.

Who Would Rule if King James and Parliament had been Killed?

King Charles and Parliament would have ruled England and Scotland, with Wales, Cornwall and Ireland also answerable to them.

The king is dead, long live the king! Then repeat for every bishop, earl and lord in the building.

Parliaments in the 17th century were not like today's arrangement. The people sitting in them were born to the job, though they may have been elected to certain roles or committees. All that the massacre would have achieved, in real terms, would be to change a whole generation of titled names to that of their eldest son or heir.

So, for example, we have just lost Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury in the explosion of Parliament House.  We simultaneously gained William Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, who automatically succeeded to the title, when his father was killed.

All over Britain, eldest sons and heirs, living safely out of harm's reach in their country homes, would now be in a position to ride into London and take control of the business of governance.

They would just have to find another building to do it in.

Image: Prince Charles Stuart aged four.
Image: Prince Charles Stuart aged four.

The Succession Crisis of King Charles I

Reinstating officialdom would not have been quite as neat and simple as I may have implied.

In 1605, the king was the ruler. Not just a figurehead of state to be gawped at by tourists, but someone who actually called the shots.

If James I and VI had been killed in Parliament House, and his heir Prince Henry Frederick with him, then the next monarch would have been tiny Charles Stuart.  He was four years old.

This situation was awkward, but not unprecedented. 

Within living memory of the older Jacobeans was the short reign of Edward VI.  He'd only been nine when he was crowned.  He died aged fifteen, having never ruled as an adult.  A Regency Council dealt with the heavy responsibility of governing the nation, though naturally Edward had his say.

But Charles was not only an infant, he was desperately shy and extremely ill.  When James had taken the throne, two years previously, Charles was so weak that his parents had left him in Scotland. They thought that the journey would kill him.

He'd finally followed them south only a few months before the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. Charles had lay in a litter all the way down, accompanied by his nurse.  Once in England, ambitious nobles had flocked to meet him.

Royal children were raised in aristocratic foster homes. One way to achieve power, wealth and influence was to be entrusted with a prince or princess. But the nobles all, without exception, took one look at poor Prince Charles and quietly shuffled away.

No noble in England wanted to be looking after a prince who was bound to die; and Charles was a prime candidate. 

At four years old, the age at which he would have become king, he could barely walk or talk.  Modern medics examining the reports have determined that the infant prince was suffering from both rickets and scurvy.  In addition, he was crippled with anxiety. The few words that he could manage were afflicted with a stammer.

In January 1604, he had been made Duke of York and a Knight of the Bath. Both ceremonies had necessitated him being carried throughout by an attendant.  These events, on successive evenings, had exhausted and terrified the reserved little boy.

Those looking for him now to be king might be forgiven for doing so with a mercenary evaluation. Would he even survive long enough to be crowned?  And if not him, what was the alternative?  He had an older sister, but skipping over him to her would create more constitutional difficulties than it would solve.

What England needed right now was a stable, purposeful and strong leader.  What it actually had was a petrified and sickly baby, who had just lost both parents and his elder brother; and probably witnessed it too, as he was only down the road in White Hall Palace.

And he would be supported by a new and inexperienced Parliament, where most, if not all, members were currently in deep shock and mourning for their fathers.

Books about the Life of Charles I

Despite being so ill as a baby, and the youngest son, Charles did actually become king. He famously started the English Civil War and was executed.

The Scramble for Power in Post-Jacobean England

An enormous power vacuum has just opened up. What happens next depends upon who acts fast enough.

Image: The MonmonthsOne of the first things that I can envisage occurring, amongst the English ruling classes, would be a rush to grab and secure Prince Charles.

On November 5th 1605, he was in White Hall Palace, in the care of Lady Elizabeth Carey.  Her husband, the Earl of Monmouth, would have died in Parliament House.

Of all the tragedies that have the potential to unfold now, Charles being taken away from Lady Carey might be amongst the most damaging.

She was brilliant for him. She had the patience to help him through his painful walking and stammering. She twice stood up to King James himself, over how best to deal with Charles's healthcare; and she won.

After the loss of his parents and brother, Charles would be traumatized enough. Replacing Lady Carey with someone who merely wants him as a political pawn could not end well. But Lady Carey would not have the power to stop them.

While the city is in crisis and the situation not fully known, then it would be easy for somebody to argue, quite sensibly, that Prince Charles needed to be removed from White Hall Palace for his own protection.  The obvious location would be the Tower of London, where he could remain in safety until a Regency Court is formed and decisions made about his upbringing.

But a quick-witted aristocrat, living close enough to the capital to both know about the disaster quickly and to act upon it, may just as easily argue that the infant monarch had to be taken out of London completely.  It would be for his own good.

Securing the person of the boy would make it incredibly difficult for any other nobles to intervene.

Of course, without knowing who was in a position to take him, it's hard to predict what might have happened next.  The political vacuum would have been just too big to comprehend with anything more than a wild guess.

Nor would that be the end of it.  Until Charles reached his maturity and was able to fully take the reins of his monarchy, furious and destructive infighting would go on; unless a strong leader could emerge and gain enough support.

For the good of the country, that's precisely what had to happen.  We just can't judge from the broad array of possible outcomes, which would have been the one to prevail.

There is something so wonderfully bad-ass about the Jacobean noblewoman Dame Robert Carey. Particularly how often she put King James in his place!
If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded in 1605, Princess Elizabeth would have been abducted and made queen. She was only nine years old.

Who Might Have Seized Power in Britain?

Guy Fawkes was successful in blowing up Parliament House. Four year old King Charles is monarch.
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Losses and Gains after the Successful Gunpowder Plot

Time for some educated guesses about how history would have been changed, if Parliament House had been exploded by Guy Fawkes.
  • Charles would have been raised in a fiercely anti-Catholic household, whoever took him; plus he'd blame that faith for the loss of his family.  He wouldn't have the pro-Catholic tolerance which caused him trouble with the Puritans.
  • His hatred of Catholicism would have been passed onto his own children, which renders it unlikely that James II would have converted.  That erases instantly the Glorious Revolution, the Jacobite Rebellion and the Battle of the Boyne.
  • Neither would Charles have been taught about the divine right of kings by his father.  Both of these would ensure that the English Civil War never happened, and that Charles would never be executed accordingly.
  • The King James Bible would not have been written. It had been commissioned in 1604, so it was in the pipeline.  But Archbishop Bancroft, who was writing it, was in Parliament House that day.
  • As a result, there would have been none of the religious problems with the Church in Scotland.
  • America and Newfoundland would never have been colonized by the English.  Not only would the nation not have the money and time to fund it, but both Francis Bacon and Sir Edwin Sandys were in Parliament House that day.  Instead the French would have expanded down from Canada. The USA would now be French speaking and possibly still part of Canada.
  • All of Francis Bacon's scientific, philosophic and legal work, after 1605, would never have happened.
  • Regardless of whether Ireland took advantage of the turmoil to gain independence or not, the Ulster Plantations would not have taken place.  James financed them through loans from the City of London Guilds.  They would not have the money to spare, what with the rebuilding of their own city and all.  As a result, Northern Ireland would probably not now be separate from Eire.
  • It's possible that the Flight of the Earls wouldn't have happened, as O'Neil and the other Gaelic chiefs could do much better staying in Ulster and rebelling in these circumstances.
  • Nor would Oliver Cromwell have been able to brutally control Ireland a few years on. No English Civil War, no New Model Army; and probably no actual importance placed on Cromwell either. He'd remain a rather insignificant land owner.
  • There would be no Union Flag, as that wasn't commissioned until 1606, and it was only James who ever wanted it.  In fact, I'd speculate that England and Scotland would be embroiled in an almighty political struggle over Charles, which may have ended in war.
  • Shakespeare would never have written MacBeth, as that was to impress King James.

Books about the Jacobean and Stuart Eras

Discover more about the real history, as it happened, by reading these books.
The Royal Stuarts: A History of the Family That Shaped Britain

"Compelling...A masterly feat...A magnificent, sweeping, authoritative, warm yet wry history."--The Wall Street Journal In this fascinating and intimate portrait of the Stuarts,...

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Stuart England: Second Edition (Hist of England, Penguin)

Stuart England is the subject of continual and active research, and Professor Kenyon's survey presents a unified picture of this contentious century, as well as featuring a full...

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A Monarchy Transformed: Britain, 1603-1714 (Penguin History of Britain)

The sixth of nine volumes in the major "Penguin History of Britain" series, "A Monarchy Transformed" narrates the tempestuous political events of the Stuart dynasty. It charts t...

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Scotland and the Ulster Plantations: Explorations in the British Settlement of Stuart Ireland (Ul...

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American Colonies: The Settling of North America (The Penguin History of the United States, Volum...

With this volume, Alan Taylor challenges the traditional story of colonial history by examining the many cultures that helped make America. Transcending the usual Anglocentric v...

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Making Ireland British, 1580-1650

This is the first comprehensive study of plantations in Ireland during the years 1580-1650. It examines the arguments advanced by successive political figures for a plantation p...

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Updated: 11/05/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 12/06/2012

Ideally, he would have been, because she was very good for him. But I doubt it. Whoever had control of him would want to raise him too. Leaving him with Lady Carey would be tantamount to giving control of the realm to the Earl of Monmouth.

In this case, it wouldn't be Lord Robert - who had upset the English aristocracy in 1603 anyway - but his teenage son. Why promote another family, when you can promote your own?

Calanon on 12/06/2012

I found this article a very interesting read. Couldn't Charles just have been left with Lady Carey?

JoHarrington on 11/18/2012

I don't know about the Physics (or Metaphysical) perspective, but from an historical one, I just had to draw a line. The repercussions would be going on and on and on. I only really described one day up there, with a summary on the more immediate big points from the next few decades. So much would ripple out from that one single changed moment.

It's hard to say with something like how Bacon's mind worked. If it was a formula or a mathematical equation, then eventually someone would get there. But if it was gone big idea that could only occur to someone who'd experienced precisely what Bacon had experienced, then it would be lost forever.

I can give you an example here too. If Parliament House had blown, then would Princess Elizabeth still have married Frederick of Bohemia? There might have not been the same political imperative, or there may have been a different one. If they didn't marry, then Elizabeth of Bohemia (their daughter) wouldn't have been born.

It was her mind and correspondence which led Descartes into his most famous philosophy.

I've heard tell of that film, but I don't know what it is. If you find out, will you please let me know? It sounds fascinating!

Ember on 11/18/2012

I enjoyed this! I wonder what the grander repercussions of this might have been had they succeeded? I mean we can never know, the whole butterfly effect thing. I dunno, this is Liam's realm, but I love the idea that on a quantum level nothing is determinate (I suppose there are philosophies regarding the physical world as to whether things are determinate or indeterminate, but I think more recent physicists argue that it is indeterminate, an idea that drove persons like Schrodinger crazy) and so there's idea that even changing an air current a million years ago could change the entire history of everything.

But like with loosing Francis Bacon, would the loss of his scientific mind significantly affected the course of science's history? Or would someone spend time working out his works, instead of their own significant contribution, leading to a ripple effect of putting us behind a few years, and then a few decades...I dunno, maybe I'm being dramatic.

I was just being told about this bizarre movie about how we're living the best possible history. And like a bunch of really famous people in history, I think Hitler being one of them, were actually just people who were from the future who kept traveling back and quirking with things to improve the overall whole historical timeline- the movie played with the idea that death and wars and tragedies are imminent but that there are so many possible histories that are way worse than the one we are living. Oh, and all of these future people lived together on the dark side of the moon. :|

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