What Would Have Happened if the Gunpowder Plot had Succeeded?

by JoHarrington

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?

Jacobean England was fiercely Protestant. Its Catholic population was a small and beleaguered lot.

They had suffered systematic discrimination and anti-Papist feeling since 1534, when the nation had first become Anglican. Each year, more recusant families caved into pressure and converted too, or pretended to anyway.

If Guy Fawkes had been successful in blowing up Westminster, then the most likely result would have been the end of Catholicism within English borders.

God's Secret Agents: Queen Elizabeth's Forbidden Priests and the Hatching of the Gunpowder Plot by Alice Hogge

What was the Gunpowder Plot?

It was an act by a small pocket of Jacobean Catholics, aimed at forcing more freedom for practitioners of their faith in Britain.

Image: Robert CatesbyHistory is always written by the winners.  Thus it is that we call the Gunpowder Conspirators terrorists now.  Had they succeeded, they would have been freedom fighters.

But was it ever possible that they could have succeeded?

Robert Catesby (pictured) was the mastermind and the leader of the group. It was his plot with others brought in as required.

Thomas Percy was there because of his high connections at court.  The Wintour brothers because of their connections in Catholic courts abroad.  The Wright brothers because one of them was Catesby's oldest and closest friend. He knew he could trust them. Then, most famously of all, Guido Faukes, because he was really good with gunpowder.

Others joined later, but only when the preparations were already underway and the plan had been expanded.  It was now a blueprint for actual revolution, rather than a single act of violence to stir up the political scene.

The Gunpowder Plot had three distinct stages:

Part one, originally the whole of it, was to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament.  That occasion is the only time when the three governing bodies (Monarchy, House of Lords and House of Commons) are in the same room at the same time. This would have killed the king, his heir, and every standing representative of the ruling elite; plus others, who were of lesser significance to the conspirators and regarded as collateral damage.

Part two was to raise the devoutly Catholic families of England in open revolt.  They would use the chaos of the moment to seize power in London.

Part three was to abduct nine year old Princess Elizabeth, install her as monarch and ensure that she was raised in the Catholic faith.

Books about the Gunpowder Plot in England 1605

Buy these histories to discover the full story and context behind the actions of Guy Fawkes, Robert Catesby and the other Plotters.
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?
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?

A Terrible Blow: Anti-Papist Lynch Mobs and Rioting

After the destruction in Westminster, first must come a massive anti-Catholic backlash.

Let us assume that Guy Fawkes wasn't stopped.  Stage one went according to plan.  What then?

The probable outcome is that the Protestant majority in England would turn against the Catholic minority.  Hundreds would be dead, and the capital city in ruins, all to advance the cause of the Papal faith.

All of this in a climate which was already strongly anti-Papist.  England had been at war with Spain for decades for reasons largely to do with religion.  An uncertain truce had only been called two years ago, when King James VI of Scotland was crowned monarch of England too.

To many ordinary British people, Catholicism was the world's great evil.  Too many soldiers had died in the wars. The English economy was in tatters through funding military action.  It was all Spain's fault and that nation's rationale was religious. 

Now this.  The great hope of a revitalized England lost in the violence of gunpowder in Westminster.  It would not take long for angry lynch mobs to form around the homes of known recusants. They would want retribution.

At best, the inhabitants could expect to be turned out in only the clothes that they stood in. In likelihood, they would have been savagely beaten and/or killed in vigilante attacks. Any priests found hidden could certainly anticipate no quarter.

We can be sure of this, because it's an escalation of what actually happened. In the days and weeks following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, sheriffs all over the country were kept busy with denunciations of Catholic families in their counties. 

The poet Ben Jonson, himself a Catholic, told Lord Salisbury that he personally knew of '500 gentlemen... of the religion' who had gone into hiding.  Not because they had done anything, but through fear of being 'enweaved'.

A purge of Catholics in the theater was undertaken by Lord Salisbury.  It was the Jacobean equivalent of Senator McCarthy's 'Reds Under the Bed' attack on Hollywood in the 1950s.

If Parliament House had been blown up in the name of Catholic freedom of religion, then such purges would have been total and absolute.  No-one of the faith would have been able to hold public office.  They would not have been seen on the stage; and books would have been burned.

William Shakespeare a Catholic?

The playwright would have witnessed the carnage in Westminster from across the Thames. Would he have been lost in the Papist purge?

Writers Who May Have been Caught up in a Post-Gunpowder Plot Purge on Catholics

When such social scares take place, it doesn't matter if the individual is 'guilty' or not. Just the suspicion that they might be rules the day.

The Destruction of Catholic England

Sir Edwin Sandys was in the House of Commons on the day that the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. 

As soon as the Parliamentary session was over, he rode as fast as he could (no doubt changing horses frequently) to his home in the North of England.  Once there, he wasted no time in snatching up every copy of his book and burning them on a bonfire in his yard.

His Europae speculum, or A Relation of the State of Religion in Europe, was the result of his journey through Europe chronicling how well each country prospered (or not) under the confines of their state religions. It was a best seller, running into three new editions in 1605 alone.

But it was also sympathetic to Catholicism. Sandys himself was Church of England; and son of an Anglican Archbishop.  He merely wrote as he found; and the truth was that the populations of Catholic countries appeared to be doing well.

Jacobean Gentleman: Sir Edwin Sandys

He went on to be instrumental in colonizing Virginia, in the USA.

The fact that Sir Edwin Sandys felt compelled to destroy every edition of his book, before they could land him into trouble, demonstrates just how paranoid the situation was in November 1605.

If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded in causing so much death and destruction in the capital, then everything would have been much more volatile in the rest of the country too.  The burning of books would probably have been the least of it.

Britain had been a Catholic country until 1534, only seventy-one years before. Previously there had been centuries of its icons, artifacts, religious texts, jewelry, relics, architecture and all the other paraphernalia of faith. 

Much had been destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but not all of it.  In fact, not even most of it.  History would have to wait until the rise to power of Cromwell before the majority of these treasures were ruined, smashed or burned.

But not if Westminster had blown.  My guess is that the Protestant backlash would have included the destruction of every material trace of Catholicism in the country.

It's highly likely that through a combination of forced conversion, exile/flight and executions (judicial or lynch), there would have been no-one left in Britain answerable to Rome by 1606.

Books about Catholicism in England during the Tudor and Jacobean Ages

Read these histories to get a broader sense of how perilous it was to be Roman Catholic in Elizabethan times especially.

Would There have been a Catholic Uprising if Guy Fawkes had been Successful?

The short answer is no; and I'm as certain as I can be in that assessment, given that we will never know for sure.

In the tension of the times, Father George Blackwell, clandestine Archpriest of English Roman Catholics, not only officially and publicly condemned the Gunpowder Plot, but gave a sermon appealing for calm. 

Within two days, he had secured a letter from Pope Paul V backing up both points.  As a result, the British Catholic community put their heads down, and did their best not to provoke any more outrage than normal.

Even under intense official and societal pressure to conform, they merely condemned the conspirators and left it at that.

That's what really happened in the aftermath of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.  But, of course, there was more to that than simply Guy Fawkes lighting a fuse.  The rest of the conspirators were gathering in the Midlands, ready and waiting to initiate a full-blown Catholic Uprising in Britain.

Already in situ, their message and call to arms would have arrived far sooner than Father Blackwell's instructions.

So now we're in a parallel world, where this is all happening against a backdrop of London actually burning and Parliament gone, along with the top tier of Jacobean officialdom.  How might it have played out now?

The answer is exactly the same.  Robert Catesby, and his riders, did not mention that the plot had been foiled!  When he knocked on every Catholic door in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire, he explained the situation like all was on course.

His horrified listeners must have thought that it was all real; that the king was dead and that London was in anarchy.  That was precisely what Catesby led them to believe.  Yet none of them joined him.  They all reacted with utter shock and dread, denounced his stupidity to his face, then slammed their doors on him. 

No doubt to then call a hurried household meeting to determine how best to survive the oncoming tsunami of anti-Papist hatred.

Goosey, Goosey Gander

We tell our children about the persecution of the Catholics in Britain. Goosey, Goosey Gander dates from Cromwellian times, but it's about the military entering recusant houses and brutally attacking those who 'wouldn't say their prayers'. Listen closely to the words.  Then imagine the reality.

What if the Recusants had Risen with Catesby?

Let's chuck in another variable here; after all, we are rewriting history as it is. In for a Penny for the Guy, in for a pound.

Against all common sense and probability, enough English Catholics joined Robert Catesby's riders that the Uprising has begun. We can suspend any speculation about a higher ranking Papist nobleman taking the lead, as most of them would be dead in the ruins of the House of Lords.

On course with Catesby's plan then, the armed religious rebels would have headed straight towards Coombe Abbey, in Warwickshire.  It's difficult to imagine such a large body of known Catholics crossing the Midlands, en masse and with weaponry, without attracting the attention of the local sheriffs.

There would have been skirmishes, if not full blown battles along the way. 

If, by some miracle, Catesby's troops did cross back into Warwickshire intact, then they would have been intercepted by Sir John Harrington and his men.  The baron had received an early tip off, as reports of horses stolen from Warwick Castle had reached him. 

Now, as in reality, he would have posted look outs all over the county.  They would have fed back intelligence about the approach of the insurgents.  Sir John Harrington would have gone to meet them long before they reached the environs of Coombe Abbey.

Numbers, skill, luck and all of the other usual variables in battle would have decided that one. But let's keep working in the favor of the Gunpowder Plot and let the baron and his men be defeated.  Or, at least, enough of Catesby's men to get by in order to storm the home of Princess Elizabeth.

They would thunder up the driveway and into Coombe Abbey to discover that she's not there.

Books about Christianity in Jacobean England

Buy these histories to truly understand the overwhelming importance of religion during the reign of James I and VI.

Tracking Down Princess Elizabeth Stuart

Stage three of the Gunpowder Plot was always going to be a little tricky...

When Sir John Harrington learned of the horse theft, every alarm bell in his instinct rang. This actually did happen, so no speculation is required here.

He did three things initially - he deployed his look outs across Warwickshire, in order to gain more intelligence about the situation; he escorted Elizabeth to the safety of the city of Coventry; then he rode out in search of the thieves.  Good instincts, eh?

Back to our exploration of alternative history.  The Recusant Army has to find Princess Elizabeth before they can abduct her.  Is she in the woods?  Or taken to the hills?  Unlikely, it's November and freezing out there.  Is she in another stately home?  Or safely in Warwick Castle, with the drawbridge up?

Are the Catholic rebels going to go en masse to conduct this house-to-house search?  They are in a country where the majority of the population is openly antagonist towards them, and chomping at the bit to attack.  Bit foolhardy then. 

But right now, we're forcing history along a route favorable to the Uprising, so let's send them to Coventry.  Catesby received intelligence from an onlooker (Warwickshire did have a lot of recusant families, and it was Catesby's home county too); or they simply worked it out.

The Catholic Uprising relocates to Coventry and now it's seriously in trouble. The whole point of having Princess Elizabeth sent to that area was that the city was loyal. 

Records show that its entire civic armory was emptied, so that the militia could form an effective guard around the young princess.  It wasn't just a few noblemen with swords.  Every single pike owned by the city was in the hands of a willing and able bodied volunteer.

Books about Elizabethan and Jacobean Coventry

Read these histories to gain a greater sense of the nature of the city and its people in 1605. Fundamentally Protestant and filled with commercial enterprises.
If the Gunpowder Plot had succeeded in 1605, Princess Elizabeth would have been abducted and made queen. She was only nine years old.

Coventry and the Catholic Insurgency

Is it even possible for Catesby's forces to get through the gates of the city? If so, how would they find the princess?

In order to get to the closed city gates of Coventry, this parallel line of history has had to imbue the Gunpowder Plotters with a preternatural amount of luck.  I've had to rewrite reality twice AND consistently choose the least likely of outcomes at every obstacle.

  • The House of Lords was destroyed.
  • The Catholic households of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire all joined in; and followed Catesby's plan.
  • The populations of every city, town and village on their route across the Midlands had to either not notice the armed Papists passing through; or they had to have all been defeated, in a chain of skirmishes, without any news spreading, which might bring Protestant militia from further afield.
  • Fresh from these fights, the plotters then had to take on and beat Sir John Harrington and his men.
  • Then they had to guess correctly where Princess Elizabeth was hiding; and ride there.

All of this has to be completed quite fast by the way.  Delay for an hour and news will rush like wildfire, bringing in Protestant reinforcements from all sides.  Even Catesby knew this.  Written into the Gunpowder Plot was the pretense of the fledgling insurgent group being a hunting party.  They only had a chance of getting away with that while they numbered a mere handful.  

In reality, they didn't.  The utterly suspicious behavior of riding with spare horses to each of the major Catholic residences in turn, had the sheriffs of three counties in pursuit.

In 1642, the people of Coventry would defend their city against a Royalist army of 6,000 soldiers, including the monarch and the highly trained, experienced guards around him.  They never breached the city gates.

Using this as a yardstick to what Coventry can withstand, the plotters would need a lot of troops for their Uprising.  The most that could possibly be there is 5,560 souls.  That was the number fined for recusancy in 1605.

However, that would be putting a rebel sword or pike into the hands of infants, children, women and the elderly, not to mention the infirm of body or mind.  It would also assume that every Catholic in England had magically been in the Midlands that day, and willing to join in.

At the very generous most, Catesby could have had no more than maybe a hundred people with him; and that was at the start, when history was rewritten to have people saying 'yes' to his plan. Some of those must have been killed or injured in the dozens of battles on the way.

In order to force the Gunpowder Plot to still play out, I would have to throw in a miracle of Biblical proportions, like trumpeters to fell the walls like at Jerrico.  There are three barrels of gunpowder, but no Guy Fawkes to know how to use it.  If his part in the plot was successful, he'd be halfway to Flanders on a ship by now.

Even if there was some way of gaining access, like magicking in a backdoor or a secret tunnel, then they would still have to fight their way through the streets.  They would still have to locate the princess inside the city.  They would still have to get through her considerable body of guards.

It's over.  The realms of realism have been stretched to breaking point.  The Gunpowder Plot could never have worked in its original form.

Did I call checkmate too soon? Could you have taken the (proposed) queen here?

Test out your strategies to realistically make the Gunpowder Plot succeed at Coventry. I will do my best to evaluate them from a viewpoint of historical accuracy.
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Scenario Two: Would the Catholic British have been Provoked into an Uprising?

Papists had endured two generations of persecution, though nothing would match what may have followed a successful Gunpowder Plot.

The population of England has openly and furiously turned against their Catholic neighbors. People are being beaten, killed or dispossessed, surely now the community would rise?

This is getting a little more shady, as we're now examining the consequences of something which itself didn't actually happen.

I still think that the Catholics would not have joined together in open revolt, especially if Father Blackwell had delivered his sermon.  Ben Jonson's intelligence was that all Catholics were waiting to take their cue from him.

Even if Londoners had dragged the Archpriest from his home and lynched him, I see no spark for the proposed uprising. Pope Paul V (pictured) would undoubtedly still have written his letter, even if not prompted by Father Blackwell.  Papal agents would have smuggled it into the country and its contents would have quickly spread.

No Catholic would have risen against the express orders of the Pope. This is particularly true in light of the fact that the majority of them were loyal citizens, despite their religious differences. They were uniformly and genuinely appalled by what the handful of hard-liners had attempted to do.

Nor could Pope Paul V have said any different.  There were too few Catholics in Britain to hope to win. A rising was too dangerous and served no good cause.

The Vatican's only possible move was to protect those there, as best it could through diplomatic missives and envoys.  The recusant families represented Rome's only hope of ever reclaiming England as a Catholic nation.

For now, the priority for the Pope would be solely to retain any foothold, not to attempt to increase it through doomed domestic power plays.

Scenario Three: The Kings Over the Water

The death of King James would have caused a power vacuum. Would Catholic Europe be prepared to exploit that fact to help their spiritual kin?

If James I and VI had been killed, and the House of Lords destroyed, then the average Briton would have been expecting Spain to swoop like a shark to complete the slaughter.

That simply would never have happened.

Philip III of Spain would have kept his distance for the same reason as Henry IV of France and Navarre and every other European crowned head. They could not openly support the murder of an anointed monarch by his own subjects, especially not commoners.

That would be setting a dangerous precedent, that would not have gone unnoticed by the Spanish, French and Navarre people.  Better to preserve the mystique of monarchy than claim another country for Rome.

We know this because both Philip and Henry refused involvement in many earlier plots by disgruntled English Catholics.  Philip, at least, had also been approached by two members of the Gunpowder Plot, before it had been put into operation. He once again declined support.

In the upper echelons of Parliament and court, there was a pervasive suspicion that Catesby, Fawkes et al., had been working on the express orders of the Vatican or Spain. 

It was never proved and probably wasn't true in either case.  Guy Fawkes was questioned about the involvement of the latter, while under torture.  He eventually spoke about the entire Gunpowder Plot and named names.  He also confessed to details which had been cooked up in Lord Salisbury's imagination.

Yet Fawkes always denied the involvement of Spain. He had no reason to hold back at that point, so it's probably correct.

There would be plenty of precepts upon which the Catholic monarchs in Europe could invade, not least the inevitable lynching or arrest of their own ambassadors or papal agents.  But the cons would always outweigh the pros, while the divine office of kingship was at stake.

But moreover, what would be the point?  Jacobean England frankly wasn't that important to start with.  Now it was a politically crippled, practically bankrupt nation, with a highly hostile population, that would be difficult to defend and hold, when the Protestant countries in the north rushed in to take it back.

So what's in it for Philip then?

Why not just fight the Dutch in Flanders, as normal, without the hassle of an occupation complicating matters?  The Protestant armies would be one nation down, as England would have too many troubles at home to participate right now or at any time in the foreseeable future.

For continental Europe, there were simply bigger fish to fry, as the Thirty Years' War would soon demonstrate.

But there's one last, huge consideration. Catholic Ireland would be unlikely to be so docile.  Shock and sympathy immediately after the explosion would soon give way, if anti-Papist feeling erupted so violently across mainland Britain. It would turn to antagonism and fury instead.

If there was ever a possibility of a Catholic Uprising, as a direct consequence of the Gunpowder Plot, it would have been Gaelic. Supported by the Scottish Highlands, Spain, France and maybe the Papacy, the Irish might even have won.

What might have been the response of the Irish, if Guido Faukes had successfully exploded the House of Lords in 1605?

Horrible Histories Hide and Priest

An irreverent (but historically accurate) look at the reality for Catholics in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.

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Updated: 01/31/2014, JoHarrington
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

Another Time-Line? Tell me where you think it would have played out differently. Or agree, if you think that I was spot on.

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JoHarrington on 11/18/2012

That's the job of an historian. :) Plus the facts, figures and whatever other primary sources provide the evidence. But all of this is why I love history so much.

Human nature doesn't change at all. The circumstances, the culture, the fashions and fads, they all change, but we're fundamentally the same sort of people who first went on a grand expedition to see what lay outside Africa.

Thanks for the plus one on my reading of the alternative history!

Ember on 11/18/2012

I love that you can look at history and practically get in each group's mindset, and use similar events to argue why certain things might or might not happen. Whether it's with something like this where you're saying how history might have been different, or those times where you're practically predicting the future...

I think it's possible to say what the immediate historical differences might have been, and I couldn't say any way from the other what might have happened, but your version sounds pretty spot on to me for what might have happened for perhaps the most likely scenario...But apart from that I think it is impossible to say. :D

JoHarrington on 11/18/2012

Great answer! In fact, downright perfect answer. It's always too soon to tell in history. <3

Enjoy your coffee. <3

Ragtimelil on 11/18/2012

It's too early to tell. Need another coffee. Great story!

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