The Gunpowder Plot Timeline

Discover the history behind celebrating Guy Fawkes Night in the UK with this interactive timeline

Outraged by the continued suppression of the Catholic faith by the Protestant King James I, several schemes were hatched to bring about his downfall and to restore a Catholic to the throne.

Early in his reign, in 1603, there was a plot to kidnap James to force him to abandon his anti-Catholic legislation. This so-called Bye Plot backfired and after the conspirators were captured and executed, James ordered all Roman Catholic clergymen from the country.

Guy Fawkes, who fought with the Spanish army and was an expert with gunpowder – together with Robert Catesby – had 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 instal his nine-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as Queen of England. Later they would marry her 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.

However, he was captured red handed. 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. This 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 declared fully separated into its component parts when it was retrieved and examined at the Tower of London magazine.

This seems to indicate that if Guy Fawkes had lit the fuses, the only result would have been a pathetic splutter of fire rather than a huge explosion. A documentary 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.

5 November marks the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ failure to destroy London’s Houses of Parliament with 2,500kg of gunpowder. To celebrate the fact, people in the United Kingdom and some other British colonies around the world celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, often more commonly known as Bonfire Night.

This annual event was introduced to celebrate the life of the monarch and remained compulsory till 1859. Today, the occasion includes a number of customs such as burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire and letting off fireworks to represent the possible explosion in 1605.

Now you can not only remember remember 5 November, but you also know the story behind the celebration.

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  • Phil Harman

    The collision was 11.40pm not 11.40am. Proof that content, not presentation, really matters :)