The Future of History

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Of Dire Combustion and Confused Events

How many barrels of gunpowder would it take not to blow up Parliament?

It's an interesting question, and one which historians who assume that there was a genuine Gunpowder Plot tend to ignore.

Here's what we know: just after midnight, on the morning of Tuesday, 5 November 1605, a tall, auburn-haired Yorkshireman was arrested in, or near, a ground-floor cellar underneath the Parliament building in Westminster.  Within hours, the authorities were anxiously hunting several men who were believed to have been complicit in a conspiracy to massacre the Lords, Bishops and members of the royal family during the State opening of Parliament later that day.

The fact is that Parliament hadn't been dissolved, so there was no actual need for an official, royal opening ceremony.  But that is by the bye.  Guy Fawkes was caught, and within a few days the rest of his co-conspirators had been captured or killed.

But how much gunpowder had been stored in the infamous vault?  The received wisdom is that 36 barrels of gunpowder were found.  So there's your answer: 36.

Except that the figure of 36 was only settled on by the government after various other figures had been bandied about.

Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, was King James's Secretary of State.  He led the investigation into the 'powder treason'.  According to Cecil, who would have known as much about the conspiracy as anybody, there were 'two Hogsheads and some 32 small barrels' of gunpowder recovered from the scene.  That's two less than the official account.

Guy Fawkes ought to have known how many barrels there were.  He was a professional soldier and munitions expert who had been guarding the vault and whose task it was to light the fuse.  In a statement dated 20 January 1606, Fawkes confessed to having secreted 'twenty whole barrels of gunpowder' in the vault.

That's not as many as the government would claim.  So was Fawkes lying?  Unlikely: he was the sort to take an oath seriously.  Besides, why would he have lied?  What good would it have done him?  He was going to die anyway.

Could it be that even Guy Fawkes had no idea how many barrels of gunpowder there were - or how many the government wanted there to have been?

After all, a well-placed source had remarked, a week after the 'plot' was discovered, that 'it is now confidently reported that there was no such matter, nor anything near it more than a barrel of powder found near the court'.

So, in fact, nobody seemed quite sure how much gunpowder was stockpiled, ready to blow Parliament to kingdom come.  Historians who confidently aver that militant Catholic fanatics had acquired 36 barrels of gunpowder are merely repeating the government propaganda of the day.

Gunpowder had been proclaimed a government monopoly in 1601.  It was stored in the Tower of London.  A quantity of gunpowder was indeed returned to 'His Majesty's Store' from the 'vault of the Parliament House' on 7 November 1605 - two days after Fawkes was arrested.  More than 800 kilogrammes was received and officially registered as 'decayed'.

In other words, the constituent elements of the gunpowder which was returned to the Tower of London had separated.  Which meant that the gunpowder was absolutely harmless.  It would never have exploded.

One man later kicked up a bit of a stink, threatening the government with legal action if they refused to let him investigate the disappearance of so much gunpowder (close to a metric ton!) from the Tower.  He was eventually given leave to look into the matter - with one proviso: his inquiry was not to extent beyond 1604.  It would seem, then, that the government was keen to avoid anyone looking too closely at how the Gunpowder Plotters had got hold of their gunpowder.

The individual who demanded an investigation was the nephew of William Parker, Lord Monteagle.  It was Monteagle who received a mysterious, cryptic letter warning him of the plot, which he took straight to Sir Robert Cecil.  Officially, that's how the government got to know about the plot, and thanks to Monteagle the authorities were able to seize Fawkes in the nick of time.  Monteagle duly became a national hero.

But Monteagle knew all about the plot already.  He had spent much of the previous summer hanging out with Robert Catesby, the plotters' ringleader, and trying to trick the Superior of the Jesuits in England, Father Henry Garnet, into authorising the plot.  Monteagle's name was judiciously removed from the confessions made by the plotters.  They had thought that he was on their side, and had no idea that he was really working for Sir Robert Cecil.

Now, here's where the fun really starts.  The government's store of gunpowder, held in the Tower of London, was the responsibility of the Lieutenant-General of Ordnance, a man called Sir George Carew.

Carew had married Joyce Clopton of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1580.  On 4 June 1605, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Carew of Clopton.  Clopton House, a mile outside Stratford, became his.  But he did not take up residence immediately.  Rather, he left a local agent - Robert Wilson of Stratford - in charge.  Wilson let Clopton House to a wealthy young horse-breeder from Suffolk, whose name was Ambrose Rookwood.  Rookwood had been recruited by the chief plotter, Robert Catesby, in the autumn of 1604 and asked to procure a quantity of gunpowder.

That summer - 1605 - Rookwood moved into Clopton House, along with John Grant of Snitterfield and Robert Wintour of Huddington.  Clopton House was rapidly converted into a well-armed stronghold by these three gunpowder plotters.  The magistrates of Stratford raided Clopton House at dawn on the morning of 6 November, but by then the plotters were gone.

So, the chain of events went something like this: Catesby contacted Ambrose Rookwood in autumn 1604, asking him to get hold of some gunpowder.  The man responsible for the government's monopoly of gunpowder was Sir George Carew, a close friend of Sir Robert Cecil, Secretary of State.

The government later refused to allow an investigation into the disappearance of gunpowder from Sir George Carew's care after 1604.

In June 1605, Sir George Carew inherited Clopton House, just outside Stratford-upon-Avon.  Within weeks, Ambrose Rookwood moved into Clopton along with two other plotters.

(Somebody else who was nearby was William Shakespeare, who bought 'one half of all tithes of corn and grain arising within the towns, villages and fields of Old Stratford, Bishopton and Welcombe' in July 1605.  He therefore owned certain rights to the fields immediately around Clopton House at the very time when the house was becoming a gunpowder plotters' hideout.)

The point, of course, is that the questions of how much gunpowder the plotters had actually acquired, how they acquired it and whether it would have exploded cannot really be definitively answered.  But we can propose some probable answers, based on the information that does exist:

1) the plotters did acquire some gunpowder, but almost certainly nothing like the 36 barrels claimed by most historians;

2) they got this powder from Sir George Carew, Lieutenant-General of Ordnance, who was working closely with Sir Robert Cecil, Secretary of State (and fanatical hater of Jesuits), and whose house near Stratford-upon-Avon was then leased to the plotters;

3) the gunpowder was 'decayed', and so the Lords, Bishops and royals were never at any real risk at all.

William Shakespeare knew that the official account of the Gunpowder Plot was sheer propaganda put out by Sir Robert Cecil and aimed at discrediting the Catholics and, particularly, the Jesuits.  That's why he wrote Coriolanus.

But, sadly, too many historians are only too happy to repeat the propaganda and ignore the anomalies and discrepancies in the government's accounts, as well as what Shakespeare (who knew some of the plotters) had to say about it all.


  1. Decayed Gunpowder means it turns into hard lumps of varying sizes. This will then not fit into the barrel of a musket or canon and was deemed 'decayed' by those directly involved in using gunpowder for those purposes i.e. the army and navy of the time, however if lumps are placed in a pile it will still explode if ignited.

  2. Hi Claire! Thanks for your comment. The real question, I would say, is in what way, and to what extent, was the gunpowder "decayed". In damp conditions, the constituent elements can separate, with the saltpetre effectively evaporating and settling separately from the sulphur and charcoal


    If the elements had separated, it seems highly unlikely that the gunpowder would have exploded. They would have had to be remixed first.

    Very best wishes,