Gunpowder, Treason and Plot I: The London Mission

Laura Sangha

This is the first of three posts on Catholics in England at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. The second, on recusancy is here. The third, on the places in London where Catholics were often found, is here.

Allegedly Guy Fawkes’ lantern, now in the Ashmolean Museum

On 4 November 1605, during a search at around midnight on the eve of the state opening of England’s Parliament, a soldier by the name of Guy Fawkes was accosted by officials in an undercroft directly beneath the House of Lords. He was wearing a cloak and hat and carried a lantern, and a search of his person revealed several slow matches and touchwood. Nearby, under a pile of faggots and wood, thirty-six barrels of gunpowder were discovered. Fawkes was promptly arrested and taken to the king.

This was of course the moment at which the infamous ‘gunpowder treason’ plot was foiled, bringing to a halt the breathtakingly ambitious plan of a group of Catholic conspirators determined to reduce Parliament to rubble, to assassinate king James VI and I and his family, and to tear the heart out of the Protestant political establishment by killing in one fell swoop privy councillors, senior judges, the leading lights of the aristocracy and members of the House of Commons.

The undercroft beneath the House of Lords, 1799 engraving.

At the trial of the surviving conspirators, the Attorney-General Sir Edward Coke insisted that the plot had been invented by Jesuit priests, depraved fanatics determined to subvert the loyalty of the English people. Historians have interpreted this as part of a consistent policy on the part of James I to separate religious radicals (both ‘papists’ and ‘puritans’) from their more moderate allies, whereby he emphasised the subversive and dangerous nature of the radical fringe in an attempt to persuade their more moderate brethren of the utility and desirability of religious uniformity within the English nation.

Whilst many people are familiar with the details and aftermath of the gunpowder plot, perhaps less is known about the quality and character of contemporary English Catholicism and the community that the conspirators were a part of, something I hope to address in these posts. In the past historians have disagreed about England’s Catholic community. In the 1970s John Bossy argued that traditional religion initially died out, creating the conditions for a new type of Catholicism to be imported by missionary priests. This Catholicism was suited to aristocratic tastes and aspirations, hence medieval, secular ‘survivalism’ died out to be replaced by an imported ‘seigneurial’ Catholicism, characterised by separatism and located almost exclusively in gentry households. Other historians supported his analysis, though Christopher Haigh differed somewhat by suggesting that  by concentrating their efforts on the gentry, the seminaries failed to capitalise on the widespread potential support for Catholicism existing among the lower orders at the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign. Whilst not without merit, Haigh’s vision of missionary priests ‘relaxing in plush Oxfordshire manor houses’ sits uncomfortably with the very high rate of attrition that they suffered at the hands of the regime. Subsequently historians have paid more serious attention to Catholicism, acknowledging its continuing influence on English life, and there has been greater interest in ‘plebeian’ strands, seeking to explore the faith away from the gentry and the manor house.

In three short posts leading up to the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot I will be revisiting the Catholic community in London. Rather than retelling the well known narrative of the notorious plot and the conspirators, I want to provide some sense of where Catholics could be found in the city and who they were.

Early modern London

The capital was a vibrant and expanding metropolis, the centre of both royal and parliamentary government, and it was this unique environment that enabled Catholicism to survive and grow within its bounds. London dominated the political, legal, economic, educational and social life of the country, and was the most important trading and communications centre. By 1603 its population had grown to a remarkable 141,000 and it had begun to overspill its ancient walls, though most of its inhabitants were not born within the city but gravitated there in search of work or alms – despite unusually high levels of urban mortality in the city this migration sustained continued growth. As a result parts of London were horribly overcrowded and decayed, and the government was forced to issue numerous proclamations seeking to restrict the ‘great confluence and accesse of excessive numbers of idle, indigent, dissolute and dangerous persons’ who flocked to the city. This gives a sense of the amorphous nature of the London scene, a landscape that was the perfect place for Catholics to lose themselves – government concerns about the presence of ‘malefactors’ encouraged by conditions in the city were certainly not misplaced. Yet London was also one of the earliest places to experience evangelical reform, and in many ways it was the most ‘Protestantised’ area of the nation. So how and why did the Catholic community find a home there?

The priests: a missionary hub

Jesuit Superior, Henry Garnet

Jesuit Superior, Henry Garnet

The evidence tells us that the capital housed a disproportionate number of missionary priests. It was the centre of a Catholic communications network – when priests departed for England from Dunkirk or Calais, their point of entry was the south coast, from where they naturally gravitated towards London. In 1623, the Catholic apostate John Gee published The Foot out of the Snare; with a detection of sundry late practices and impostures of the Priests and Iesuites in England, which listed 126 known by him to reside in the capital. The Jesuit Superior in England from 1587 until his execution for involvement in the Gunpowder Plot in 1606, Henry Garnet, was often to be found in the capital coordinating the activities of his fellow priests. Garnet secured several houses in the London area which served as shelters for seminaries, and in 1605 he rented ‘White Webbs’ in Erith, a manor house that could accommodate as many as fourteen priests. The house was subsequently used for yearly assemblies when Jesuits resident in England would meet to renew their vows with the superior, and it received a constant throng of Catholic gentlemen visitors.

Other sources provide anecdotal support for the missionary importance of the capital. Bishop Challoner’s Catholic response to John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, his Memoirs of Missionary Priests and other Catholicks (1741) documents a number of seminaries active in London. These included John Roberts, a Jesuit distinguished by his assistance of a ‘great numbers of the infected’ during the 1603 plague year; and Thomas Somers, a schoolmaster turned priest whose diligence and zeal towards the ‘poorer sort of Catholics’ earned him the moniker ‘parish priest of London’. Other insights are provided by priests’ letters and papers – the Jesuit John Gerard often visited London during his time in England, and he described how he was able to administer the sacraments to ‘men of rank’ there, perhaps guiding them through the spiritual exercises and in some cases reconciling them to Rome. Indeed, Gerard took ‘special pleasure’ in the conversion of Sir Oliver Manners, the 4th Earl of Rutland, who as Clerk of the Council was in daily attendance on the king.

Isolated examples of Catholic activity were occasionally bought to the attention of the authorities, resulting in accounts in official records. For example, in October 1607, Oswald Nedham appears in the Newgate Gaol delivery to the London sessions, indicted for saying mass before thirty people in Farringdon. The list of the attendees’ names and occupations is invaluable as evidence of a specific congregation within the city. There were eleven women and nineteen men present, comprising four gentlemen, nine yeoman, three clerks, two tailors and two wives of tailors (the remaining women are all simply described as ‘spinster’). Evidently Catholicism did have its more plebeian adherents in the capital. On another occasion, on the evening of 26 October 1623, the Jesuit Father Drury was preaching to a three-hundred strong congregation in Blackfriars, in a garret adjoining the French ambassador’s residence, when the floor suddenly gave way, plunging more than ninety people to their deaths. The ideological and political resonances of the ‘fatall vesper’ have been examined in detail by Alexandra Walsham, but it is worth noting here that the event demonstrates a significant interest in Catholicism within the city walls, with enough coherence that news of the sermon had plainly reached the ears of many. Accounts of the incident included lists of casualties that suggest the congregation was a diverse mix, where ‘ordinary’ people such as tailors and servants took their place amongst the better sorts of people.

The 'fatall vesper'.

The Blackfriars ‘fatall vesper’, where 90 people attending a Catholic mass lost their lives.

Evidently London was a hub of missionary activity, and there was a flourishing Catholic presence despite the proximity of the authorities and the strong evangelical commitment of many of the city’s inhabitants. Tomorrow I take a closer look at exactly who it was that was prepared to heed the call of these missionary priests.


V.A.L. Challoner, Memoirs of Missionary Priests and other Catholics of Both Sexes (Dublin, 1874)

John Gee, The Foot Out of the Snare: With a Detection of Sundry Late Practices and Impostures of the Priests and Jesuites in England (London, 1624)

Hugh Bowler (ed.), London Session Records 1605-1685 (London, 1934)

John Bossy, The English Catholic Community 1570-1850, (London, 1975)

Christopher Haigh, ‘The Fall of a Church or the Rise of a Sect? Post-Reformation Catholicism in England’, Historical Journal, 21:1 (1978), pp.181-186.

Patrick McGrath, ‘Elizabethan Catholicism: a Reconsideration’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 35:3 (1984), pp.414-428.

Alexandra Walsham, ‘“The Fatall Vesper”: Providentialism and Anti-Popery in Late Jacobean London’, Past and Present (1994)

8 thoughts on “Gunpowder, Treason and Plot I: The London Mission

    • ” — How things have not changed! Interesting how London has always assimilated outsiders and diverse beliefs and cultures. My understanding is that rural areas such as Wales retained a prevailing conservatism, whether Catholic or, later, nonconformist in contradistinction to urban innovation, whether religious or otherwise. But I generalise, of course — largely from ignorance!

      • That’s absolutely right, as a rule urban areas often seem to lead the way when it comes to adoption of religious innovations, whilst rural areas tended to lag behind. This is of course complicated by regional variations – in the early stages of the English reformation it is generally accepted that the south is more Protestant than the north for example, though conversely some southern cities remain stubbornly Catholic long after you might expect.

  1. Pingback: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot II: The People | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: Gunpowder, Treason and Plot III: Places and Practice | the many-headed monster

  3. Pingback: History A'la Carte 1-8-15 - Random Bits of Fascination

  4. Pingback: Gunpowder | Early Modern Medicine

  5. Pingback: Remember, remember: ‘Gunpowder’ and our nation’s bloody past | the many-headed monster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s