Channel 4 History Website

channel_4_medHow my researches on the Gunpowder Plot for The Fire Master’s Mistress turned into a real-life detective story and uncovered little-known information.


The original page isn’t up any more, but you can read the article below:

The Gunpowder Plot:

Filling in the gaps

When I started to write The Firemaster’s Mistress – my novel about two fictional characters who get tangled up with Guy (Guido) Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot – I wanted to make the history part ‘right’. But I found it impossible to learn what really happened.

In her fascinating book The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and faith in 1605, Antonia Fraser argues that few of the facts about the plot are unambiguous (and she backs up this argument with 653 references citing more than 276 different sources). Countless historians and scholars have studied the evidence and drawn conclusions. The trouble is, they often disagree.

I had to choose among them, so I set out to do some detective work of my own.

Who wrote the Monteagle letter?

gunpowderI began with the Great Unsolved Mystery: the anonymous
that warned the Catholic Lord Monteagle to avoid Parliament
on the day it was due to be blown up.

The most popular candidate for the writer is Monteagle’s cousin Francis Tresham, a Catholic gentleman who may have initially been involved in the plot but then got cold feet. Some sources say – with equal certainty – that the Catholic peer’s own sister wrote the warning. The trouble is: both she and Tresham saw Monteagle often. Why not just whisper a warning in his ear rather than write down such dangerous knowledge – and then hire someone to deliver it?

Other historians, including Antonia Fraser, have suggested that Robert Cecil – lord privy seal and the most powerful man in England after the king – wrote the letter.

I went to the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) at Kew. After a bit of wheedling, I was given special permission to examine the letter itself PRO ref: SP14/216 instead of the microfiche on which valuable historical documents are usually offered to the public.

The original revealed a clear personality that is blurred on fiche and in those often-illegible copies you see reproduced in books. The handwriting struck me first – a blocky, upright print, not at all like the elegant script of educated men such as Tresham or Cecil. The lines begin straight but soon wander on the page – another possible sign of an inexperienced writer.

In copies, there’s what looks like an ink splodge in the first line. With the real letter in front of me, I could see for certain that it’s a crossed-out spelling mistake:

My Lord, out of the love I bear two to some of your friends …

‘Two’ instead of ‘to’ seems like an odd mistake. The other way round seems more likely – unless the writer is someone used to dealing with numbers.

Together, the handwriting and the error suggested to me a tradesperson, schooled just enough to write invoices and keep accounts – not gentry like Tresham nor a courtier like Cecil. To have learned about the threat to Parliament, it’s likely that he or she would also have been a Catholic.

Therefore, I offer yet another candidate. The character in my book who writes the Monteagle letter is a woman. She is fictional. But she is also exactly the sort of anonymous, secret Catholic of modest station who, from clues in the letter itself, seems to me a most likely suspect in the Monteagle mystery.

Was Guy Fawkes really a suicide bomber?

Almost everyone assumes that Fawkes meant to light the fuse and then escape, perhaps in a boat waiting on the Thames. Other sources say that he meant to light the fuse and ‘stand by’ while the gunpowder went off.

I don’t believe any of this. If you look at the evidence, it seems clear that Fawkes would have died on the 5th of November and he knew it.

In November 2003, The Times ran a front page feature on the damage that would have been done by the 36 barrels of gunpowder smuggled by the conspirators into the cellar beneath Parliament in Westminster if it had exploded:Complete destruction of all buildings within 135 feet (42 metres) and partial collapse of walls and roofs out to 354ft (108m).’ In addition, ceilings would have collapsed and windows shattered up to 1,600ft (488m) away. In the same article, Dr Geraint Thomas, head of the Centre for Explosion Studies at the University of Wales at Aberystwyth, said that, given the amount of gunpowder that Fawkes and his friends stockpiled for the 5th, you would have to have been a third of a mile away from the blast to have been OK.

No boatman I know can pick up a passenger, then row a third of a mile to safety in the time it takes even a long ‘slow’ fuse to burn. Fawkes had been a sapper so he knew explosives and what they could do.

Furthermore, stone cellars near rivers tend to be damp. In 1605, fuses were an inexact technology. With so much at stake for the plotters, I find it hard to believe that Fawkes would have risked laying an unusually long fuse (or powder trail) on a damp stone floor. He would more likely have used a short fuse and stayed close, inside the total destruction zone (which would have included Westminster Abbey), to be sure that it did not go out.

Whether you consider him a martyr or a terrorist, Fawkes was certainly willing to die for the Catholic cause.

Did Fawkes really betray his co-conspirators under torture?

The accepted truth is that Fawkes broke on the rack and confessed the names of his fellow plotters. But the chronology of his arrest and questioning – as seen in assorted state papers about the Gunpowder Plot in the National Archives, Kew – does not add up.

5 November Early in the morning, Fawkes is arrested and taken for questioning. The first warrant is issued – for the arrest of Thomas Percy, identified by the landlord as the man who had leased the Westminster cellar.

6 November James I decides to have Fawkes tortured.

7 November Fawkes holds out under torture, revealing only his own identity. Nevertheless, an arrest warrant is issued naming all the chief conspirators. The same evening, a posse comitatus is hot on the fugitives’ heels as they flee westward.

8 November Several conspirators are killed in a shoot-out at Holbeach House in Staffordshire, and others are captured. But only on this day, according to his signed confession, does Fawkes begin to name his fellow conspirators.

This means that the second arrest warrant had been made out for men whose names were not yet officially known. Historians have explained this – when they have noticed it – by saying that the plotters were probably identified earlier, during an abortive raid on Warwick for arms and horses. But that raid had been carried out at night, with no street lights. Men of the time wore wide-brimmed hats and had beards and moustaches. They also wore cloaks and bulky clothing that disguised body shape. How had they been identified?

Given those circumstances and that time sequence, I find it hard to believe that Cecil didn’t already know who the conspirators were, before Fawkes confessed. In my novel, I suggest that Cecil already had them under observation, by someone very like my fictional firemaster Francis Quoynt (although Francis finds that he likes the plotters better than he does his employer). Why did Cecil pretend ignorance? In my book, I suggest a possible answer to that as well.

Where do the ‘facts’ come from?

Historians rely heavily on contemporary accounts for information about historical events. But when you look at 17th-century accounts of the Gunpowder Plot and its discovery, they all seem suspiciously similar and implausibly tidy. And they all demonise the conspirators – e.g. The Divell of the Vault  and A Brief Discourse upon the Arraignment and Execution of the eight traytors … (both January 1606). In other words, most of our information is based on what was, most likely, government spin.

Luckily, novelists live in the gaps in the landscape where scholars’ maps peter out or disagree. We can speculate and make educated guesses about what might lie in those unseen places. In The Firemaster’s Mistress, to fill the gaps (and those outlined above are only the beginning), I offer a startling new version of the Gunpowder Plot story – a different conspiracy, on an international scale, with royal scandal at the highest level, and with new whys as well as new whats. It’s fiction, of course (that’s what novelists do). But I believe that, after all my careful research, my version might also, just possibly, be true.