What were the aims and motivations of the Gunpowder Plotters?

Bonfire Night celebrates the failed attempts of the Gunpowder Plotters of 1605. What motivated these men to carry out an act of terrorism, and what did they hope to achieve?

You can download the worksheet and the comparison table for this lesson here. If you cannot download the worksheet, please complete the lessons in the yellow boxes below.

Treason = To commit a betrayal against your country. This was seen as the worst type of crime in in Early Modern period.
Heretic = Somebody who did not follow the official religion of the country. Many would see this religion as a ‘false’ religion.

Good if you can explain the aims and methods of the Gunpowder Plotters
Great if you can suggest why the Plotters were punished so harshly in the Early Modern period.
Amazing if you can justify whether or not the Gunpowder Plot was an act of terrorism or just an act of treason.

STARTER: A letter to Lord Monteagle.

In 1605, Lord Monteagle received a letter a few days before parliament met from one of the Gunpowder Plotters. As a Lord, Lord Monteagle would have been expected to sit in the House of Lords, one of the chambers in the Westminster Parliament.

Read the letter below and consider the following questions:
1) What does the Plotter want Lord Monteagle to do?
2) Why does the Plotter explain that he should follow this advise?
3) Why might the Plotter care for Lord Monteagle’s safety but not any of the other Lords or MPs in the Westminster parliament?

HINT: Religion was an extremely important issue during this period. Can you remember what Henry VIII had done to the Church of England less than 100 years ago?

The original Monteagle Letter of 1605.

Simplified letter: “My lord, out of the love I have for some of your friends, I care for your preservacion (safety).  Because of this I would advise you to not attend this sitting of parliament because God and man have agreed to punish the wickedness of this time.  Do not think this is a joke, go to your estate in the country where you will be safe, because although there is no sign of any problem yet, this parliament will receive a terrible blow, but they will not see who it is that hurts them.  This advice should not be ignored as it may do you some good, and it can do you no harm because the danger will have passed as soon as you have burned this letter.  I hope God grants you the grace to make good use of it, and that he protects you”.

Before we begin:

Over the next few weeks, we will be looking in depth at different terrorist incidents, comparing their aims and methods. We will also compare how the public reacted to them and the punishments that were received for the crime.

Make sure that you have the comparison table (see below) to complete at the end of each lesson as we go through the different examples. You can download one at the top of this webpage.

The Gunpowder Plotters


Public reaction


You can download the comparison table as a Word document above.

TASK ONE: What led the Gunpowder Plotters to attempt to blow up Parliament?

At midnight on the 4th November 1605, a man was found in the basement of Parliament who went by the name of ‘John Johnson’. He had enough explosives to destroy the entire Palace of Westminster and everyone inside alongside fuses and a timer. What led Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirers to attempt to commit this crime, and what were they hoping to achieve?

Read the information below. In your comparison table, find information to include for:
1) The aims of the Gunpowder Plotters
2) Their motivations.
3) The reaction of the public.
4) The punishments they received.

The Religious Settlement

Religion had rocked the European World since Martin Luther, a German priest, questioned how the Catholic Church was run in 1517. He argued that people could have their own connection to God, and did not need priests to help them get in to heaven. His ideas split Christianity in two: those who remained loyal to the traditional Catholicism, and those who followed Luther’s new ideas that became known as Protestantism.

Throughout the Tudor period, England flipped between being officially Catholic to Protestant and back again a number of times. In 1534, Henry VIII changed the official religion to Protestantism in order to divorce Catherine of Aragon and find a wife that could give him a male heir to the throne. Mary I ruthlessly returned England to Catholicism when she came to the throne in 1553, burning almost 300 heretic Protestants at the stake for following the ‘wrong’ religion.

Elizabeth I eventually brought some stability to the throne by introducing the Religious Settlement in 1559. This ensured the Church pleased both Catholics and Protestants.

Despite this, the Church of England remained largely Protestant, and eventually Catholics were treated harshly in England. Following a series of assassination attempts against Elizabeth I by Catholics, she sentenced 11,000 Catholics to house-arrest (where they could not leave their homes), and a number of Catholics were executed or imprisoned for long periods of time if they were seen as a ‘threat’ to Elizabeth.

King James I becomes King

Catholics celebrated the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Although she aimed to bring Protestants and Catholics back together, she ultimately failed and denied religious and political freedom to Catholics. Her cousin, James I, became King. Although he was Protestant, he was married to a Catholic: it was hoped that he would bring more freedom to Catholics living in England.

It was thought that James I would bring about more freedom to Catholics in England due to his marriage with Anne of Denmark

Instead of bringing more freedom to Catholics, however, James I continued to impose strict laws on Catholics. Just like Elizabeth, he was worried about a Catholic uprising that might remove him from the throne. Catholics were not allowed to attend a Catholic church or get married or baptised by a Catholic priest. In addition, they were fined if they did not attend a Protestant church service every Sunday.

For a number of Catholics, this became too much to bare. Robert Catesby began forming a Catholic resistance to the King after being dismissed from university for being a Catholic. He became the leading figure of the Gunpowder Plotters and was responsible for recruiting the plotters. The Plotters saw themselves as religious soldiers who saw it as their duty to attack the English state that denied them religious freedom.

Robert Catesby was the leader of the Gunpowder Plotters. He was a strict Catholic who questioned his lack of religious freedom in England.

The aftermath of the failed plot

After he was found with 36 barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords, Guy Fawkes was taken away by soldiers guarding the Palace. Fawkes and his other conspirators were tortured for 12 days until they eventually gave the soldiers the names of the other conspirators.

The Plotters were found guilty of treason in January 1606. They were sentenced to being hung, drawn and quartered. This meant that they were hanged, then revived, had their genitals cut off and burnt, and were disembowelled; finally, their limbs and heads were chopped off. The authorities made this punishment a public display in the centre of London.

The execution of the Gunpowder Plotters in London, 1606.

Protestants in England celebrated the execution of the Plotters. Catholics in England, however, had even more freedoms taken away following the plot. James I soon declared that Catholics were restricted from voting, becoming MPs or owning land. They were also forced to take an oath of allegiance to the English crown – not doing so could have serious consequences.


In 1606, James I declared the Thanksgiving Act. Every year since, people have celebrated Bonfire Night on the 5th November (the same night that Guy Fawkes was caught). The night traditionally involves building ‘Guy Fawkes’ out of wood and setting him on fire as the centre of the celebration.

Why would the King and the government have encouraged the public to celebrate this event in the years following the Plot?

TASK TWO: Was the Gunpowder Plot really an act of terrorism?

Look back at your definition of terrorism from your last lesson. Would you consider the Gunpowder Plot an act of terrorism or just an act of treason? Why have you come to this conclusion?

In your answer, remember to consider the following:
– The aims
– The methods
– The punishment recieved
– The reaction of the public.

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