Nursing Gunpowder *

Suppose you had an enemy who was seeking to steal your girlfriend, blacken your reputation and ruin your property. What would you do if you accidentally discovered that he was planning to commit a serious crime? There are three likely options.

A few would run to him bragging that he had been discovered, whereupon he could save himself from the ignominy of being caught and punished, and then return to his designs upon you.

The majority, being those who don’t do thinking, but outsource it to others, would share this knowledge with sundry persons and consult them upon advised action. In this way the ripples of this information would spread, control of its use would be lost, and its benefit might accrue anywhere.

Another rarer class of persons would nurse it, hold it close and observe the crime in preparation, and in process of accomplishment. They would wait until the culpability of the enemy was obvious upon exposure, and only then would the authorities be informed. This is the high art in secret intelligence operations.

A classic case of this was with Mary Queen of Scots. Her firebrand supporters found a means of communicating with her during her incarceration by Queen Elizabeth I. They advised her of their coming intent to free her and received responses. This was organised through the fellow who was responsible for supplying her material needs in captivity. His actual loyalty was to the Government authorities.

The messages back and forth were copied, but otherwise delivered. The conspiracy was nursed with William Cecil (1st Baron Burghley) playing the role of mastermind until the attempted rescue was made. Then the gallants of the rescue all lost their lives, but they were never the object. Queen Mary was implicated, and her execution was then justified, or at least politically enabled in 1587. Nursing offered and delivered the complete route of the adventurers’ intents. The fact of nursing in this case is not contested.

The execution of the Catholic mother at an age of 45 years, eliminated her from succession, and brought her Protestant son James 1st to the throne of England 16 years later in 1603. In 1605 a most dramatic attempt was made to blow up Parliament with 36 barrels of gunpowder.

The conspirators were Catholic. Guy Fawkes was caught in the act. His fellow conspirators were either taken or killed in the taking. Catholicism was painted as anti-patriotic, and the reformation was at last secure in England.

Most commentators concentrate their comment on the Protestant/Catholic theological conflagration. I will not.

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Four centuries after the event, conclusions are not to be had; but my interest is in examining the case for the nursing of the so-called “gunpowder plot”.

Firstly, there is the matter of the source of all this gunpowder. Its manufacture was said to be a government monopoly at the time. The real instigator and leader of the plot was Robert Catesby, and he asked Ambrose Rookwood to acquire the gunpowder. He did so under the pretext of supplying it for the use of the English Regiment in Flanders, which was in the service of Spain, which was in an English alliance at that time.

The powder mills were at various sites, many of which were around London, including Rotherhithe, Long Ditton in Surrey, Leigh Place near Godstone, and Faversham. The regulation of sales was not particularly tight, it seems, but nevertheless it raises a question. Was the intelligence service run by Robert Cecil, extremely efficient in many respects, without a watching brief on this important commodity of insurrection? A careful watch was kept upon the recusants, as the resisting Catholics were known, yet was their acquisition of about 2,000 pounds of gunpowder unobserved?

Certainly, one would think it would have been stopped once observed. But there is another twist. Gunpowder in time is known to “decay”, as it was said, when its components, sulphur, charcoal, and saltpetre separate. To reconstitute it alcohol and water were added, it was oven dried, and its components broken into small crumbs to make “corned-powder”, the reactivated form. Decayed gunpowder would not explode.

After the discovery of the plot on the 5th of November, the gunpowder was removed to “His Majesty’s store within the office of Ordnance” in the Tower of London on the 7th. The powder was officially described as “decayed”. As it turned out, the only danger of the powder was in the incrimination of the plotters.

Is this fortuitous state of the powder evidence of Robert Cecil’s intelligence network being aware of, and nursing the plot from an early stage? Was the gunpowder decayed, or close to decaying at its acquisition? If so, could the plot be allowed to “ripen” until a most dramatic and late stage of the intended crime was arrived at, and this without risk?

Had Cecil foreknowledge of the plot from an early stage, this would present him with a problem in its later stages. If he admitted to this, his failure to end the threat earlier would be damnable, though had he exposed the threat earlier, the dramatic late exposure of an imminent danger and the revulsion at the heinous threat posed by criminal Catholics would be lessened. The conviction that Catholicism was unpatriotic, criminal, treasonous and violent could not have been burned so deeply into English consciousness for the next hundred years and more. How would this dilemma of non-exposure, if it existed, have been solved?

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Exposure came in the form of an anonymous letter. Even with the capture and torture of the culprits, its origin was never discovered. The letter was delivered anonymously to a servant of Lord Monteagle on the 26th of October. Monteagle was known to have Catholic sympathies but was unlikely to concur in or conceal so mysterious a threat and warning. He didn’t. He took it to Robert Cecil whom he knew and was not far distant. It read:

My Lord, out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care of your preservation. Therefore I would advise you, as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift of your attendance at this Parliament; for God and man hath concurred to punish the wickedness of this time. And think not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself to your country (county) where you may expect the event in safety. For though there is no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they will not see who hurts them. This counsel is not to be condemned because it may do you good and can do you no harm; for the danger is passed as soon as you have burned the letter. And I hope God will give you the grace to make good use of it, to whose holy protection I commend you.

Cecil took the letter to King James himself once he returned from his hunting in Cambridgeshire five days later on the 31st, though he had told members of the Council including the Catholic Lord Worcester and Lord Northampton of it. The delay in informing the King may be thought to be of significance given its gravity. Cecil apparently thought he had time to deal with it.

From the King’s own account of his being informed of the letter, published in his book King’s History, Cecil said that the letter must have been written “by a fool” and drew the King’s attention to the phrase “the danger is past as soon as you have burnt the letter”, which he said he found quite meaningless. The King responded that he thought “powder” was being suggested. In this way it was the King himself who discerned the nature of the threat. Well done Cecil, or more properly, Lord Salisbury as he had become.

Cecil was content to wait for his master’s return, which he later casually explained by saying that waiting would afford more time for the plot “to ripen”. Unless he was already privy to the facts, why such confidence that he was in command of the situation? It is true that the opening of Parliament, the likely time of the planned event with the King present, was still five days off, but until the King’s assertion that he thought “powder” was involved, Cecil hadn’t mentioned the word.

It is known that Fawkes’ name had already been entered into Cecil’s files well before his capture. 

On Saturday the 2nd the Council resolved to take some action on the threat to Parliament previously revealed to them by Cecil. It was decided that the Lord Chamberlain, Lord Suffolk, should “view” the Parliament “both above and below”. Yet the search did not take place until Monday the 4th, the day before Parliament was to meet. This delay is explained in the King’s History on page 199, as partly because it would be best to make the search “the nearer that things were to readiness”.   

The official report mentions two searches, so apparently the first failed. Cecil’s first report to the English ambassadors abroad mentions only one search, and that around midnight. The gunpowder was discovered behind a large amount of firewood in a cellar.

Around midnight or perhaps in the early hours of the 5th of November, a figure in a cloak and dark hat was discovered skulking beneath the precincts of Parliament and was immediately apprehended. This was Guy Fawkes, and though really a minion in the conspiracy, it has been forever attributed to him rather than its true instigator, Robert Catesby, who was killed in the attempt to capture him.  

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There was never any need for Cecil to invent the plot’s desperadoes; there is ever enough of those whose political simplicity cannot comprehend the danger of their endeavours misfiring. And moreover, without a suspicion of an intelligence service and leadership of the genius of a Cecil, they are ever-ready meat to the wiles of such.    

Cecil didn’t (and didn’t need to) invent any plotters in the persecution and vilification of Catholicism; they came to him as manna from heaven. Did he, however, nurse them? Did he watch their endeavours ripen? Did he see to it that their acquired gunpowder was decayed? No revelation was ever made by the investigators as to which manufacturers supplied the powder. The torturers apparently didn’t ask. Could this have been because it would have led honest inquiry toward speaking to the staff and management of these powder mills? A knowledge of Government scrutiny could have been had there.

The negligence of scrutiny of gunpowder purchases by a man like Cecil, when even the slowest intellect would think it a necessary routine of intelligence gathering, is surely suggestive of an intent not to admit that such was diligently done?

At four hundred years' distance, when the evidence was always the property of a most able intelligence service anyhow, it is not going to offer any proof of “nursing”. But it has to be asked by us all: when does an abundance of probability result in a verdict of “Probably guilty of nursing as charged?” 

Cecil’s triumph was remarkable and long lasting. Catholics could not receive a university degree nor vote in local elections until 1707; 192 years hence. They were not permitted to vote in Parliamentary elections until the Catholic Emancipation (Act) of 1829, 224 years after the gunpowder plot of 1605.    

Some suspect that the lessons learned by “nursing gunpowder” have continued to be employed through “intelligence negligence”. Indignant reprisal enabling public support for war is most readily accomplished by nursing psychopaths. 

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* This essay has been written from the research of Antonia Fraser in her work The Gunpowder Plot first published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in the UK in 1996.

one will be interested. Write for one person. If it’s genuine for the one, it’s genuine for the rest.

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