top of page
  • Writer's pictureMary Allen

Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Title page from a book, printed by Robert Barker (printer to the King) in 1606, containing official accounts of the Gunpowder Plot trials

As the UK prepares for the annual Bonfire Night celebrations, the BBC will be airing the final episode of its ‘explosive’ three-part drama, Gunpowder. As part of the main cast, the series has portrayed two English Jesuits: Frs John Gerard and Henry Garnet. The first episode saw them involved in a tense opening scene which set the tone for the series, and of the times, of an intense atmosphere of persecution and paranoia. Forced into priest holes at the house of a Catholic recusant by the arrival of pursuivants they are almost discovered but for a young priest who gives himself away to save them. To coincide with the series’ finale, we examine some of the items and documents that relate to these two Jesuits in the Archives.

Fr Henry Garnet SJ (1555-1606)

After ten years on the continent, during which time he joined the Society and was ordained, Garnet returned to England in 1586 to replace Fr William Weston as the Mission’s superior. As is clear in the series, Garnet preferred a passive approach to the problems Catholics faced in England, and when he learned of the Gunpowder Plot from Robert Catesby, the mastermind of the plot, he wrote to his superiors in Rome, urging them to warn English Catholics against the use of force. When the plot still went ahead, and ultimately failed, Garnet went into hiding but was eventually arrested on 27 January 1606.

Copy of a letter written by Henry Garnet, 30 November 1605, protesting his innocence of the plot, addressed to the Lords of the Council
One of three small boxes held by the Archives with the image of Garnet’s straw. So far they have not been dated, nor has their use been discovered

At his trial, on 28 March 1606, Garnet was accused of conspiring with Catesby to kill the king, his son, and to "alter and subvert the government of the kingdom and the true worship of God established in England". He was also accused of conspiring to blow up the House of Lords with gunpowder and of involvement in every treason since 1586. Garnet pleaded “not guilty”, but his defence that he had forbidden Catesby from proceeding was futile and he was found guilty of treason. A bloodstained straw husk was saved from the scene of Garnet’s execution and was said to bear Garnet's image, though it is now lost.

Fr John Gerard SJ (1564-1637)

The second episode of Gunpowder sees Catesby, who is by now top of Robert Cecil’s most wanted list, risking all to enter the Tower of London to rescue John Gerard, who has been captured after meeting with the plotters. Gerard did indeed escape from the Tower, however it actually took place on the night of 4 October 1597 – several years before the series takes place. Gerard is celebrated for successfully hiding from the English authorities for eight years but was finally captured in 1594.After three years in prison and two months of planning and near-misses, he and a fellow Catholic prisoner, John Arden, used a rope to reach friends waiting in a boat on the Thames. Gerard had endured extensive torturing in the Tower but refused to answer any questions that implicated others. After his escape, he continued his ministry among the English people for several years. Like Garnet, he was fiercely opposed to any violent plot, unlike his character in the series. He was recalled to the continent to train Jesuits for the English Mission in 1606. There, he was instructed to write a book about his life by his superiors. This is a rare, first-hand account, compiled in 1609, of the deadly cloak-and-dagger world of being a Catholic priest in late 16th and early 17th century England, the oldest complete text of which is at Stonyhurst. The Jesuits in Britain Archives houses a transcript of the Stonyhurst text, which was given by Bishop Robert Coffin to Fr John Morris SJ, who published his Life of John Gerard in 1881. Previously, parts of his autobiography had been used in preface to Gerard’s other work, The History of the Gunpowder Plot (the original of which is also held at Stonyhurst), but Morris’

Life was intended to give it “the expansion and completeness” it deserved. A fuller English translation by Fr Philip Caraman SJ was published in 1951.

Letter written by John Gerard SJ regarding a wooden image of Our Lady of Foy, 16 July 1633

Often close at Catesby’s side in the series is his cousin, Thomas Wintour. Thomas and his brother, Robert, were both executed for their parts in the plot in January 1606. Robert left behind him a wife and four children, but by 1658, his daughter, Helena, was the only surviving member of the family. From then on, she devoted all of her time to creating lavishly embroidered vestments, which would become her legacy. A volume of manuscripts in the Jesuits in Britain Archives tells the circumstances of Helena’s death on 5 May 1671 and the ensuing fight with her niece over the vestments. One of the most important documents in this volume is what is known as Helena Wintour’s will, which bequeaths the vestments and other items to the Jesuits.

Helena Wintour's will

If you are interested in finding out more about the items and individuals in this blog post, please contact us.

Related Posts

See All


bottom of page