The Gunpowder plot could have been the deadliest terror attack in history

The Gunpowder plot could have been the deadliest terror attack in history

On 5th November we will celebrate bonfire night, a national celebration for over 4oo years.

It has changed in recent years. Bonfires would be lit, topped by a “Guy” (an efforgy of Guy Fawkes) in gardens up and down the country and fireworks let off. Children would have been standing at street corners with their “guy” asking for money for fireworks, which were sold freely by local shops, even to children. 5th November was the busiest night of the year for the emergency services, with firework accidents extracting a heavy toll.

Now, people are more likely to attend larger, well organised events, with safety the top priority, and more extravagant firework displays.

Fireworks night celebrates the failure of the gunpowder plot in 1605, to blow up Parliament and the King. Two years earlier James VI of Scotland had inherited the crown of England as James I. He was married to a Catholic, and the Catholic minority in England hoped that he would end the oppression of their faith that had taken place during the reign of Elizabeth I.

But the English Parliament and most of the aristocracy remained staunchly Protestant, and the oppression of Catholics continued.

Robert Catesby assembled a group to organise the gunpowder plot, by detonating barrels of gunpowder in a rented cellar under the Parliament building when the King would be present for the state opening of Parliament.

The University of Wales has studied the potential outcome if the plot had succeeded. There were 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar, which would have contained at least a ton of gunpowder, possibly three tons, but more likely somewhere in between. Just one ton would have been considerably more than was needed to destroy the Parliament building, and kill everyone inside. The King, Queen, Heir to the throne, courtiers, administrators, most of the aristocracy and senior clergy (in the House of Lords) and the MP’s would have stood no chance of surviving the blast.

The old Parliament building was part of a complex of buildings which included shops, pubs and warehouses. The whole complex would have been obliterated, and chunks of masonry would have been thrown out at speeds of up to 100 mph. Westminster Abbey would have been destroyed, as would the narrow streets in the area, with the timber buildings offering no resistance to the boulders that would have swept through them.

No one can imagine how many people would have been killed, but even today it might rank as the deadliest terror attack in history!

The conspirators believed that they could seize the King’s nine year old daughter, Elizabeth, and install her as Queen under a Catholic Regent. Some historians believe that a civil war might ensue, but it is difficult to believe that the conspiators would gain any significant support.

It  is a feature of acts of terror that the perpetrators believe that they are acting in support of everyone that shares their belief, faith or identity. This was not the case. Priests had repeatedly urged English Catholics to avoid the use of violence, as had Governments of Catholic countries and the Pope!

Perhaps Catesby and the conspirators believed that the population of England practised protestantism because of the oppression of the Catholic faith, and were actually ready to rise up against the prevailing religion. That too seems unrealistic.

Guy (or Guido) Fawkes, a Yorkshireman, had been selected to set off the explosion because he was not well known or recognisable, and because he was an expert in the use of gunpowder. He was caught with the gunpowder in the cellar. The other plotters were hunted down and either killed or caught, tried and executed.

If the gunpowder plot had succeeded, it would have dramatically changed the course of history. Ironically when the King’s son, Charles I, raised his standard at the start of the English Civil War (or to be more accurate the Wars of the Three Kingdoms) less than 40 years later, English Catholics were supporting the King.

Enjoy bonfire night!

Would the gunpowder plot have been the deadliest terror attack in history?

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Terrorism is difficult to define, but by most definitions, the deadliest terrorist attack was the 9/11 attacks on the USA, which caused 2977 fatalities. Could the gunpowder plot have killed more? Possibly, but we’ll never know.