British and Irish Literature The Gunpowder Plot (1605)
Robert Appelbaum
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0112


The Gunpowder Plot, or Powder Treason, of 1605 was an attempt by a conspiracy of a dozen Catholic Englishman to commit mass murder and mass destruction by blowing up the House of Lords in London. The primary target of the conspiracy was the Protestant King James I, but most of the king’s immediate family, hundreds of parliamentarians and diplomats, and untold numbers of servants and assistants would have been likely casualties along with the king. The plot was intended to have symbolic as well as strategic value. When one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was asked to explain why the conspirators had chosen to direct their energies against the Parliament building, he said, “because religion having been unjustly punished there, it was fittest that justice and punishment should be executed there.” The early-21st-century study of the plot encompasses political history, social history, cultural history (including the history of religion), and literary history. Because it was so sensational an event, the Gunpowder Plot has been a common topic for popular historians. It has been less frequently studied by academic historians—it is true—for whom the plot is usually only one, admittedly exceptional, event among many others in the course of early modern history. But among cultural historians and literary critics, the story of the plot has come to be interesting both in its own right and for its long-term effects as a memory and a myth. Many literary works—some major, though most minor—were composed in response to the plot; countless sermons were delivered about it, as required by an official policy of the Church of England; England’s first national holiday was established in response to it; anti-Catholic sentiment was stirred up again and again on account of it; and the legend of the plot echoed for decades in the consciousness of English subjects. Whatever the plot amounted to as a political event, as a cultural and literary event it was significant indeed. Since 9/11, moreover, more and more literary and cultural historians have been thinking about the plot in view of the history of terrorism, fanaticism, and anti-terrorist reaction. A renewed interest in English Catholicism has led a number of scholars, moreover, to think a little more about the plot in view of the cultures of religion in Tudor and Stuart England.

General Overviews

The best general overview of the story of the Gunpowder Plot remains Lady Antonia Fraser’s work (Fraser 2002). Haynes 1994 covers much of the same ground, with less detail. Nicholls 1991 is more specific and scholarly in its subject matter and contains an excellent bibliography, including manuscript sources. In the 19th century, an age-old controversy was revived by Father John Gerard (Gerard 1897) over whether the English government, and particularly Robert Cecil Lords Salisbury, was secretly involved in the plot. It was roundly (and many would say definitively) criticized by the great historian Samuel Rawson Gardiner in Gardiner 1897.

  • Fraser, Antonia. The Gunpowder Plot: Terror & Faith in 1605. London: Phoenix, 2002.

    This is a popular history, but a popular history of the first order. It opens with the geopolitical and religious tensions in Europe in the 1590s and concludes with a consideration of some of the literary, cultural, and political impacts of the plot. Originally published in 1997, it has been reprinted often.

  • Gardiner, Samuel Rawson. What Gunpowder Plot Was. London: Longmans, 1897.

    “No candid person,” writes Gardiner, “can feel surprise that any English Roman Catholic, especially a Roman Catholic priest, should feel anxious to wipe away the reproach which the plot has brought upon those who share his faith. . . . I, for one, am not inclined to condemn him very harshly, even if I am forced to repudiate alike his method and his conclusions” (p. 4). A brisk revisitation of the evidence.

  • Gerard, John. What Was the Gunpowder Plot? The Traditional Story Tested by Original Evidence. London: Osgood McIlvaine, 1897.

    An attempt to exonerate Catholic conspirators and the members of the priesthood who served as the spiritual advisers, arguing that the plot was actually a hoax, engineered by Robert Cecil in order to provoke a backlash against Catholics. The suspicion of a hoax goes back to the days of the discovery of the plot itself, but here the evidence of a hoax is for the first time systematically developed.

  • Haynes, Alan. The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion. Stroud, UK: A. Sutton, 1994.

    Another popular history and a lesser work than Fraser’s, but still reliable and impartial, with original things to say.

  • Nicholls, Mark. Investigating Gunpowder Plot. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1991.

    A careful account of how the English government went about investigating the conspiracy. It is generally admiring of how the administration handled the matter, and it has original material on the quandary of Henry Percy, the ninth Earl of Northumberland, incarcerated for seventeen years because of his association with conspirator Thomas Percy.

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