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Guy Fawkes and the Plot to Blow Up the United States Capitol

The preparations for President Biden’s as-yet-unscheduled State of the Union address are haunted by a 400-year-old conspiracy to decapitate the British government. What can we learn from the Gunpowder Plot?

the guy fawkes conspirators
Conspirators from the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.
You can listen to the companion audio version of this and other essays in the series using the player below or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher or Audible.


We live in head-shaking times. In a congressional hearing on Feb. 25, acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman reported that heightened security around the Capitol will continue at least through President Biden’s upcoming State of the Union appearance, the date for which has not been set in part to prevent domestic terrorists from being able to prepare a coordinated attack on the United States government. Pittman reported that the intercepted “chatter” includes frequent mention of a plot to “decapitate” the entire top tier of the United States government at the State of the Union Address, when the president, most members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cabinet members gather for one of America’s most important annual rituals. 

The U.S. Capitol as Powder Keg

“We know that members of the militia groups that were present on Jan. 6 have stated their desire that they want to blow up the Capitol and kill as many members as possible, with a direct nexus to the State of the Union,” Pittman said during testimony to a House Appropriations subcommittee. “Based on that information, it's prudent that Capitol Police maintain its enhanced security posture until we address those issues going forward.”

An attempt to decapitate the entire United States government in a single assault by domestic terrorists would seem to be both crazy and unthinkable, but before Jan. 6, 2021, the idea that hundreds of insurgents could or would breach the security of the United States Capitol was regarded as ludicrous, the stuff of a Kiefer Sutherland television series

The only historical analogy that might shed some light on this demented scenario is the Gunpowder Plot in England more than 400 years ago, when the European world was rocked by the fierce religious disputes that were touched off by the Protestant Reformation. When Henry VIII (who reigned between 1509 and 1547) broke with the Roman Catholic Church in 1533 and established a separate national church in England, a large number of his subjects remained loyal to Catholicism, the only Christianity they had ever known. Many showed outward conformity with the Anglican Church, its doctrines and liturgy, while remaining Catholic in heart. Others refused to compromise their faith and religious integrity by appearing to conform to a religious settlement they abhorred. They are known as Recusants. England’s first Protestant monarchs — Henry VIII, his son Edward VI and Henry’s daughter Elizabeth I — mostly chose to ignore quiet recusancy, but they persecuted any Catholic (and especially Jesuit) activity in England that seemed to question the legitimacy of their reigns or stirred up the possibility of armed resistance.

Tudor Queen Elizabeth died without an heir on March 24, 1603. The succession crisis ended when James VI of Scotland, a Stuart, with a solid but not unchallenged right to the throne, was endorsed by the ruling elite of England. He reigned as James I of England. Because he was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been an unreconstructed Catholic before she was beheaded on Feb. 8, 1557, the Catholics of England hoped that James would be more generous to the Roman religion than his Protestant Tudor predecessors had been. James I began by ordering a ceasefire in Britain’s war with Catholic Spain, and he announced that he would not “persecute any that will be quiet and give an outward obedience to the law,” i.e., the Anglican religious settlement. Before long, however, James proved to be a serious disappointment to Catholics and Recusants who hoped for a restoration of the old Roman religion or at least a broad level of tolerance for those who could not in good conscience endorse the Anglican settlement.

Gunpowder and a Lantern

The Gunpowder Plot was an attempt by bitter Catholics to blow up the entire establishment of England at the State Opening of Parliament on Nov. 5, 1605. King James I was in the third year of his reign when the incident occurred. The principal terrorists included Robert Catesby, John and Christopher Wright, Robert and Thomas Wintour, Thomas Percy, Henry Garnet, and of course the infamous Guy Fawkes, who remains a figure in English popular memory to this day. The first meeting of the five major conspirators took place on May 20, 1604, probably at the Duck and Drake Inn near the Strand in central London. The conspirators swore an oath of secrecy on a Catholic prayer book. 

The conspirators rented a basement chamber directly under the room where the House of Lords met, the location of the State Opening of Parliament scheduled for Nov. 5. The “undercroft,” as it was called, may at one time have served as a kitchen for the ramshackle medieval palace. They brought in 36 barrels of gunpowder and assigned one of their number, Guy Fawkes, to guard the explosives and — when the moment came — ignite the fuse that would blow up the English government in a single moment of monumental defiance. Fawkes had 10 years of military experience in the Spanish Netherlands, where the religious wars of the European continent were playing out. 



The Gunpowder Plot might have succeeded, if the Recusants had not attempted to spare a sympathetic nobleman from the mayhem. The plot was revealed when William Parker, Fourth Baron Monteagle, received an anonymous letter on Oct. 26, 1605, just 10 days before the opening of Parliament. The letter said: “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 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 into your country where you may expect the event in safety. For though there be no appearance of any stir, yet I say they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament; and yet they shall not see who hurts them.”

Monteagle wasn’t altogether sure what this letter meant, but he understood that some sort of serious mischief was contemplated. He made his way to Whitehall (the seat of the English government) and handed the letter to Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury (effectively, the prime minister). Cecil shared the letter with trusted associates, and a few days later with the king, who had been hunting in Cambridgeshire. The king first learned of the plot on Friday, Nov. 1, 1605. James, who regarded himself as something of a forensic detective, immediately reckoned that the word “blow” meant some sort of bomb. He ordered a search of the entire Parliament complex. 

The first search of the Parliament buildings occurred on Nov. 4. In the “great vault” under the House of Lords, the investigators found a large quantity of firewood attended by Fawkes, whom they assumed was an innocent serving man, though they described him as a “very tall and desperate fellow.” James was not satisfied with their preliminary report. He ordered a second, more thorough search. The second search party found Fawkes in the vault, now dressed in a cloak and hat, wearing boots and spurs (not the dress of a servant). Fawkes had on his person “three matches and all other instruments fit for blowing up the powder,” and he was carrying a lantern, which is now one of the treasures of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford (I have seen it!). 


The lantern carried by Guy Fawkes (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)


Fawkes said his name was John Johnson. He was arrested and taken before the king on the morning of Nov. 5. The rest of the conspirators fled into the English countryside. Fawkes freely admitted that his intention was to destroy the king and Parliament, but insisted that he had acted alone. He made no attempt to hide his purpose. “When this act had been done they meant to have satisfied the Catholics that it was done for restitution of religion,” he said. Fawkes also said he opposed the formal union of Scotland with England, a pet project of James I. He had hoped that the bomb would “have blown them back again into Scotland,” by which he meant James and his Scottish entourage and cronies. Anti-Scots sentiment ran high in England at the beginning of the 17th century; Scotland was then regarded as a semi-barbaric nation filled with uncouth yokels, one of whom was now the crowned king of Britain. 

Incarcerated in the famous Tower of London, Fawkes was subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” King James wrote, “The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur [and thus by steps taken to harsher methods], and so God speed your good work.” James’ use of Latin to describe serious torture methods suggests either that he was ambivalent about enhanced interrogation or at least concerned about the “optics.” By Nov. 7, stretched on the rack and probably hung from the wall by manacles, Fawkes confessed to everything. James I wrote out a list of questions to be put to Fawkes. According to legend, he handled some of the interrogation himself.

The British intelligence apparatus was so proficient that Robert Cecil was able to make an amazingly accurate list of the likely conspirators within hours of the attack. A national manhunt ensued, first to find and arrest Thomas Percy, under whose authority the room under the House of Lords had been rented, and through him — via torture if necessary — to learn the names of all the other Catholic conspirators and arrest them all. 

Meanwhile, panic spread through the national capital and the home counties. All of London braced for assassinations or an armed uprising, possibly supported by Catholic mercenaries from the continent. One writer reported that “common people muttere and imagined many things, and nobles knew not what say nor whom to clear or suspect, and for certain days a general jealousy possessed them all.” The Tower of London instituted special security protocols, the “severest in any fort in Christendom,” reported the Lord Lieutenant of the Tower. But no insurrection followed the failed attempt to blow up the government.

In the end, eight men were executed, four in St. Paul’s Churchyard on Jan. 30, 1606, and four the following day in the Old Palace Yard outside Westminster Hall. 

Guy Fawkes Day is still celebrated in Great Britain on Nov. 5. It is a rough equivalent of our Halloween. Bonfires are lit throughout the British Isles. Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy. Young people wander the streets seeking alms. You can hear their query, “A penny for the old Guy?” well into the night. Strangely enough, Guy Fawkes is now regarded (400 years after the fact) as a somewhat sympathetic figure in British memory.  

It’s not clear what would have happened if Guy Fawkes had not been discovered hovering over the barrels of gunpowder under the seat of Parliament. Most historians believe that the terrorists might have been able to kill the king and at least some of his ministers. If it had been successful, it would have been one of the greatest acts of terrorism in human history.  

That was then. The more efficient destructive technologies of our time make it possible to be more sure of the potential results.  

The Trail of Terrorism in Modern America

The Oklahoma City bombing  on Wednesday, April 19, 1995, killed 168, injured 680 others and destroyed one-third of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It also damaged 324 other buildings and burned or destroyed 86 cars. The bomb did not bring down the nine-story building, but it damaged it beyond repair and it shocked the nation. It remains the most violent and consequential domestic terror attack in American history. The principal terrorist in the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh, had secured 13 barrels of ammonium nitrate fertilizer on the bed of a rented Ryder truck. If his fusing system failed or he was apprehended in advance of the planned detonation, he was prepared to blow himself up in order to fulfill his mission. 

McVeigh and his co-conspirator Terry Nichols were seeking revenge for the U.S. government’s raids on Ruby Ridge (Idaho, 1992) and Waco (Texas, 1993). In fact, McVeigh timed the attack to coincide with the second anniversary of the Clinton administration’s raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco on April 19, 1993. McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001. Nichols is serving a life sentence at a super maximum security prison in Colorado. He shares a cell block with Ramzi Yousef of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber.


The Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, America's worst act of domestic terrorism.


The Feb. 26, 1993, attack on the World Trade Center was intended to bring the North Tower down, and to make it knock down the South Tower as it fell. This attack was perpetrated by international terrorists, Islamists, rather than American citizens. Ramzi Yousef and Eyad Ismoil drove a rented Ryder van into the underground parking garage, level B-2, around noon, lit the fuse, and fled the scene. The 1,310-pound bomb was made of urea nitrate, aluminum, magnesium, ferric oxide, nitroglycerine, ammonium nitrate dynamite and smokeless powder. The detonation created a 100-foot hole through four sublevels of concrete. Smoke from the blast proved to be the most dangerous result. It rose to the 93rd floor level of both towers. Six people were killed, more than 1,000 injured and 50,000 evacuated by the blast, which shook the building, but did not bring it down. 

Eventually, all six suspects were convicted of directly participating in the bombing and sentenced to multiple life sentences. The principal conspirator Ramzi Yousef claimed the attack was in revenge for U.S. support for Israel against the Palestinian people. He said, “the terrorism that Israel practices (which America supports) must be faced with a similar one.” 

Given the heightened security around the U.S. Capitol in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, and the array of security measures adopted following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, it would be nearly impossible to get a truck bomb close enough to the Capitol to inflict serious damage. A series of vehicle access barriers channel all traffic through a series of security gates. The insurrectionists would have to have access to heavy drones, a cruise missile or serious rocket propelled artillery to be able to attack the building — technologies that are thought to be beyond the capacity of domestic terrorists. It is true, however, that some of the insurrectionists of Jan. 6 and a large number of America’s domestic terrorists have had training in these weapons during their time in the U.S. armed services at home and abroad, or in law enforcement agencies. 

Fanaticism comes in many forms — religious, political, ideological, resistance to what is perceived to be an oppressive government, and class war, among others. According to the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, domestic terrorism is a more serious threat to the United States than foreign terrorism. Recent events give greater piquancy to Abraham Lincoln’s pronouncement in his 1838 speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” The sad irony of our times is that both the American establishment and domestic terrorists quote Lincoln to their own advantage.

You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, and the new Governing podcast, The Future In Context.

Clay S. Jenkinson is a historian and humanities scholar based in North Dakota. He is founder of both the Theodore Roosevelt Center and Listening to America. He can be reached at
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