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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 February 2005, 12:44 GMT
Gunpowder plotters in Commons
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Four hundred years since a member of his family tried to blow parliament and the King into oblivion, The Duke of Northumberland stood in front of a few "decommissioned" gunpowder barrels in the palace of Westminster for, what else but a photocall.

The Marquess of Salisbury, Peter Knyvett and the Duke of Northumberland
Family descendents gathered at Westminster Hall
Alongside him was the Marquis of Salisbury, a descendant of Robert Cecil - James I's chief minister and target of the plotters - and Peter Knyvett, a member of whose family discovered the plotters red handed under the House of Lords.

They were there to help kick off a series of nationwide events to mark the 400th anniversary of the plot and shake hands in a "symbolic gesture of reconciliation", as organiser Chris Pond described it.

It was also a graphic example of the living history lesson which is the British aristocracy.

The Duke was only a matter of feet away from the very spot where the plotters were tried and condemned and only a short distance from where they were tortured and executed.

It may have been a risky enterprise for him - if Home Secretary Charles Clarke had been in the vicinity he would probably have put him under house arrest.

As it was, and with superb irony, Mr Clarke was otherwise engaged in the Commons battling to salvage his anti-terrorism legislation.

For rent

Part of his strategy was to release details of the level of the threat facing Britain.

The Gunpowder plotters got close - first, during February 1605, by attempting to dig a tunnel under the Houses of Parliament.

Then by taking the more direct approach of hiring the cellar underneath the building which they discovered was available to rent.

Guy Fawkes
The 1605 plot by Guy Fawkes failed
The Commons authorities have since closed down that option.

In any other circumstances, this educational event would have been entirely lighthearted.

And there were indeed questions to the Duke about any further plans he or his family might have, and how he felt about seeing images of chief plotter Guy Fawkes gleefully thrown onto bonfires by schoolchildren around the country every year.

But behind it all was the uncomfortable feeling that, if the security services are right, there are groups of people out there who are actively planning to succeed where the plotters failed.

It took some of the fun out of it.

Guy Fawkes plot 'was devastating'
05 Nov 03 |  Science/Nature
Guy Fawkes' gunpowder 'found'
21 Mar 02 |  UK News


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