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Gunpowder plot: The background
CGI Image of the medieval buildings that surrounded the English Parliament in 1605
The planned destruction of Parliament was the result of decades of persecution

As you gather bits of old furniture for the bonfire, prepare the toffee apples, make the parkin and buy the fireworks do you give any thought to why the Gunpowder plot came about?

What led a group of Roman Catholics to take such desperate measures and plot to blow up parliament?

Religious divisions

In the mid 16th century England faced the prospect of being split between Protestants and Catholics.

When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 the situation demanded action and within a year the Act of Uniformity was passed.

Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth I in BBC drama Elizabeth R
And if any manner of parson, vicar or other whatsoever minister that should sing, or say, common prayer mentioned in the said book or minister the sacraments, refuse to use the said common prayers... And also that the person so convicted shall, for the same offence, suffer imprisonment for the space of six months, without bail
Excerpt from the 1559 Act of Uniformity

Everyone had to attend the Church of England service at their parish church or they could be fined, or worse. It wasn't a matter for personal conviction, it was a fact of law to be ignored with dire consequences.

Never safe

According to Dr Robert Whiting, from York St John University, the persecution of Catholics varied across the country, but the danger was real:

"As a Catholic you never felt safe. Even if you weren't being persecuted you knew someone who was and there was always the danger it would happen to you.

"We're dealing here with a small minority of people. Catholics in a society that's now strongly protestant. But the Catholics see themselves as the true Englishmen and they see the Protestants as incomers who've imposed a foreign religion on England.

"After the Act of 1559, as the government became increasingly worried about Catholic plots, there were increasingly heavy penalties for not coming to the state church services, for attending a Catholic group and eventually a priest could be executed for saying mass."

In short, this wasn't a good time to be a Roman Catholic. Under the law they were effectively barred from inheriting land, entering the professions, or taking up any high office.

Traitors to the crown

The Queen was the head of the Church of England and every loyal subject was expected to accept and acknowledge that. If you were against the Protestant faith, then you must be against Queen and country - a traitor.

James VI of Scotland and I of England. Copyright Getty Images
Catholics hoped the new King would be more tolerant

What's more with the massacres of Protestants in France in 1572 and the Spanish Armada in 1588, it became a popular belief that Roman Catholics and the Pope would bring tyranny.

Very soon anyone wanting to remain a Roman Catholic was seen as a potential traitor and spy.

At Elizabeth's death in 1603, there was a hope amongst Catholics that the new sovereign, James VI and I, as the son of Mary Stuart would be more tolerant of Catholics. It was soon apparent that nothing had changed.

It was in this climate of religious persecution that a group of Catholics began to plot a way to overthrow the English monarch.




SEE ALSO
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Guy Fawkes and the plotters
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