Cecil, Robert, First Earl of Salisbury
- Cecil, Robert, First Earl of Salisbury
- Letter signed, to Ralph Winwood,
- ink on paper
THE FIRST DETAILED ACCOUNT OF THE GUNPOWDER PLOT. This remarkable letter was written by the Earl of Salisbury who, as Secretary of State, was right at the heart of the English political system and had played a central role in the discovery of the plot. It is a letter that brings vividly to light an extraordinary historical moment when a group of religious extremists almost succeeded in annihilating more or less the entire English political class; it was not only a moment of extraordinary drama, but is also one of the greatest "what ifs" in British history.
Salisbury wrote this full account of the Gunpowder Plot - as far as was then known - to Sir Ralph Winwood, the English ambassador at the Hague, on the day that Parliament was finally opened by the King, just four days after the plot's discovery and three days after the people of London had been given permission to light bonfires in celebration of the King's deliverance. This was one of several such letters that were sent to ambassadors at a time when wild rumours were beginning to spread around Europe. Although the immediate plot had been foiled and a detailed confession had been extracted from Guy Fawkes under torture, its full extent and many crucial details were still unknown. For example, Salisbury is able to identify the man who was captured in the cellars of Parliament as a servant of Thomas Percy, a Gentleman Pensioner to the King and cousin of the Earl of Northumberland, but he names him as "John Johnson" rather than Guy Fawkes. In fact "Johnson" had revealed his name under torture before this letter was written, but Salisbury was evidently still unsure which was his true name. Another question also looms: was there an arch-conspirator among the peerage? Salisbury gives a diplomatic answer to this question. He advises Winwood the diplomat to suppress any such suggestion around the courts of Europe as "a malicious discourse, and invention"; however he also admits that the Earl of Northumberland has been taken into custody "untill things be in better quiett" (he would remain in the Tower for fifteen years).
Much of Salisbury's letter is given over to the background to the discovery of the plot. He explains that Lord Monteagle had received an anonymous letter from a "friend", warning him to keep away from the opening of Parliament. He gave the letter to Salisbury, who confesses that "I could not well distinguish, whether it weare frenzye or sporte", and eventually showed it to the King, who considered the threat sufficient to order a search of the Palace of Westminster. However he decreed that the search should wait until the night before the opening of Parliament, in order to maximise the chances of discovery. Discreet investigation of the cellars uncovered an unusually large stock of firewood; when it transpired that the firewood belonged to Thomas Percy, and that Percy was a friend of Lord Monteagle, the King ordered a full search of the cellar. That night:
"...Sir Thomas Knuvet going theather unlooked for about midnight into the vaulte, founde this fellow Johnson newly come out of the vaulte, and stayed him without asking more questions, and having no sooner removed the wood, hee perceaved the barrels and so bounde the Captiff fast, who made no difficultye to acknowledg the Act, nor to confesse clearely that the morrow following it shoulde have bin effected..."
Salisbury explains that "Johnson" quickly admitted that the plot was "principally for restitution of Romane Religion" but refused to name any accomplices, and there is a certain reluctant admiration in Salisbury's description of Fawkes's stoicism, being "no more dismayed then if he weare taken for a poore robberye, by the highe waye". However, his accomplices - known recusants - were quickly identified when they fled London on news of the sensational discovery. When the letter was written this group of conspirators was still at large, but a postscript that was presumably written on the wrapper passes on the latest news: the remaining plotters have just been taken.
The extraordinary audacity of the plot and the instigation of annual thanksgiving ensured that the Gunpowder Plot rapidly entered the English historical imagination; its discovery was taken as a sign of God's favour towards England, its official Proestant religion and its mode of government. This letter provides a unique link back to the historical origins of a festival that has been celebrated throughout England and beyond for more than 400 years.