Conspiracy Theories

Who blew the whistle on the Gunpowder Plot – and why?

Happy Guy Fawkes Night! Once again we’re celebrating the defeat of the Gunpowder Plot on November 5th 1605. But the plot was only defeated because of the ‘Monteagle Letter’, which blew the whistle on the conspiracy. To this day, no one knows who wrote this letter…

On 26th October 1605, William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, received an anonymous letter, delivered to his house in Hoxton. The letter contained a foreboding warning not to go to Parliament on November 5th

“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 sure what to make of it, so he delivered it to Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State. Afterwards, Cecil’s strange actions have led some people to argue that he was the ultimate architect of the Gunpowder Plot.

So who wrote the Monteagle letter? Some have said that Cecil was behind it; he commissioned a servant to write it – or perhaps he wrote it himself – and then he organised its delivery to Lord Monteagle. He orchestrated the Gunpowder Plot because he wanted to justify harsher penalties against Catholics. He didn’t actually want to kill his king or his parliament, so he made sure the whistle was blown and Guy Fawkes was caught.

But historians have named a more likely candidate. Even though there is no hard evidence, it’s generally believed that the whistleblower was Francis Tresham, one of the conspirators.

Who was Francis Tresham?

Francis Tresham was a cousin to Robert Catesby, who arranged the Gunpowder Plot and recruited 12 co-conspirators. Even though they were close and had grown up together, Tresham was the last person Catesby recruited. It’s because the conspirators were running out of money and needed Tresham’s cash. Still, the fact that he was recruited last has led some people to argue that Catesby didn’t really trust his cousin…

Gunpowder Plot
Francis Tresham

And according to Tresham himself in his confession, he was the most reluctant of the conspirators. Not only was he concerned about the morality of the plot, he was also worried that two of his brothers-in-law would be killed in the explosion. One of those brothers-in-law was the Lord Monteagle.

Is that why Tresham wrote the letter? To save Monteagle’s life?

The problem is, Tresham said nothing about the letter to Monteagle in his confession. If he was trying to mitigate his involvement in the plot, surely revealing that he authored the letter that saved the king would be a good way to go?

Unless he failed to reveal the true origins of the letter because he was under orders not to…

Was Francis Tresham a double agent?

Some believe Francis Tresham wrote the Monteagle letter not because he got cold feet and was worried about Monteagle getting blown to bits, but because he was acting as a double agent for the English government. Those who argue that elements inside the government were pulling Robert Catesby’s strings suspect Francis Tresham of being a ‘plant’, manipulating the plot from the inside.

Tresham was a recusant, i.e. he refused to attend Anglican church services. He was therefore subject to the Statute of Confinement, which meant he wasn’t allowed to travel more than five miles from his home without a licence. And Tresham wasn’t just a recusant. He’d been involved in several Catholic conspiracies already, one of which landed him in prison. And yet on November 2nd the government granted Tresham a licence to travel abroad for two years with his servants and horses.

Why would the government grant such a licence to a known Catholic rebel? Was it his reward for helping the government? Or did the government want him out of the way because of the things he knew?

Even more suspicious is the fact that when Guy Fawkes was arrested, all of the conspirators quickly fled London – except for Tresham. Was he still feeding information back to the government? Did he choose not to flee because he had government protection?

If he did, he didn’t have it for long. On November 12th, Tresham – the government’s scapegoat – was arrested.

What’s more is that Tresham then escaped a grisly execution by dying in his cell in the Tower of London in December 1605. He’d been locked in a cell on his own and, while the official story is that he died from a severe urinary tract infection, there are theories that he was poisoned. That he was silenced by the government for fear that he might reveal his true role in the plot.

It’s all speculation, of course. But when combined with the questions surrounding Secretary of State Robert Cecil, I do wonder if the true nature of the Gunpowder Plot is a lot more sinister than the government has led us to believe for the last 410 years….

Next week: what really happened to weapons expert David Kelly?

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