A cold November. A group of young men! Gentlemen. Religious fanatics of the old faith. Inflamed by a heretic priest—they contrive to dig a tunnel under a building. They pack it with gunpowder with the purpose of blowing up the building. And not just any building—Parliament! And not just the building, but with it, his and her sacred majesties, their children and the entire court.
” And so begins Bill Cain’s critically acclaimed play, a story that links William Shakespeare to the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Equivocation. Premiering April 18th, 2009 in a small theater town in southern Oregon, Cain’s play continued to dazzle audiences until it’s closing in November that same year. “The play came to me when I was in the Tower of London, and I saw an old government sign that said, ‘No person has ever been tortured here because of religion.’ I thought that that was very strange, and certainly not the whole truth. My tour in the tower continued on, and at an old cell, I saw the name, hardly legible, scribbled on the wall.
Just one name… John Johnson.” In the fall of 1598, anger was running rampant throughout Europe. Evidence of Henry VIII’s reign was apparent; England was split into two: Roman Catholicism, and the newly founded Protestantism. The ruler of the time, Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, was suffering. Her health had been deteriorating, and her chief counselor, Lord Burghley, had passed away on the 4th of August.
Advisers had quickly consulted after his death, and promptly decided that Burghley’s eldest son, Sir. Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, be appointed to his late father’s position. The chief counselor was responsible for selecting successors in the event that the monarch does not produce an heir before his/her death; Elizabeth I had been deemed the “Virgin Queen” after she had refused to wed. In 1601, Cecil began a secret correspondence with the King of Scots, James VI, planning the succession of Elizabeth I. Other prominent nobility were considered, but because he had children, Cecil chose James to be the successor of Elizabeth I.
About two years later, March 24th, 1603, the beloved Queen Elizabeth I died from old age. Per their previous arrangement, James VI, King of Scotland, became James I, King of England. Under him, London, and the entire United Kingdom, would continue to follow the Protestant faith, as opposed to the old faith, Roman Catholicism. A set of laws called The Act of Uniformity stated that all Englishmen must follow Protestantism. Any person found participating in Catholic rituals and beliefs faced the conviction of treason, which always resulted in execution. Yet, many people were still Catholic, unwilling to surrender their theological ideas, and moral principles.
Among this group of devout followers, a man named Robert Catesby from Warwickshire, voiced concerns about the new political and religious structure of their country. Elizabeth I had been somewhat tolerant toward Catholics, but James I wasn’t showing as much leniency as she had. Catesby was worried, and wanted to re-shape England’s entire system. On May 24th, a bleak spring night in 1604, a small band of Catholic men, led by Robert Catesby, met in a quiet, secluded pub. The Duck and Drake Inn, located in the Strand district in London, had few visitors that night.
The group consisted of thirteen members: Robert Catesby, Thomas Wintour, Robert Wintour, Thomas Percy, Guy Fawkes, John Wright, Christopher Wright, Robert Keyes, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Sir. Ambrose Rockwood, Sir. Everard Digby, and Francis Tresham. Over a couple of drinks, they jokingly toyed with a plan to blow up the House of Parliament. The conversation was originally light-hearted, until Catesby expressed a genuine interest in pursuing this treasonous task. He excitedly concocted an elaborate scheme.
They would dig a tunnel from an anonymous house to Parliament, place hundreds of pounds of dynamite in their newly created tunnel, and light the explosive material when the entire royal court was gathered. Originally skeptical, Catesby’s friends were eventually persuaded to join his endeavor. With Catesby’s charisma, and obvious leadership, they would no doubt succeed. All thirteen men had been good friends since childhood, with the exception of one, Guy Fawkes. Thomas Wintour, a cousin of Catesby’s, had been travelling in Spain earlier that year when an old acquaintance introduced him to Fawkes, a retired soldier who had been fighting in the Eighty Years’ War against the Dutch Republic. The two discovered that they had a lot in common; they each shared the same tastes in literature, they were both Roman Catholic, and they both had extensive military experience.
Fawkes and Wintour became inseparable and eventually returned to England together. Affectionately called “Guido” by Wintour, the nickname stuck within the group of conspirators. Guy Fawkes was well liked, and trusted by Catesby, who appreciated his wit, courage, and spirit. Fawkes portrayed these traits when he volunteered to place the gunpowder, all 2.5 tons, in the cellar below Parliament (they had decided that digging a tunnel would be much too tedious).
If their plan were to fail, he would undoubtedly be caught, tortured, and executed, while the others could possibly make a swift getaway. About a year and half later, one of the members, Thomas Percy, had managed to rent the cellar directly below the main chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords. It was there, on November 5th, 1605, that the 35-year-old Guy Fawkes was caught by Beefeaters, soldiers of the royal military guard, behind barrels of explosives. Immediately, Fawkes was taken to the Tower of London. With anti-Catholic sentiment running high in the country, Fawkes’ fate was sealed before the lock was turned on his prison cell door. The conspirators had unwittingly given James I a chance to completely purge England of pro-Catholic support.
After forty-eight hours of “light” torture, Fawkes refused to release any information but his supposed name, John Johnson. Fawkes was brought before His Majesty, King James I. King James asked him numerous questions, thinking that he might speak to the leader of England, to which Fawkes did not respond. Out of sheer frustration, James I reportedly shouted to the traitor’s face, “what would drive you to such a horrendous act?!” To which Fawkes replied, “a dangerous disease requires a desperate remedy.” Although impressed by his steadfast demeanor, James I wrote to Fawkes’ jailers: “The… gentler tortures are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad ima tenditur [and thus by steps extended to greater ones], and so God speed your good work.” The news of Fawkes’ arrest rapidly spread across England.
Eventually, it reached the Gunpowder Plot conspirators, who decided to evade capture by fleeing the city. They sped to the countryside, hoping to stay at fellow Catholics’ homes. Unfortunately, the Catholic community had thought that Catesby’s plan was inexcusable. The Royal Guard was informed of the conspirator’s whereabouts, and found all twelve at the Holbeche House in Staffordshire. While attempting to escape, Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, John Wright, and Christopher Wright were all fatally wounded. The Guard arrested the surviving participants.
Fawkes was tortured on the rack for two more months. In that time, he revealed only his true name, and eventually confessed to his involvement in the Powder Treason Plot. Fawkes was sentenced to be drawn and quartered; an executioner first hangs the victim, disembowels them while they’re still alive, and finally severs the body into fourths. On January 31st (a day after the execution of Everard Digby, Robert Wintour, John Grant, and Thomas Bates) Guy Fawkes, Thomas Wintour, Sir. Ambrose Rookwood, and Robert Keyes were carted to the Old Palace Yard in Westminster.
Though weakened by torture, Fawkes still managed to jump from the gallows, successfully breaking his neck to avoid the unpleasant experience to follow. To this day, historians do not know who sent the Monteagle Letter, correspondence that was sent to Lord Monteagle, a Roman Catholic, warning him of the plot. It is generally believed that Francis Tresham, stricken by grief, betrayed his friends. He was the only one out of the thirteen conspirators who died of natural causes. Since this event, effigies of Guy Fawkes have been burnt in bonfires across the country on the anniversary of the day he was labeled a traitor. Fireworks light the night sky, commemorating the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.
This tradition has continued for over 200 years. November 5th, now called Guy Fawkes Day, has been made a national holiday for the United Kingdom. Guy Fawkes Day evolved into a patriotic celebration, showcasing fireworks and carnivals. This annual festival has become a sort of Independence Day for Britain. Equivocation ran from early April 2009, until November 5th, 2009, in Ashland, Oregon. It’s tremendous success allowed it to tour to major cities like New York City, Hong Kong, Washington D.
C., and Seattle. Though the primary objective of the play is to illustrate the relationship between Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and the Gunpowder Plot, it briefly mentions the fate of the one principle conspirator, Guy Fawkes. “Fawkes had it the luckiest. His neck was broken by the rope. What an age when we think a broken neck a stroke of luck.
Oh yes, Fawkes was the luckiest…”