Four centuries have passed since The Gunpowder Plot took place. Its failure and the punishment of the thirteen conspirators is still celebrated in the United Kingdom on the 5th of November every year with bonfires and fireworks displays. It is common knowledge that Guy Fawkes and his companions planned to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I. However, a key part of the story is often left out; the fact that the plan was to replace King James with his nine-year-old daughter Elizabeth.
The Gunpowder Plot took place in 1605 when James had only been King of England for two years. These early years were filled with unrest and plots which aimed to remove the Scottish King from the throne. James was liked by many of his English subjects, but there were always whisperings from people who wanted to see an Englishman as King, and there was discontent amongst Catholics who hoped for more religious tolerance from James.
At the time, the young Princess Elizabeth was not living at her father’s court. After a few months in London, her parents King James and Queen Anne thought it best for her health and education that the princess should live with guardians in the countryside. Elizabeth lived at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire under the guardianship of Lord and Lady Harington, who did all they could to offer the finest education and a happy environment for the young girl.
Coombe Abbey was an essential location in the conspirators’ plot. The plan was to kidnap Elizabeth from the Abbey during an intended revolt in the Midlands while the House of Lords was being blown up in London. The purpose of kidnapping the princess was that if the explosion had succeeded in killing her father and her brother Henry, then the nine-year-old would be made queen as her brother Charles (later Charles I) was then only a toddler. The plotters did not intend for Elizabeth to hold any true power and sought to marry her to a Catholic noble so that she could be used as a puppet queen.
In order for their part of the plot to work, the conspirators in Warwickshire needed to make sure that John Harington, Elizabeth’s guardian, was away from Coombe. The plotters invited the Lord and his friends to a fake hunting match so that he would be out of the house ‘for the surprise of the most virtuous Princess Elizabeth’ who could then easily be taken. Lord Harington, however, refused the invitation to the hunting match and then heard that a group of Catholic men were meeting at nearby Dunchurch under the command of Sir Everard Digby on the 4th of November. When Lord Harington was then told that all of his friend’s horses had been stolen, he said that ‘it cannot be, but some great rebellion is at hand’. Rather than waiting for approval from the court; Lord Harington had Elizabeth’s belongings packed and had her hastily relocated to Coventry.
Unaware that the plot to kill the King had failed in London; after Guy Fawkes was discovered with a match, a pocket watch and 36 barrels of gunpowder to ‘blow the Scots back into Scotland’, the Warwickshire gang headed towards Coombe Abbey under the pretence of the hunt. The men did not know until it was too late, that the plot had been foiled by an anonymous tip-off in a letter which led to the searching of the cellars below the Houses of Parliament. The group planned to snatch Elizabeth and take her to the home of Lady Catesby, mother of Robert Catesby who was the mastermind behind the entire Gunpowder Plot but fled after hearing that Fawkes had not been successful. Lord Harington and Sir Fulk Grenville rode towards Staffordshire to attack the conspirators who were hiding out there after the failed kidnap attempt.
Once the Gunpowder Plot had been discovered in London, a number of the conspirators headed to Staffordshire to meet with the pretended hunting party. The group convened at Holbeche House but were quickly set upon by Sheriff of Worcester and 200 men on the 8th of November. John and Christopher Wright, Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy were shot by the Sheriff of Worcester and his men and died at the scene. On the 30th and 31st of January, the remaining eight of the plotters were executed after being found guilty of treason; Guy Fawkes, Robert Wintour, Everard Digby, Thomas Bates, John Grant, Ambrose Rookwood, Thomas Wintour and Robert Keyes were all hung, drawn and quartered beside Westminster. Sir Francis Tresham escaped punishment by dying of natural causes in the Tower of London. The gruesome executions proved to be a fitting deterrent to rebels, and King James’s reign was actually strengthened by the attempt on his life. The King believed that a miracle had taken place in order to save him, confirming his divine right as King.
Princess Elizabeth was badly shaken by her ordeal and was still mentioning the event in letters to her brother Henry the following year. Upon hearing that the plotters had planned to make her queen, the eloquent young princess said ‘what a queen should I have been by this means? I should rather have been with my royal father in the parliament house than wear his crown on such condition’. It is apparent from her reaction that the conspirators had not expected to face such a strong-willed child and even if they had succeeded and Elizabeth had been made queen, it is difficult to imagine her abandoning her principles and allowing the Protestant religion to be suppressed.
Princess Elizabeth never became Queen of England; as her brother Charles I succeeded her father as King. Elizabeth became Electress of the Palatine upon her marriage to Frederick V Elector Palatine and briefly reigned as Queen of Bohemia when her husband was selected by the nobles to be their King. Elizabeth did guarantee the continuance of the Protestant monarchy in England however; as her grandson ascended the throne as King George I after the Act of Settlement of 1701 excluded the Catholic line of the family.1