The Fifth of November, the Gunpowder Plot, and the Poisoned Tree

Four hundred and eight years ago today the public in England learned that on the previous night the king’s men had foiled a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament with eighteen hundredweight of gunpowder that had been stashed in the basement and enhanced with timbers and iron bars. The target of the plot was the king and queen who were scheduled to attend a ceremony at the House of Lords on the 5th of November. In all, some thirteen men were arrested and the eight survivors were swiftly tried and executed. The event is commemorated in England as Guy Fawkes Day (or Bonfire Day), because he was the man actually found standing over the barrels of gunpowder.

I thought Slaw readers might be interested in a report of the trial of eight of the conspiritors, including Fawkes, on January 27, 1605. It’s of note that Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney-General at the time, prosecuted the defendants, and the page I’m referring you to has his oration on it. (There are links at the bottom to further aspects of the trial report.) In particular, note the powerful, indeed extravagant language, all tricked out with Latin — translated, note — and the appearance of Logic. (By way of comparison, Shakespeare was in full swing at the time, Measure for Measure having just had its first performance a month earlier.) Below is an excerpt:

Now touching the Offences themselves, they are so exorbitant and transcendent, and aggregated of so many bloody and fearful Crimes, as they cannot be aggravated by any Inference, Argument or Circumstance whatsoever; and that in three respects:

First, Because this Offence is Primæ impressionis, and therefore sine Nomine, without any name which might be adæquatum, sufficient to express it, given by any Legist, that ever made or writ of any Laws. . . .

Secondly, It is, Sine exemplo, beyond all Examples, whether in Fact or Fiction, even of the tragick Poets, who did beat their Wits to represent the most fearful and horrible Murders.

Thirdly, It is, Sine modo, without all measure or stint of Iniquity; like a Mathematical Line, which is, divisibilis in semper divisibilia, infinitely divisible.

It is Treason to imagine or intend the Death of the King, Queen, or Prince.

For Treason is like a Tree whose Root is full of Poison, and lieth secret and hid within the Earth, resembling the Imagination of the Heart of Man, which is so secret as God only knoweth it.

Now the Wisdom of the Law provideth for the blasting and nipping, both of the Leaves, Blossoms, and Buds which proceed from this Root of Treason; either by Words, which are like to Leaves, or by some overt Act, which may be resembled to Buds or Blossoms, before it cometh to such Fruit and Ripeness, as would bring utter Destruction and Desolation upon the whole State. . . .

Improvised explosive devices, spying, terrorism, hasty trials with foregone conclusions, the construction of foreign enemies, forbidden imagining — we’ve been there before, many times of course. It’s sometimes helpful, if more than a trifle depressing, to remind ourselves of that.


  1. Would a prosecutor who used this kind of langugage today be risking a mistrial for inflammatory rhetoric?

  2. Hah. That’s like saying they should watch their plosives.

  3. What additional facts shaped this case for a trial without legal representation? What happened to Sir Edward Coke? What did
    Nov. 5th reveal about King, Country and Justice?

    This collection of traitors also had plans to undertake an ethnic cleanse which would rid London of all the Scots. The King (being a Scot: James VI) was not amused by the activities on Nov. 4/5th and very much wanted to make an example of this treacherous lot. This single event contributed to the fireworks that helped bring to a halt King James I (James VI) grand scheme to bring about the unification of Scotland and England into a United Kingdom: one people (British), one nation ( Great Britain) and ensure religous recognition for the Catholics. It would take another 100 years of civil war and debate to begin shaping this new United Britain.

    The King himself contributed to this “spectacular conspiracy” by playing favorites ( eg. lands, titles, pensions, etc) with the Scots nobleman at the expense of the English. As well, the lack of progress on advancing Catholic representaion in the court was seen as a broken Kingly promise. I guess Machiavelli’s book, written for King James I, entitled “The Prince” forgot a cardial rule on absolute power: “that you should keep your friends close but your enemies closer”.

    Guy Fawkes was a mercenary who was recruited by far smarter, more abitious and dubious conspirators. Incidently, he was the only one to be tortured into a confession which speaks to his loyalty (took his vow of secrecy seriously) to the others. He was dependable but he was also someone who could be easily disposed of when his services were no longer required. He was an experienced soldier with a taste for war and a knowledge of the destructive power of gunpowder. I do think he intended to go out with a bang and not a whimper along with the King and the Lords of parliament.

    As for Sir Edward Coke, he had a reputation for his court antics , bombastic rhetoric and loyalty to the Crown but then again, he fancied himself a clever, ambitious politician too. He was someone who was determined to be noticed by the King while still firmly keeping his head attached to his body.

    None of the “Gun Powder Gang (GPG)” had any legal representation at their trial and this is precisely the way the AG , Sir Coke ,preferred it because then the King would have his justice. For his outstanding service, to King James I, he was knighted and then made Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. In my humble opinion, his inflammatory language was the least of his offences. He should also be heavily criticised for his role (in the years prior to Nov. 5th) in convicting, for treason, Sir Walter Raleigh on the overwhelming lack of evidence. Fortunately, the GPC trial was his last as a prosecutor. Several years later he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for defying the King in exercising prerogatives.

    In the end, Fawkes was an unlucky guy who could have changed history but didn’t. King James I ordered annual bonfires, celebrations and speeches which continued to recount his brush with death long after he was dead. Sir Edward Coke had a prison cell to continue practicing his speeches and writing his legal opinions. Measure for measure, history does have an annoying habit of repeating itself.

  4. Presumably the proceedings were held in January 1606, not 1605 (as the linked text says), since the event was Nov 4/5 1605. While justice was much speedier then, the trial was probably not nine months before the offence was committed.

  5. It would have been 1606 in Scotland, because it had adopted the circumcision style. It was 1605 in England, however, which was still using the annunciation style. See “New Year’s Day” (Wikipedia)