For hundreds of years the kings of England had tried to conquer Scotland, and make Scotland and England one kingdom under one king. Many dreadful battles had been fought, many brave people had been killed. The Scots had lost many battles, but they had never been conquered, and at last the kings of England had almost given up hope of ever being able to conquer them. But now, what they had longed for, and fought for in vain, happened quite quietly and naturally, although not at all in the way that they had expected. Instead of an English King conquering and ruling over Scotland, a Scottish King came to rule over England.
Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England, being dead, James Stuart, King of Scotland, was the rightful heir to the throne.
James vi. of Scotland was the son of the beautiful and unhappy Mary, Queen of Scots; was descended from Margaret Tudor, the sister of Henry viii. , and was Elizabeth's nearest relative. At the Queen's death there was no man nor woman left in England who had any right to the throne, so the English sent to Scotland and asked the Scottish King to come to be their King too.
He came, and since 1603 a.d. , England and Scotland have formed one kingdom with Wales and Ireland.
So now we will talk no longer of England but of Britain, for long ago the old hatred has been forgotten, and we are all Britons.
James had been King of Scotland for many years before he became King of England too. He was a very little boy when he was first made King, and Scotland had been ruled by a Regent. James had been carefully taught, but unfortunately his teachers had thought more of making him clever, than of teaching him things which would have made him a great ruler. Some people called him the "British Solomon," but because he was such a mixture of wisdom and foolishness he has also been called the "Wisest fool in Christendom."
Although his mother, Queen Mary, was a Roman Catholic, James had been brought up a Protestant. The English Roman Catholics thought however that, in memory of his mother, James would be kinder to them than Elizabeth had been. Elizabeth had not burned and tortured the Roman Catholics as her sister Mary had burned and tortured the Protestants, still they were not quite kindly treated. They had not equal rights with the Protestants, and were sometimes looked down upon.
The Roman Catholics soon found out that James had no intention of being kind to them, and they became very angry. So angry did they become that they formed a plot to kill the King and all the chief Protestants in the country. Having done this, they intended to place James's little daughter, Elizabeth, upon the throne, and make Britain a Roman Catholic country once more.
Princess Elizabeth was, of course, being brought up as a Protestant, but she was such a little girl that the Catholics knew she would only be a make-believe queen. Until she grew up, the country would really be ruled by the Catholic gentlemen, and meantime they would have time, they thought, to teach her to be a Roman Catholic.
The first thing to be done was to kill the King and all the chief Protestant gentlemen. To do this the conspirators, as the people who form a plot are called, thought of a very dreadful plan. They decided to wait until Parliament was sitting, until the King and all his wise men were gathered together in one place, and then they would blow them up with gunpowder.
Underneath the Houses of Parliament there were cellars. These cellars were let to merchants and other people who wished to store goods. It was quite easy for the conspirators to rent one of these cellars, and into it they carried thirty-six barrels of gunpowder.
Besides the gunpowder, sticks and firewood were piled into the cellars by the conspirators. This was done partly to hide the barrels, and partly, no doubt, to help to burn the Houses of Parliament when they were set on fire. Nobody paid much attention to the barrels as they were being taken in, and nobody thought of asking with what they were filled.
For a year and a half the plot went on. Very few people knew of it, and those who did were bound by an oath never to talk of it. They met secretly at night, speaking only in mysterious whispers.
At last everything was ready. Guy Fawkes, one of the most fearless of the band, was chosen for the most difficult and dangerous part. He was to set fire to the gunpowder. Having done so, he meant to try to escape, but if he could not, he was quite ready to die in what he thought was a good cause. The day was fixed for the 5th of November, when Parliament would be opened.
A gentleman, called Francis Tresham, had joined the plot. He had a friend, a Roman Catholic nobleman, who was sure to be among the lords who would attend this Parliament.
Tresham could not bear to think of his friend being killed, so he wrote a letter to him in a disguised hand, warning him not to go to this Parliament. "My lord," said the letter, "out of the love I bear to some of your friends, I have a care for your life. Therefore, I advise you, if you love your life, to make some excuse so that you need not go to this Parliament. God and man are agreed to punish the wickedness of this time. Do not think lightly of this warning, but go away into the country where you may be safe. For, although there is no sign of any stir, yet, I say, they shall receive a terrible blow this Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them."
Tresham's friend was very much disturbed by this letter. He took it to Lord Salisbury, who took it to the King.
The King, who was afterwards very proud of his cleverness, said that the terrible blow which was to be given, without the person being seen, must mean "gunpowder." It was clever of the King to think of this, but some people say that Salisbury had already found out about the plot, and perhaps he put the idea of gunpowder into the King's head.
About midnight, on the 4th of November, the day before Parliament was to meet, the cellars under the Houses were searched. With hushed voices, drawn swords, and dim lanterns, the searchers moved from cellar to cellar. All seemed empty, silent and dark, till in a far corner, a faint light was seen, and near it the dark figure and pale face of Guy Fawkes.
Stern men with drawn swords closed in upon him.
In a moment they were upon him. He tried to defend himself, but it was useless. Stern men with drawn swords closed in upon him, and he was soon a prisoner.
He could not deny his guilt. Round him were the barrels; in his pockets were those things which he needed to set fire to the gunpowder. He knew he must die. "Oh, would I had been quicker," he said, "would I had set fire to the powder. Death would have been sweet had some of my enemies gone with me."
Guy Fawkes was taken to the Tower. In the cruel manner of those days he was tortured to make him tell the names of the others who were with him in the plot. But Guy Fawkes was very brave, although he was wrong, and he would not tell.
The others, seeing that part of their plot had failed, hoped still to succeed in gaining possession of the Princess Elizabeth. So they hastily rode to the country house where she was living.
But part of the gunpowder which they took with them was set on fire and exploded by accident. It hurt some, and frightened all of them, for they thought that it was a punishment sent upon them because of what they had intended to do to others.
The Roman Catholics in the country did not rise to help the conspirators as they had expected, and soon all hope of success was lost. The chief of the conspirators were seized, and were put to death, along with Guy Fawkes.
After this the Protestants hated the Roman Catholics more than ever, and their lives were made very hard.
There was great rejoicing at the discovery of the plot. Bells rang, and bonfires blazed, and even now, after three hundred years, the day is not forgotten. On the 5th of November people still have fireworks, and bonfires on which they burn a figure made of straw and old clothes, which is meant to represent Guy Fawkes.