English Reading Practice

The Gunpowder Plot

"Please to remember the Fifth of November,

The Gunpowder Treason and Plot;

I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, 'twas his intent

To blow up the King and his Parliament.

Threescore barrels of powder below

To prove old England's overthrow;

 By God's mercy he was catch'd

With a darkened lantern and lighted match.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!"


Reading Practice 5 Nursery Rhyme.MP3


On November 5th 1605, a plot was discovered to kill King James 1st and his government by exploding barrels of gunpowder in  the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. 

CGI Image of the medieval buildings that surrounded the English Parliament in 1605

One man, Guy Fawkes, was discovered in the cellars, just hours before the State Opening of Parliament by the King, surrounded by the barrels of explosives and equipped with fuses and matches.

Under torture he was forced to sign a confession which implicated many prominent conspirators, before he was hanged, drawn and quartered along with with his fellow conspirators.

To mark the defeat of this plot, Britons celebrate each November, on or around the 5th, with fireworks and bonfires, sometimes burning  effigies of the unfortunate Guy Fawkes.

This is history as written by the victors and, as often happens in these cases, it glosses over many facts and in turn generates its own mythology. But what of this story is true?

Reading Practice 5 The Story.MP3


The man, Guy Fawkes certainly existed. Born a Protestant, he had become a mercenary soldier, and after converting to Catholicism, he had fought in Europe in the wars against the growing Protestant populations in France and the Low Countries (Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg today). Known by the Spanish as Guido Fawkes, he had gained considerable military experience from these campaigns, so his recruitment to the plot seems to have been key to its progressing as far as it did.


He was captured surrounded by barrels containing an extraordinary amount of gunpowder, complete with  the apparatus for detonating it. It has been estimated that, had the conspirators been successful, they would have succeeded in killing the King, his courtiers and all the Protestant members of Parliament, as well as levelling much of the Palace of Westminster.

This is not the building we know today, but a part of a rambling and partly derelict collection of buildings that ran the length of Whitehall from the present Trafalgar Square to Westminster Bridge. The Palace incorporated Whitehall Palace, Scotland Yard -  the residence in London of the Kings of Scotland - the Dining Hall (the only part still in existence and open to the public), and the Parliament building.

Access to the cellars beneath Parliament, a major security breach in today's world, was possible because the palaces had been constructed along the banks of the River Thames and the cellars were used as wharves for the unloading of supplies to the buildings in the area. As the palaces had fallen into disuse and disrepair, the cellars were rented out commercially. The network of tunnels running beneath these buildings gave easy access to the area under the Houses of Parliament. But the authorities were well aware of these risks, and these areas were regularly checked by soldiers.


Indeed, on the afternoon before the King was due to open Parliament, Guy Fawkes was discovered by one of these patrols. Apparently they did not spot the explosives in the barrels at the time. This was a surprising mistake when it is realised that two weeks before this, the government had received details of the plot in an anonymous  letter. In later years conspiracy theorists came up with many explanations for this oversight, including the most well-known one that Fawkes was actually a spy and the author of the letter - which makes his later treatment by his employers seem like a calculated betrayal.

Today we just accept the story of the plot: it belongs to the same cultural myths as Robin Hood, King Arthur and Sherlock Holmes, but these people and these events were real, so how did they arise?

Reading Practice 5 History.MP3


The background to the plot against King James pre-dates his reign by almost 70 years. King Henry VIII had begun the dissolution of the Catholic Church in the 1530's and by 1540, most of the property of the Church was in his hands. Proclaiming himself to be Defender of the Faith, Henry broke away from the Church of Rome and established the Church of England. He never considered himself to be anything other than a Catholic, and had no intention of establishing a Protestant church - his ambition was solely to facilitate his divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his brother's widow, who had failed to provide him with a male heir.  This endeavour was to introduce a climate of fear and suspicion throughout the rest of the Tudor period, which would last well into the nineteenth century.


King Henry VIII

The dramatic shifts in religious observance which occurred as each of Henry's descendants gained power, resulted in widespread use of torture, mass killings and the persecution of each group in turn. The coronation of the protestant James VI of Scotland as King James 1 of England, had been intended to stamp protestant authority on the country. King James was responsible for the Authorised Translation of the Bible, which survives to this day, and yet there were continual suspicions that his wife, Anne of Denmark, was a practising Catholic.


Many of the Catholic noblemen looked to Anne to take over from her husband, or be manipulated into doing so in the event that their plot succeeded, although there is no evidence that she was ever privy to their schemes. At the same time, James wrote two books which led them to believe that he planned to return to a more autocratic, or even feudal form of monarchy. This reinforced their belief that a revolution was justified, even deluding themselves into believing that they could gain wider support from protestant nobility because of this.


On the government side however, there was a desire to root out once and for all anyone who might pose a threat to their control, or even anyone who might be a sympathiser or fellow-traveller. To that end, it was convenient to make use of the plot to undertake the Jacobean equivalent of ethnic cleansing. Discovery of the plot allowed them to draw in these suspects. Some credence can be given to the suspicion that not only did they know about the plot earlier than the anonymous warning note, but that the plot had been encouraged by their own agents as a way of drawing out these people.

Reading Practice 5 Background.MP3


Guy Fawkes seems to have been doomed from the moment that he set foot back in this country. His torture seems to have been particularly brutal, and the evidence of his shaky signature on the confession which he almost certainly did not dictate, is an indication of his physical condition afterwards. Found guilty along with six other conspirators, Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered - a gruesome form of execution introduced for traitors in the 13th century. Although Fawkes' body was mutilated in this manner for display throughout the kingdom, he cheated his executioners of performing this ritual on him whilst alive, by leaping from the execution scaffold with the noose around him and breaking his neck in the process. In fine judicial tradition, the mutilation was carried out on his corpse instead.

Reading Practice 5 Outcome.MP3

©SCG Language Tutorials 2014                            www.scglanguagetutorials.com

SCG LANGUAGE TUTORIALS for English grammar and vocabulary tutorials and analysis of UCAS applications and other documents, for students of English as a second language [ESL] and other British qualifications.