The Marquess of Salisbury (left), Peter Knyvett (centre) and the Duke of Northumberland, descendants of men associated with the plot, met for a ceremonial reconciliation in Westminster Hall. © 24 Hour Museum.
Almost 400 years ago their ancestors met close to this spot in infamous circumstances that would permeate British culture in a way few historic events have. However, when the Duke of Northumberland, Marquess of Salisbury and Peter Knyvett came together in Westminster Hall on February 22 it was all smiles and handshakes.
The three men were at the Houses of Parliament to launch Gunpowder Plot 400, a series of events, exhibitions and activities organised to mark the 400th anniversary of the notorious plot to blow up the seat of government and with it King James I.
As we all know, on the night of November 4 1605, just hours before the state opening of parliament, an inspection below the House of Lords revealed one Guy Fawkes and 36 barrels of gunpowder.
Every year on November 5 Fawkes’ capture and subsequent execution, along with that of his fellow conspirators, is marked with bonfires and fireworks displays. However, 2005 brings with it cause for some extra celebration.
"I hope the commemorations will go off with a splendid bang," joked the Marquess of Salisbury a descendant of Robert Cecil, James I’s chief minister, and a man who probably wouldn’t be here were it not for the conspirators’ failure 400 years ago.
Gunpowder Plot 400 has been organised by a partnership of institutions associated with the infamous conspiracy. Parliamentary Copyright. House of Lords 2005.
The commemorations will take place later this year and are being organised by a partnership of institutions inextricably linked to the plot. These include the Houses of Parliament themselves, the Tower of London, National Archives and even the former homes of conspirators.
For one of those whose link to the infamous plot is literally in the blood, the anniversary provides a chance to try and understand the scale of the conspirators’ plans.
"When you think of the enormity of it, here was a group of conspirators who not only wanted to get rid of the King and probably the Prince of Wales – that’s the whole of the hereditary line of England – but also the basis of democracy and half of Whitehall with it," Peter Knyvett, whose ancestor discovered Fawkes under the House of Lords, told the 24 Hour Museum, "for sheer audacity it’s amazing."
Speaking at the launch, David Prior from the Parliamentary Archives at the House of Lords Record Office described the way the plot is "still engraved on the public consciousness".
King James I of England and VI of Scotland after John De Critz the Elder. Oil on panel, early 17th century (circa 1606). The National Portrait Gallery is putting on a display of its paintings and engravings to provide a visual context for the plot. There will also be an accompanying series of lectures. © National Portrait Gallery, London.
By organising such a wide range of events and providing information on the locations linked to the plot, he continued, the programme presents "a new way of engaging with history and also with parliament itself. It touches on a number of issues and themes that are crucial to the understanding of our past."
Central to the programme will be an exhibition at Westminster Hall between July 20 and November 18 2005, less than 100 yards from where Guy Fawkes was discovered 400 years ago and close to the spot where some of the conspirators were executed.
Through images, original documents, artefacts and works of art the exhibition will tell the story of the plot, from the reasons behind it to the moment it was foiled and what happened after.
Just down river at the Tower of London, as well as a series of supporting events such as a Jacobean-style fireworks display, a specially created display, Gunpowder Treason is scheduled to open on July 2.
The Tower of London will play host to a series of events as well as a year-long exhibition exploring the history of the plot and issues surrounding it. © Historic Royal Palaces/ newsteam.co.uk.
Running for a year the exhibition will use audio-visuals to tell the story of the Tower’s involvement in the arrest, imprisonment, torture and death of Guy Fawkes and fellow conspirators.
Artefacts on show will include the receipt noting the delivery to the Tower of the 36 barrels of gunpowder, while displays will explore what might have happened if the plotters had succeeded and the incident’s continuing relevance today.
Other displays will include paintings and engravings at the National Portrait Gallery and Guy Fawkes’ signed confession at the National Archives.
The participating institutions in full:
City of Westminster Archives
Coughton Court, Warwickshire
Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
Houses of Parliament
Museum of London
National Portrait Gallery
Royal Gunpowder Mills, Waltham Abbey
Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Tower of London
The National Archives.