Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot

With the possible exception of the Austrian house painter with the toothbrush ‘tache and the solitary plum, none of the villains of English history are better known in my homeland than Guy Fawkes. Part history lesson and part confession, today’s feature examines the event that made this 17th Century terrorist infamous and ponders why an episode so intriguing, colourful, and potentially momentous has yet to inspire a serious computer game.

For those readers who don’t live on the dog-eared island off the northern coast of France – for those of you who know little about the origins of the UK’s November 5th fireworks parties – the Gunpowder Plot’s metaphorical blue touchpaper was religious persecution. The twelve individuals who, in 1605, attempted to vaporise their Parliament and King with 36 barrels of BOOM! were hacked-off Roman Catholics sick of clandestine Masses, punitive recusancy fines, and surprise visits from house-wrecking pursuivants.

When, on the death of Good Queen Bess in 1603, James VI of Scotland ascended the throne of England, the country’s sizeable Catholic community breathed a collective sigh of relief. Toleration seemed to be in the offing. The son of notable RC executionee Mary Queen of Scots and married to a queen whose loyalty to Protestantism was suspect, James spoke reassuringly to recusant petitioners during his journey south. However, the optimism was short-lived. Confronted by political realities and with the guiding hand of his chief advisor and spymaster Robert Cecil on his shoulder, the new king’s appetite for repealing repressive anti-Catholic laws quickly dulled.

To Robert Catesby, a dashing, charismatic Papist with a crusader’s mindset and prior experience of insurrection, Jimbo’s betrayal was the final straw. Realising that English Catholics were unlikely to receive help from home or abroad (Spain was, at that time, keen to make peace with England) the true architect of The Gunpowder Treason (Fawkes was merely the hired explosives expert) devised his “sharp remedy” and set about recruiting sufficient like-minded, deep-pocketed individuals to carry it through.

If you believe the official Cecil-approved account of the plotters’ actions, Catesby and Co. spent the tail-end of 1604 and the muzzle-end of 1605 excavating a cramped tunnel between a property they’d rented within the Palace of Westminster complex to a spot close to the House of Lords – the site of the planned ‘blow’. The unfinished ‘mine’ was eventually abandoned when the exhausted moles realised there was a much less arduous way to reach their goal.

When a ground floor room below the House of Lords, previously rented by a coal merchant, unexpectedly became available, the plotters grasped the golden opportunity with grubby, blistered hands. Soon, where the heaped anthracite had been, there were firewood stacks ideal for concealing kegs of gunpowder transported across the Thames under the cover of darkness.

The powdery part of Catesby’s plan is relatively well known here in England. Less talked about is the royal abduction and armed uprising that were to coincide with the bomb blast. The plotters hoped to kill three, perhaps even four, birds with one stone-sundering explosion (the King and Queen, and their two eldest children) and then put a juvenile puppet queen on the vacant throne. At about the same time as her parents and brothers were being blown sky-high in the capital, the nine-year-old Elizabeth Stuart was to be snatched from her residence near Stratford-upon-Avon by a party of Catholic gentlemen assembled under the pretence of a hunt. This germinal army and its prize would then head south gaining strength from sympathetic households and settlements as it went.

Why did the Powder Treason miscarry shortly before the delayed-by-plague-outbreaks opening of Parliament on November 5th? According to the questionable, monarch-flattering account disseminated by Cecil in the days following Fawkes’ capture, it was undone by an anonymous letter delivered to a loyal subject called Lord Monteagle, and the perspicacity of James I who discerned in that letter the precise nature of the threat.

“My lord, out of the love I beare to some of youere frends, I have a care of youre preservacion, therefore I would aduyse you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift youer attendance at this parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punishe the wickedness of this tyme, and thinke not slightly of this advertisement, but retire yourself into your country, where you may expect the event in safety, for though there be no apparance of anni stir, yet I saye they shall receive a terrible blow this parliament and yet they shall not seie who hurts them this cowncel is not to be contemned because it may do yowe good and can do yowe no harme for the dangere is passed as soon as yowe have burnt the letter and i hope God will give yowe the grace to mak good use of it to whose holy proteccion i comend yowe.”

The fishy Monteagle missive may (and, as I’ll explain later, it’s a pretty big ‘may’) have scuppered the London dimension of Catesby’s scheme, it can’t be blamed for the failure of the Midland revolt. Blind optimism and bad luck doomed that venture. By the time Guy Fawkes was seized outside the ‘Vault of Villainy’ on the night of November 4th, the majority of the conspirators were either in Warwickshire or on their way there. Catesby and his friends set out for their hunting party rendezvous aware that their plucky fuse-lighter was behind bars, but determined to proceed with the rest of their plan.

Unsurprisingly, the majority of those invited to the hunt were horrified to discover the real reason for the gathering. Most departed as fast as their mounts would carry them. Subsequent attempts to gather recruits from nearby villages and houses proved equally unsuccessful. Sodden and dispirited, the rebels eventually arrived at the safe haven of Holbeach House where an ironic accident shattered what was left of their morale. Damp gunpowder left to dry in a pewter platter near the fire was ignited by a stray ember, badly burning the ringleader and two of his comrades. According to one contemporary chronicler, “They took this as a sign of God’s will that he would not them prepare to resist, but rather to prepare themselves to suffer, and all fell earnestly to their prayers”.

Ignore the ghastly torture sessions and executions, and the final act of the Powder Plot is the one depicted in the painting below – Catesby and Percy dying in a hail of musket balls in the courtyard at Holbeach.

Marauding batslethal Catherine wheelsaliens beneath Westminster… none of the handful of games that have used the Gunpowder Plot over the years have striven to simulate; none of the devs behind the titles have grappled with the big questions that anyone intent on crafting a historically literate Powder Plot game must address.

Although the foremost of those questions – “Why did the Plot fail?” – can never be answered definitively, there are, I believe, sufficient clues available for useful conclusions to be drawn. The idea that Catesby’s scheme unravelled on the rusty nail of the Monteagle Letter is regarded by most Plot scholars as absurd. While it’s just possible that the message was genuine (Monteagle was related by marriage to one of the conspirators so it’s not unthinkable that a concerned relative sent it) most of the evidence points to it being a clumsy fiction, a way for Cecil to massage his employer’s ego and disguise the fact that he’d learned of the Gunpowder Treason by other means.

Was there a betrayer? Did someone with inside knowledge talk to James I’s chief intelligencer or one of his agents? Given the size of the conspiracy at the end, and the lack of enthusiasm in the wider Catholic community for an action that would inevitably provoke a dreadful backlash, it’s tempting to answer “Probably”.

What had started out in late 1603 as a dark secret shared by three firm friends (Robert Catesby, Thomas Percy, and John Wright) was by November 5th, 1605, something far larger and harder to camouflage. Purchasing gunpowder for the ‘blow’, and weaponry and armour for the uprising, organising bases and safehouses, employing an experienced ‘miner’… it all required serious coin, coin the original trio didn’t possess. As time passed and new difficulties were encountered, Catesby was compelled to entangle more and more people in his diabolical scheme. While every new recruit was carefully vetted and forced to sign a vow of secrecy, each addition increased the risk of discovery… improved the chances of secrets leaking out via loose-lipped family members or servants. Most of the miscreants had friends or relations in the Lords, people who would be obliterated along with James, his male heirs, and Cecil, if not tipped off. The confessions wrung from surviving conspirators in the weeks following the bloody reckoning at Holbeach, suggest a few of the terrorists were struggling with their consciences in the lead-up to the big day. Perhaps someone got cold feet and decided to give the bagged cat its freedom.

“Why did the Plot fail?”… “Where did the plotters get their powder?”… “Did they really dig a tunnel?” (As no evidence of one was ever found, and early confessions fail to mention it, it’s possible this was a Cecil embellishment)… it could be argued that unanswerable questions like these make a ‘realistic’ Gunpowder Plot game an impossibility. Perhaps the best that any interested creator can achieve is a diversion that captures the feel of the conspiracy, and forces players to confront the interwoven challenges (acquiring materials, maintaining secrecy, selecting personnel, generating funds) Catesby faced.

If it sounds like I’ve given this matter a fair amount of thought, that’s because I have. Several of the depressingly numerous unfinished titles in my GameMaker projects folder are failed attempts to craft a Gunpowder Treason recreation that’s both fun and resonant. My latest effort is barely more than a prototype at present, but it shows more promise than any of its predecessors.

In essence a strategic puzzle game, Powder Plot (working title) casts the player as cash-strapped Catesby crafting a conspiracy by creating pathways across a board made up of randomly distributed tiles. Resources such as gunpowder, weaponry, and warhorses must be entangled in the plot’s tendrils if it is to have any chance of succeeding, but incorporating tiles lightens your purse – a purse that can only be topped-up by recruiting new conspirators.

‘Standard’ tiles come in twelve different forms and the more you use a particular type the riskier it is to use that type in future (linking adjacent tiles of the same type is also inadvisable). As games progress and the plot begins to sprawl, the player’s activity inevitably attracts the attention of the Shakespeare lookalike in the board centre, Robert Cecil. Either visibly or invisibly (this will probably be dependent on the chosen difficulty setting) his investigations begin, and, if you’re not careful, travel through your conspiratorial network discovering plotters, safehouses, and the like en-route. It’s possible to stop and slow these spreading security breaches by incorporating certain ‘special’ tiles in your scheme (the maze, dagger, and caltrop all have different effects on Cecil’s enquiries).

All twelve plotters have unique attributes, some positive, some negative… scouting via lantern and windhover tiles is important… time is a factor… I won’t bore you with a complete run-down of the rules, but fingers-crossed, one day you’ll get the chance to try Powder Plot for yourself. If I ever manage to finish the world’s first Catesby-em-up, THC’s indispensable subscribers will get the game for free.


    • Thanks. I thought twice about devoting a column to a war and transport-free topic, but the timing was too perfect.

  1. I love it when you shine a light in places that designers could venture. Good stuff, Tim!

    Powder Plot sounds like interesting. Not out of the question that it should feature in a 3×3, I would say. I was picturing an RPG and tactical battle hybrid in the vein of Conquistador myself, or perhaps an isometric RPG with the tone of Arcanum. Would take a ton of imagination to put together, and of course there isn’t much in the way of fighting in the history.

    • “I was picturing an RPG and tactical battle hybrid”.

      I’ve trained my imagination to only come up with concepts achievable with rudimentary GameMaker skills. Sadly, this means no 3D or sophisticated AI.

      My biggest achievement in GM thus far is probably a top-down train sim prototype I fashioned a few years ago. It was physics based, with automatically generated, lever-operated turnouts. I was planning to use it for a North West Frontier-inspired tactical train game:

  2. I truly hope that Powder Plot progresses beyond a prototype. There’s something wonderfully intriguing about those screenshots, and I am a complete sucker for esoteric tiles and boardgamey abstractions. Looks and sounds fantastic, Tim.

  3. Something rang a faint bell in my mind, and yes, that Elizabeth is the ancestor of the Hanoverian (etc) monarchs, through her daughter Sophia.

    Is there a name for the idea that history swings back into line regardless of attempts to disrupt it?

  4. I actually didn´t know alot of details of the plot. I had to chuckle at the fact that there were actually rooms to rent in the House of Lords. But then I remembered all the things the court of Phillipp II allegedly tried to monetize just two decades earlier.

    Regarding game design for a conspiracy the first thing that came to mind was Way of Defector. While the gameplay overall wasn´t too riveting, the mechanisms for avoiding the security patrols, hampered by the need to keep your limited resources together and soft time cap, made for a fine risk/reward calculation for the player. I could imagine trying to sneak over the map of London/the Midlands trying to get into touch with your co-conspirators discreetly.

    • I’ve toyed with map-based concepts in the past, but the map always ended up feeling a bit superfluous. If we knew more about the source or sources of the gunpowder, perhaps cartography might earn its keep.

      Currently, the ship tiles are my nod to the Dutch dimension of the Plot (Fawkes was recruited in the Netherlands where he was serving with Sir William Stanley’s army). Guido is surrounded by them and until you’ve ‘activated’ them all, you can’t hire him.

      I enjoyed Way of Defector. It’s a shame Dev Arc never used their engine for other historical scenarios. A WW2 PoW escape game might have sold well.

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