Trial and Execution

The trial of the eight surviving plotters took place on 27 January 1606. Despite the fact that they had all signed confessions (under duress), all of the plotters entered a plea of not guilty, with the exception of Digby. Their pleas carried little weight with the court, and the outcome of the trial was a foregone conclusion.

Moreover, James took the trial as an opportunity to engage in a little propagandising. He called on an impressive list of ‘commissioners’ to oversee the trial, including the Earls of Suffolk, Devonshire, Worchester, Northampton, Salisbury, and Nottingham, along with the Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham and many others. Most significantly, Sir Edward Coke, the incumbent Attorney General, was nominated to preside over the prosecution. Coke, who had been involved in a number of high-profile treason cases in the past, was given to bouts of hyperbole, and had a reputation for delivering lengthy and rousing speeches.

On the morning of the trial, the prisoners were bundled onto a barge and transported along the River Thames to Whitehall. Before entering Westminster Hall, where the trial was to be held, they were retained for a short time in the Star Chamber. This was where the King would have died should the Gunpowder Plot have been successful. They were forced to mount a specially constructed scaffold to endure the jeers of a mocking and sneering audience.

When the trial commenced, Sir Edward Coke, delivered a protracted oration, replete with Biblical and legal references, denouncing the traitors and all they stood for. With due grandeur, he described their crimes as ‘the greatest treasons that ever were plotted in England, and concern the greatest King that ever was of England.’

Sir Edward Coke

Coke also attempted to lay the blame more broadly for all Catholic treasons at the feet of the Jesuit priests, insinuating that they guided their flock along a treacherous path. ‘The principal offenders’, he announced, ‘are the seducing Jesuits; men that use the reverence of religion, yea even the most sacred and blessed name of Jesus, as a mantle to cover their impiety, blasphemy, treason and rebellion, [and] all manner of wickedness.’ Thanks to Coke, this trial was proving to be a public relations triumph for King James.

Aside from the Attorney General’s lengthy diatribe, the actual business of the trial did not take long to conclude. The men were permitted to respond to the charges before them. Most of them, undoubtedly already resigned to their fate, spoke only briefly. Only Rookwood and Digby addressed the court at length. Rookwood used the opportunity to plead for leniency, claiming that he had been ‘neither actor nor author’ in the conspiracy. He, perhaps truthfully, defended his actions as being the result of blind loyalty to Catesby ‘whom he loved beyond any worldly man’. Digby also claimed to have acted out of a misplaced love for their leader rather than out of any hatred for King or Parliament. He also pleaded for assurances that his wife and family would not suffer for his crimes. But the court was unimpressed by their words, providing neither leniency nor assurances.

All the accused were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. Addressing the court, Sir Edward Coke described the dreaded punishment in gruesome detail:

He shall be strangled, being hanged up by the neck between heaven and earth, as deemed unworthy of both or either: as likewise, that the eyes of men may behold, and their hearts condemn him. Then he is to be cut down alive, and to have his privy parts cut off and burnt before his face as being unworthily begotten, and unfit to leave any generation after him. His bowels and inlaid parts taken out and burnt, who inwardly had conceived and harboured in his heart such horrible treason. After, to have his head cut off, which had imagined the mischief. And lastly his body to be quartered, and the quarters set up in some high and eminent place, to the view and detestation of men, and to become a prey for the fowls of the air.

The condemned men did not have long to wait. The executions were to be carried out over a period of two consecutive days: 30 January for Robert Wintour, Bates, Grant and Digby; while Fawkes, Keyes, Rookwood and Thomas Wintour were scheduled to die on 31 January.

During this period, executions had usually been carried out in public – a popular and well-attended form of entertainment. Despite the biting January cold, thousands lined the routes along which the now notorious traitors were to be taken. Martha Bates, the wife of Thomas, managed to squeeze her way through the crowd and flung herself, weeping inconsolably, onto her husband. Another of the wives, Elizabeth Rookwood, witnessed the event from a building close by. As her husband was taken past, she called out her final farewell, imploring her husband to have courage on this dreadful day.

By all accounts, each of the men did indeed display courage: all mustered the strength to say a few words, as one by one they mounted the scaffold. Guido Fawkes was the last to die. A pitiful sight, his body broken by torture, he mumbled just a few words to the crowd, asking for forgiveness from the King and his subjects. His execution was mercifully swift. The hangman’s noose broke his neck and Guido Fawkes died instantly, thus being spared the agony of disembowelment.

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