This late surge in their numbers increased the risk of the secret being accidentally – or even deliberately – leaked by a possible traitor within their increased ranks. Late in the evening of 26 October 1605, an anonymous letter addressed to William Parker (Lord Monteagle) was delivered by a shadowy figure. Monteagle’s servant, Thomas Ward, brought the letter to his master just as he was sitting down to his evening meal. Unable to see it properly in the candlelight, Monteagle asked his servant to read the note aloud to him. Both men were astonished by its ominous warning. Purporting to be from a friend of Monteagle’s, the anonymous letter beseeched him not to attend the upcoming opening of Parliament on 5 November. Betraying the fact that a terrorist plot was afoot, the letter declared ‘they shall receive a terrible blow, this Parliament, and yet they shall not see who hurts them’. The missive ended with a plea to burn the letter after it had been read.
The anonymous letter addressed to Lord Monteagle
So, who was the mysterious man who delivered his letter under the cover of night, risking the success of the plot with this indiscretion? Many names have been suggested over the years, but despite numerous debates and conspiracy theories, the question has never been definitively answered. Many historians believe it was Francis Tresham. A reluctant plotter, Tresham was the only one of the conspirators who harboured serious misgivings about the scheme. Fearing it to be a ‘damnable’ offence in the eyes of God, he had tried to dissuade Catesby from his plans on at least one occasion. Tresham was also Monteagle’s brother-in-law, and so would have had reason to warn him of the danger.
Monteagle, alarmed by the information contained in the letter did not dispose of it as requested, but instead hastened to Whitehall, where he brought it to the attention of five other members of the House of Lords. The men were initially sceptical, mainly because the letter contained no specific details. Rumours of Catholic plots abounded at Westminster on a more or less daily basis, and most proved to be unfounded. Unsure of the appropriate action to take, the little group resolved to hold their council until the King returned from a hunting trip a few days later.
This delay provided the conspirators with a reprieve. Thomas Ward, Monteagle’s servant, was also a Catholic recusant and related by marriage to the plotters Christopher and Jack Wright. Having presumably guessed that the seditious Catesby was likely to be involved in the plot, he sent an urgent message, informing Catesby of the letter his master had just received. Upon hearing this, the plotters became very agitated. Most were keen to abandon their plans and flee to the safety of the Continent, but Catesby’s nerve held firm. Adamant that the letter did not contain enough information to endanger their plans, he insisted they continue.
Upon his return to Court on 1 November, the King was informed of the letter. James immediately determined that it constituted a significant threat. A shrewd man, he decided to bide his time, convinced that they would have more success capturing the conspirators closer to the appointed day.
On the night of 4 November, the King’s men, supervised by the Earl of Salisbury, swung into action. In a sudden flurry of activity, the labyrinth of houses, vaults and cellars that populated the area around the Palace of Westminster were thoroughly searched. It wasn’t long before they came upon a cellar filled with a large stockpile of firewood, guarded by a man who identified himself as ‘John Johnson’. Not wishing to needlessly upset the ‘very tall and desperate fellow’, the search party moved on. Hidden underneath the firewood was a total of thirty-six barrels of gunpowder ready to destroy the Protestant establishment in a few hours.
Upon hearing of the suspicious cellar with the large stockpile of firewood, King James ordered a second search, this time headed by a trusted member of his Privy Council, Sir Thomas Knyvett. When Knyvett’s men descended on the vault, they discovered Fawkes who, having been alarmed by the first search, was now ready for a quick getaway dressed in hat, cape and spurs. The hidden gunpowder was soon revealed and Fawkes, who was discovered to be in possession of matches and torchwood, was immediately arrested.