As the country prepares for Bonfire Night, we take a look at the two men, both MPs, who caught Guy Fawkes with 36 barrels of gunpowder…
This last Night the Upper House of Parliament was searched by Sir Tho. Knevett; and one Johnson, Servant to Mr.Thomas Percye, was there apprehended; who had placed Thirty-six Barrels of Gunpowder in the Vault under the House, with a Purpose to blow King, and the whole Company, when they should there assemble. Afterwards divers other Gentlemen were discovered to be of the Plot. [Journal of the House of Commons, 5 November 1605]
Instead of recording the expected opening of Parliament, the Commons Journal for 5 November 1605 is notable for its brief description of the dramatic events of the previous night. Of course, ‘Johnson’ was the false name given by Guy Fawkes, the soldier entrusted by Catholic plotters to detonate the gunpowder left in a storeroom underneath the House of Lords. The explosion would be timed for the greatest effect, as the King, his heir, and most of his government met to open a new session of Parliament.
Discovered at the last minute, we have in Britain been celebrating Parliament’s escape with bonfires and fireworks for four hundred years. But who were the men who discovered Fawkes and helped to ‘save the day’? A 17th century dynamic duo: Sir Thomas Knyvett and Edmund Doubleday.
The two were close but unlikely friends. Sir Thomas Knyvett was the son of a well-to-do Wiltshire gentleman with a long career in royal service. Keeper of Westminster and Whitehall palaces, warden of the Mint; he was so trusted by the Stuarts that he and his wife cared for James’ daughter Mary during her short life. Doubleday had more obscure origins. The son of a London haberdasher, he became a scrivener before raising his fortune and standing through marriages and hard work; he was called to the bar in 1608.
The two became firm associates sometime around the 1590s, living in the same street in London (King Street, Westminster). Knyvett probably used his position at the mint to appoint Doubleday as teller there, and the two were allied in a long-running feud against the former warden and now elderly master of the mint, Sir Richard Martyn. It was hardly surprising, then, when Knyvett was called upon as warden and local magistrate to search the Palace of Westminster and surrounding buildings on the night of 4th November 1604, Doubleday was there with him.
The official version of the plot’s discovery states that the gunpowder lay under the Lords for the entire summer until a letter written to warn the Catholic peer, Lord Monteagle, not to attend the opening of Parliament was passed onto James’ most trusted minister, Robert Cecil, Early of Salisbury. Salisbury reacted coolly (leading to much speculation about his foreknowledge of the plot) but by the night of November 4th nothing untoward had been found, until Knyvett and Doubleday began a search of the cellars.
The two found Guy Fawkes, apprehended him, and took him upstairs whilst they continued their search. Fawkes was not about to wait quietly, however, and the two returned upstairs to investigate the commotion. When Doubleday attempted to search him, Fawkes:
very violently gripped Master Doubleday by his fingers of the left hand. Through pain thereof Master Doubleday offered to draw his dagger to have stabbed Fawkes, but suddenly better bethought himself and did not; yet in that heat he struck up the traitor’s heels and withall fell upon him and searched him, and in his pocket found his garters, wherewith Master Doubleday and others that assisted him bound him [See our biography on Doubleday].
On returning to the cellar the gunpowder was found, the plot foiled – and the first bonfires were lit on the following night, 5th November. Knyvett was later elevated to the peerage as Baron Knyvett of Escrick, whereas Doubleday gained ‘widespread gratitude and respect’ and future seats in Parliament for Westminster. Thanks partly to these two we can enjoy our fireworks every year – and I hope you all do!
With thanks to Dr Andrew Thrush for his suggestions on this post. For further reading see:
Houses of Parliament Living Heritage on the Gunpowder Plot;
Houses of Parliament Education Service’s new ‘Stories from Parliament’;
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on the Gunpowder Plot.