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Rewind: The Gunpowder Plot

Thomas Athey seeks to learn the lessons of the Gunpowder Plot

There are few icons more readily associated with power than the concept of absolute monarchy, and James I provides perhaps a near-perfect example of why this is the case. He was the ruler of a fast-growing island nation which had shown itself to be impervious to foreign invasion by defeating the Spanish Armada. He spun a wide-ranging and efficient web of patronage that ensured parliament was of little real significance. Most impressive of all, being Head of the Church of England gave him control over his nation’s spiritual life. Divine Right, centralised authority, global significance. It is hard to imagine a more powerful individual.

And yet, on the November 5, 1605, James I was nearly blown into a thousand pieces, along with his court and family. Twelve conspirators with an adequate knowledge of explosives were all that were necessary to bring this about, prevented by a single stroke of luck in the form of an anonymous tip off. Despite the King’s inarguable concentration of power, it is remarkable how close the plotters came to abruptly ending his reign in such a brutal way.

There is a lesson for us all here: no matter how powerful a premier or head of state seems, we are all just flesh and blood, and therefore all as vulnerable. No ruler can make themselves impervious to bullets, or guarantee that disease won’t carry them away.

Perhaps they may be able to gather resources to make this less likely, but this comes at the cost of multiplying the threats. Despite the growing mood of religious fragmentation and anti-Monarchist thought (which would eventually lead to Civil War), it seems unlikely that James would have been the target of a conspiracy if he had never inherited the throne.

Indeed, the threats a ruler will typically encounter are almost too numerous to count. A relentless balancing act needs to be conducted with all the significant stakeholders in society, lest the discontented become as dissatisfied as to revolt. This is compounded by recurrent economic and natural crisis, which typically are difficult to predict or control.

This is not to elicit sympathy for the powerful, but to remind us of how fragile their position really is, and prevent them from abusing an appearance of power to achieve their ends. It could all be undone with a little gunpowder, and a spark.

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