King's College London
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'The very age and body of the time': Shakespeare's world

Chronicle of English history

Opening of a book with text recording a description of the unfolding of the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605A description of the unfolding of the Gunpowder Plot of November 1605John Stow (1524/5-1605) was one of the most prolific historians of the 16th century. In his long career he produced 21 editions of his historical chronicles along with two of his Survey of London, which has remained in print ever since. Earlier editions of his accounts of English history were notable for their exhaustive detail; the item featured here is a later abridgement, issued with an eye to the popular market.

Stow’s contemporaneity with Shakespeare makes him important as both a repository of detail concerning the culture of the times and a potential source for the plays themselves.

The pages reproduced here describe the unfolding of the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605, the most spectacular of the various attempts on the monarch’s life in the period. Catholic conspirators, led by Robert Catesby (1573-1605) but best represented in folk memory by Guy Fawkes (1570-1606), attempted to blow up the House of Lords in Westminster during the opening of Parliament attended by James I.

Having hidden around 30 barrels of gunpowder and shot in the building’s undercroft, the conspirators were betrayed by an anonymous letter warning prominent Catholic noblemen not to attend Parliament, which found its way to the attention of the king. The undercroft was searched and the explosives discovered, along with Fawkes himself. After torture and trial for treason, those conspirators still living were executed – Catesby died resisting arrest and his corpse was exhumed and beheaded.

Stow’s narrative tells of the secreting of the barrels and the incriminating letter to Lord Monteagle. Shakespeare worked references to the Gunpowder Plot into the text of Macbeth, including an allusion to Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest connected to the conspiracy who was popularly known as ‘the great equivocator’: Macbeth’s Porter, discoursing on the entrants to the gates of hell, declaims 

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.

In this exhibition


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