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1607 Virginia and the Gunpowder Plot Aftermath
By Steven C. Smith

Modern-day historians writing about the founding days of American civilization tend to focus on and explain the actions of the first English settlers in terms of the circumstances encountered AFTER they arrive in North America. The 1607 voyagers come ashore at Virginia's Cape Henry, inhale freedom, discard Europe, invent America, and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. However, it is my contention that such historiography gives inadequate attention to either the immediate impact or the long-term effects of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot on American culture. My comments here are directed towards the immediate aftermath of the Plot on early Virginia.

The 1606 Virginia Charter is the first formal founding footstep of American civilization. Its primary author was Richard Hakluyt, of Bristol, Minister, lawyer, advisor to both Elizabeth I and James I, and prolific author re voyages. The Charter, decades in the making, was the legal authorization for both 1607 Jamestown and 1620 Plymouth, and it explicitly extended to all settlers the rights of English liberty stemming back to the 1215 Magna Carta. Patrick Henry quoted the 1606 Charter in 1765 to prove that Parliament had over-reached itself with its Tax Stamp Act. The 1776 American Declaration of Independence lists as one of the war-necessitating grievances "...for taking away our Charters...". Those early Virginia colonists were, and saw themselves as, part of an expansion of England -- which was inextricably also a Protestant outreach.

The 1607 voyage coordinator and dominant personality was the tough 52-year-old soldier Captain Edward-Maria Wingfield, veteran of the 1588 Spanish Armada attack on England, who also had years of service in Ireland against the Roman Catholics there. Those first Jamestown settlers were likewise military men, many of whom had served with the Protestant forces in the Low Countries in their struggle to resist the Papists. The Spanish massacre of the tiny French Huguenot settlement in Florida was common knowledge. In a well-earned caution, in spite of the 1604 Peace Treaty between England and Spain, the 1607 settlers were expected to secure themselves far enough inland to avoid being easily detected by Spanish ships. The Treaty, elaborately full of details about many other things, was silent about North America -- which meant, technically at least, that Spain could destroy English settlements in America without violating terms of the Treaty. Plans for English colonization were developed in this atmosphere of high hopes and wary distrust.

The enormous jolt to England of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot neither stopped issuance of the 1606 Virginia Charter nor prevented the actual 1607 settlement at Jamestown Island, but its effects were both immediate and centuries-long in American attitudes and actions with respect to Papists. During the first year at Jamestown, Wingfield, whose Bible had been stolen, was deposed from the Presidency of the Colony largely on grounds that since he didn't have a Bible he must be sympathetic to Roman Catholicism. Some of the other political instability, including some executions, may not have occurred had not the Plot so charged the atmosphere on both sides of the Atlantic.

The 1606 Charter states one purpose: "... propagating of Christian religion...". In the aftermath of the Plot, this purpose is clarified in the 1609 Second Va Charter:

    "... and lastly, because the principall effect which wee cann desier or expect of these actions is the conversion and reduction of the people in those partes unto the true worshipp of God and Christian religion, in which respect wee would be lothe that anie person should be permitted to passe that wee suspected to affect the superstitions of the Churche of Rome, wee doe hereby declare that it is oure will and pleasure that none be permitted to passe in anie voyage from time to time to be made into the said countrie but such as firste shall have taken the oath of supremacie..".

The main author of this 1609 Charter, which also includes a major shift of power away from the king to the Va Company itself, was Sir Edwin Sandys, leader of the very active puritan Anglicans in the House of Commons. It is important to keep in mind that the Va Company, headquartered in London, did not go to Virginia, but sent people to Virginia, and gave them vigorously Protestant instructions. There were Spanish spies at Jamestown, too, smuggling out maps of fortifications, etc. (Even today, many of the best records of the Virginia Company are in Spanish archives). In London, the Spanish Ambassador was constantly warning King James that the Virginia Company, dominated by puritans, was intending to replace Monarchy with a republican form of government. Sandys, elected in 1619 as head of the Va Company, was already despised by James, who soon had Sandys illegally imprisoned. In 1624, James issued a Quo Warrento to shut down the Va Company Charters, and Va became a Royal Colony until the American Revolution.

The Jesuits were especially unwelcome in Virginia. Long ago in 1570, in reaction to the Pope's call for the assassination of Elizabeth, they had been declared by Parliament to be "disobedient persons" and were banished from the realm. The Plot brought all the old fears again to the surface. The ministers sent to Virginia by the Virginia Company leadership were well-known as puritan-oriented -- such as Alexander Whitaker, who baptised Pocahontas, and Richard Bucke, who opened the 1619 historic first Va General Assembly with prayer. Both Gov Thomas Dale, who constructed the 1611 Citie of Henricus, 50 miles up river from Jamestown, and there taught Pocahontas to read through Bible-study, and John Rolfe, who married her, identified themselves as puritans. Papists fleeing pressure in England proper would not have found a warm welcome in Virginia. It is possible, of course, that some could have changed their names and managed to stay under cover, as may be the case with a Fox (Fawkes?) who moved to the Bahamas.

The English Civil War, divided along Protestant Vs Catholic lines, was reflected in Virginia -- as Commonwealth Vs Old Dominion attitudes that exist still today. Virginia's first slave laws were enacted in 1660, at the Restoration of the Monarchy, and Jesuit complicity in the assassination of Lincoln is a persistent notion, fueled by remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot.

One thing is certain: the early Jamestown settlers were mightily impacted by the Plot during its immediate years. The dearth of writings on this provides plenty of room for some original historical research.

Recommended Reading

[1] Neill, History of Virginia Company, 1869
[2] Kingsbury, Virginia Co Records (4-v), 1936
[3] Prothero, ed., Select Statutes (Eliz and James I), 1913
[4] Roth, The Spanish Inquisition, 1937
[5] Mapp, The Virginia Experiment, 1985
[6] Wingfield, Virginia's True Founder, 1993
[7] The Five Great Documents of Liberty, ed Henricus Colledge (1619), 1997

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