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