On November 4th 1605, a suspicious individual was apprehended in an undercroft beneath the House of Lords. He was found to be guarding barrels of gunpowder intended to kill the King and his Parliament during its state opening on the following day – all because of the King’s failure to lift the discriminatory laws then in force against Catholics. But the plotters were not terrorists. They did not strike simply to put pressure on the government. The planned detonation on November the 5th would have been accompanied by a revolt in the Midlands, and the placing of a new monarch on the throne: a queen who would not have a will of her own.
Because she was only nine years old.
Princess Elizabeth was chosen for this role partly because she wouldn’t be at the state opening of parliament like her older brother Henry, the heir to the throne. She would be at Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire instead – close to the heart of the plot and an easy target for kidnapping to make sure she complied.
She was also mature for her years, which meant that she would be able to fulfil the ceremonial roles required of her, something she had already begun to do in her legitimate role. Her brother Charles (later King Charles I) was ruled out as a candidate because he failed to fulfil this criteria – he was seen as weak-willed and hopeless, unable to be the figurehead the plotters needed.
Once she was secured, she could be educated as a Catholic, married to a Catholic, and rekindle the Catholic cause. There’s no indication that the plotters would have started a new wave of repression, but then there’s not much evidence that they’d thought that far ahead (and not much evidence of sufficient competence to carry through the plan in any case).
And now, here’s the irony:
She was not a woman who was destined to be a queen. She did not become a monarch at the hands of the plotters; and her later role as Queen of Bohemia was so brief that she was known as ‘The Winter Queen’, because she reigned for only a season.
Yet from her descendants come every monarch of the United Kingdom from George I onwards.
You see, it comes down to the repression of Catholicism again – the very thing the plotters were fighting against. A century after they had failed, the line of royal succession came to an end with the childless queens Mary and Anne, forcing the government to hunt through the Stuart family for a successor. But virtually all of them had converted to Catholicism along the way. There was only one left who was a staunch Protestant: Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Sophia of Hanover. And so the Act of Settlement was passed to ensure that the throne could pass only to descendants of Sophia.
And that’s why the royal family is German: because the British government was terrified of Catholics getting power, a terror justified by the legacy of a group of semi-competent plotters who planned to forcibly enthrone the ancestor of all the German royals.
History likes to go around in circles sometimes…
(Sadly, Elizabeth had a progressively miserable later life: after being kicked out of Bohemia during events that kickstarted the Thirty Years War, she outlived her beloved husband Frederick by thirty years while living in exile in the Netherlands. She also had to endure the execution of her brother Charles in 1649, not to mention the deaths of several of her thirteen children. She only returned to England after the restoration of her nephew Charles II, just in time to die a few months later).