In an era of fake news and questionable political advisers, the Popish plot is a reminder that the political intrigues and scandals of the past could be equally as strange as those of today and that they could have deadly consequences. An invented plot about a Catholic conspiracy to kill Charles II in 1678 led to numerous trials, executions and the exclusion of Catholics from both Houses of Parliament for 150 years. In terms of the hysteria caused and the number of people killed, the Popish plot can be compared to the Salem witch trails in America. Yet what is remarkable about the whole affair is that leading politicians and Parliament encouraged the investigations which went on for three years.
To understand how an event like this could have taken place, it is worth remembering the extent of anti-Catholicism in the 17th century. Following Elizabeth I’s religious settlement, Catholics experienced continued persecution and Jesuits were executed as traitors. The memory of the Gunpowder plot of 1605 continued to fuel fears of a Catholic attempt to assassinate the King and take over the country. Charles I and Archbishop Laud’s religious policy was seen as reintroducing aspects of Catholicism into the Church of England and was a key factor in the outbreak of the British Civil Wars. Anti-Catholic feeling was again stirred by the Great Plague and Great Fire of London, for which Catholics were often blamed. The Test Act of 1673 ensured that anyone taking public office had to deny the Catholic belief in transubstantiation and receive communion in the Church of England.
The two men behind the invented plot, Titus Oates and Israel Tonge, were certainly an odd pair. Titus Oates’ father was the vicar of Hastings in Kent and Oates himself spent some time at Cambridge but did not graduate. He was eventually ordained after lying about having a degree and later served as a chaplain on board HMS Adventure. Israel Tonge was almost 30 years older than Oates, had a degree from Oxford and had even taught at the short-lived Durham College during the Commonwealth. After this he became a chaplain at the British garrison at Dunkirk and then vicar of St Mary Staining in London which was burnt down in the Great Fire. Tonge and Oates first met in 1677 and they agreed to write a series of anti-Catholic pamphlets. Strangely, Oates supposedly became a Roman Catholic at this time and was admitted to the English College at Valladolid in Spain. After being expelled he was admitted to the Jesuit College of St Omer in France and again was expelled in June 1678. Oates would later claim that he had not actually converted and his time abroad was just a way to learn more about the Jesuits from the inside.
The fabricated plot began in August 1678 when Oates and Tonge wrote a manuscript that accused the Jesuits of planning to assassinate Charles II. Tonge showed the manuscript to Christopher Kirkby, a chemist who knew the King. It was Kirkby that informed the King of the plot and although sceptical Charles agreed that Tonge should have an audience with Lord Danby, the Lord High Treasurer and leading minister in Parliament. Danby took the plot much more seriously, and an investigation was called for. Predictably, Oates’ name kept coming up in the investigation and he was summoned to provide an account before the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey in early September. Oates then came before the Privy Council where he specifically accused Sir George Wakeman (Queen Catherine of Braganza’s doctor) and Edward Colman (former Secretary of the King’s brother James, Duke of York) of planning the assassination. Remarkably, when Colman’s house was searched, letters were found from the French Jesuit Ferrier, confessor to Louis XIV, about his hope for a dissolution of the current English Parliament to be replaced by a more pro-French one. Colman had also written about his hopes for returning England to Catholicism and even though this did not relate directly to Oates’ accusations, such correspondence could be interpreted as treason.
The real turning point in how the plot was viewed came on 12 October when Godfrey disappeared and was then found dead five days later. The presumed murder sent shockwaves through the court and the House of Lords requested that all Catholics be sent at least 20 miles outside of London. Charles called Parliament on 21 October and Oates and Tonge again gave accounts of the supposed plot. This time Oates accused five members of the House of Lords and Parliament agreed to have them arrested. There was a political dimension to this as the arrest of the Lords was led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, leader of the opposition to Danby. The impeachment and trials of the “five popish Lords” as they became known dragged on over the next two years (see below). In the meantime the public became increasingly on edge and the rest of the year became known as ‘Godfrey’s autumn’. One of the ways in which Godfrey was remembered as a Protestant ‘martyr’ was the production of the ‘Godfrey dagger’ (this has been featured in a previous blog on the Library’s artefacts) . Thousands of these were sold in London and the Library has a particularly fine example, with engraving on the blade and a silver hilt.
On 30 October Charles II agreed that all Catholics (exempting tradesmen and property owners) should leave London and could not come within twelve miles of the city. There was further panic on 1 November when gunpowder was discovered in a house near Parliament, however this turned out to be the store for the King’s fireworks. When Bonfire night was celebrated many people burned an effigy of Pope Innocent XI rather than Guy Fawkes. Perhaps surprisingly, there was no violence in the streets and no Catholics were killed by the public. Instead, the first person to be executed as a result of the plot was William Staley, on 27 November. Staley was a Catholic banker who had supposedly said the King was a heretic and he would kill him, most likely while drunk. He was sentenced by Sir William Scroggs, the Lord Chief Justice who was convinced by the plot and became notorious for condemning people on next to no evidence. Indeed, Edward Colman was executed a week later even though the letters in question were written a few years before and were unrelated to Oates’ accusations.
The next development in the plot came on 21 December with the arrest of Miles Prance, who was a Catholic servant of the Queen. Oates had already accused Catherine of treason but her loyalty to the King and support from the House of Lords ensured her safety. After several confessions and recantations, Prance eventually accused three workmen of Godfrey’s murder and implicated Thomas Godden, the Queen’s chaplain. With no evidence the three workmen were sentenced to death in February 1679 and Godden fled for France. Public uncertainty and anger continued though as shown in the broadside, England’s grand memorial... This shows Godfrey in the centre as “the Kingdom’s martyr” and the text recounts the supposed Jesuit involvement in the Great Fire and Oates and Tonge’s ‘revealing’ of the plot. The supposed actions of the murderers of Godfrey are depicted – the people accused by Prance – two priests called Kelly and Fitzgerald who ‘disappeared’ or may not have existed at all, and the workmen Robert Green, Henry Berry and Lawrence Hill.
The Popish plot had now become part of the wider struggle for Parliamentary influence between Charles’ minster Danby, and the opposition led by Shaftesbury. Danby was impeached, in part for his handling of the plot but more because of his own secret negotiations with Louis XIV over a possible war with the Dutch. Charles dissolved Parliament to prevent Danby’s trial and the new Parliament saw Shaftesbury introduce the Exclusion Bill which would have removed the Duke of York’s succession rights. Charles prorogued Parliament several times until the Exclusion Bill was defeated in the House of Lords in October 1680. Two political factions began to emerge over the exclusion debate, the Whigs who were in favour, and the Tories who were opposed. Public opinion was always a consideration, helped by the fact that the Licensing of the Press Act had expired in 1679.
Throughout 1679 and 1680 the trials of the five Catholic lords were continually delayed and rearranged. Eventually, William Howard, Viscount Stafford (whose great-grandfather had been executed and whose grandfather died imprisoned in the Tower during Elizabeth I’s reign) was the only one put on trial and was executed in December 1680. The others were imprisoned for several years with Baron William Petre dying in January 1684. The last victim of the plot was Oliver Plunkett, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh. Originally arrested in Ireland in December 1679, the Earl of Shaftesbury had Plunkett brought to London to be tried at Westminster Hall. Like many others, although it was clear that he had never been involved in any threats to the King, he was found guilty. The deaths of such high profile figures as Stafford and Plunkett were the final straw for the increasingly discredited plot. Plunkett was to be the last Roman Catholic priest executed for his religion in England.
What of Oates himself? As the plot gained ground in 1678 Oates was treated as a hero, he received a grace-and-favour house in Whitehall with £1,200 a year. He wrote A true narrative of the horrid plot and conspiracy of the popish party… (1679) [KA448 2.01], unlike most political pamphlets of the day, this was printed in folio size. After Plunkett’s death, opinion turned against Oates and he was told to leave his apartment and was then arrested for sedition. He was imprisoned for the rest of Charles II’s reign and when James II became King he was convicted for perjury and repeatedly whipped and pilloried. With the revolution of 1689 and accession of the Protestant William III, Oates was let out of prison and received a government pension, eventually dying in 1705. By this time the Act of Settlement in 1701 had made it a legal requirement that the monarch must be Protestant. Oates’ Popish plot was not only the final deadly act of officially sanctioned anti-Catholicism in England, it also quickened the development of modern two-party politics.