The Popish Plot: Guest Post by Susan Abernethy

Today we welcome historian Susan Abernethy, who is such a delight on her website, The Freelance History Writer, twitter, and Facebook. Please give her a warm welcome to The Seventeenth Century Lady as she tells us about The Popish Plot!

Sir Francis Walsingham, possibly after John De Critz the Elder. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Francis Walsingham, was minister and spymaster during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  He fought diligently and hard to ward off plots to dethrone Elizabeth and replace her with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots who was Elizabeth’s prisoner in England after abdicating her own throne.  Elizabeth’s throne and her life were in danger.  And England was under threat of invasion.  This was due to the enduring legacy of Elizabeth’s father King Henry VIII and his religious policies.

Henry had championed the Church when he wrote a treatise, “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” in answer to Martin Luther’s call for reform of the church.  The Pope was to give him the title of “Defender of the Faith”.  But when he wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon to marry his love, Anne Boleyn the Pope refused.  Henry eventually broke with the Catholic Church and made himself head of the Church of England.  He tried to walk a thin line by reforming while keeping most of the traditions of the Church but he ended up splitting his country into those who wanted reform and those who wanted to maintain the Catholic faith as it was.

Queen Elizabeth I by Unknown English artist. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Because of this turmoil there were always agents who wanted to return England to the Catholic fold.  During the reign of Henry’s Protestant daughter, Queen Elizabeth, Walsingham was to uncover the Ridolfi Plot, the Throckmorton Plot and the Babington Plot.  In the reign of James I, the Gunpowder Plot was a Jesuit scheme to blow up the King.  Even the Great Fire of 1666 in London was blamed on the Catholics.  The Popish Plot was a fabricated conspiracy started by an Englishman named Titus Oates that caused a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria in England, Wales and Scotland from 1678 – 1681.


Titus Oates

The Plot was discovered in an odd way.  Oates, a Protestant chaplain, had collaborated with a man named Dr. Israel Tonge, an educator and rector, in writing a long manuscript.  The manuscript contained accusations that the Catholic Church was plotting to assassinate King Charles II with the Jesuits carrying out the deed.  The proposal was to shoot or stab the King or have the Queen’s physician poison him, kill all the leading Protestant leaders and install Charles’ Catholic brother James, Duke of York on the throne under the Pope.  The document named one hundred Jesuits and supporters being involved.  Examination of the document over the years since then has proven none of the points to be true.

Oates slipped a copy of the manuscript into some wainscot of a gallery in Sir Richard Barker’s house.  Tonge was to claim he found the document and showed it to an acquaintance, Christopher Kirby who was alarmed enough to warn the King.  On August 13, 1678, Kirkby approached Charles on his walk in St. James Park and told him his life was in danger.  Charles shrugged off the worry for his personal safety and told Kirkby to tell his story to his personal staff member, William Chaffinch.  Chaffinch and his wife were in charge of the private entrance to Charles apartments.  They were personal friends of the King and served as go-betweens, arranging meetings with informers and spies on behalf of the Whigs and Catholic leaders who couldn’t be seen coming to court in the light of day.  Charles asked the Lord Treasurer, Thomas Danby, Earl of Osborne, to look into the story.


Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey

Tonge went before Danby and said he found the document but didn’t know the author.  Charles initially denied a request for an investigation but the Duke of York insisted.  Oates name was revealed.   On September 6, Oates gave a deposition to magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, with Oates claiming to have attended a meeting of Jesuits where regicide was discussed.

The conditions were ripe in the country, especially in London, for people to fall for such a plot.  An economic depression weighed heavily on the city and many people were unemployed.  Doomsayers fed the capital with rumors and prophecies that there was the threat of another civil war.  Catholics were an easy target for the Londoners anger.  As the King’s heir, the Duke of York was not well liked.  Perhaps if James had been able to keep his faith to himself, none of these strange events may have occurred.

Catherine of Braganza, after Dirk Stoop. © National Portrait Gallery, London

A month later, Oates and Tonge were called before the Privy Council.  Even more wild accusations were flying about now.  The lists of allegations went to forty-three and then to eighty-one.  The names given went as high as officers in the employ of the household of the Queen and the Duchess of York, archbishops and others in government.  The allegations were seen as even more true when Godfrey was found murdered in October of 1678.  To this day no one knows who murdered him and the rumors that Catholics did the deed started immediately. Oates and Tonge testified before Parliament.  They were now accusing five Catholic lords who were subsequently arrested. One was beheaded, one died in captivity and the other three managed to get released eventually.  There was now a call for excluding James from the succession and a bill was passed to exclude Catholics from membership in the House.

Another man named William Bedloe appeared on the scene accusing the Queen’s Catholic servants of killing Godfrey.  Her home was searched and then Oates denounced Queen Catherine herself as a traitor, asserting she knew of the plot to kill her husband and approved of it.  Her motivations were supposedly to avenge herself on her unfaithful husband and to restore the Catholic Church in England.

King Charles II

King Charles II

Now the accusations appeared to fully be without foundation but the Earl of Shaftesbury was using the plot to further his own political agenda.  Acceptance of the plot was so widespread the House of Commons called for Queen Catherine to be banished from the court at Whitehall.  The vote failed but the Queen was clearly in danger.  Parliament was asking Charles to divorce her.  Charles sent his brother James out of the country.  By April 1679, it was suggested Catherine return to her home in Portugal.  Catherine refused.  In July, the accusations against her were abandoned when the indictment against her physician for plotting to poison the King failed.  Charles never agreed to divorce Catherine.

The new Parliament of 1679 was openly attacking Charles’ brother James and asking that he be excluded from inheriting the throne.  The Exclusion crisis was to last until 1681.  Charles managed to dissolve Parliament before the Exclusion Act could be passed.  Oates was given an apartment in Whitehall and an income.  At one point the King personally interrogated Oates.  He caught him in inaccuracies and didn’t believe his tales and wanted him arrested.  Oates somehow managed to worm his way out of being arrested.    He continued to weave even more lies.  By July of 1681 as many as 35 people had lost their lives due to his falsehoods.   The tide was turning against him and the Chief Justice began declaring people innocent and the King devised countermeasures.  On August 31, 1681, Oates was told to leave Whitehall and he began claims against the King and Duke of York.  He was arrested, imprisoned and fined £100,000 for sedition.  He spent time in jail but managed to get released and obtained a royal pardon.  He continued spreading accusations and trying to steal people’s money until he died in July of 1705.


King James II, formerly James, Duke of York

The Society of Jesuits, the Carmelites, Franciscans and the Benedictines suffered greatly from Oates allegations.  Many were executed and died in prison.  Even ordinary Catholics suffered later when a proclamation was issued in 1687 requiring all Catholics who were not tradesmen or property owners to leave London and Westminster and requiring them to get special permission to enter a 12 mile radius of the city.  During these ensuing years, Catholics were subject to fines, harassment and prison.  Eventually, the Duke of York became King.  When he tried to change the official religion of England to Catholicism, he was driven into exile.  His daughter and son-in-law were elevated to the throne as William III and Mary II in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Sources:  “The Popish Plot” by John Kenyon, “The Popish Plot: A Study in the History” by John Pollack

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