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Popish Plot

The execution of the five Jesuits

The Popish Plot was a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates that between 1678 and 1681 gripped the Kingdoms of England and Scotland in anti-Catholic hysteria.[1] Oates alleged that there existed an extensive Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II, accusations that led to the executions of at least 22 men and precipitated the Exclusion Bill Crisis. Eventually Oates' intricate web of accusations fell apart, leading to his arrest and conviction for perjury.


  • Background 1
    • Development of English anti-Catholicism 1.1
    • Anti-Catholicism in the 17th century 1.2
  • Events 2
    • Beginnings 2.1
    • Investigations 2.2
    • Godfrey murder 2.3
    • The Plot before Parliament 2.4
    • Trial of the Five Catholic Lords 2.5
    • Height of the hysteria 2.6
    • Waning of the hysteria 2.7
  • Long-term effects 3
  • Gallery of playing cards 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Development of English anti-Catholicism

The fictitious Popish Plot must be understood against the background of the English Reformation and the subsequent development of a strong anti-Catholic sentiment among the mostly Protestant population of England.

The English Reformation began in 1533, when King Henry VIII (1509–1547) sought an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. As the Pope would not grant this, Henry broke away from Rome and took control of the Church in England. Later, he had the monasteries dissolved, causing opposition in the still largely Catholic nation. Under Henry's son, Edward VI (1547–1553), the Church of England was transformed into a strictly Protestant body, with many remnants of Catholicism suppressed. Edward was succeeded by his half-sister Mary I of England (1553–1558), daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine. She was a Catholic and returned the Church in England to union with the Holy See. Mary tainted her policy by two unpopular actions: she married her cousin, King Philip II of Spain, where the horrors of the Inquisition continued, and had 300 Protestants burned at the stake, causing many Englishmen to associate Catholicism with the involvement of foreign powers and religious persecution. Even though Catholics were later persecuted by Protestant rulers, it was not with the ferocity that marked Mary's reign and the Inquisition, and it was Catholicism that was seen as the persecuting religion. Historian John Philipps Kenyon remarked "Nor was there any doubt as to what would happen if Catholics seized control: all good Protestants would burn."[2]

Mary was succeeded by her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth I (1558–1603), who again broke away from Rome and suppressed Catholicism. This, and her dubious legitimacy – she was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – led to Catholic powers not recognising her as Queen and favouring her next relative, the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth's reign saw Catholic rebellions like the Rising of the North (1569) as well as plots like the Ridolfi Plot (1571) or the Babington Plot (1586), both intending to kill Elizabeth and replace her with Mary with the help of a Spanish invasion. After the latter, Mary was beheaded in 1587. This and Elizabeth's support of the Dutch Revolt in the Spanish Netherlands – triggered Philip II of Spain's attempted invasion with the Spanish Armada (1588). This reinforced the impression that Catholicism was a foreign element while the Armada's failure convinced many Englishmen that God was supportive of Protestantism.

Anti-Catholic sentiment reached new heights in 1605 after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. Catholic plotters attempted to topple the Protestant regime of King James I by blowing up both King and parliament during the state opening of parliament. However, Guy Fawkes, who was in charge of the explosives, was discovered the night before and the attempt thwarted. The magnitude of the plot – had it succeeded most leading government figures would have been killed in one stroke – convinced many Englishmen that Catholics were devious conspirators who would stop at nothing to have their way, thus making allegations about Catholic plots more believable.

Anti-Catholicism in the 17th century

Anti-Catholic sentiment was a constant factor in how England perceived the events of the following decades: the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) was seen as an attempt by the Catholic Habsburgs to exterminate German Protestantism. Under the early Stuart Kings fears of Catholic conspiracies were rampant and the policies of Charles I – especially his church policies, which had a decidedly high church bent – were seen as pro-Catholic and likely induced by a Catholic conspiracy headed by Charles' Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria of France. This, together with stories about Catholic atrocities in Ireland in 1641, triggered the English Civil War (1642–1648), which led to the abolition of the monarchy and a decade of Puritan rule, which espoused religious tolerance for most forms of Protestantism but not for Catholicism. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 under King Charles II brought with it a reaction against all religious dissenters, i.e. all outside the established Church of England. As a result, Catholics felt popular hostility and legal discrimination.

Anti-Catholic hysteria flared up lightly during the reign of Charles II, which saw various disasters such as the Great Plague of London (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666). After the latter, rumours and propaganda floated around about arson, with Catholics and especially Jesuits as the first to be blamed. Kenyon remarks, "At Coventry, the townspeople were possessed by the idea that the papists were about to rise and cut their throats ... A nationwide panic seemed likely, and as homeless refugees poured out from London into the countryside, they took with them stories of a kind which were familiar to them in 1678 and 1679."[3]

Anti-Catholicism was fuelled by doubts about the religious allegiance of the King, who had married a Catholic princess, Catherine of Portugal and formed an alliance with France, then the leading Catholic power in Europe, against the Protestant Netherlands. Furthermore, as Charles' brother and heir presumptive, James, Duke of York, had embraced Catholicism. In 1672, Charles issued the Royal Declaration of Indulgence, in which he suspended all penal laws against Catholics and other religious dissenters.[4] This resulted in growing fears by Protestants of increasing Catholic influence in England and led to conflict with parliament during the 1670s. In December 1677 an anonymous pamphlet (possibly by Andrew Marvell) spread alarm in London by suggesting that the Pope planned to change the lawful government of England.[5]



The fictitious Popish Plot unfolded in a very peculiar fashion. Oates and Israel Tonge, a fanatically anti-Catholic clergyman, had written a large manuscript that accused the Catholic Church authorities of approving the assassination of Charles II. The Jesuits in England were to carry out the task. The manuscript also named nearly 100 Jesuits and their supporters who were supposedly involved in this assassination plot; nothing in the document was ever proven to be true.

Oates slipped a copy of the manuscript into the Thomas Osborne, Lord Danby, Lord High Treasurer, then the most influential of the King's ministers.[9] Tonge then lied to Danby, saying that he had found the manuscript but did not know the author.


As Kenyon points out, the government took seriously the slightest threat to the King's well-being – the previous spring a Newcastle housewife had been investigated simply for saying that "the King deserves the curse of all good and faithful wives for his bad example".[10] Danby, who seems initially to have believed in the Plot, advised the king to order an investigation. Charles II denied the request, maintaining that the entire affair was absurd. He told Danby to keep the events secret so as not to put the idea of regicide into people's minds.[11] However, word of the manuscript spread to the Duke of York, who publicly called for an investigation into the matter.[12] Even Charles admitted that given the sheer number of allegations, he could not be certain that none of them was true, and reluctantly agreed. During the investigation, Oates' name arose. From the first the King was convinced that Oates was a liar, and Oates did not help his case by claiming to have met the regent of Spain, Don John of Austria. Questioned by the king, who had met Don John in 1656, it became obvious that Oates had no idea what he looked like.[13] The King had a long and frank talk with Paul Barillon, the French ambassador, in which he made it clear that he did not believe that there was a word of truth in the plot, and that Oates was "a wicked man"; but that by now he had come round to the view that there must be an investigation, particularly with Parliament about to reassemble.[14]

On 6 September Oates was summoned before the magistrate

  • Nathaniel Reading
  • Names of eight Jesuit victims
  • "A Ballad upon the Popish Plot," [1]: link to the text of a ballad hoping for the downfall of the Plot

External links

  • Reprinted by Phoenix Press, 2000, ISBN 9781842121689.
  • The 1903 Duckworth and Company edition at Google Books.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 3.
  3. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 10.
  4. ^ Fraser, p. 305–8; Hutton, p. 284–5.
  5. ^ Heald 1992, p. 603.
  6. ^ Pollock 2005, p. 13.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 61.
  11. ^ Pollock 2005, p. 73–4.
  12. ^ Kenyon 1985, pp. 68-9.
  13. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 80.
  14. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 84.
  15. ^ a b c
  16. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 79.
  17. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 78.
  18. ^
  19. ^ Kenyon 1985, pp. 78–81.
  20. ^ Kenyon 1985, pp. 84–5.
  21. ^
  22. ^  
  23. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 158.
  24. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 205.
  25. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 206.
  26. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 209–11.
  27. ^ Kenyon 1985, p. 219.


Gallery of playing cards

The hysteria had serious consequences for ordinary British Catholics as well as priests. On October 30, 1678, a proclamation was made that required all Catholics who were not tradesmen or property owners to leave London and Westminster. They were not to enter a twelve-mile radius of the city without special permission. Throughout this period Catholics were subject to fines, harassment and imprisonment.[27] It was not until the early 19th century that most of the anti-Catholic legislation was removed by the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829; anti-Catholic sentiment remained even longer among politicians and the general populace, although the Gordon Riots of 1780 made it clear to sensible observers that Catholics were far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators.

Other Catholic religious orders such as the Carmelites, Franciscans, and the Benedictines were also affected by the hysteria. They were no longer permitted to have more than a certain number of members or missions within England. John Kenyon points out that European religious orders throughout the Continent were affected since many of them depended on the alms of the English Catholic community for their existence. Many Catholic priests were arrested and tried because the Privy Council wanted to make sure to catch all of those who might possess information about the supposed plot.[26]

The Society of Jesus suffered the most between 1678 and 1681. During this period, nine Jesuits were executed and twelve died in prison. Three other deaths were also attributable to the hysteria.[24] They also lost Combe in Herefordshire, which was the Jesuit headquarters of South Wales. A quote from French Jesuit Claude de la Colombière highlights the plight of the Jesuits during this time period. He comments, "The name of the Jesuit is hated above all else, even by priests both secular and regular, and by the Catholic laity as well, because it is said that the Jesuits have caused this raging storm, which is likely to overthrow the whole Catholic religion."[25]

Long-term effects

Of the other informers, James II was content merely to fine Miles Prance for his perjury, on the grounds that he was a Catholic and had been coerced by threats of torture into informing. Thomas Dangerfield was subjected to the same savage penalties as Oates; on returning from his first session in the pillory, Dangerfield died of an eye injury after a scuffle with the barrister Robert Francis. Bedloe, Turbervile and Dugdale had all died of natural causes while the Plot was still officially regarded as true.

When James II acceded to the throne in 1685 he had Oates tried on two charges of perjury. The Bench which tried him was presided over by the formidable William of Orange and Mary in 1689, he was pardoned and granted a pension of £260 a year, but his reputation did not recover. The pension was suspended, but in 1698 was restored and increased to £300 a year. Oates died on 12 or 13 July 1705, quite forgotten by the public which had once called him a hero.

Having had at least twenty-two innocent men executed, the last being sedition, sentenced to a fine of £100,000 and thrown into prison.

However, public opinion began to turn against Oates; as Kenyon points out the steady protestations of innocence by all those who died took hold on the public mind. Further, outside London the priests who died were almost all venerable and popular members of the community, and there was widespread horror at their executions. Even Lord Shaftesbury came to regret the mass executions, and is said to have quietly ordered the release of priests whose families he knew. Attempts to extend the plot into Yorkshire, where prominent local Catholics like Sir Thomas Gascoigne, 2nd Baronet, were accused of signing "the Bloody Oath of Secrecy" ended in failure as their Protestant neighbours who sat on the juries refused to convict them. The Plot gained some credence in Ireland, where the two Catholic Archbishops, Plunkett and Talbot, were the principal victims, but not in Scotland.

Waning of the hysteria

Anyone even suspected of being Catholic was driven out of London and forbidden to be within ten miles of the city. William Staley, a young Catholic banker, made a drunken threat against the King and within 10 days was tried, convicted and executed for plotting to kill him. Oates, for his part, received a state apartment in Whitehall and an annual allowance. He soon presented new allegations, claiming assassins intended to shoot the King with silver bullets so the wound would not heal. The public invented their own stories, including a tale that the sound of digging had been heard near the House of Commons and rumours of a French invasion in the Isle of Purbeck. The evidence of Oates and Bedloe was supplemented by other informers; some like Thomas Dangerfield, were notorious criminals, but others like Stephen Dugdale, Robert Jenison and Edward Turberville, were men of good social standing who from motives of greed or revenge denounced innocent victims, and by their apparently plausible evidence made the Plot seem more credible. Dugdale in particular made such a good initial impression that even the King for the first time "began to think that there might be something in the Plot".[23]

Hysteria continued: Roger North wrote that it was as though "the very Cabinet of Hell has been opened". Noblewomen carried firearms if they had to venture outdoors at night. Houses were searched for hidden guns, mostly without any significant result. Some Catholic widows tried to ensure their safety by marrying Anglican widowers. The House of Commons was searched – without result – in the expectation of a second Gunpowder Plot.

On 24 November 1678, Oates claimed the Queen was working with the King's physician to poison him and enlisted the aid of "Captain" William Bedloe, a notorious member of the London underworld. The King personally interrogated Oates, caught him out in a number of inaccuracies and lies, and ordered his arrest. However, a few days later, with the threat of constitutional crisis, Parliament forced the release of Oates.

Broadside, "The solemn mock procession of the Pope Cardinalls Jesuits fryers &c: through the citty of London November the 17th. 1679"

Height of the hysteria

On 30 December, the evidence against Arundell and his three fellow-prisoners was ordered to be in readiness, but there public proceedings stopped. In fact the death of William Bedloe left the prosecution in serious difficulties, since one protection for a person accused of treason, that there must be two eyewitnesses to an overt act of treason, was observed scrupulously, and only Oates claimed to have evidence against the remaining Lords. Lord Petre died in the Tower in 1683. His companions remained there until 12 February 1684 when an appeal to the Court of King's Bench to release them on bail was successful. On 21 May 1685 Arundell, Powis, and Belasyse came to the House of Lords to present petitions for the annulling of the charges and on the following day the petitions were granted. On 1 June 1685 their liberty was formally assured on the ground that the witnesses against them had perjured themselves, and on 4 June the bill of attainder against Stafford was reversed.[22]

The trial was fixed for 13 May, but a quarrel between the two houses as to points of procedure, and the legality of admitting bishops to a capital trial, followed by a dissolution, delayed its commencement until 30 November 1680. On that day it was decided to proceed first against Lord Stafford, who was condemned to death on 7 December and beheaded on 29 December.[21] His trial, compared to the other Plot trials, was reasonably fair, but as in all cases of alleged treason at that date the absence of defence counsel was a fatal handicap, and while Oates' credit had been seriously damaged, the principal prosecution witnesses, Turberville and Dugdale, struck even fair minded observers like John Evelyn as credible enough.

On 1 November 1678, the House of Commons resolved to proceed by impeachment against "the five popish lords". On 23 November all Arundell's papers were seized and examined by the Lords' committee; on 3 December the five peers were arraigned for high treason; and on 5 December the Commons announced the impeachment of Arundell. A month later Parliament was dissolved, and the proceedings were interrupted. In March 1679, it was resolved by both houses that the dissolution had not invalidated the motions for the impeachment. On 10 April 1679 Arundell and three of his companions (Belasyse was too ill to attend) were brought to the House of Lords to put in pleas against the articles of impeachment. Arundell complained of the uncertainty of the charges, and implored the peers to have them "reduced to competent certainty". But on 24 April this plea was voted irregular, and on 26 April the prisoners were again brought to the House of Lords and ordered to amend their pleas. Arundell replied by briefly declaring himself not guilty.

Oates became more daring and accused five Catholic lords (William Herbert, 1st Marquess of Powis, William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, Henry Arundell, 3rd Baron Arundell of Wardour, William Petre, 4th Baron Petre and John Belasyse, 1st Baron Belasyse) of involvement in the plot. The King dismissed the accusations, pointing out that Belasyse was so afflicted with gout that he could hardly stand, while Arundell and Stafford had not been on speaking terms for 25 years; but Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury had the lords arrested and sent to the Tower on 25 October 1678. Seizing upon the anti-Catholic tide, Shaftesbury publicly demanded that the King's brother, James, be excluded from the royal succession, prompting the Exclusion crisis. On 5 November 1678, people burned effigies of the Pope instead of those of Guy Fawkes.[15] At the end of the year, the parliament passed a bill, a second Test Act, excluding Catholics from membership of both Houses (a law not repealed until 1829).

Trial of the Five Catholic Lords

King Charles, aware of the unrest, returned to London and summoned Parliament. He remained unconvinced by Oates' accusations, but Parliament and public opinion forced him to order an investigation. Parliament truly believed that this plot was real, declaring, "This House is of opinion that there hath been and still is a damnable and hellish plot contrived and carried out by the popish recusants for assigning and murdering the King."[20] Tonge was called to testify on October 25, 1678 where he gave evidence on the Great Fire and, later, rumours of another similar plot. On November 1, both Houses ordered an investigation in which a Frenchman, Choqueux, was discovered to be storing gunpowder in a house nearby. This caused a panic, until it was discovered that he was simply the King’s firework maker.

The Plot before Parliament

Oates seized on this murder as proof that the plot was true. The murder of Godfrey and the discovery of Edward Coleman's letters[18] provided a solid basis of facts for the lies of Oates and the other informers who followed him. Oates was called to testify before the House of Lords and the House of Commons on October 23, 1678. He testified that he had seen a number of contracts signed by the Superior General of the Jesuits. The contracts appointed officers that would command an army of Catholic supporters to kill Charles II and establish a Catholic monarch.[19] To this day, no one is certain who killed Sir Edmund Godfrey, and most historians regard the mystery as insoluble. Oates' associate William Bedloe denounced the silversmith Miles Prance, who in turn named three working men, Berry, Green and Hill, who were tried, convicted and executed in February 1679; but it rapidly became clear that they were completely innocent, and that Prance, who had been subjected to torture, named them simply to gain his freedom (Kenyon suggests that he may have chosen men against whom he had a personal grudge).

The allegations gained little credence until the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a member of Parliament and strong supporter of Protestantism. His disappearance on 12 October 1678, the finding of his mutilated body on 17 October, and the subsequent failure to solve his murder sent the Protestant population into an uproar. He had been strangled and run through with his own sword. Many of his supporters blamed the murder on Catholics. As Kenyon commented, "Next day, the 18th, James wrote to William of Orange that Godfrey's death was already 'laid against the Catholics', and even he, never the most realistic of men, feared that 'all these things happening together will cause a great flame in the Parliament.'"[17] The Lords asked King Charles to banish all Catholics from a radius of 20 miles around London, which Charles granted on October 30, 1678, but it was too late because London was already in a panic.

Godfrey murder

Others Oates accused included Dr. William Fogarty, Archbishop Peter Talbot of Dublin, Samuel Pepys, and John Belasyse, 1st Baron Belasyse. The list grew to 81 accusations. Oates was given a squad of soldiers and he began to round up Jesuits.

[16] Oates and Tonge were brought before the


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