Or, Witches, Catholics--They All Burn Just the Same
Even at the time--1678--there were more than a few who suspected the latest Jesuit ploy to kill the king and massacre as many Protestants as were available was more art and less matter. And as time eventually revealed, they were right; the plot was nothing more than the invention of two English ne'er-do-wells.
Regardless, the England of Charles II, a closet Catholic himself until his deathbed presto change-o, was finally recovering from the tyranny of the Puritan Commonwealth, and desperately wanted a break from the game of musical thrones and faiths. The country seemed at least slightly settled on Anglicanism, and with an outspoken Catholic waiting in the wings in the form of the future James II, certain members of the nobility wanted to squeeze all they could from anti-papist sentiment.
The resulting panic, spurred on by a convenient murder or two, was the imprisonment or execution of a few dozen prominent Catholics, and some pretty blatant political chicanery.
Know Your Traitors
Good luck. One man's treason is another's act of patriotism, so feelings of confusion are natural. Here are the key players of the Plot and its aftermath-condemn as you see fit.
- Titus Oates: The Front Man. An Anglican clergyman, barely. He took his orders, but records show him to have been a man of nefarious ethics and dubious piety at best. At worst, a vicious anti-Catholic and rabblerouser. He took the credit.
- Israel Tonge: The brains of the operation. Historians usually credit him as the original conceiver of the Plot. Intelligent, well-read, but a bit too much of a conspiracy theorist to invite to dinner.
- Charles II: King by the grace of God, who seemed likely to rescind it at any time. Keeper of many mistresses, producer of no legitimate heirs, it was the latter that got him into the most trouble. Mainly because of
- James, Duke of York: Not a II yet at this time, but brother to Charles, and next in line for the succession. Also, a touch vocal about his preference for communion wafers that did more--a LOT more--than just give him something to think about.
- Louis XIV: The biggest head on the Continent. A lot of Englishmen were worried that it had its French Catholic eyes pointed in their direction, and had been slipping spending money to Charles II so he could remain fiscally independent of Parliament. The subtext there is the old French mission to return England to the Roman fold.
- the Earl of Shaftesbury: Whig opposition leader, Anthony Ashely Cooper picked up the ball of fear and ran with it. More on how later.
Now everybody shake, and come out slandering.
Oates managed to get an audience with the king, and poured into his ear a litany of ways he'd discovered the monarch was scheduled to die. They come to down to these, as listed in his succinctly titled True and Exact Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party against the Life of His Sacred Majesty, the Government and the Protestant Religion, etc. published by the Order of the Right Honorable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled:
- A Bendictine lay brother and a Jesuit servant were to shoot the king with silver bullets in exchange for 30,000 masses spoken over the soul of the former, and £1,500 flat out for the latter.
- Sir George Wakeman, queen's physician, was to poison the king in the event of the above failing.
- Backing him up were supposedly two Benedictine monks, with orders to stab their way to glory.
- And in case of catastrophically poor execution, the Papists had themselves four Irish ruffians set to do the deed for a total of £81.
Why, you ask, would anyone let this sort of exaggerated nonsense set the city of London spinning off into a panic? Corroborating, though entirely circumstantial, evidence.
Oates first confided his story to a London magistrate, Edmund Berry Godfrey. The very same man was shortly thereafter found murdered, and the case was never solved. This fueled the fervor of a public already largely willing to believe whatever claptrap was fed to them on the subject of international intrigue. Add to that the discovery of a correspondence between the secretary to the Duke of York and Louis XIV, and you get a fine, dry, powdery mixture to which you may set the match of paranoia.
The city went mad. Patrols roamed the streets, cannon emerged to guard the walls of Whitehall, barricades were set up--all to block the renewed Catholic menace. Justice went out the window as well; 'witnesses' were paid to perjure themselves through testimony against the accused, the prisons filled up, and eventually sixteen completely innocent men went to the scaffold as direct participants in the Plot. A further eight went down as priests in the following purges.
Meanwhile, Oates emerged from the 'discovery' a self-proclaimed hero. He pranced about calling himself the Saviour of the Nation, and tied to his name the title of doctor, laying hugely false claims to having earned the credit in divinity at Salamanca.
It's All Politics
Now read into this what you will: the King-supposed target of this rot--snubbed Oates at every opportunity. But Parliament granted him a salary of £12 a week and coughed up drafts on the Treasury to pay his bills.
And what body controlled the Parliament? Whigs. A Protestant group that could tolerate an Anglican Charles II, but not a Catholic James II. Oates' plot gave them the ammunition they needed to address the question of the succession.
Enter the Earl of Shaftesbury. In 1679, he brought to Parliament an Act of Exclusion, which, very much like it sounds, was meant to keep James from adding a roman numeral to his name. The gesture polarized the nation, and Shaftesbury likely overplayed it. Fears of another Civil War were too much for many to contemplate, and larger numbers than were expected--among both the nobility and the lower classes--turned to the royalist side.
Charles II was able to consolidate his power, dissolve Parliament, and go hunting for Shaftesbury, who escaped to Holland and died there in 1683.
And of course, James II ultimately took the throne.
Not too, too much of one, given what trouble he caused. The axe got sharp, but never touched Titus' throat.
- 1681: They pitched him out of Whitehall, where he'd been staying.
- 1682: They reduced his pension to two quid. And that June, he got himself chucked into clink for calling the Duke of York a traitor, on top of an unpayable £100,000 for scandalum magnatum.
- 1683: This is a little better. He got sent up for perjury, condemned to a whipping, the pillory, and lifetime imprisonment.
- 1689: William and Mary reach the throne, and he gets out of prison.
- 1690: The Baptists, who had taken him in, kick him out for extortion and fraud. Old habits die hard...
- 1702: He scores a £300 per annum during the lifetime of himself and his wife from the government, plus 500 to clear his debts.
- 1705: Oates dies with little reputation left, uncelebrated, in Axe Yard.
So you see, it could have been much worse for him. History does the main damage to his character now, for in the three hundred plus years since the story broke out, not a single shred of credible evidence has come to light in support of it. There probably was a Popish Plot of some kind or another going on at the time--but his wasn't it.