The courtroom drama, executions, and street pageantry of the so-called ‘Popish Plot’.
Titus Oates was a nasty piece of work. He was venal, grasping and corrupt: a bully, a coward and a grifter. He was a serial failure: dismissed from teaching after falsely accusing his schoolmaster of buggery; dismissed from his chaplaincy in the navy after sailors accused him of buggery; expelled from the Jesuit college at Liège for lewd and blasphemous talk. Above all, though, he was a liar.
In 1678 he told the lie that made him famous. Having returned penniless from Liège to London, he established contact with a down-on-his-luck hot gospeller called Israel Tonge, whose magnificent name was matched only by his magnificent stupidity. Oates described how, during his stint with the Jesuits, he had been made privy to their deepest secrets. Right now, he told Tonge, there was an active Catholic plot to assassinate the king. With Charles II dead, papist cells would incite rebellion across the nation and, in all the confusion, Louis XIV would invade and bind England once more to the yoke of Rome. Tonge lapped up every word and agreed to help Oates blow the lid off this conspiracy. All it took was a few forged letters, quietly slipped into the right hands.
The plot may have been fake but the effects were real. New laws were passed, introducing a religious ‘test’ for holders of public office. Severe penalties were imposed on Catholic recusants, barring them from parliament, taxing them at double rates, fining them for non-attendance at religious services and exiling them from London. As a direct result of Oates’ perjured testimony, more than 30 innocent people were executed for treason. Before the end, Queen Catherine herself would be fingered as a likely conspirator.
Victor Stater’s lively new book on the so-called ‘Popish Plot’ does a wonderful job of telling this story. Stater is particularly good on the big set pieces – the courtroom drama, the executions, the street pageantry – culling dialogue from trial transcripts and setting the scene with enviable brio. One of his chief accomplishments is demonstrating the perniciousness of the informer state; where rewards are given, information will be fabricated. His rendition of London during the Restoration is, at times, terrifying.
Oates is very much the star of the show. Emphasis (and indeed blame) falls squarely on his shoulders. It would, however, be more accurate to say that Oates was a symptom of English anti-popery and not its cause. The idea of an insidious Catholic plot was deeply ingrained in the English psyche. From the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to the devastating Great Fire of London in 1666, Catholic fifth columnists were thought to have been responsible for virtually every malady that had afflicted the nation over the past century. As historians such as Jonathan Scott have reminded us, the ‘Popish Plot’ feared by most Englishmen was not some grubby conspiracy theory cooked up in the overheated chambers of Oates’ brain; it was the very real advance of the Counter Reformation in Europe. With France to the east and Ireland to the west, English Protestants understandably believed themselves to be surrounded by enemies. Agents of the pope had put godly Protestants to the sword in France, Germany, Ireland and Bohemia. It was only a matter of time before the same thing happened in England.
Running alongside this crisis of religion was a crisis of royal succession. There was no protestant heir to the throne. Charles II had no legitimate children by Queen Catherine and his brother, James, Duke of York, was a deeply committed Catholic. For years, Protestants had been lobbying Charles to annul his marriage and find a new queen. The king ignored them.
Although Oates did not explicitly say as much, this succession crisis formed the background hum of his ‘plot’. After all, the endgame of any royal assassination is not merely to kill a monarch, but to install one. The Jesuits wanted to kill Charles, Oates claimed, so that they could establish his brother as a puppet king who would help restore England to Catholicism. This hint was quickly seized by the opportunistic leader of the anti-papist faction, the Earl of Shaftesbury, to bolster his attempts to exclude James from the line of succession. However, while Oates provided ammunition for Shaftesbury’s parliamentary battle over exclusion, it would be deeply misleading to suggest that the battle would never have taken place without him. Indeed, by the time Oates went public, the metaphorical troops were already lined up. If Shaftesbury had got his way, after Charles’ death the throne would have passed to the Dutch stadtholder, William of Orange; if he had lost, it would have passed to James. England would then have become the poodle of France.
The pendulum swung in 1681 as Oates’ lies became increasingly untenable. Shaftesbury lost his gambit over exclusion and, later that summer, found himself arrested under suspicion of high treason. Two years later, a plot to assassinate Charles very nearly succeeded. It was masterminded not by the Jesuits but by dissident Protestant radicals.
There is a much broader story here about England and how its marginal status in Europe was exploited by unscrupulous vagabonds for personal gain. In focusing so much on the personal stories and neglecting the European dimension, Hoax can sometimes feel somewhat unmoored from the historiography of recent decades. In its essentials Hoax sticks to the same ground as John Kenyon’s classic The Popish Plot (1972). While Stater undeniably provides a rip-roaring narrative account of the Oates conspiracy, one might reasonably expect a book like this to bring something new to the table. The last 50 years have brought to light all kinds of neglected manuscript sources. It would be nice to see them.
Hoax: The Popish Plot that Never Was
Yale 336pp £20
Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)
Joseph Hone is the author of The Paper Chase: The Printer, the Spymaster, and the Hunt for the Rebel Pamphleteers (Chatto & Windus, 2020).