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Hoax: The Popish Plot that never was by Victor Stater

by
04 November 2022

Alexander Faludy looks at the ‘Popish Plot’

ON 17 November 1679, the anniversary of Elizabeth I’s Accession, Londoners beheld a spectacle designed to instil fear about the present more than commemorate the past.

Starting at 5 p.m., a vast procession moved slowly through the narrow streets, watched by an estimated 200,000 Londoners. Lighted by 150 torch-bearers, it was sped forward by bands of marching musicians. Ahead rode an effigy of the deceased London magistrate William Godfrey, found dead in a ditch under mysterious circumstances in 1678.

Behind “Godfrey” walked 40 men dressed as Roman Catholic clergy. One wore a black chasuble embroidered with bones, dispensing “pardons” to volunteers “who would murder Protestants”. Six mock-Jesuits trailed behind, wielding daggers. The true locus was another effigy: the Pope’s, standing on a raised float with “altar boys” in front.

Some “priest” actors demanded danger money, given the risk of injury from missiles from the crowd, moved by anger towards what they represented: a “Popish Plot”.

Papal agents, it was claimed, sought to overthrow England’s Protestant religion by murdering King Charles II and placing his Catholic brother James, Duke of York, on the throne before Parliament could alter the succession. Poor William Godfrey had, allegedly, been murdered for taking a witness statement at the early stage of the plot’s unmasking.

The “Popish Plot” dominated public discourse in Britain and Ireland between 1678 and 1681. It implicated, at least temporarily, figures spanning London goldsmiths, Yorkshire squires, and Queen Catherine’s household staff. Many were entirely unconnected, save for being Catholics. Some, like Samuel Pepys’s clerk Sam Atkins (ultimately acquitted), were not Catholics, but only maintained courteous professional relations with them.

AlamyTitus Oates in the pillory, as part of his sentence for perjury, as the devil passes on a gallows (17th century)

Evidence for the “plot” rested on only a few obviously faked documents and the internally contradictory testimony of a handful of witnesses of dubious reputation. These were headed by a disgraced Anglican cleric, who had at one point been received into the RC Church, “Dr” Titus Oates. Most had criminal records and shady reputations and acted to secure bounty money

Their testimony robbed 28 countrymen of their lives by execution. Yet more died from illnesses contracted in prison. Oates was eventually disgraced — too late for his victims.

Unfortunately, the secrecy of communication that Roman Catholics, as a persecuted community, were compelled to practise in respect of their observances lent surface plausibility to wild allegations. So did the perennially sensed fear of war with Catholic Continental powers.

Stater tells this story with verve and irony. In the age of phenomena such as QAnon and Operation Yewtree, we should beware of thinking that we have left the devastating social psychology of the “Popish Plot” behind.

 

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.

 

Hoax: The Popish Plot that never was
Victor Stater
Yale £20
(978-0-300-12380-7)
Church Times Bookshop £18

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