Popish Plot

Popish Plot

Popish Plot: see Oates, Titus.

The Popish Plot was a fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates which gripped England in anti-Catholic hysteria from 1678 until 1681. Oates alleged that there existed an extensive Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II. These accusations would eventually lead to the execution of at least 15 men, and precipitate the Exclusion Bill Crisis. Eventually Oates' intricate web of accusations fell apart, leading to his arrest for and conviction for perjury.


There was a growing fear by Protestants of increasing Catholic influence in England. Charles' heir, his brother James Stuart, Duke of York had converted to Catholicism, and the King's wife, Catherine of Braganza, was also Catholic. Charles' wars and religious policies during the 1670s led to conflict with parliament. In 1672, Charles issued the Royal Declaration of Indulgence, in which he purported to suspend all penal laws against Roman Catholics and other religious dissenters.

Charles II did not want to share power but needed Parliament for money. He believed that an alliance with Catholic France would provide money and aid him in becoming the absolute monarch of England. As the power of the Cabal Ministry waned Thomas Osborne, Lord Danby assumed more influence in his role as Lord High Treasurer. Danby sought to divert the king from a Francophile foreign policy. In December 1677 an anonymous pamphlet (possibly by Andrew Marvell) spread alarm in London by suggesting Rome planned to change the lawful government of England.

The Plot

The Plot unfolded in a very peculiar fashion. Oates and Tonge had written a large manuscript that accused the Roman Catholic Church of approving an assassination of Charles II. The Jesuits in England were to carry out the task. The Oates and Tonge manuscript also named nearly 100 Jesuits and supporters that were supposedly involved in this assassination plot. Nothing in this document was ever proven to be true.

Oates slipped a copy of the manuscript into the wainscot of a gallery in Sir Richard Barker's house. The following day Tonge claimed to find the manuscript, and showed it to an acquaintance, Christopher Kirkby, who was shocked and decided to inform the King. Kirkby was a chemist and a former assistant in Charles's scientific experiments; he bragged about his access to the king. On 13 August 1678, whilst Charles was out walking in St James's Park, the chemist informed him of the plot. Charles was dismissive but Kirkby stated that he knew the names of assassins who planned to shoot the King in the park and, if that failed, the Queen's physician, Sir George Wakeman, would poison him. When the king demanded proof, the chemist offered to bring Tonge who knew of these matters personally. Charles told Kirkby to present Tonge before Lord Danby. Tonge then lied to Danby that he had found the manuscript but did not know the author although it was probably a man he had seen once or twice and whom he had engaged in light conversation.

Danby 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 the people's minds. However, word of the manuscript eventually spread to the Duke of York, who publicly called for an investigation into the matter. During the investigation, Oates' name arose.

On 6 September Oates was summoned before the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey to swear an oath prior to his testimony before the king. Oates claimed that he had been at a Jesuit meeting held at the White Horse Tavern in the Strand, London on April 24, 1678. According to Oates, the purpose of that meeting was to discuss the assassination of Charles II. The meeting discussed a variety of assassination methods which included: Stabbing by Irish ruffians, shooting by two Jesuit soldiers, or the assassination of Charles II by the Queen's physician, Sir George Wakeman.

When Oates and Tonge were brought before the Privy Council later that month, Charles caught out several of Oates' lies and proceeded to denounce his credibility.

The King's Council interrogated Oates. On September 28 he made 43 allegations against various members of Catholic religious orders — including 541 Jesuits — and numerous Catholic nobles. He accused Sir George Wakeman, the queen's physician, and Edward Colman, the secretary to the Duchess of York (Mary of Modena), of planning to assassinate the king. Although Oates probably selected the names randomly or with the help of the Earl of Danby, Coleman was found to have corresponded with a French Jesuit, which condemned him. Wakeman was later acquitted. Charles caught out several of Oates' lies and proceeded to denounce his credibility.

Others Oates accused included Dr William Fogarty, Archbishop Peter Talbot of Dublin, Samuel Pepys, and Lord Belasyse. With the help of the Earl of Danby the list grew to 81 accusations. Oates was given a squad of soldiers and he began to round up Jesuits.

The Tipping Point

The Popish Plot was nearly dismissed as nothing but a conspiracy theory until the murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey. Godfrey was a member of Parliament, and a strong supporter of Protestantism. His disappearance on October 12, 1678, and the finding of his body on October 17 sent the Protestant population into an uproar. He had been strangled and run through with his own sword. Many of his Protestant supporters blamed the murder on the Catholic Church. Oates seized on this murder as proof that the Plot was true, which succeeded among the public. To this day, no one is certain who killed Sir Edmund Godfrey. There is some speculation that Oates and Tonge may have committed the murder to advance their cause, but evidence is scant.

King Charles aware of the unrest, returned to London and summoned Parliament. Charles still did not believe in Titus's accusations. However, Parliament and public opinion forced him to order an investigation. The king's opponents, however, who disliked his "Catholic" court and his Catholic wife Catherine of Braganza, exploited the situation. One of the most prominent such opponents was Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, leader of the Whigs.

Oates became more daring and accused five Catholic lords (The Earl of Powis, The Viscount Stafford, The Lord Arundell of Wardour, The Lord Petre and The Lord Belasyse) of involvement of the plot. The King reputedly laughed at the accusations but the Earl of Shaftesbury had the lords arrested and sent to the Tower for trial at the House of Lords. Seizing upon the anti-Catholic tide, Shaftesbury publicly demanded that the King's brother, James, should be excluded from the royal succession, prompting the Exclusion crisis. On November 5, 1678, people burned effigies of the Pope instead of those of Guy Fawkes. 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).

On November 24, Oates claimed the Queen was working with the King's physician to poison him and enlisted the aid of "Captain" William Bedloe, who was ready to say anything for money. The King personally interrogated Oates, caught him out in a number of inaccuracies and lies, and ordered his arrest. However, a couple days later, Parliament forced Oates's release with the threat of constitutional crisis.

Hysteria continued. 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 being perpetrated.

Anyone even suspected of being Catholic was driven out of London and forbidden to return within ten miles of the city. Silk armour was produced for fashionable ladies and gentlemen. Oates, for his part, received a state apartment in Whitehall and an annual allowance of £1,200. He was not ready to stop, however, and soon presented new allegations. He claimed 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 "purge" spread to the countryside.

However, public opinion began to turn against Oates. Having had at least 15 innocent men executed, the last being Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, on July 1, 1681, Judge Scroggs began to declare people innocent. The King began to devise countermeasures.

On August 31, 1681, Oates was told to leave his apartments in Whitehall, but remained undeterred and denounced the King, the Duke of York, and just about anyone he regarded as an opponent. He was arrested for sedition, sentenced to a fine of £100,000 and thrown into prison.

When James II acceded to the throne in 1685 he had Oates retried for perjury and sentenced to annual pillory, loss of clerical dress, and imprisonment for life.

Oates spent the next three years in prison. At the accession of William of Orange and Mary in 1688, he was pardoned and granted a pension of £5 a week but his reputation did not significantly recover. The pension was suspended, but in 1698 was restored and increased to £300 a year. Titus Oates died on July 12 or July 13, 1705.

Gallery of Playing cards

External links


  • Douglas C. Green (Hg.), Diaries of the Popish Plot, New York 1977
  • John Kenyon, The Popish Plot 2d ed., 1985, repr. Phoenix Press 2001 ISBN 1842121685
  • John Pollock, The Popish Plot: A Study in the History, Kessinger Publishing, 2005, ISBN 1417965762

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