A "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy", Restoration Style
In August 1678 Titus Oates, an unemployed clergyman of dubious character and morals, disclosed to a mentally unbalanced colleague, the Rev. Israel Tonge, the existence of a large scale Roman Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II and set up a puppet government that would return Protestant England to the days of Bloody Mary. Oates had learned of this plot, he claimed, after converting to Catholicism the year before and spending a few months at a French seminary (from which he had been expelled for moral and intellectual deficiencies). Leading members of England's underground Catholic priesthood had supposedly spoken freely in front of this unprepossessing novice, enabling him to construct a dense narrative of names, dates and "facts". Tonge, author of numerous paranoid anti-Catholic tracts, was delighted to have such a witness to Papist malignity and rapidly pushed Oates in front of the authorities, including the king himself. From this beginning followed, over the next year and a half, over 30 executions for participation in the imaginary plot. The pursuit of the "plotters" was not the only, perhaps not even the greatest, miscarriage of justice of the era, but it is surely the best remembered, and most of the victims have since been recognized by Rome as martyrs for the Faith. Six of them were canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
John Kenyon's history, first published in 1972 (Phoenix Press reprints the slightly revised 1984 edition), is the classic account of the Plot, a story interesting both as a striking episode in English history and for the light it casts on similar conspiratorial accusations in later eras (even in our own). Professor Kenyon furnishes a firm, clear record of frequently baffling events, demanding of the reader only a modest acquaintance with Restoration history and politics. He also explains, as plausibly as one could hope, why belief in the Plot took root and flourished.
Oates and the copycat informers who supplemented his fantasy with ever more lurid tales drew on a deep-seated fear of Catholics and Catholicism, heightened by the perception that Romanism was steadily gaining strength and enjoyed special favor at the royal court (where, indeed, the Queen and the King's brother, the Duke of York, were Catholics). A few Catholics confirmed the fear mongers by talking wildly about restoring the old religion (and a small number, like the famous Guy Fawkes, really did attempt murder and treason), but the typical recusant was a staunchly conservative landowner, attached to the existing order and wishing only to practice his religion without excessive harassment. One reason why the Plot did not claim a far greater number of victims was that Protestant gentry in the countryside refused to believe charges against their Catholic neighbors and protected them from the power of the judiciary.
Anti-Catholicism was a constant in the English polity. Compounding it were more adventitious factors: the partisan hatreds left over from the Civil War (the judicial murder of Charles I was less than 30 years in the past), the paucity of sources of information about current events and, most important in this particular case, the Crown's lack of political confidence. Charles II and his advisers believed that their domestic enemies were powerful, malicious and intractable. They knew that the government was short of financial and military resources. Thus, even though no one at Whitehall truly believed Oates, the safe, expedient path was to allow "justice" to devour a few sacrifices, while waiting for a backlash against the hysteria. The waiting strategy in fact worked, and a powerful Tory reaction made Charles' last years politically comfortable, but the Plot martyrs gained no benefit thereby.
Amidst these large explanations, Professor Kenyon does not lose sight of the particular and accidental. Oates was an exceptionally bold liar, who commanded belief by sheer effrontery. And his story gained sensational publicity at an early stage when the magistrate before whom he swore his first deposition turned up murdered a few days later. He then garnered undeserved credibility when a search of the papers of Edward Coleman, the Duke of York's sometime secretary, revealed correspondence with Louis XIV's confessor. To deflect the informers from York, Coleman was sent to trial and execution. His fate naturally made the uproar worse. Instead of escaping suspicion, the Duke finally had to be sent abroad to appease the mob.
Other blameworthy behavior abounded. Especially appalling is the conduct of the judges at the accused conspirators' trials. One reads these accounts with a renewed appreciation of the virtues of our own judicial system. Heartening, on the other hand, is the courage of the victims, none of whom, despite intense pressure, recanted his faith or implicated others with a false confession.
Professor Kenyon recounts these improbable events with care and even-handedness. Indeed, he almost turns the latter virtue into a vice by searching for some shred of justification for unjustifiable conduct. He suggests, for instance, that Edward Coleman was, by the standards of the time, actually guilty of treason, when all that the evidence shows is an effort to gull the French out of subsidies. Less forgivably, he insinuates that perhaps the homosexual Oates had obtained authentic tidbits of information about Catholic activities in the course of affairs with high-ranking Jesuits - a completely unnecessary hypothesis for which there is no support at all.
Though its long-term impact was minor, the Popish Plot remains of interest to students of Seventeenth Century English politics, English Catholic history and conspiracy manias, for all of whom Professor Kenyon's volume is essential reading.
(A curious footnote: The period illustrations reproduced on Phoenix Press's cover (shown below) are interesting but have litte to do with the subject of the book. They portray scenes from the later "Rye House Plot", which differs from the Popish Plot in two hardly trivial respects: First, it was a real conspiracy. Second, the conspirators consisted largely of Protestants who had believed and even sponsored Titus Oates.)