Hoax: The Popish Plot that Never Was
by Victor Stater
Yale, £20, 336 pages
Titus Oates was a flat-faced con man with no credit or standing in the world. By his late twenties he had been kicked out of school, university, the Church of England and – after his conversion to Catholicism in 1677 – the Jesuit colleges of Valladolid and St Omer. Drunkenness and homosexuality topped the charge sheet; the diarist John Evelyn thought him a “slight” person, whose testimony “should not be taken against the life of a dog”. Yet between 1678 and 1681, Oates’s words condemned at least 17 Catholics to the scaffold, and many others to prison.
Hoax is the story of “the Popish Plot that never was”. Victor Stater, a history professor at Louisiana State University, calls it “one of the most preposterous – and consequential – conspiracy theories of all time”. It was entirely fictitious, but grounded on a century of engrained anti-Catholic prejudice and a smattering of plots that had been real. Like the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, relentlessly invoked by Oates, the Popish Plot revolved around the assassination of the sitting monarch and the overthrow of Protestantism.
In a list of 43 points, which soon swelled to 81 and incriminated nearly 100 Catholics, Oates claimed that the French-backed Society of Jesus – having contrived the civil war, regicide and Great Fire of London – now intended to kill Charles II and restore papal sovereignty to England. According to Oates, three Jesuits were ready to shoot the king with pistols loaded with silver bullets. Should they fail, Queen Catherine’s personal physician would use poison.
Oates was bolstered by the unscrupulous Israel Tonge, who had lost his home in the Great Fire and spent his days trolling Jesuits in books that no one read. Tonge’s persistence ensured that Oates’s charges were put before the king, and although Charles didn’t take them seriously, he could not afford to look soft on “popery”; after all, it was a charge that had been levelled at his father before the civil war. Charles passed the matter to his Lord Treasurer, Thomas Osborne, who saw an opportunity to launch an enquiry and boost his anti-Catholic credentials before the next session of parliament. Charles’s Catholic brother and heir, James, Duke of York, then got wind of the plot and demanded a full and frank investigation to refute the whole affair.
Oates was superficially impressive with a booming voice “like a flawed organ pipe”, and a knowledge of precise details. The silver bullets, for example, were to be “champt” (slightly flattened) to ensure a fatal wound, but he over-reached himself when he described a short, fat, fair Spanish prince as dark, tall and lean. The discovery, during the search of a suspect, of a cache of letters written in 1675 to Louis XIV’s confessor lent some substance to Oates’s allegation of a powerful Catholic underground funded by the French.
This popish squib was passed from one party to another, hissing threateningly, but causing no great spectacle until, one rainy evening in October 1678, the body of a Middlesex magistrate was found face down in a ditch with a sword in its back. Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey had taken the first depositions and had been noticeably agitated before his death; Stater suspects a suicide covered up by Godfrey’s brothers (a suicide’s estate was forfeit to the Crown), but whatever the truth, “the barbarous and inhumane” murder was thenceforth baked into the plot.
The lead-up to Godfrey’s funeral was sensational. Charles acquiesced to parliament’s request to have a national fast day; Oates expressed fears of a new Gunpowder Plot, so parliament’s vaults were searched. London cutlers sold 3,000 “Godfrey daggers” in a single day, and the body lay in state with the sword in situ. The funeral sermon blamed the Jesuits for Godfrey’s death and thanked God for discovering the plot. Oates, now a divine instrument, could do no wrong and tell no lie.
The rest of the book tracks the investigations and trials of those accused of conspiring to commit murderous treason. They included five “popish lords” – the Earl of Powis, Viscount Stafford, Lords Petre, Belasyse and Arundell of Wardour – and Fr Thomas Whitbread, the Jesuit Provincial in London. The plot became something of a hydra, with fresh heads appearing and new tricksters emerging to claim their reward for testifying. No written evidence was ever provided to prove the existence of the plot; the jury was deprived of food and water until a verdict was reached and seldom took more than half an hour. In one case the jurors did not even leave their seats before delivering a guilty verdict.
The main presiding judge was Sir William Scroggs, the Lord Chief Justice; he was a determined anti-Catholic who told five priests on trial that they were incapable, because “Jesuitical”, of telling the truth. “If you have a religion that can give a dispensation for oaths, sacraments, protestations and falsehoods that are in the world,” he asked Whitbread, “how can you expect we should believe you?”
Stater tells this grim tale with a historian’s command of sources and a thriller writer’s control of narrative. He skilfully weaves the story of the plot into the fabric of England’s religious history, as well as its party-political future. His prose is crisp and his judgement sound. His real villain, beyond the pantomimic Oates and his perjuring cronies, is Anthony Ashley Cooper, the “little Earl” of Shaftesbury who drove the plot forwards, with no regard for human life, in order to crank up anti-Catholic hysteria, destroy his rivals and exclude the Duke of York from the succession.
To Charles’s credit, the exclusion of his brother was a red line; nor would he allow the Queen to be dragged into the plot. He did, however, assent to the 1678 Test Act, which deprived Catholic peers of their seats, and he did nothing to save the plot’s lowlier victims. The fates of the young silversmith Miles Prance, tortured to incriminate fellow Catholics, and the “popish midwife” Elizabeth Cellier, stoned in the pillory on three separate occasions, are especially harrowing.
The last victim of the plot was Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh, who was accused of fomenting a rebellion in Ireland. It was “all plain romance”, he protested. He was hanged, drawn and quartered on 1 July 1681; he was canonised in 1975 and his severed head now rests in a reliquary in Drogheda.
One interesting sidelight in this book is the running commentary provided by the future James II to his Dutch nephew and son-in-law, William of Orange. “In my mind all things tend to a republic,” he had confided in 1679. When William eventually seized the crown from his uncle in 1688, he was well briefed.
Many readers will know the story of the Popish Plot from John Kenyon’s eponymous book; Stater writes disarmingly that it made him want to be a Restoration historian. Fifty years on, this is a timely retelling. “People can believe preposterous things,” writes Stater. “It has always been so… and believers are not necessarily stupid.” Hoax is deeply rooted in the politics and prejudices of the 17th century, but it fires a warning shot across the bow of our own time.
Jessie Childs is the author of The Siege of Loyalty House (Bodley Head, 2022).
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