VIII. THE “POPISH PLOT”

An almost lucid interval followed. Having received an additional 500,000 crowns from Louis, Charles prorogued his troublesome Parliament and returned to his mistresses. But politics continued. Shaftesbury and other opposition leaders established (1675) the Green Ribbon Club, and from that center the Country Party issued its propaganda to defend Parliament and Protestantism against a King plotting with Catholic France and an heir apparent wedded to a Catholic wife. By 1680 these men of the Country Party had come to be called Whigs, and the defenders of the royal power were labeled Tories.* Shaftesbury seemed to Charles “the weakest and wickedest of men,” 141 and Burnet rated his “learning superficial, . . . his vanity ridiculous, . . . his reasoning loose”; 142 but John Locke, who lived with Shaftesbury for fifteen years, thought him a brave defender of civil, religious, and philosophical liberty. Burnet called him a deist; and we might suspect as much from Shaftesbury’s remark that “wise men are of but one religion.” When a lady asked which one that was, he answered, “Wise men never tell.” 143

The religious tension fell slightly in 1677, when William of Orange married Protestant Mary, eldest daughter of the Duke of York; if James continued to have no male issue, Mary would be next to him in line for the throne, and England would be joined in marriage with the Protestant Dutch. But on August 28, 1678, Titus Oates came before the King, and announced that he had discovered a “Popish plot”: the Pope, the King of France, the Archbishop of Armagh, and the Jesuits of England, Ireland, and Spain were planning to kill Charles, enthrone his brother, and impose Catholicism in England by the sword; three thousand cutthroats were to massacre the leading Protestants of London, and London itself, the citadel of English Protestantism, was to be burned to the ground.

Oates, then twenty-nine, was the son of an Anabaptist preacher. He had become an Anglican clergyman, but had been expelled from his benefice for disorderly conduct. 144 He had accepted, or pretended, conversion to Catholicism, and had studied in Jesuit colleges at Valladolid and St.-Omer, from which last he had been expelled; 145 meanwhile, he now claimed, he had learned the secret plans of the Jesuits for the conquest of England. He professed to have been present on April 24, 1678, at a Jesuit conference in London, which had discussed means of killing the King. He named five Catholic peers as in the plot: Arundell, Powis, Petre, Stafford, and Bellasis. When Oates added that Bellasis was to be commander in chief of the papist army, Charles laughed, for Bellasis was bedridden with gout; the King concluded that Oates had fabricated the story in hopes of reward, and dismissed him.

The Privy Council thought it safer to assume some truth in the charges. It summoned Oates to appear before it on September 28. Fearing that he would be imprisoned, Oates went before Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a justice of the peace, and left with him a sworn deposition detailing the plot. The Council, impressed by his testimony, ordered the arrest of several papists implicated by him. One of these was Edward Coleman, who had been for some years (till dismissed at the King’s bidding) secretary to the Duchess of York. Before the arrest, Coleman burned some of his papers, but those that he had no time to burn showed that he had carried on with Père La Chaise, the Jesuit confessor of Louis XIV, correspondence expressing on both sides the hope that England would soon be made Catholic. In these letters Coleman suggested that Louis XIV should send him money to influence members of Parliament in the Catholic interest, and added: “Success will give the greatest blow to the Protestant religion that it has received since its birth, . . . the conversion of three kingdoms, and by that, perhaps, the utter subduing of a pestilent heresy.” 146 The fact that Coleman had destroyed most of his correspondence led the Council to believe that he had known of, perhaps had been an agent in, the plot described by Oates. Charles himself concluded from these letters that some real plot existed.

On October 12 Justice Godfrey disappeared. Five days later his corpse was found in a suburban field. He had evidently been murdered—by agents, and for reasons, still unknown, but the Protestants ascribed the assassination to Catholics who hoped to prevent the publication of Oates’s deposition. This event seemed to confirm the charges; and in the atmosphere of distrust left by the secret Treaty of Dover, and the fear of James’s accession, it was natural that most of Protestant England should now credit all the accusations made by Oates, and should fall into a frenzy in which the protection of Protestantism seemed to require the arrest, if not the execution, of any Catholic named in the conspiracy.

A reign of terror began which continued for almost four years. James fled to the Netherlands. The citizens of London armed themselves to resist an expected invasion; cannon were planted in Whitehall; guards were placed in the vaults beneath the Houses of Parliament to circumvent a second Gunpowder Plot. Parliament passed a bill excluding Catholics from the House of Lords. It hailed Oates as the savior of the nation, awarded him a life pension of twelve hundred pounds a year, and gave him an apartment in Whitehall Palace. Soon the prisons were filled with Jesuits, secular priests, and Catholic laymen implicated by Oates or by William Bedloe, who came forward claiming knowledge that would substantiate Oates’s charges.

On November 24 Oates laid before the Council a new and startling accusation—that he had heard the Queen consent to the poisoning of her husband by her physician. Charles caught Oates in a demonstrable lie, lost faith in his stories, and had him arrested. The Commons ordered him freed, arrested three servants of the Queen, and voted an address demanding the Queen’s removal. Charles came to the upper house, defended his wife’s loyalty, and persuaded the Lords to refuse concurrence in the Commons’ address. On November 27 Coleman and another Catholic layman were tried, were found guilty of treason, and were executed. On December 17 six Jesuits and three secular priests were put to death, and on February 5, 1679, three men were hanged for the murder of Godfrey. These twelve were later proved innocent.

The attack pressed closer to the King. On December 19, 1678, Parliament received from Paris communications showing that Danby had accepted large sums of money from Louis XIV. The minister refused to explain that these sums were French subsidies to the King. The Commons impeached him, and Charles, fearing that his loyal councilor would be condemned to death, dissolved the “Cavalier Parliament” (January 24, 1679), which had sat, discontinuously, for almost eighteen years—longer than the Long Parliament.

But the first “Whig” Parliament, which met on March 6, was more passionately anti-Catholic and anti-King than its predecessor. The Commons charged Danby with treason; the Lords saved him by committing him to the Tower, where he remained in comfort and anxiety during the five following turbulent years. On the advice of Sir William Temple Charles named a new Council of thirty members; to appease the opposition he included in it the two leaders of the Whig Party, Shaftesbury and George Savile, Marquis of Halifax; and on the King’s recommendation Shaftesbury was chosen lord president of the Council. To further calm the storm, Charles offered to Parliament a compromise substitute for the exclusion of his brother from the throne: no Catholic should be admitted to Parliament or hold any place of trust; the king should lose the power to make ecclesiastical appointments; his nomination of judges should be subject to Parliamentary approval; and Parliament should control the army and navy. 147 But Parliament felt no confidence that James would honor such an agreement. On May 11 Shaftesbury himself introduced the first exclusion bill in unmistakable terms: “to disable the Duke of York to inherit the imperial crown of this realm.” On May 26 the Parliament honored itself by extending the right of habeas corpus: the right to release on bail was assured to every arrested person except those charged with treason or felony; and in these cases the prisoner was to be tried at the next session of the court, or be discharged. France was to wait no years before enjoying similar safeguards against arbitrary arrests. On May 27 the King, fearing that the Exclusion Bill would be passed, prorogued the Parliament.

The right of habeas corpus did not help the papists accused by Oates, for they were tried with little delay, and, if found guilty of treason, were executed with angry haste. All through 1679 they went to the scaffold or the block. Trials were expeditious because the judges, frightened by the cries of the bloodthirsty crowds outside the court, condemned many of the defendants without dissecting the evidence or allowing cross-examination of witnesses. False witnesses, noting the rewards enjoyed by Oates, arose as if by incantation, and swore to the wildest tales: one, that an army of thirty thousand men was coming from Spain; another, that he had been promised five hundred pounds and canonization if he would kill the King; another, that he had heard a rich Catholic banker vow to do the same. 148 No counsel was allowed to the accused; he was not told till the day of trial what the accusation would be; and he was assumed to be guilty unless he could prove his innocence. 149 To make conviction easier, an old Elizabethan law was revived that made it a capital crime for a priest to be in England. The surrounding crowds hooted and pelted witnesses for the defense, and shouted with joy when verdicts of guilty were announced. 150

All this was a heartbreaking experience for the once Merrie Monarch, who saw all his hopes shattered, his powers reduced, his wife humiliated, his brother scorned and set aside. At the height of the storm he fell so seriously ill that his death was expected at any hour. Halifax summoned James from Brussels. The Whig leaders ordered the army to prevent his return; and Shaftesbury, Monmouth, Lord Russell, and Lord Grey agreed that in case Charles should die they would lead an insurrection to prevent the accession of his brother. 151 James found entry in disguise, and made his way to the bedside of the King. Charles apparently recovered, and smiled at the fears with which even his enemies had contemplated his death. He never really recovered.

The anti-Catholic fury continued till Oates blundered in the trial of Sir George Wakeman, the Queen’s physician. In testimony before the Council he had exonerated the doctor; in the trial he accused him of planning to poison the King. Chief Justice Scroggs, who had prosecuted the Catholics with vigor, pointed out the contradiction. Wakeman was acquitted, and thereafter Oates’s testimony was more critically heard. The false witnesses who had corroborated him fell away from his support. The execution of Oliver Plunket, the Catholic Archbishop of Armagh, was the last act of the anti-Catholic terror (July 1, 1681).

When the fear and passion had subsided, sane men realized that Oates, partly by unsupported suspicions, partly by lies, had sent many innocent men to a premature death. They concluded that there had been no plan to kill the King, or to massacre Protestants, or to burn London. But they felt, too, that a Catholic, though not a “popish,” plot had been real: that leading members of the government had planned or hoped, with the help of funds (and, if necessary, of soldiers) from France, to remove the disabilities of English Catholics, to convert the King, to enthrone his converted brother, and to use every means to re-establish Catholicism as the religion of the state, and ultimately of the people. Practically all this had been contained in the secret Treaty of Dover that had been signed in 1670. Charles had retreated from that agreement, but his desires had not changed, and he was still resolved that his Catholic brother should be king.

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