Hoax: The Papist Conspiracy That Never Was – Old Fake News
Conspiracy theories have been a feature of our times for centuries. The CIA was behind the assassination of President John F Kennedy. The Bush administration played a role in the September 11 attacks. The Covid-19 pandemic was orchestrated by the American “deep state”. They come over and over again, unsubstantiated, weird and never completely extinguished.
by Victor Stater Hoax: The Popish Plot That Never Was tells the story of what he calls “one of the most absurd – and consequential – conspiracy theories of all time”. Between 1678 and 1681, England experienced an epidemic of mass hysteria with few parallels in its history before or since. It was born out of fear, stoked by ambitious politicians, pamphleteers and peddlers of fantastic lies, that a vast and terrifying plot existed to kill King Charles II and return Protestant England to Roman Catholicism.
What followed were unfair trials and horrific executions of dozens of innocent lay people and Catholic priests. Parliamentary opponents of Charles lobbied for “exclusion”, an attempt to ensure the monarchy remained Protestant by excluding James, Duke of York, the King’s Catholic brother, from succession. The exclusion failed and James became king in 1685 – only to be deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, which set England on the path to the limited monarchy and parliamentary sovereignty we know today .
For such a central episode in seventeenth-century English history, it is surprising that Stater’s book is the first comprehensive treatment of the subject since John Kenyon’s. The papist plot (1972) – although John Gibney covered his Irish dimensions in Ireland and the Popish Plot (2008). Stater, a historian at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, pays a generous tribute to Kenyon’s masterpiece, which is rightly still in print.
His book largely shares Kenyon’s interpretation, but it’s a fascinating and entertaining study in its own right – painstakingly researched, full of colorful sketches of the main characters, brilliant at recreating the feverish atmosphere of the time, and wise in its assessment. long-term consequences for English politics.
Why did people believe in the conspiracy? For some, where there was smoke, there had to be fire. James, who stood to inherit the throne because the king had no legitimate children, was not the only Catholic at court. Others included Catherine of Braganza, Queen of Charles, and Thomas Clifford, a senior government minister. Charles himself was to embrace Catholicism on his deathbed.
Moreover, suspicions grew in the 1670s that Charles planned to rule without a parliament and with a standing army assembled by the Earl of Danby, his chief minister. Critics viewed Charles’ foreign policy as too favorable to Louis XIV of France, the most powerful Catholic monarch in Europe. The government only lightly enforced the anti-Catholicism laws in place since the reign of Elizabeth I.
Then Titus Oates, a fraudster and failed Anglican vicar, gained access to the nation’s ruling circles and spun his story on a Catholic conspiracy. Charles, he claimed, was to be shot with silver bullets, or stabbed with specially made daggers, or poisoned by Sir George Wakeman, the Queen’s physician. Either way, a Catholic uprising would follow in England, Scotland and Ireland.
This farrago of absurdities became dangerous when Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a magistrate to whom Oates also told his story, was found dead in a ditch in Primrose Hill outside London. Poems and pamphlets appeared demanding revenge on Catholics. But was Godfrey really assassinated? Stater says it’s impossible to know at this historic distance, but he leans towards the idea that it could be a suicide.
Soon another liar supported Oates’ story – William Bedloe, “a Bristol-born forger, crook, petty thief and prison bird”, writes Stater. His testimony was important because under the English Treason Act of 1351 two witnesses were required to convict a person in court of treason.
Stater blames the hysteria on Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, who may never have believed in the conspiracy but exploited it to advance his career and pursue disqualification. By contrast, Charles – often seen as a fickle and indolent king – handled the crisis with intelligence. He offered concessions to his anti-Catholic opponents, but at crucial moments he prorogued or dissolved parliament, so the steamhead behind Exclusion eventually died out.
Did anything good come out of the papist plot? Yes, said Stater. Unlike at the beginning of the century, there was no civil war. The broadsides, ballads, pamphlets, poems, satires and books that poured in during the controversy “helped move English political conflict from the battlefield, as in the 1640s, to the book stalls”. The emergence of the Whig and Tory parties – exclusionist and royalist – “made it possible to negotiate political disagreements without resorting to violence”.
This legacy remains with us today. But anyone hoping to put an end to conspiracy theories will surely be disappointed.
Prank: The Popish Conspiracy That Never Was by Victor Stater Yale University Press £20/$35, 336 pages
Tony Barber is the FT’s European Commentary Editor
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