Thursday, November 10, 2005

The panic

The country was now gripped by anti-Catholic hysteria. It now hardly mattered whether or not Oates was a liar - the Coleman correspondence and the Godfrey murder seemed confirmation of a plot. In London the authorities called out the militia and searched the houses of magistrates. Chains were put across the major streets and the trained bands were kept on the alert. When Parliament met for its 18th session in October, much of the initiative lay with the ‘patriotic’ opposition, the ‘country’ party led by Shaftesbury in the Lords and his client, William Russell in the Commons. The main political result was a new Test Act excluding Catholics from Parliament, though by a small majority (158-156) James was excluded from the Act and he continued to sit in the Lords for the rest of the parliamentary session.

Meanwhile parliamentary committees took more ‘evidence’ and compiled the names of more conspirators supplied by Oates’s fertile brain. A manufacturer sold 3,000 daggers bearing the legend ‘Remember Justice Godfrey’; ladies carried them for protection against popish assassins. A weak and discredited government was in no state to dissolve parliament or to quell the hysteria.

The impeccably Anglican Danby became the scapegoat for the Popish Plot. By the autumn of 1678 his attempts to manipulate Parliament, his hostility to religious toleration, and his refusal to disband a standing army of 20,000 all smacked of arbitrary government. The final cause of his fall was the revelation of his secret correspondence containing details of subsidy negotiations with Louis XIV. The author of the revelations was none other than Louis himself, determined to punish Danby for the Dutch marriage. On 11 December 1678, the relevant letters were read to the Commons by Ralph Montagu, former ambassador in Paris, lover of Anne Fitzroy, countess of Sussex, Charles’s daughter by Lady Castlemaine, now MP for Northampton. The letters were from Charles to Louis and they were signed by both the king and Danby, destroying Danby's political credit at a stroke: the self-styled enemy of France was revealed pleading for French subsidies. The Commons drew up articles of impeachment against him. On 30 December Charles prorogued the session in something like panic’. On 24 January 1679 he declared the Cavalier Parliament dissolved. It had sat for 18 years.

Before the new parliament met, he had ‘persuaded’ the duke of York to leave the country. James went to Brussels leaving Danby to face the wrath of the new parliament. Charles was now to face the greatest crisis of his reign.

In November and December 1678 Coleman and three priests were tried and executed and articles of impeachment were prepared against five Catholic peers. Lord Stafford, the Catholic peer was attainted, and executed in December 1680. Nine Jesuits were executed, twelve more died in prison. The last of these, Oliver Plunkett, was executed in June, 1681. From the end of 1678 to the beginning of 1681 about 35 people were tried and executed for their alleged part in the plot. Charles allowed the executions to go ahead because, as he saw it, he had no option but to swim with the tide.

See here for a list of the victims of the 'Plot'.