Thursday, November 10, 2005

The 'Popish Plot'

The posts on the plot are indebted to J. P. Kenyon, The Popish Plot (Penguin, 1972).

The ‘plot’ was the brain child of Titus Oates (1649-1705), a delusional paranoiac, one of the most spectacular liars in history. He was the son of a Baptist turned Anglican parson, expelled from two Cambridge colleges and went down without taking a degree, but who nevertheless took holy orders. He was ejected from the living of Bobbing in Kent for drunkenness. He then had a spell as a chaplain at Tangier which ended when he was accused of sodomy. In 1676 he fell in with Israel Tonge, a ‘crazy clergyman’ with a settled persecution complex focused on the Jesuits. In March 1677 Oates was received into the Roman Catholic Church. After this, at the instigation of the provincial of the English Jesuits he served briefly as a novice at Valladolid, an experience which enabled him to claim that he was a doctor of the University of Salamanca.

On 13 August 1678 Charles was introduced to Israel Tonge, who presented him with a document which made known details of a ‘conspiracy’ masterminded by the Jesuits to assassinate the king. The allegations were passed on to Danby for further investigation; even if Charles did not believe in the plot, he could hardly ignore the allegation – neither could Danby. In the following days they added more details and on 6 September Oates swore a deposition 43 articles long before a justice of the peace, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey.

On 28 September the matter was brought before the privy council when Tonge produced a new version of their allegations, now 81 articles long. They claimed that the intention was to shoot the king, but that if that failed, the queen’s physician, George Wakeman, was to poison him. He also produced five incriminating letters written by Jesuits and received by Thomas Bedingfield, James’s confessor. On the following day, Tongue produced Oates as his informant. During the privy council’s investigations, Charles was able to expose Oates as a liar on points of detail. But though the king was unconvinced the privy council were impressed.

To those who believed Oates his story was convincing because it confirmed what they already believed about Catholics. The evidence seemed overwhelming: the incriminating letters; Oates’s exact memory of names and dates.