Prior to the age of Enlightenment in the mid-18th century, societies throughout the world still centered on religious value systems. Religious strife continued, unabated, interfering in both politics and everyday life. In England, the Popish Plot saw the deaths of dozens of innocent Catholic men all because of the ongoing struggle between Lutherans and Catholics in a country fighting to figure out its religious identity.
Titus Oates was a renegade who had joined the Church after Cambridge University but was dismissed from his post for drunken blasphemy. He became the chaplain for a Royal Naval ship, the 'Adventurer', but he was dismissed from this as well for sodomy. To get some elevation in society after his fall from grace, it seems that Oates discovered a plot to kill the king -€" what became known as the 'Popish Plot'.
It was all nonsense -€" the invention of a fertile if warped mind - but events at the time conspired to assist Oates. In 1666 many Londoners had blamed the Catholics for the Great Fire -€" so blaming the Catholics was not new. London was also in the grip of an economic depression and many were unemployed. Catholics became a convenient scapegoat who could be blamed for just about anything.
Oates named many Catholics as being part of the conspiracy. Charles II treated his claims with huge scepticism but Parliament latched on to them and argued that they should be investigated. Oates was given a state apartment in Whitehall and an annual allowance of -£1,200. He also gained much credibility when one of the first names he gave -€" Edward Coleman -€" was found to be in treasonable communication with the French. This played into the hands of Oates and 'proved' that his claims were true. Coleman had been a secretary to the Catholic Duke of York. To many in London, Oates' story seemed to make perfect sense. Known Catholics were ordered to leave London and many Protestants in the city openly carried weapons to defend themselves against the impending Catholic 'onslaught'. This hysteria played into the hands of Oates and only served to elevate his status in London.
Titus Oates is known to history as one of the most prolific charlatans of the 17th century. Born in 1649 in Rutland, England, Oates is viewed as one of the nation's most reviled villains. Somewhat of a reckless, wandering spirit, Dates' intellect was questioned, and "his tongue was stammering, his language that of the streets, his voice harsh and canting, as though he rather wailed than spoke." Oates was described as such by Judge Jeffreys, the man who would eventually preside over his trial.
So, how exactly did this awkward, anti-social figure almost get away with one of the most elaborate anti-Catholic plots in England's history? Oates' colleague, Dr. Israel Tonge spent his days trying to bring about the complete downfall of Catholicism. He persuaded Oates to infiltrate the "other side" in order to provide fodder for yet another scheme. So it was in August 1676, that a 27-year-old Oates met a handful of Catholics at the Pheasant Inn, one of his regular haunts. England in the 1670s identified as Lutheran and the majority of the population feared the increasing Catholic influence of the brother of King Charles II. Under this cloud of apprehen-sion, the Lutheran population worried that an alliance may be sought with Catholic France. On that evening in 1676, Oates was welcomed into the Catholic fold.
By 1678, the plot was well underway. Tonge and Oates created a large manuscript that essentially accused the Roman Catholic Church of approving the assassination of Charles II. They pointed their fingers squarely at the Jesuits and listed more than 100 "conspirators." Oates forged letters and military preparations that were allegedly under the "control" of the Catholics. These treasonous manuscripts and letters were "discovered" by Tonge and turned over to Christopher Kirkby, a confidante of the king. There were so many glaring discrepancies that Charles II chose not to act on the information, even after he had Kirkby question Tonge and Oates.
Refusing to go down quietly, Oates demanded that Justice Edmund Berry Godfrey look into his statement about having wit-nessed a Jesuit meeting to plot the king's death at the White Horse Tavern in April of that year. On 28 September 1678, Oates made a total of 43 allegations against Jesuits and their Catholic supporters. On 12 October, Justice Godfrey disappeared. His corpse was found five days later - he'd been strangled and run through with his ou~n sword. The case was never solved: was it all a part of Oates and Tonge's plan or a coincidence? Either way, Oates was viewed as a hero by the public who took the murder of the Protestant Godfrey as a sign that there was a Catholic plot against the king and Protestant England.
King Charles II, however, was not so easily persuaded and still refused to believe there was a plot against him. Anti-Catholic hysteria increased steadily. By the end of 1678, the Exclusion Bill was passed by parliament, effectively preventing Charles' Catholic brother, the Duke of York, from becoming his successor. Catholics were driven from England by riots in the streets. The Trial of the Five Catholic Lords saw two of the five die before 1680. The other three had their charges annulled when suspicion turned to Oates.
Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, younger son of Thomas Godfrey (1586-1664), a member of an old Kentish family, was born on the 23rd of December 1621. He was educated at Westminster school and at Christ Church, Oxford, and after entering Gray's Inn became a dealer in wood. His business prospered. He was made a justice of the peace for the city of Westminster, and in September 1666 was knighted as a reward for his services as magistrate and citizen during the great plague in London; but in 1669 he was imprisoned for a few days for instituting the arrest of the king's physician, Sir Alexander Fraizer, who owed him money.
The tragic events in Godfrey's life began in September 1678 when Titus Oates and two other men appeared before him with written information about the Popish Plot, and swore to the truth of their statements. During the intense excitement which followed the magistrate expressed a fear that his life was in danger, but took no extra precautions for safety. On the 12th of October he did not return home as usual, and on the 17th his body was found on Primrose Hill, Hampstead. Medical and other evidence made it certain that he had been murdered, and the excited populace regarded the deed as the work of the Roman Catholics.
Two committees investigated the occurrence without definite result, but in December 1678 a certain Miles Prance, who had been arrested for conspiracy, confessed that he had shared in the murder. According to Prance the deed was instigated by some Roman Catholic priests, three of whom witnessed the murder, and was committed in the courtyard of Somerset House, where Godfrey was strangled by Robert Green, Lawrence Hill and Henry Berry, the body being afterwards taken to Hampstead. The three men were promptly arrested; the evidence of the informer William Bedloe, although contradictory, was similar on a few points to that of Prance, and in February 1679 they were hanged.
Soon afterwards, however, some doubt was cast upon this story; a war of words ensued between Prance and others, and it was freely asserted that Godfrey had committed suicide. Later the falsehood of Prance's confession was proved and Prance pleaded guilty to perjury; but the fact remains that Godfrey was murdered. Godfrey was an excellent magistrate, and was very charitable both in public and in private life.
Godfrey was feared by the Jesuits because he knew, through Oates, that on the 24th of April 1678 a Jesuit congregation had met at the residence of the duke of York to concert plans for the king's murder. The Popish Plot of 1678 was the result of the fertile mind of Titus Oates. In fact, no Popish Plot existed but the circumstances within the country at the time resulted in many listening to what Oates had to say.
Oates continued with his campaign. He accused five leading Catholic lords of treason. This was greeted with laughter by Charles II. The king personally questioned Oates and found many large discrepancies in his story. Oates upped his story by accusing the queen and the royal doctor of plotting to poison Charles. The king was not willing to accept such nonsense and ordered the arrest of Oates. However, he was saved by Parliament such was the paranoia he had created. Unwilling to take on Parliament, Charles agreed not to proceed with the arrest.
By the end of 1678, Parliament had passed two acts that forbade Catholics from being members of both the Commons and the Lords. Oates constantly made outrageous claims that were believed. One was that the king would be shot by silver bullets so that the wound could not be treated. Some even believed that the French had invaded the Isle of Purbeck. It was only in 1681, that senior legal figures started to question what had gone on. Judge Scroggs declared innocent men accused of treason by Oates. In previous years, Catholics had been executed near enough on the say so of Oates and the 'evidence' he presented. Scroggs even declared some of the executed posthumously innocent.
On 31 August 1681, Oates was arrested for sedition and sentenced to pay the fine of 100,000 pounds. When James II, the Catholic brother of Charles II, succeeded to the throne in 1685, he had Oates retried for perjury and he was sentenced to annual pillory and imprisonment for life. When William of Orange succeeded James II only three years later in 1688, he had Oates pardoned and released.
The fall from grace for Oates was swift. The Popish Plot showed just how easy it was to create an enemy that did not exist. Such was the fragility of society that even someone like Oates with his background, could be believed. The Popish Plot ended as quickly as it had begun, though one of the lasting legacies was that Catholics were forbidden to stand as MP's or in the Lords for many more years. However, a number of Catholics had been executed as a result of the hysteria created.
Oates was sent to prison for perjury but was released in 1688 by William III with a weekly income of -£10. For the short-term chaos he had created, it was probably not a deserved outcome. Oates died on 12 July 1705, isolated from the world - destined to remain unpopular, even after all these years, for his role in the deaths of dozens of innocent Catholic men.
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