Thursday 14 May 2009

The Popish Plot-an English Political Witch-Hunt

The Popish Plot was a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria that overtook England from 1678 onwards, but the political roots of the crisis go back several years, and has to be viewed against a background of the growing distrust between Parliament and the Crown.

It is also important to understand that for English people of the day Catholicism was not simply a set of religious beliefs: it was, rather, an all-embracing ideology, with strong associations with Continental despotism, represented, above all, in the person of Louis XIV.

This would have had little bearing on England but for one thing: in the early 1670s James duke of York, the brother and heir of King Charles, who had no legitimate heirs, was known to have converted to Catholicism. The anxiety this caused led to an ever more vocal opposition to royal policy, from the alliance with the Catholic French against the Protestant Dutch, to Charles' attempts to introduce, by royal prerogative, a measure of toleration for Catholics and Protestant Dissenters.

It was a highly unstable political mixture that, by the late 1670s, simply needed one spark to cause a major explosion. This came in 1678 when one Titus Oates, in collaboration with a half-mad clergyman by the name of Israel Tonge, started to spread rumours that there was a plot by the Jesuits to kill the king. This story went through various metamorphoses; but in the final version the assassination was conceived as part of a grander strategy to replace Charles with the Catholic James. Nothing may have come of these stories but for the mysterious assassination of Edmund Berry Godfrey, a magistrate who had been appointed to look into the whole affair.

It was this murder that really sparked off all that was to follow. It gave substance to the stories of Oates and Tonge, made all the more credible when it was found that Edward Coleman, secretary of the duke of York, was in treasonable correspondence with the French. England was now gripped by collective hysteria. Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, chief among James' enemies, was soon demanding that the Catholic duke be exluded from the succession, thus beginning the Exclusion Crisis.

Shaftesbury and his allies, loosly known as the 'Country Party', to distinguish them from the supporters of Charles and James, known as the 'Court Party', formed the Green Ribbon Club, opposed to Catholicism, Absolutism and James in equal measure. Their enemies began to refer to them as Whigs, after a group of extreme Presbyterian rebels in Scotland. The Green Ribbons responded in kind, referring to their enemies in Parliament as Tories, after Irish Catholic bandits.

It was on this inauspicious basis that English party politics took shape, which was to be the chief legacy of the Popish Plot. In the end Charles managed to sidestep, though not resolve, the issues that had been raised by dissolving the Oxford Parliament in 1681, bringing the Exclusion Crisis to an end. James duly succeeded to the throne in 1685, held up by a wave of Tory reaction against the Whigs and the murderous excesses of the Popish Plot.

But fear of Catholic Absolutism did not go away; and in 1688 sections of the Whig and Tory parties united to remove James from the throne in the so-called Glorious Revolution. Soon after Parliament passed an act outlawing any future Catholic succession, and the Whigs and Tories became a permanent part of the English political landscape.

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