The Popish Plot

Titus Oates fabricated tales of a plot to overthrow the Protestant government of England and restore Catholicism as the state religion. Although fictional, rumors of the plot fueled preexisting anti-Catholic hysteria and resulted in violent purges and the passage of anti-Catholic legislation.

Summary of Event

On August 13, 1678, Christopher Kirkby, Kirkby, Christopher an amateur chemist, who, from time to time, helped Charles II Charles II (king of England);Catholicism and in the royal laboratory, informed the king that his life was in danger from a Roman Catholic plot. Genuine and bogus assassination conspiracies attributed to Catholics Catholicism;England had been a part of the fabric of English life since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. At first, King Charles was inclined to dismiss Kirkby’s fears, but he finally agreed to grant him and his informant a private audience that very evening. When he heard the evidence—forty-three articles detailing the plot—presented by Israel Tonge, Tonge, Israel Charles II was convinced that the supposed plot was a total fabrication. Tonge was obviously paranoid about Roman Catholics, and the king of England did not have the time or the inclination to listen to any more of his accusations. He left for Windsor the following day, but while he was absent, the details of the supposed plot became public. [kw]Popish Plot, The (Aug. 13, 1678-July 1, 1681)
[kw]Plot, The Popish (Aug. 13, 1678-July 1, 1681)
Government and politics;Aug. 13, 1678-July 1, 1681: The Popish Plot[2660]
Religion and theology;Aug. 13, 1678-July 1, 1681: The Popish Plot[2660]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 13, 1678-July 1, 1681: The Popish Plot[2660]
England;Aug. 13, 1678-July 1, 1681: The Popish Plot[2660]
Popish Plot (1678-1681)

The primary author of the Popish Plot was not Israel Tonge but Titus Oates Oates, Titus . A liar and a cheat, accused of being a pedophile, Oates also had been expelled from a Jesuit seminary for his aggressive sexual behavior. Whether he sought revenge or merely notoriety, Oates ignored the royal dismissal of his invention and sought a more gullible ear into which he might pour his lies. Thomas Osborne, Leeds, first duke of earl of Danby and later first duke of Leeds, the king’s chief minister, not only listened, he believed. When Charles II returned to London, he was forced to permit Oates and Tonge to present their evidence before the Privy Council. This time, the two prevaricators named specific individuals involved in the plot and described how the murder was to be accomplished. The king caught Oates in several falsehoods; he made the two appear foolish and unworthy of another hearing. The king then departed for the races at Newmarket. The whole matter might have ended there except for two unrelated events, which would lead to the judicial murder of a number of innocent individuals.

The correspondence of Edward Coleman Coleman, Edward was seized. He had been secretary to the duke of York and was currently serving in that capacity to the duchess of York. Over the years, Coleman had written a number of letters to persons of importance in France expressing his hope that England might be led back to the Roman Catholic faith. These sentiments would lead to his conviction on a charge of treason and give credence to Oates and his story. On October 17, moreover, the body of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, Godfrey, Sir Edmund Berry a Westminster justice of the peace, was found in a ditch far from the place where he had last been seen five days earlier. It was Godfrey who had taken depositions from Oates and Tonge in late September. While scholars believe that Godfrey committed suicide, Oates immediately declared that the hapless justice was a victim of assassins. His funeral was turned into an anti-Catholic demonstration, and an innocent Catholic, Miles Prance, Prance, Miles was convicted and executed for the supposed murder. He was sent to his death on the testimony of William Bedloe, Bedloe, William a crony of Titus Oates. London now became an armed camp, as its citizens feared the worst.

At this point, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first earl of Shaftesbury, Shaftesbury, first earl of the leader of the faction in Parliament that would come to be known as the Whigs Whigs and the moving force behind the radical Green Ribbon Club Green Ribbon Club , decided to use the public hysteria to advance the cause of excluding the Roman Catholic duke of York from the royal succession. The choice of the Whigs as a successor was James Scott, first duke of Monmouth, Monmouth, first duke of the eldest of Charles II’s illegitimate sons. The Whigs forged documents indicating that Charles had married Monmouth’s mother and convinced the young duke they were genuine. He became determined to reach the throne. The king was equally determined that Exclusion would be defeated.

Before the crisis ended, a number of innocent men would be executed for treason; the last victim died on July 1, 1681. The king could not save the lives of the condemned without abrogating the laws of England and interfering with due process, and this he would not do lest he be accused of seeking to establish absolute monarchy in England. Neither could he prevent the imprisonment of the hapless Danby, who had been entrapped by the Whigs, nor could he refuse to accept his political enemies into his council. However, he could bide his time, and that he did.

The crisis over Exclusion ended in March, 1681, when Charles II dismissed the Parliament that he had summoned to meet in Oxford. The Whigs had assembled to celebrate their triumph over the royal will as well as the replacement of James, duke of York James II (king of England) , by James, duke of Monmouth, as the heir presumptive. Instead, they found that a monarch who had been willing to wait for the perfect moment to make his move had confounded them. The legitimate succession was safe for the moment. Shaftesbury and his confederates were dismissed from the royal service, and Danby would be released from prison in 1684. Israel Tonge had died in 1680 still believing that he had saved England from a Catholic invasion. Titus Oates made his fatal mistake by accusing Queen Catherine of being directly involved in the plot to kill her husband. Charles II acted quickly, and Oates was sent to the Tower where he remained until William III William III (king of England);Oates and ordered him released in December, 1688.


Before it ran its course, the Popish Plot was the direct cause of the imprisonment and execution of a number of innocent Roman Catholics. This bogus plot was responsible for the passage of the Papists’ Disabling Act in 1678 Papists’ Disabling Act (1678) , a law that excluded Roman Catholics from sitting in Parliament until 1829, when it was finally repealed. The failure of the Whig faction to exclude James, duke of York, from the succession after the Popish Plot led them to attempt the assassination of both Charles II and his brother in 1683. The discovery of this actual Rye House Plot Rye House Plot (1682-1683) resulted in the trial and execution of a number of prominent Whigs, the same men who had endorsed the judicial murder of the innocent victims of the Popish Plot. Perhaps the only positive result of the Popish Plot was the passage of the Habeas Corpus Act, one of the pillars of modern liberty.

Further Reading

  • Coote, Stephen. Royal Survivor: The Life of Charles II. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. A study of the political sagacity of Charles II, and how he faced and survived each successive crisis of his reign.
  • Fraser, Antonia. King Charles II. Reprint. London: Phoenix Press, 2002. The most balanced biography of the king, it places the events of the Popish Plot in their proper context.
  • Greaves, Richard L. Secrets of the Kingdom: British Radicals from the Popish Plot to the Revolution of 1688-1689. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. Links the Popish Plot to the successive attempts to alter the nature of the English government, which finally ended with the Glorious Revolution.
  • Harris, Tim. London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II: Propaganda and Politics from the Restoration Until the Exclusion Crisis. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. An in-depth study of the component that made the mass hysteria during the Popish Plot so effective and dangerous.
  • Jones, J. R. The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis, 1678-1683. London: Oxford University Press, 1961. A thorough study of the men who used the Popish Plot to alter the legitimate succession.
  • Kenyon, John P. The Popish Plot. Reprint. London: Phoenix Press, 2000. The standard work on the subject with an excellent bibliography and notes.
  • Marshall, Alan. The Strange Death of Edmund Godfrey: Plots and Politics in Restoration London. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1999. The most scholarly and complete study of one of pivotal events in the Popish Plot.
  • Miller, John. Popery and Politics in England, 1660-1688. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Deals with the role of Roman Catholicism in the development of political parties in England during the Restoration.
  • Tomalin, Claire. Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Examines the career of the most famous Restoration civil servant and his involvement in the madness of the Popish Plot.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i><br />

Charles II (of England); James II; First Duke of Leeds; Mary II; Titus Oates; First Earl of Shaftesbury; William III. Popish Plot (1678-1681)