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.
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’. This was a plot ‘uncovered’ by Oates after he managed to infiltrate Jesuits based in London. The plan was to kill the king, Charles II, and replace him with his Catholic brother James. Then thousands of Protestants would be killed in a blood bath.
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 gave, under oath, an account of what he had found out from the Jesuits. This account was made to a magistrate called Sir Edmund Geoffrey. He was found murdered in London a while after Oates had given his statement. This only served to heighten tension as many blamed the Catholics for taking their revenge out on a man who was only doing his job.
In September, 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.
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.
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.