Maybe it is appropriate at this time of year that the English turn their minds to gunpowder, treason and plot. Most of us are familiar with the threat posed against King James I and his government by Catesby, Fawkes and their fellow conspirators on 5th November 1605. Perhaps fewer of us are aware of the threats, real or supposed, against James’ grandson, King Charles II.
In Worcester Cathedral Library we have a collection of thirty late 17th century pamphlets, bound together in a single volume under the innocuous title of Miscellaneous Tracts, which tell the graphic tale of the religious and political turmoil during the latter part of King Charles II’s reign. Though all relate in some way to treasonous acts, plots against the King, or abortive assassination attempts, the spirit of the whole volume can be captured in those few tracts that relate specifically to the alleged Popish Plot, prosecuted by the now infamous perjurer and less than respectable Anglican Vicar, Titus Oates.
The Popish Plot was a wholly spurious conspiracy, concocted by Oates between 1678 and 1681, which resulted in a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria across England and Scotland, frequently with violent and tragic conclusions.
The King was initially warned of a plot against his life by a clergyman Israel Tongue, and his chief informant Titus Oates. Oates offered a meticulously detailed account of a conspiracy, involving monks, friars, some members of the Catholic peerage, and a former secretary of King Charles’ brother, James. Charles initially doubted the veracity of Oates’ claims, but despite the King’s seeming indifference his Council sanctioned searches of catholic homes for arms. The allegations gained little credence until Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey was found dead, apparently murdered. He was the Justice of the Peace in front of whom Oates had sworn some of his “evidence”. There appears to have been some confusion and difference of opinion at the time regarding the circumstances of Godfrey’s death. Some alleged murder, whilst others regarded it as a poorly disguised suicide, perhaps occasioned by guilt at his complicity in the accusations and subsequent executions of a number of innocent men. The case has remained a mystery to this day, with numerous conflicting conclusions drawn, and the likelihood of a satisfactory resolution no closer.
Godfrey’s death, which rapidly became a cause célèbre, was conveniently attributed to the Catholic “plotters”. Parliament seized on this crucial “evidence”, and subsequently, with re-born vigour, tried and executed a number of innocent men. At least 22 were killed.
Following King Charles’ death, and the accession to the throne of his brother, James II, Oates was tried and found guilty of perjury. Whilst the death penalty was not available for perjury, nevertheless the presiding judge, Judge Jeffreys, took an exceedingly dim view, and passed a particularly severe sentence, presumably engineered to achieve the same outcome. Oates was stripped of clerical dress, sentenced to life imprisonment, and to be “whipped through the streets of London five days a year for the remainder of his life”. He spent the next three years in prison.
In 1689, following William and Mary’s accession to the throne, Oates was pardoned and awarded a small pension, but failed to regain his reputation. He died in 1705, by then a discredited and largely forgotten figure.
The Miscellaneous Tracts sit on the Cathedral Library’s shelves, an eloquent vilification of treasonous acts, and a lasting testament to Worcester’s proud royalist heritage.