Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Dreadful Distress of the Persecuted Papists

         The panic that followed the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey spread throughout London at an alarming rate. A rumour spread that a second Gunpowder Plot was underway, with both Houses of Parliament about to be blown up. The Duke of Monmouth lent soldiers to guard the cellars beneath both Houses, which were examined by Sir Jonas Moore and Sir Christopher Wren, sentinels patrolled the cellars during both day and night and adjoining houses and vaults were cleared. 

Parliament Cellars

The new prison at Clerkenwell was burned down, and the priests inside burned with it. Sir Ossory claimed to have found one hundred thousand incendiary bombs and hand grenades hidden in Somerset House. From Flanders came the rumour that if English Catholics were destroyed, the burghers of Bruges had a similar fate planned for English Protestants in their town. There were Spaniards in Wales, Frenchmen in Scotland and Ireland, there was a joint fleet in the Channel, waiting to invade, Tynemouth Castle had been blown up with gunpowder, at night armed bands of militia men were seen exercising – all rumours, all believed, deliberated over, attention given to, decisions made about. 

Execution of Jesuits

Of the thirty or so thousand Catholics in London, those that weren’t imprisoned fled elsewhere, many to the continent. Catholic businessmen were made bankrupt, Catholic workmen were driven from their livelihoods and into penury. Catholic houses across the country were repeatedly searched and ransacked; Catholic relics, books and vestments were publicly burned. Catholics were arrested, harassed and persecuted. Priests were hunted down and hid in priest-holes, chimneys and hollow walls as their pursuers tore houses down around them in their fervour to discover them. In the northern counties, things were especially harsh with the notoriously grim dungeons of York Castle (in an age of particularly grim dungeons) filled to capacity. 

Titus Oates before the Privy Council

Titus Oates was feted as the saviour of the nation and took to wearing episcopal garb, with a silk gown and cassock, a great hat with satin band and rose, and a long scarf. Now with a troop of soldiers under his orders, he set about arresting the suspected plotters he had named, including the so-called ‘Five Popish Lords’. Oates claimed that the Pope had commissioned these five Catholic nobles – Lord Arundel of Wardour was to become Lord Chancellor, Lord Powis would be Treasurer, Lord Belasis to be General of the Forces, Lord Petre to be Lieutenant General and Lord Stafford to be Paymaster General. On October 25th 1678, the five were arrested, sent to the Tower and impeached for treason. Their trials were delayed over a period of seven years, for a variety of legal and parliamentary reasons. 

Titus Oates

Emboldened by success Oates, with support from Bedloe, went so far to accuse the Queen of plotting, with help from her doctor, Sir George Wakeman, to poison the King. This was a step too far for Charles II, who refused “…to see an innocent woman abused,” and he ordered Oates arrested, his papers seized and his servants dismissed. The Queen was visibly apolitical and it seems that the reason for an attack on her was to force a Royal divorce, with Charles then remarrying a Protestant and, it was hoped, producing a Protestant heir (Catherine was unable to bear children, which resulted in James, Charles’s Catholic brother, being Heir Presumptive.) 

Catherine of Braganza

With the threat of a constitutional crisis looming, Parliament intervened, ordered Oates’s release and moves began, led mainly by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, to introduce an Exclusion Act through Parliament, which would prevent James, Duke of York, from succeeding to the throne after the death of his brother, Charles II, (in the end, the Bill failed to be passed by the Lords). In addition, Test Acts were passed, requiring Members of Parliament to make a declaration against transubstantiation, invocation of the saints and the sacrament of the Mass, thereby effectively excluding Catholics from both Houses. The King attempted to oppose many of the measures by dissolving Parliament on a number of occasions, but the problem refused to go away and there were even fears of a second civil war. 


On November 21st 1678, the Catholic William Stayley, a goldsmith’s son from Covent Garden, was tried for treason, on the grounds that he had been overheard in a tavern to call the King a rogue and a heretic, and said he would kill him with his own hand. He was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn on November 26th, but when his body was buried, three days later, over 300 Catholics attended, and masses were said. This infuriated Judge Scroggins, who ordered that the body be disinterred, cut into quarters and displayed on the city gates, and the head set to rot on a pike on London Bridge. Other Catholics were tried and executed for treason, on the verbal testimony of Oates and Bedloe. 

The Popish Damnable Plot

On November 30th 1680, the first of the Five Popish Lords, Lord Viscount Stafford, came to trial. It was Stafford’s sixty-ninth birthday, and over the next seven days sixty-one witnesses gave evidence on the charges that Stafford had offered £500 for the murder of the King. Stafford produced witnesses of his own who contradicted their statements, so further prosecution witnesses were produced to bolster the reputation of the original witnesses. When summing up, Stafford feebly rambled and hesitated, boring the court with minor points of procedure and legal argument, and did his case no good at all. 


On December 6th, thirty-three peers found for him but fifty-five peers found him guilty of High Treason and although attempts were made to obtain a pardon on December 29th 1680, Stafford, bowed with age and infirmity, went to the block at the Tower. The only concession made was that he would beheaded only and be spared the drawing and quartering that were the proscribed penalty for High Treason. He made a long speech declaring his innocence and vindicating his religion, which fell on deaf ears, and in front of a large, hostile crowd, the sentence was carried out.

But changes were coming ...

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