Category Archives: History of Ideas and Emotions

Titus Oates and the Popish Plot

[Reposted from Quora Spaces.]

One of the ironies of English history is that the landmark 1689 Bill of Rights, with its prohibition of “cruel and unusual” punishment, was prompted, in part, by the ill-treatment of one of the great villains of the seventeenth century.

In 1678, for want of anything better to do, Titus Oates, a failed student of Cambridge University who conned his way into the priesthood, conspired together with a fanatical – and quite possibly clinically insane – clergyman called Israel Tonge to accuse English Jesuits of a plot to kill the king, Charles II.

They did this totally off the top of their heads, with no basis in fact whatsoever but, given the climate of the times, they were widely believed. The instruction to kill Charles, it was asserted, had come from the pope himself, and so the so-called plot came to be known as the Popish Plot.

As it happened, a strongly Protestant Member of Parliament, by the name of Edmund Berry Godfrey, was murdered shortly afterwards, and Oates seized on this as evidence that his pipe-dream of a plot was true. The press jumped on board and pretty soon a witch hunt of Catholics was under way.

This May 1679 issue of The London Gazette denounces the “Bloody and Jesuitical Principles” underlying another murder, that of James Sharp, the Archbishop of St. Andrews in Scotland. The true culprits turned out to be Presbyterians.

The country was in the grip of anti-Catholic hysteria. Following Godfrey’s murder, Catholics were banished from London and were not permitted within a 20-mile radius (later reduced to 10 miles) of the city. Several others (prominent among whom were Stephen Dugdale, Robert Jenison and Edward Turberville) jumped onto the bandwagon, and started accusing Catholics willy-nilly.

At least twenty-two Catholics were put to death, others died in grossly inhumane conditions in prison, and still others were killed by mobs.

Finally, Oates was exposed and it was acknowledged that there was not, and had never been, any such plot. A fat lot of good that did to the Catholics who had died, though, and the ban on Catholics (other than tradesmen and householders) entering London was maintained. Although Charles II himself was bitter about the number of people whose execution he had authorized as a result of the deception, anti-Catholic prejudice continued unabated, and scant remorse for the injustices done was expressed by the press or the populace at large.

Which is why I call it an irony that the Bill of Rights of 1689 was partly inspired by the punishment that Oates received. Make no mistake, he paid a high price. When James II, who had converted to Catholicism, came to the throne in 1785 he had Oates thrown in prison and sentenced to be whipped through the streets five days a year for the rest of his life. The presiding judge was Judge Jeffreys, “the Hanging Judge”, and it’s speculated that the aim was for the whippings to kill Oates, since Jeffreys could not impose the death penalty for perjury.

The irony is that, while remaining apparently unmoved by the executions, banishment from the capital and general mistreatment of Catholics, the public reacted strongly to the punishment meted out to Oates, the cause of all this suffering. John Phillips, for example, was outraged at “Protestant Judges condemning a Protestant, and the Detector of a most Horrid Popish Plot” (The Secret History of the Reigns of K. Charles II and K. James II [London, 1690], p. 187), impervious to the fact that the “horrid” plot he refers to was a complete fake.

The Bill of rights of 1689 was designed to prevent judges from overstepping the limits of their powers and inflicting punishments that went beyond their mandate.

A Remonstrance of Innocence, published in 1683, is a Catholic account of the deaths of those executed for their supposed involvement in the fake plot.

When James II was ousted, in 1689, Oates was pardoned, released from prison and given a pension. He died in relative obscurity in 1705.

  • The two illustrations to this post are from my collection of early modern publications. I’ve written a bit more about them and the context in which they were written here: Religious Controversy: POPISH PLOT.
  • For further details on Oates and the Poposh Plot, see Susan Abernethy’s informative blog post: Titus Oates.

Sadomasochism and Christianity

This is a post on a website entitled “Bad News about Christianity“. The name gives a fairly good indication of what it’s all about, and there’s certainly a lot of detailed information on the website, but unfortunately there is no indication of the identity of the author[s]. This seems to be intentional.

Anyway, the post I wanted to draw people’s attention to is on Sadomasochism and Christianity. It’s a bit predictable in a way, I suppose, but it does draw together a lot of examples, saying:

…in any other context these images would be considered disturbing, sadomasochistic, deviant and unsuitable for children. They concentrate heavily on brutality, beating, flogging, piercing, torture, bleeding, nailing and death. Collecting and drinking blood is an especially popular theme in Christian art. Some Christians submit themselves to some of these sufferings – wearing crowns of thorns, flogging themselves, and even having themselves nailed to crosses.

Examples of suffering are drawn from the Bible, from accounts of saints, and so on, and the page is lavishly illustrated with bleeding hearts, flagellating penitents and so on.

What’s lacking is any real attempt to get to grips with the Christian perspective on suffering. The author mainly wants to show the spectrum of suffering embraced by Christianity, without going very much into why anyone might want to focus on suffering in this kind of way.

Still, despite the “look at these kooky Christians” approach, if you want a range of sources for Christian suffering this is probably as good a starting place as any.

International Society for Intellectual History

International Society for Intellectual History

“The ISIH was created in 1994 to promote the study and teaching of intellectual history in all its forms and to foster communication and interaction among the global community of scholars in the field.”

Among other projects, it is developing a database of twentieth-century authors whose work has shaped the development of intellectual history.

It also has a page on Facebook.

James A.T. Lancaster published a plug for my book back in 2014, and I had thought I’d posted an acknowledgement and thanks here, but either I’m wrong about that or it’s disappeared (I had some technical trouble a while back and a few posts may have been deleted).

So here it is again – a thank you from me, and a reciprocal plug for IHIS!