Nemine contra dicente:
The Sponsors of the Popish Plot, 1678-1681
Francis Steen
A version of this paper, coauthored with Tord Østberg, appeared in Clio's Psyche
Special issue on the psychology of conspiracy theories
December 2000

A poet started it. In the fall of 1677, An Account of the Growth of Popery, and Arbitrary Government in England was traded in the dark corners of coffee houses and back alleys. As a titillating fig leaf, it bore the imprint Amsterdam, beyond the reach of the censors; in fact, it was printed in London. "There has now for divers Years," it proclaimed, "a Design been carried on, to change the Lawful Government of England into an Absolute Tyranny, and to Convert the Established Protestant Religion into down-right Popery: than both which, nothing can be more Destructive or contrary to the Interest and Happiness ... of the King and Kingdom." The pamphlet's anonymous author was Andrew Marvell, better known for his persuasive lines to his coy mistress,

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball

The political opposition that Marvell appealed to was fragmented and demoralized; the parties could use a rallying cry to unite them in a common purpose. There was something in the times that favored the formation of smaller cells of power – likely, it was the printing press itself, nurturing a proliferation of imaginative communities with cheaply produced divisive tracts. Amsterdam vied for the title of the capital of the Republic of Letters, yet this virtual republic, the paradise of political hackers and utopians, the cyberspace of the print revolution, had no single center and provided nothing resembling a unifying ideology. If a radical poet sowed the seeds of conspiracy theory, it took the wholesale manufacture of details, supported by a political machinery and a deep purse, to turn fear and hatred into a potent political force.

Under Danby's ministry, England allied with Protestant Holland against Catholic France. In early 1678, Parliament passed a bill financing the war, only to discover that Charles II had used the occasion to negotiate a massive bribe for himself from the French king to stay neutral. Yet the sick and aging King’s prerogative could not easily be challenged; focus shifted instead to his brother and heir, the openly Catholic James, Duke of York. As if to order, an intricately conceived popish conspiracy, fabricated out of whole cloth by Titus Oates and Israel Tong, was dished up to the public imagination and presented in all solemnity to Parliament. Oates had spent time at the Catholic seminary at St. Omer and claimed to have uncovered a vast scheme involving the Pope to assassinate Charles II and crown his brother. On 31 October 1678 the following resolution was passed: "Resolved, Nemine contra dicente, That this House doth declare, that they are fully satisfied by the Proofs they have heard, That there now is, and for divers Years last past hath been, a Horrid and Treasonable Plot and Conspiracy, Contrived and Carried on by those of the Popish Religion, for the Murthering of His Majesties sacred Person, and for Subverting the Protestant Religion, and the Antient and well established Governement of this Kingdom." On the strength of suborned accusations, some thirty-five prominent Catholics were tried and executed as traitors to the kingdom; many more were harassed and imprisoned. In August of 1680, Tong's son testified before the Privy Council that his father and Oates had invented the conspiracy and forged some of the letters to substantiate it; "no serious historian now questions that the Popish Plot was manufactured" (Greaves, Secrets of the Kingdom, 5). How did it achieve its power?

The success of the Popish Plot as a conspiracy theory can be traced to an explosive mixture of entrenched conflict, long-standing suspicion, and political opportunism. The numerous communities built around religious credos had developed no commonly accepted means to resolve differences of conviction. By constructing personal and collective identities grounded in non-negotiable belief structures, the dissenters reproduced the logic of the institutions that sought to suppress them, ensuring a continuous and lethal conflict. Protestants cherished the memories of the Marian burnings, the papacy's repeated attempts to deprive Elizabeth of her crown, the infamous Gunpower Plot, and the "popish conspiracy" of the early 1640s; as for France’s intentions in sponsoring the Stuart court, much was guessed and more suspected. While the dissenters resented their lack of power, the collapse of the Commonwealth had eroded their confidence as well as their credibility as a political force. The threat of a common enemy, however, financed by external powers, provided an opportunity for uniting the various oppositional groups into a single political movement.

The person who most clearly realized the potential of anti-Catholicism to form a political base was Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury, the de facto leader of the so-called Country party, an informal political faction from a time before political parties. Alarmed by the prospect of a Catholic king modeled on Louis XIV, he championed the story of the Popish Plot to spur Parliament into proposing a bill to exclude the Duke of York from the succession. Charles II reacted in anger, dissolved parliament and called for reelections. The Country party returned with an increased popular mandate. "If we do not something relating to the Succession," Lord Russell defiantly declared in April of 1679, "we must resolve, when we have a Prince of the popish Religion, to be Papists, or burn. And I will do neither." Shaftesbury was appointed lord president of the Privy Council; he held daily meetings with Oates and vigorously pursued the allegations. The chief concern of the French King was to keep Protestant England out of his Continental campaigns; domestic trouble was to be encouraged. Discussing the possibility of sponsoring Shaftesbury, the French ambassador wrote in December of 1679, "It would be a very proper means to stir up new embarrassments to the king of England, and Lord Shaftesbury would be still more bold if he found himself secretly supported by your Majesty."

On the 17th of November in 1679 and again in 1680, a solemn mock procession of the Pope, cardinals, Jesuits, friars, and nuns wound its way through the streets of London. In 1679, the roles were played by people in flesh and blood, led by a crowd of rowdy torch-bearers, a bell-ringer with a crosier, a dead man on a horse, a richly robed divine displaying the host on a tray and proclaiming the transsubstantiation, and a Black Friar carrying a large crucifix. Dressed up in gray habits, two groups of nuns and tonsured monks followed, muttering prayers as they fingered their rosaries. A band of colorful trumpet players and drummers preceded a bevy of mitered cardinals, their rich gowns dragging the ground, and several pairs of Jesuits engaged in learned disputes as they walked. Finally, announced by a caller striking a gong and two friars carrying large crosses, on a raised dais with flowing curtains, came the Pope in all his magnificence, with a black devil, horns and whip, at his back, sheltered by a baldachin. In 1680, likely with financing from the Catholic Louis XIV, the actors were supplemented by elaborate effigies carried on a dozen large wooden platforms; at the market in Smithfield they were set alight in huge bonfires.

These Pope-burning processions, attended by tens of thousands of people, provided an imaginative enactment of various aspects of the story of the Popish Plot, making visible and palpable what people had only dreaded in the imagination. The desecration of the Catholic icons, vestments, and rituals and the burning of effigies established a new set of associations that were public and shared; united in the detestation of one symbolic reign, a community of rage and hate was facilitated. The mock solemnity evoked the original power of these symbols even as it denied them validity, thus establishing a conscious resistance to the symbolic language of the enemy. With cold-blooded opportunism, the Whigs recruited the solidarity and peer pressure generated by the conspiracy theory. The results were murderous; blinded by fear, juries convicted innocent men on fabricated evidence, reaching deep into the Royal household.

The imagined plot of high-ranking English Catholics to kill Charles II and make way for his brother James appears, finally, as a self-destructive solution to a real problem. The fragmentation of society into a multiplicity of imagined communities based on printed texts created the need for new modes of collective action. The hysteria of the Popish Plot momentarily brought people together against a single common enemy. A psychology of fear and hatred was cultivated by crafty politicians and put to effective short-term use, propelling Shaftesbury and the Whigs into political leadership. Over the next few years, however, the excesses of the Popish Plot discredited their cause. The Whigs’ reliance on false evidence exposed them in turn to perjury and political murders. By the end of 1683, open opposition to Charles in England had ceased to exist. There were real issues; as the years before the revolution of 1688-89 were to demonstrate, James did indeed intend to establish a more powerful monarchy and return England into the Catholic fold. In the intermediate term, however, the lies of the Popish Plot eroded trust and seriously damaged the Whig cause; by January 1683, Shaftesbury had fled the country. A broken man, he died in Amsterdam.

Francis Steen ( is a graduate student in English at UCSB, specializing in the revolution in print entertainment during the Restoration and the eighteenth century. His vita is available at


Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles