Saturday, May 30, 2015

Samuel Pepys and the Popish Plot

Accusations of treason against Samuel Pepys were a side product of the Popish Plot: he was accused of being a Catholic (treason enough in England then) and of providing naval secrets to France. The two authors provide tremendous detail about Pepys' accuser, John Scott, the English justice system, the conspiracy against Pepys, and the defense Pepys is able to muster through his contacts and connections. The main connection against him, however, was that his mentor was Charles II's Catholic brother and heir, James, the Duke of York. The main thrust of the Popish Plot was to arrest, try, and execute Jesuit and other Catholic priests, primarily to harm the Jesuits, and Titus Oates took the lead as witness in that project.

The conspiracy against Samuel Pepys was led by John Scott, whose back story almost hijacks this book, as Long and Long trace his history, enumerate his crimes and scams, and detail his difficulties as a witness: he began to get confused about which lies he had told the Court. His animus against Pepys is part of the wider conspiracy against the Duke of York, as Parliament debated the Exclusion Act to keep the Catholic heir from the throne.

Long and Long dedicate a chapter to a Catholic layman who tried to mount the same kind of defense as Pepys, Richard Langhorne, who did have strong links to the Jesuit mission in England since he was their attorney, managing practical matters. Langhorne did not have the same connections Pepys had, however, and he was manifestly a Catholic, but he attempted throughout his trial to show that Titus Oates and William Bedloe were not reliable witnesses and could not have witnessed events as they said, for example, because they were somewhere else on certain dates. Langhorne tried to point out inconsistencies in their testimony but according to Long and Long, the court prevented many of those attempts. His witnesses were also roughed up and threatened.

This untold story has been thoroughly told but since the authors focus so much on the details of Pepys' efforts to make contacts to build his defense, including all the difficulties of conflicting interests, mail service, and diplomatic entanglements, when the case against him falls apart, the resolution is anti-climactic. Traitor to the Crown needed a summing up to identify the consequences of the Popish Plot, the inadequacies of the English judicial system, and what it means for a country and people when fear of the stranger (in this case, Catholics) overwhelms both the legislature and the judiciary--and how it can lead to accusations against the innocent and the unlikely. In a 2007 review in The Telegraph for example, Nicholas Shakespeare made the connections I wanted to see in the book:

For five impossibly happy years, I lived in Wiltshire in a converted Catholic chapel that Italian masons built in 1695 to house temporarily the relics of two early Christian martyrs, the curiously named saints, Primus and Secundus. Recent excavations have exposed a passage 150 yards long that possibly served as an escape route for harried priests who worshipped in what was my bedroom. As the father and son authors of this intriguing book remind us: "To be converted to Catholicism, to attend mass or to possess Catholic apparatus was illegal. Catholic priests were forbidden entry into England; any found within England could be executed."

We're always inventing dragons. In the 1960s, the Reds were under the bed. In the late 17th century, Papists were feared to be in the bed. "If the Pope gets his great toe in England," believed one MP, "all his body would follow." Catholics formed just five per cent of the population, but their hysterical persecution by a Protestant Whig Parliament has unsettling echoes of the Mexican witch-hunt depicted in Graham Greene's novel
The Power and the Glory.

In the summer of 1679, there unfolded "the great Holocaust of the Plot", in J P Kenyon's phrase. The invention by Titus Oates - a braying, dish-faced homosexual ex-Jesuit - of a plan to kill Charles II and replace him with his Catholic brother the Duke of York, ignited "a powder-keg of suspicion and anxiety".

Priests were rumoured to be seen tossing fire-bombs through windows to start another Fire of London. Tracts warned of "troops of papists ravishing your wives and daughters, dashing your little children's brains out against the walls". No one proved more adept at whipping up the London mob than the sour, thin-lipped Earl of Shaftesbury. In one parade, a wax pope attended by devils and nuns was set on fire. "For added realism the effigy was filled with cats, which screeched as the flames took hold."

A survey of several Pepys related websites reveals that this untold story now told has not had much influence on summaries of his biography. This episode is usually dismissed as a brief imprisonment in the Tower of London on charges of giving naval secrets to the French--without any connection to the Popish Plot or anti-Catholicism in English history.

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