Review: Hoax: The Popish Plot that Never Was

Review: Hoax: The Popish Plot that Never Was

From 1678, a handful of perjurers claimed that the Catholics of England planned to assassinate the king. As a result of their disgraceful work between November 1678 and July 1681, at least 17 Catholics, lay and clergy, died as traitors on the scaffold, and not in the easiest of circumstances. Many others died in prisons before they came to trial.

The sustained lies of Titus Oates, William Bedloe and others, with payment and pensions, secured convictions before the English criminal courts. Their political allies used the fabricated plot as a means to undermine the existing government.

Victor Stater, a professor of history at Louisiana State University, narrates in detail what has long been known to historians as ‘the Popish Plot’, arguing that it had a profound and lasting significance on domestic politics. He explains how Charles II emerged from the crisis with credit, moderating the tempers of the time, and how, as the catalyst for the later attempt to deny James II his throne through parliamentary action, it led to the birth of two-party politics in England.

The real interest, for lawyers, in this version of the plot lies, arguably, in the detailed histories of the individual criminal trials that took place as a result of the frenzy. There appears to have been little or no real evidence, with reliance almost entirely on oral evidence of things only said to have been seen or heard, but not actually produced for the jury to examine.

The professional false witnesses necessarily came to give the same evidence of the events because of the ‘two-witness rule’ required for proof of a treason charge. There was also the passing complication, in one case, of ‘a retraction of recantation’, a sub-plot within a plot.

The political history of the late seventeenth-century in England was complex, although plainly of interest to the other nations of Europe then. It is as well to remember, however, that the power struggle at stake was that of three and a half centuries ago. Nevertheless, the details of the trials reveal procedures that are understandable now, and much may be learnt about the use of the criminal law in this tale of a fierce struggle for political power.

Hoax: The Catholic Plot That Never Was by Victor Stater, John Lee, Tantor Audio

Share icon
Share this article: