Ireland’s Wars: The Popish Plot

In order to discuss, later, the War of the Two Kings and what led to it, we have to talk about an event known as the “Popish Plot”, what it was, and its effects on Ireland. And in order to talk about that, we have to discuss the policy of Charles II and his governments towards Ireland in the aftermath of the restoration.

There was plenty of hope among the Irish Catholic population that their rights, privileges and land, taken from them by the Wars and by the Protectorate, would be restored by Charles when he returned to the throne in 1660. After all, Catholic Ireland had fought for the King, given him troops, a war effort and support when no one else would, and had kept fighting the longest. Some of Charles’ chief advisors were men like James Butler, who had substantial interests in Ireland and there was a constant reoccurring suspicion that Charles himself was more pro-Catholic than he appeared, perhaps to the point of being a secret convert.

But all of those people were to be disappointed. With the exception of the regicides, Charles was largely uninterested in revenge or upsetting the status quo, fearful of making enemies where there was no need to. And so, much of the Protectorate’s policy towards Ireland, and Catholics, was upheld, with very little redress offered to those who had seen liberty or land taken away during or after the wars. Some got land back, others got an approximate amount of land somewhere else, but most remained empty handed, as the newly set-up administration in Dublin, whixh included a Parliament, was designed from the start to be dominated by a Protestant ascendency.

Protestants were given favour in land, law and military, with the legal system altered to discriminate against “papists” and arms distributed to help Protestant settlers to form militias. There were ever fears of Catholic plots to match the bloodshed of 1641, and events like those orchestrated by Thomas Blood did not help matters. Ever and anon there would be rumours of planned uprisings or foreign invasion supported by locals, and the appearance of a fleet off Kinsale around 1667 set off a panic similar to that which had occurred with the Spanish Armada the previous century. The fleet turned out to be English, naturally.

Anti-Catholic hysteria and panic was reoccurring throughout Charles II’s reign, and reached a particularly bad point in the 1670’s. Events like plague and the Great Fire of London frequently led to Catholic scapegoats being posited, and Charles’ attempts to offer greater religious toleration, usually only enforced haphazardly, brought fears of a too great Catholic say in the affairs of the realm.

Enter Titus Oates. An Anglican clergymen of suspect background, (numerous criminal charges defined his early life, as well as, bizarrely considering what followed, a brief dalliance with Catholicism) in 1678 he and a few other compatriots wrote a lengthy manuscript claiming the existence of a vast Catholic conspiracy against the King and his government, spearheaded by the Jesuit order.

Though the evidence of the “Plot” came solely from Oates and a few others, their word was enough to reach the ears of Charles II, who received numerous death threats throughout his reign, and was noted as being careful enough to investigate even the slightest rumour. Still, he was disbelieving about Oates’ claims, and disliked Oates when he met him personally, repeatedly expressing the opinion that Oates was a liar and not to be trusted. But, unfortunately for the numerous Catholics named in Oates manuscript, it didn’t really matter.

Plenty of people – members of the Privy Council, MP’s, and the public – were willing to give Oates a hearing, and he didn’t disappoint, claiming to have witnessed the formulation of Jesuit plots to kill the King and wreck havoc in Britain. His actions and words helped to stoke a rising anti-Catholic hysteria, but might have just tampered off if not for the mysterious death of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey around the same time, the MP’s body found mutilated  a month after Oates came to prominence. A fanatical Protestant, Berry’s murder was never solved, but plenty blamed Catholics, pushing the hysteria to a tipping point.

Charles, desperate to resolve the situation, tried to exclude all Catholic from London to stem the flow of panic, but Oates’ claims were too powerful. The man himself was soon being given troops and powers to investigate his own claims, and was busy accusing even established Catholic nobility of being involved in the “Popish Plot” against Charles II.

But this series is supposed to be about Ireland. The reach of the “Plot” extended across the sea to Ireland easily enough, with the vision of the 1641 massacres fresh in so many minds, encouraging vast amounts of the British population to see Ireland as nothing more than a potential source of Catholic rebels and troublemakers.

James Butler was, at the time, enjoying one of his various stints as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Like with the planned seizure of Dublin Castle by Thomas Blood, Ormonde’s intelligence apparatus gave him word of an extension of the Popish Plot in Ireland, of plans for rebellion to be driven forward by high ranking members of the local Catholic hierarchy. In England, Titus Oates had accused Catholics of planning to kill the King, but in Ireland, the target was claimed to be Ormonde himself.

Butler, a man with extensive experience of all these matters, was not personally taken in by these claims, dismissing the alleged rebels as unfit to “rob an orchard” and “drunken vagabonds”, whose potential activities were being vastly overestimated because of the anti-Catholic panic at the time. But Ormonde was also a politician, and could plainly see which way the wind was blowing in the land. He had no great love for Catholics, as we have become keenly aware. In the end, Ormonde was sucked along in the hysteria with everyone else.

In Ireland the terror found two main victims. Oliver Plunkett was the Archbishop of Armagh, a man who had been at the forefront of efforts to reorganise the Catholic Church after the Eleven Year Wars and the Restoration. Many saw him as a potential agitator, and with the hysteria created by Oates, it wasn’t long before Plunkett was being accused of trying to organise a French backed invasion of Ireland. Disputes with the English administration meant that Plunkett was practically living on the run at the time anyway: he was caught and arrested in late 1679 in Dublin.

Peter Talbot was the Archbishop of Dublin. He had already been forced to live in exile for a time, after his efforts to organise the Irish Catholic gentry to fight for greater rights had been opposed by Protestants. Granted dispensation to return home in his old age, he was implicated in the plot to kill Ormonde. Ormonde had no love for Talbot, and ordered his arrest, which occurred at Maynooth in the house of Talbot’s brother.

Talbot would spend a torturous time in prison, dying there two years after his arrest, having received the last rites from his fellow detainee, Oliver Plunkett. Plunkett eventually faced trial – with an all Protestant jury of course – and never had a hope of gaining an acquittal. He was executed in London in 1681.

They were two of the most prominent victims of Oates hysteria, a panic that was burning out. Plunkett was the last man executed because of it.  Oates would eventually fall from grace, be tried and found guilty of perjury, spending much of what was left of his life in prison. 22 men died because of the plot he invented.

Now, it is clear that the Popish Plot had little truth to it, simply taking advantage of anti-Catholic feeling to stoke up a deluded mans private vendetta. And it had little impact, militarily, on Ireland, merely reinforcing an already clear anti-Catholic bias in the political and legal systems, to the detriment of a few lives.

But it has its place here all the same. The Plot and the furore surrounding it demonstrate how the situation in Ireland was unfolding in this inter-war period, and how the ascendency of the Protestant religion was creating a situation ripe for violence. For a people who were so afraid of a Catholic uprising along the lines of 1641, those who controlled the strings in Great Britain did essentially all that they could to disenfranchise and enrage that Catholic population. When the winds of change brought major political upheaval in London before the end of the century, Ireland would stand ready to rise up. One of the men who would do so was Peter Talbot’s brother, Richard.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

This entry was posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Popish Plot

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The Glorious Revolution | Never Felt Better

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