Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Setting the Pope on Fire – the Exclusion Crisis of 1678-1682

by Kate Braithwaite

At three in the morning on November 17th 1680, Londoners woke to the sound of bells ringing out across the City. It was an important day – a day to commemorate the ascension to the throne of Queen Elizabeth I – and it would be celebrated with a splendid pope-burning procession.

The participants gathered in Moorgate. When all were ready, a man ringing a large bell led them out through Aldgate. In a “loud and dolesom voice” he cried, “Remember Justice Godfrey” and was followed by a man riding a white horse and pretending to be the corpse of well-known magistrate, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, who had been strangled in 1678.  Around him other men assumed the role of his murderers, prodding him with swords as he slumped on the horse.

Next came men carrying a huge banner depicting four bodies hanging from the gallows: Catholic priests who had been hanged for their part in the Popish Plot. After the banner holders came the first pageant, displayed on a cart, much like a modern day float. This pageant showed a meal tub and the figure of a woman, representing Mrs Cellier, a Catholic midwife accused of planting false evidence of Protestant treachery in her meal tub.

Next to Mrs Cellier came a man with a fiddle, sitting backwards on his horse with a sign decrying him as an enemy of Parliament. This was the writer, Roger L’Estrange, one of the few men in London publicly doubting the truth of the Popish Plot and opposing those seeking to exclude King Charles II’s brother - and heir to his throne - from his right to succeed, on the grounds that James, Duke of York, was a Catholic.

©Trustees of the British Museum

Other pageants followed.  The elaborate procession filed through Leadenhall and Fleet Street toward Temple Bar, watched by enormous crowds. Hundreds of young men were involved, some dressed as devils and some as priests. Some pageants reminded the watching crowds of the perceived greed of the Catholic Church. Others bore signs declaring that Catholic Jesuits were bent on burning the city and destroying the monarchy. The procession was opulently dressed. Sir William Waller, a Justice of the Peace, active in prosecuting the Popish Plot, provided Catholic relics, books and vestments from the stores of material he had seized during his investigations. The Green Ribbon Club, a group committed to excluding James from the succession, funded the event and provided free alcohol to those who took up the cry of “No Popery.”

The final pageant was the handiwork of a carpenter, Stephen College: an enormous effigy of the Pope who travelled in the company of the devil. All through the streets, and throughout the day the devil tweaked at the false Pope’s nose and when they arrived at last in Temple Bar, as late as eight o’clock that evening, a bonfire was lit. As the crowd roared, the effigy of the Pope was pushed head first into the flames.

In 1682, in his prologue to Southerne’s play The Loyal Brother, poet John Dryden gave this account of the pope-burning processions he had witnessed:
        Sir Edmondbury first, in woful wise,
        Leads up the show, and milks their maudlin eyes.
        There's not a butcher's wife but dribs her part,
        And pities the poor pageant from her heart;
        Who, to provoke revenge, rides round the fire,
        And, with a civil congé, does retire:
        But guiltless blood to ground must never fall;
        There's Antichrist behind, to pay for all.
        The punk of Babylon in pomp appears,
        A lewd old gentleman of seventy years:
        Whose age in vain our mercy would implore;
        For few take pity on an old cast whore.
        The Devil, who brought him to the shame, takes part;
        Sits cheek by jowl, in black, to cheer his heart;
        Like thief and parson in a Tyburn-cart.
        The word is given, and with a loud huzza
        The mitred puppet from his chair they draw:
        On the slain corpse contending nations fall:
        Alas! what's one poor Pope among them all!
        He burns; now all true hearts your triumphs ring:
        And, next, for fashion, cry, God save the king!

Demonstrations against Catholics in London and throughout the country were nothing new but at the end of the 1670’s, religious tension had reached a whole new level because of the Popish Plot and ensuing Exclusion Crisis.

In September 1678, Titus Oates came to prominence, shocking London with wild claims of a terrifying plot to assassinate King Charles II. His revelations were detailed and rang with authenticity. He named well-known Catholic priests and private citizens as traitors in what became known as the Popish Plot. Oates was asked to address Parliament. He claimed that Jesuit cells planned to stab King Charles as he walked in St James’ Park, that French troops were preparing to invade England and that secret uprisings had been planned in Ireland and Scotland.

The Murder of Edmund Berry Godfrey -
Public domain image via WikiCommons

Circumstantial evidence supported his story. Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, with whom Oates had lodged evidence, was found dead in ditch, apparently stabbed and strangled. One of the men Oates accused, Edward Coleman, a Catholic and close associate of the King’s brother James, was arrested and treasonous papers were found in his possession. Oates’ claims touched a raw nerve with the public. London, he declared, would be burned to the ground. The effect of this on a populace only twelve years away from the catastrophic fire of 1666, an event many firmly believed was an act of Catholic terror, was incendiary. 

The apparently real prospect of the assassination of Charles II caused immense concern. If the King remained childless, his Catholic brother would become King. Unrest against the Duke of York had been in evidence throughout the 1670’s – ever since James refused to sign the Test Act of 1673 that excluded from public office anyone who would not publicly renounce the Catholic Church. But with the advent of the Popish Plot, a new political impetus emerged. The whig party began to take shape, under the stewardship of the Earl of Shaftesbury, and actively sought to exclude James from the line of succession to the throne.

James II By Ann Killigrew - Royal Collection, Public Domain,

The resulting Exclusion Crisis marks an important development in the history of politics and propaganda. In 1670’s London, male literacy is estimated at 70%. The printing and pamphlet business was thriving, the newspaper industry about to be born. Coffee shops were in their hey-day: warm, welcoming spaces where men would meet, discuss the news of the day, read pamphlets and share opinions over coffee or beer at all hours of the day and night. Supporters of the exclusion cause exploited all these avenues to gain public support. Public sermons became quasi-political stump speeches. Familiar songs were given new, political lyrics. Polemical plays brought the perceived Catholic threat to life. Wild claims of Catholic violence against women and children were circulated and the memory of Elizabeth I was evoked wherever possible to underline the country’s hard-won Protestant heritage.

Watched by an estimated 200,000 people, the pope-burning processions, held in 1679,1680 and 1681, were without doubt the most effective propaganda tool of all. But by 1682, belief in the Popish Plot had fallen away. The push to exclude James from the succession failed. The time for pope-burning had passed.

London Crowds in the Reign of Charles II, Tim Harris, Cambridge UP 1987.
The Pope-Burning Processions of 1679, 1680 and 1681, Sheila Williams, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol 21 1958.


Kate Braithwaite grew up in Edinburgh but has lived in various parts of the UK, in Canada and the US. Winner of the University of Toronto Marina Nemat Award and Random House Student Writing Prize, she writes atmospheric historical fiction exploring dark secrets and unusual episodes from the past: the stories no one told you about in history class at school. Her debut novel, CHARLATAN, was long-listed for the Mslexia New Novel Award and the Historical Novel Society Novel Award in 2015. Kate and her family live in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

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