Thursday, August 25, 2022

Victor Stater's "Hoax: The Popish Plot that Never Was"

Victor Stater is Jane De Grummond Professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. He is the author of Duke Hamilton is Dead!, Noble Government, and A Political History of Tudor and Stuart England.

Stater applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Hoax: The Popish Plot that Never Was, and reported the following:
Hoax: The Popish Plot That Never Was recounts the story of the so-called 'Popish Plot:' a confection of perjuries and conspiracy theories that upended English politics in the late 1670s. According to a disgraced Church of England minister, Titus Oates, English Catholics conspired to murder King Charles II and impose his Catholic brother James, on the throne in the aftermath of a bloody Catholic uprising. Joined by a number of other shady informers, the 'Plot' generated a national hysteria in which over two dozen innocent Catholics were convicted and executed as traitors. The charges laid by the informers were seized upon by ambitious and unscrupulous politicians like the earl of Shaftesbury, who intended to advance their own agendas. Ironically, for all of the injustices created one important benefit for the long term: the birth of two-party politics. Believers in the Plot formed the nucleus of the Whig Party, and their opponents evolved into Tories. These parties would dominate British politics into the 19th century and beyond.

Page 99 of Hoax describes the (false) charges levied by Oates against Charles II's Queen, Catherine of Braganza. Oates accused her of plotting her husband's death by poison:
Replacing the Queen was not a new idea, but this gambit threatened to remove Catherine not just from court, but from the living world. Henry VIII had executed to wives who fell afoul of faction, and there was no reason to think that a third royal queen might not follow the same path. Certain Shaftesbury would have no compunction about sacrificing Queen Catherine if it would allow Charles to remarry and father a legitimate heir. The diarist john Evelyn thought that Oates acted "to gratifie some, who would have been glad His majestie should have married a more fruitfull lady." King Charles had different ideas. "They think I have a mind to a new wife, but for all that, I will not see an innocent woman abused." He also told Bishop Burnet that Catherine "was a weak woman, and had some disagreeable humours, but was not capable of a wicked thing, and considering his faultiness towards her in other things, he thought it was a horrid thing to abandon her."

Catherine of Braganza had already been abused, by her faithless husband, whose affairs he flaunted before her, completely unconcerned about her feelings. Yet the royal couple had come to a satisfactory arrangement. The queen knew that she could not compete with her husband's favourite mistresses—she was short, had a prominent overbite and as Pepys wrote when he met her for the first time, "she be not very charming." Unfortunately , she also proved unable to provide an heir. She conceived two, or possibly three times, but none of her pregnancies went to term. The last was in 1669, nearly a decade earlier, when she miscarried after being frightened by one of the king's pets—a fox that apparently leapt on her and ran across her face.

But Charles bore with the disappointment of a childless marriage (after all there were plenty of other children, by his mistresses, upon whom he could dote). Catherine, in turn reconciled herself to Charles's infidelities. Despite his affairs, he was kind to his wife, allowed her to live more or less as she pleased and by 1678 the couple had a companionable, if not uxorious relationship. It was strong enough to survive the attack orchestrated by Shaftesbury. But the earl pressed forward: he never abandoned the belief that Charles II was at heart too weak to resist pressure if it was great enough."
Page 99 of Hoax does indeed offer an accurate view of the work as a whole: the accusations directed at Queen Catherine, and the reaction they provoked, illustrate the essence of the book. Lies, dishonest politicians, and scandal were at the heart of the Popish Plot—but this page also shows that there were some, like Charles II and Queen Catherine, who defended the truth. Ultimately the truth emerged—painfully and at the cost of too many innocent lives, but in the end the liars and rogues came to grief, branded as perjurers and criminals.
Learn more about Hoax: The Popish Plot that Never Was at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue