Hoax: The Popish Plot That Never Was, by Victor Stater

Michael Ward

Perhaps the most dangerous conspiracy theory took place in the 17th century.
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Those who have experienced disbelief in the politics of the United States over the past six years will find Hoax a fascinating read. The current acceptance of conspiracy theories – the ‘stolen’ election and a government controlled by paedophiles, to name but two – may leave many slack-jawed in disbelief. But it’s nothing new.

Travel back over 340 years to Jacobite London, and you find a country in thrall to an equally potent conspiracy theory, one that led to the execution of 17 innocent Catholics. It dominated politics for over three years and threatened the future Stuart succession. And not a word of it was true.

In Hoax: The Popish Plot That Never Was, Victor Stater tells the remarkable story of Titus Oates, an unknown who decided in 1678 to concoct a complete fiction – a Jesuit plot to assassinate Charles II and return Protestant England to Roman Catholicism. He had no evidence or proof because there wasn’t any. Nevertheless, within months his story had plunged the country into panic.

Many will have heard of Titus Oates. His name alone suggests an unusual power, and casual acquaintance with his story might invoke a Wat Tyler figure, a people’s champion emerging from obscurity to lead a popular revolt and take his place in history. But Stater’s detailed and fascinating account reveals Oates to be an unscrupulous con-man whose wild allegations were seized upon by opponents of the King such as the Earl of Shaftesbury. They feared Charles would be succeeded by his brother James, a Roman Catholic, and were determined to stop him.

Oates became their instrument in a larger campaign to stir up the virulent anti-Catholicism ever present in the country. He was a persuasive influence, plausible and mendacious in equal measure, with a striking appearance and booming voice. Yet as the story in Hoax progresses, he retreats from centre stage as the leading politicos take over.

In time, his role is restricted to star witness in a succession of show trials of innocent Catholics. Oates would often invent a bespoke package of lies to damn each defendant in turn and inevitably he started to trip himself up, providing contradictory evidence at different hearings. His excuses for this were often not credible, indeed almost pathetic, but he was still believed because the judges and the rowdy public gallery wanted to do so.

Eventually, these stumbles started to weaken his authority and those defending the plotting charges became wise to his techniques. The procession of guilty verdicts and executions was punctuated by a growing number of acquittals and his spell over the country was broken. This coincided with a fall in Shaftesbury’s political star, thanks in part to the King’s skillful political management of the crisis.

The hysterical storm blew itself out, but not before many innocent men had suffered the excruciating death of being hung, drawn and quartered, simply on the word of a compulsive liar.

Hoax: The Popish Plot That Never Was by Victor Stater is out now and published by Yale University Press.

Michael Ward is the author of the Thomas Tallant series of adventures, based in London in the 17th century. His latest, The Drums of War out now.