The Popish Plot Playing Cards

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

They were shocking, graphic, and very political. Anyone courageous enough to host a night of with the so-called “Popish Plot Playing Cards,” would have a stimulating evening.  The cards pictorially recounted the presumed attempt by Roman Catholics to overthrow the government and kill the king, King Charles II.    The so-called “Popish Plot” itself caused hysteria across the land from 1678 – 1681.

It was a  beautiful summer’s morning, August 13, 1678.  King Charles II was taking his daily walk through St James Park.  The air was fresh, his spirits were upbeat. Gentlemen tipped their hats, women curtsied, and children frolicked around its great pond, the home of the royal pelicans.  But his spirits soon changed.. A friend drew him aside with some troubling news. 

A document had been found.   It reported to be proof that a Catholic plot was being hatched to assassinate him, and put James, his annoyingly Catholic brother, on the throne.  The Jesuits were behind it.  They were a Catholic order bent on reviving Catholicism in Protestant Europe.  Charles was Protestant, but he gave some Jesuits free rein to serve as household educators and spiritual advisors to  the Catholic wealthy. Among those with Jesuit friends was his wife, Queen Catherine.  But there was a history of Jesuits infiltrating the land as spies bent on mischief.   

Charles got one of his most trusted advisors to investigate. The finder of the supposed document was brought in that “confirmed” the plot.  He in turn pointed to his “reliable source” –  Titus Oates.  

Oates was a bit of work, a proven con-artist and a scoundrel who always seemed to be on the run.  He had been expelled from almost every school he attended. He had suckered a bishop into ordaining him into the Church  of England even though he lacked the credentials. His criminal record was long. He had flitted from country to country. At one point he secured a job as a naval chaplain only to be fired for indecent behaviour.  His record included charges of perjury, lying and on-going sexual crimes.  Charles knew about him, and probably wouldn’t  have bought a used carriage from him if he were the only dealer in London. Charles hated the man, but his story had to be heard.

Privy Council members interviewed him. Oates was as alluring as ever with his thick, curly hair, egg-shaped face and small features. The slight up-turn of his mouth hinted of mischief. He stood firm, his voice grew loud and defiant.  He insisted he was truthful, and that the criminals behind the plot were the physician to the Queen,  the Queen’s secretary, and her sister-in-law the Duchess of York.  He pointed the finger at dozens of well-known Jesuits.  

A skeptical London magistrate to interview him as well. Not long after, the judge was found strangled, stabbed and dumped into a ditch.  Oates feigned horror, insisting the murder was proof of  Catholic skulduggery and that someone wanted to silence him.  

A rabid fear of Catholics began to race through the City like flames on dried thatch.  Homes were searched. People were interrogated. The French were suspected of being behind the plot.  Catholics were banished from a radius of 20 miles around London. Catholic widows married Anglican widowers to stay safe.  Catholic priests were hung.   Twelve Jesuits died in prison. People armed themselves. 

Catholics close to the King lived in fear. Parliament appointed a military detail to protect the king.  Five Catholic Members of Parliament were arrested and impeached for treason – one was beheaded, another died in the Tower of London, and the remaining three would be incarcerated for six years.  An act of Parliament excluded Catholics from membership of both Houses.  Efforts were made to bar the King’s brother, James – a Catholic – from ever inheriting the throne.  The Queen’s secretary was hanged, drawn and quartered. 

Francis Barlow, an illustrator and printer, captured the chaos by producing a comic book called The Horrid Hellish Popish Plot (1682), which damned the Jesuits, the Devil and the Pope. He also made a deck of  tell-all playing cards popularly called “The Popish Plot Cards.” The Cards portrayed the events as vividly as a CNN news team. They squarely fingered Catholics as villains and Oates as something of a Saviour.  Together the comic book and playing cards stoked the anti-Catholic fear with vivid images of terror.   

Two missteps finally tripped up Oates.

He implicated the Queen Catherine herself. This infuriated the King who interrogated him,  judged him to be a liar and had him arrested.  By then the level of fear was such that Parliament stepped in to prevent his sentencing. The Anglican bishops in the House of Lords considered him a hero.  Then In the summer of 1681 Oates did something else stupid.  He claimed to have proof that King and his brother James were in on the plot to revert the land to Catholicism.  Charles had him arrested for sedition, fined, imprisoned, and pilloried.

Charles died, and his Catholic brother James II came to the throne in 1685.  Oates was hauled out of prison and retried. Found guilty a second time, the court  ordered him to be “whipped through the streets of London five days a year for the remainder of his life.” But as always, his fortunes changed.  England’s Catholic king, brother James, was overthrown in 1688 by a very Protestant William III.  Oates was released from prison and praised as a hero. He was given a sizable pension.

Still, his life of deception and crime continued. He passed himself off as a Baptist preacher. He attacked a woman with his cane. He was caught trying to steal from a parishioner and fired. His inability to change earned himself the infamous title of Titus the Liar and he died early in July 1705. 

The irony was that Titus Oates, the man who launched a such vengeful campaign against Catholics, was actually a Catholic, admitted into that faith in 1677, the year before the reported Plot gained traction. 

Partial sets of the “Popish Playing Cards” can still be found.  In December 2013 a full set of the Cards sold through Sotheby’s Auction House in London for about $6,700 CDN.  The Titus Oates story stands as a warning that gullibility can have lethal consequences.

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