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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 24 — Protestantism in Scotland

Chapter 24 — The Popish Plot, and death of Charles II

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The Issue Adjusted — Who shall Sit on the Throne of Britain? — Peace with Holland — Charles II a Pensioner of Louis XIV — English Ships Seized by France — No Redress — Duke of York's Second Marriage — William of Orange Marries the Princess Mary — The Duke of York's Influence in the Government — Alarm — Test Acts — The Duke's Exclusion from the Throne demanded — The Popish Plot — Titus Oates — The Jesuit Coleman — His Letter to Pere la Chaise — Murder of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey — The Duke's Exclusion — Attempts to throw the Plot on the Presbyterians — Execution of Essex, Russell, and Sidney — Judge Jeffreys — Illness and Death of the King — What they Said of his Death at Rome.

Is the great war of Truth and Liberty against Error and Slavery which had raged since the days of Wicliffe, and in which there had been so many momentous crises, but no crisis so momentous as the present, the grand issue had now been adjusted. That issue was simply this: Shall a Protestant or a Popish regime be established in Christendom? In order to arrive at the final determination of this issue the question had first to be decided, as one of the essential preliminaries, to whom shall the throne of Great Britain belong? — whether shall Protestant or a Popish sovereign occupy it? The house of Orange had for some time been in obscurity, but it was the singular fortune of that illustrious line to emerge into prominence at all the great epochs of the Reformation, and with its re-emergence the light of victory ever returned to gild again the banners of Protestantism. The present hour produced a second William of Orange, who, devoting himself to the cause of his country and of Christendom, when the condition of both seemed desperate, turned the tide of the French victories which were overflowing Europe, uplifted the sinking balance of the Protestant interests in England, and elevated the cause of the Reformation to so stable a position, that of the second William it may be truly said that he crowned the great struggle which the first William had commenced more than a century before.

We cannot follow in its details the progress of this great struggle, we can only indicate the direction and flow of its current. The veteran warriors of the French king had to retreat before the soldiers of the young Stadtholder, and the laurels which Louis XIV had reaped on so many bloody fields, he had at last to lay at the feet of the young prince. The English, who had conducted their operations by sea with as little glory as the French had carried on theirs by land, found it expedient in 1674 to conclude a peace with Holland. The union between England and France was thus at an end, but though no longer confederate in arms, the two crowns continued to prosecute in concert the greater plot of overthrowing Protestantism. A deeper influence than perhaps either Power was aware of, steadily moved both towards one goal. The more successfully to undermine and ruin the Protestantism of Great Britain, England was kept dependent on France.

The necessities of the English monarch were great, for his Parliament was unwilling to furnish him with supplies while he and his Government pursued measures which were in opposition to the nation's wishes and interests. In the straits to which he was thus reduced, Charles II was but too glad to have recourse to Louis XIV, who freely permitted him access to his purse, that he might the more effectually advance the glory of France by lowering the prestige of England, and securing the co-operation of the English king in the execution of his projects, and more especially of those that had for their object the overthrow of Protestantism, which Louis XIV. deemed the great enemy of his throne and the great disturber of his kingdom. Thus Charles II, while he played the tyrant at home, was content to be the pensioner abroad.

The subserviency of the English Government to France was carried still further. After England had made peace with Holland the French king sent out his privateers, which scoured the Channel, made prizes of English merchantmen, and came so close in shore in these piratical expeditions, that our ships were seized at the very entrance of their harbors. The king's Government submitted to these insults, not indeed from any principle of Christian forbearance, but because it dared not demand reparation for the wrongs of its subjects at the hand of the King of France. [1] Instead of enforcing redress, insults were recompensed with favors, and vast stores of warlike ammunition, guns, iron, shot, gunpowder, pikes, and other weapons were sent across, to arm the fortresses and ships of France. This transportation of warlike material continued to go on, more or less openly, from June, 1675, to June, 1677. [2] Such was the reprisal we took of the French for burning our ships and robbing our merchants, as if King Charles were bent on doing what he had urged the Prince of Orange to do in respect of Holland, and were content to hold the sovereignty of England under the protection of France. The two crowns were drawn yet closer by the marriage of the king's brother, the Duke of York. His first wife, a daughter of Lord Clarendon, having died, Louis XIV chose a second for him in the person of the Princess of Modena, a relation of the reigning Pope. The princess was a pensioner of France, and Louis XIV admitted her husband to the same honor, by offering his purse to the duke, since their interests were now the same, to assist him against all his enemies.

While one train of events was going forward, and the throne of England was being drawn over to the side of Rome, another train of events was

in progress, tending to link that same throne to the Protestant interests. Another marriage, which took place soon after the duke's, paved the way for that great issue in which this complication of affairs was to end. The Prince of Orange, having finished his campaign of 1677, came across to England, accompanied by a noble retinue, to open marriage negotiations with the Princess Mary. This princess, the daughter of the Duke of York by his first wife, was a lady of graceful person and vigorous intellect, and the prince on seeing her was fascinated with her charms, and eagerly pressed his suit. After some delays on the part of the king and the duke, the marriage was at last arranged, and was consummated to the great joy of the people of both countries. [3] To that general satisfaction there was one exception. Louis XIV was startled when he learned that an affair of such consequence had been transacted at a court where, during many years, nothing of moment had been concluded without his knowledge and advice. Our ambassador at Versailles, Montague, said that he had never seen the king so moved as on receiving this news. "The duke," he said, "had even his daughter to the greatest enemy he had in the world." [4] Men saw in it another proof that the great conqueror had begun to fall before the young Stadtholder. The marriage placed William in the line of succession to the English throne, though still there were between him and this high dignity the possible offspring of Charles II and also James, Duke of York.

Meanwhile the kingdom was filled with priests and Jesuits. Their numbers had been recruited by new arrivals in the train of the Princess of Modena. Mass was said openly in the queen's chapel at Somerset House, and the professors of the Romish faith were raised to the highest offices of the kingdom. Charles wore the crown, but the Duke of York governed the nation. The king, abandoning himself to his pleasures, left the care of all affairs to his brother; whom, although a member of the Church of Rome, no one durst call a Papist without incurring the penalty of death. All who had eyes, and were willing to use them, might now see the religion of Rome marching like an armed man upon the liberties of England.

The Parliament was at last aroused, and set about concerting measures to save the country. They had often addressed the king on the matter, but in a manner so little in earnest that nothing came of it. If Charles was of any faith it was that of Rome, and his usual answer to the supplications of the Commons, praying him to take steps to prevent the growth of Popery, was the issue of a new proclamation, which neither hurt the Romanists nor benefited the Protestants. Now the Parliament, more in earnest, resolved to exclude all Papists from any share in the government. For this end the "Test Act" was framed. This Act required, "That all persons bearing any office, or place of trust and profit, shall take the oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance in public and open court, and shall also receive the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper according to the usage of the Church of England." The swearer was also required to subscribe a declaration that he did not believe in Transubstantiation. This test aimed at a great deal, but it accomplished little. If it excluded the more honest of the professors of the Roman creed, and only these, for no test could bar the entrance of the Jesuit, [5] it equally excluded the Nonconformists from the service of the State. Immediately on the passing of the Bill, the Duke of York and the Lord Treasurer Clifford laid down all their offices. These were the first-fruits, but they were altogether deceptive; for while the duke professed to bow to the nation's wishes by publicly stripping himself of his offices, he, continued to wield in private all the influence he had before exercised openly.

The fears of the nation rose still higher. The Test Act had done little to shelter them from the storm they saw approaching, and they demanded other and greater securities. The duke had laid down his staff as commander of the army, but by-and-by he would grasp a yet mightier rod, the sceptre of England namely. The nation demanded his exclusion from the throne. There could be no permanent safety for the liberties of England, they believed, till the duke's succession was declared illegal. The army lay encamped at Blackheath; this also aggravated the popular terror.

The excuse pleaded by the court for stationing the army so near to London was the fear of the Dutch. The Dutch against whom the army are to act, said the people, are not so far off as Holland, they are the men who assemble in St. Stephens. The court has lost all hope of the Parliament establishing the Roman religion by law, and here is the army ready at a stroke to sweep away all Parliaments, and establish by the sword the Roman Church and arbitrary government. These suspicions were held as all but confirmed, when it was found that in the course of a single month not fewer than fifty-seven commissions were issued to Popish recusants, without demanding either the oath of supremacy or the test. The Secretary of State who countersigned the warrants was committed to the Tower by the Commons, but liberated next day by the king.

The alarm rose to a panic by an extraordinary occurrence which happened at this time, and which was enveloped in considerable mystery, from which it has not even yet been wholly freed. We refer to the Popish Plot. Few things have so deeply convulsed England. The information was in some parts so inconsistent, incredible, and absurd, and in others so circumstantial, and so certainly true, and the story so fell in

with the character of the times, which were prolific in strange surmises and unnatural and monstrously wicked devices, that few people doubted that a daring and widely ramified Conspiracy was in progress for burying England and all its Protestant institutions in ruins. Titus Oates was the first to give information of this astounding project. Oates, who had received orders in the Church of England, but had reconciled himself to Rome, appeared before the king and Council, and stated in effect, "That there had been a plot carried on by Jesuits and other Catholics, against his Majesty's life, the Protestant religion, and the government of this kingdom." Oates was only half informed; he was to a large extent guessing, and hence the variations, mistakes, and contradictions into which he fell. He may have been partially admitted into the secret by the conspirators; but however he came by his knowledge, there can be no doubt that a plot there was. The papers of Coleman, the Jesuit, were seized, and these fully corroborated the substance of Oates' information. Coleman's letters during the three preceding years, addressed to Pere la Chaise, the confessor of Louis XIV, left no doubt that he was in concert with high personages in France for restoring Popery in England. "We have here," says he in one of these, "a mighty work upon our hands, no less than the conversion of three kingdoms, and by that perhaps the utter subduing of a pestilent heresy, which has a long time domineered over this northern world. There were never such hopes since the death of our Queen Mary as now in our days. God has given us a prince," meaning the duke, "who has become (I may say by a miracle) zealous of being the author and instrument of so glorious a work; but the opposition we are sure to meet with is also like to be great; so that it imports us to get all the aid and assistance we can." In another letter he said, "I can scarce believe myself awake, or the thing real, when I think of a prince, in such an age as we live in, converted to such a degree of zeal and piety as not to regard anything in the world in comparison of God Almighty's glory, the salvation of his own soul, and the conversion of our poor kingdom." [6]

The murder of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey confirmed the popular suspicions, as well as deepened the fear in which the nation stood of the conspirators. Godfrey, who was the most popular magistrate in London, had been specially active in the discovery of the plot, and was the first to take the evidence of Oates relating to it. The Jesuits had dropped hints that he should pay dearly for his pains, and the good man himself knew this, and remarked that he believed he should be the first martyr; and so it happened. After he had been missing four days, his body was found in a ditch near Primrose Hill, a mile's distance outside of London, and in such a posture as to make the world believe that he had murdered himself. His gloves and cane were lying on the bank near him, and his body was run through with his own sword. But there was neither blood on his clothes, nor other wound on his person, save a circular discoloration on his neck, showing that he had been strangled, as was afterwards found to have been the fact by the confession of one of his murderers, Prance. [7] The Parliament, from the evidence laid before it, was convinced of the existence of a plot, "contrived and carried on by Popish recusants for assassinating and murdering the king, subverting the Government, rooting out and destroying the Protestant religion." The House of Lords came to the same conclusion.

But seeing the plot, among other objects, contemplated the murder of the king, what motive had the Jesuits to seek to be rid of a man who was at heart friendly to them? Charles II, it was commonly believed, had been reconciled to Rome when at Breda. He was sincerely desirous of having the Roman religion restored in England, and a leading object of the secret treaty signed at Dover between France and England in 1670 was the advancement of the Popish faith in Great Britain. Nevertheless the object of the Jesuits in planning his assassination was transparent: Charles loved their Church, and would do all in his power to further her interests, but he would not sacrifice his crown and pleasures for her. Not so the Duke of York. A zealot, not a voluptuary, he would not stay to balance interests, but would go through with the design of restoring the Church of Rome at all hazards. James, therefore, was the sovereign whom the Jesuits wished to see upon the throne of England.

But the more the Jesuits strove to raise him to the throne, the more resolved were the people of England to exclude him from it. A Bill to that effect passed the House of Commons on November 15th, 1680, and was carried up to the House of Lords by Lord William Russell. It was thrown out of the Upper House by a majority of thirty voices. The contest, in which was involved the fate of Britain, continued. The Parliament struck, time after time, against the duke, but the king was staunch to his interests. The House of Lords and the bishops espoused his cause, and the duke triumphed. The Commons, despite their zeal, failed to alter the succession, or even to limit the prerogative.

But the duke, notwithstanding his victory in Parliament, found that the feeling of the nation, arising from the Popish plot, set strongly against him; and now he set to work to discredit the plot, and to persuade the public that it never had existed save in the imagination of fanatics. [8] The skill of a general is shown

in conducting a safe retreat as well as in ordering a successful charge. Treasons are never to be acknowledged unless they succeed. When the Gunpowder Plot failed it was disowned; the credulous were told that only a few desperadoes were concerned in it; in truth, that it was a State trick, a plot of Secretary Cecil against the Roman Catholics.

The same tactics were pursued a second time. Writers were hired to render the Popish plot ridiculous, and laugh down the belief of it. One or two conspirators were executed, but in great haste, lest they should tell too much. Coleman, whose papers had supplied such strong evidence of the conspiracy, died protesting stoutly his innocence, and vindicating the duke. [9] But of what worth were such protestations? Treason and murder cease to be such when directed against heretics. To tell the truth at the last moment to the prejudice of the Church is to forfeit paradise; and it is even lawful to curse the Pope, provided it be done in his own interests.

Their success in getting the plot to be disbelieved not being equal to their expectations, the duke and his party next tried to throw it upon the shoulders of the Nonconformists. One of the arts employed for this purpose was to drop prepared papers in the houses of the chief persons concerned in the discovery of the Popish plot; and on their discovery -- an easy matter, seeing those who had left them knew where to search for them — to proceed against those in whose dwellings they had been found. Colonel Mansel was one of the first to be arraigned on a charge so supported; but he was acquitted by the Attorney-General, who, in addition to finding Mansel innocent, declared that this appeared "a design of the Papists to lay the plot upon the Dissenters." This judgment being accounted disloyal by the court, the Attorney-General was dismissed from his office. [10]

The charters of the City of London were next attacked. [11] Parliaments were summoned only to be dissolved. The king was weary of holding such troublesome assemblies. The tragedy of England's ruin was proceeding apace. It was treason to lament the nation's approaching fate. There were still a few in that evil time who had courage to open their mouth and plead for the sinking liberties and religion of their country. Among these we mention Johnson, who won for himself the high displeasure of the court by his Julian. This was a parallel between Popery and Paganism, based on the life of the great apostate, in which the author gave a scathing exposure of the doctrine of passive obedience. Johnson was amerced in a heavy fine, and sent to the prison of the King's Bench till it was paid.

Nobler victims followed. The Earl of Essex, Lord Russell, and Algernon Sidney had met together to consult by what steps they might prevent the ruin of their country. England was a limited monarchy, and that gave its subjects, in their view, the right of resistance when the monarch exceeded his constitutional powers; otherwise, a limited monarchy meant nothing.

The excess in the present case was flagrant, the Crown had broken through all restraints, and it behoved every patriot to do what in him lay to recall it within the boundaries of the constitution. So far, and no farther, had these men plotted. Against the life, and the constitutional rule of Charles Stuart, they had devised nothing. But, unhappily, the Rye House plot was contemporaneous with their consultation, and the Government found it an easy matter, by means of the false witnesses which such Governments have always at their command, to connect these patriots with a plot they had no concern in, and in truth abhorred. They were condemned to die.

Lord Essex was murdered in the Tower; Russell and Sidney died on the scaffold. With the calmness and joy of Christian patriots they gave their blood for the Protestant religion and the constitutional liberty of Great Britain. [12] Thus the Popish plot, though it had missed its immediate object, gained virtually its end. Charles II still lived; but the laws of England were being annulled, the nation had sunk deeper in despotism, the enemies of the duke had been destroyed, and his succession to the throne secured.

The work of destruction was carried still farther. No pains were spared to render Nonconformists odious. They were branded with vile names, they were loaded with the guilt of murderous plots, their enemies being intent on drawing upon them a tempest of popular vengeance. The Government had no lack of instruments for executing their base ends; but the hour yielded another agent more monstrous than any the court till now had at its service. This monster in human form was Jeffreys. Regarding neither law, nor reason, nor conscience, he was simply a ruffian in ermine. "All people," says Burner, "were apprehensive of very black designs when they saw Jeffreys made Lord Chief Justice, who was scandalously vicious, and was drunk every day; besides a drunkenness in his temper that looked like enthusiasm." [13] He made his circuit like a lictor, not a judge; the business of his tribunal was transacted with an appalling dispatch, Nonconformity, at that judgment-seat, was held to be the sum of all villainies; and when one chargeable with that crime appeared there he could look for nothing less fearful than death. Jeffreys scowled upon him, roared at him, poured a torrent of insulting and vilifying epithets upon him, and then ordered him to the gallows. "His behavior," says Burner, "was beyond anything that was ever heard of in a civilized nation." "On one circuit," says the same authority, "he hanged in several places about six hundred persons... England had never known anything like it." [14]

In the year 1683, as Jeffreys was making his northern circuit, he came to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Here he was informed that some twenty young

men of the town had formed themselves into a society, and met weekly for prayer and religious conversation. Jeffreys at once saw in these youths so many rebels and fanatics, and he ordered them to be apprehended. The young men were brought before his tribunal. A book of rules which they had drawn out for the regulation of their society was also produced, and was held by the judge as sufficient proof that they were a club of plotters. Fixing his contemptuous glance on one of them, whose looks and dress were somewhat meaner than the others, and judging him the most illiterate, he resolved to expose his ignorance, and hold him up as a fair sample of the rest. His name was Thomas Verner. "Can you read, sirrah?" said the judge. "Yes, my lord," answered Mr. Verner. "Reach him the book," said Jeffreys. The clerk of the court put his Latin Testament into the hand of the prisoner. The young man opened the book, and read the first verse his eye lighted upon. It was Matthew 7:1, 2: "Ne judicate, ne judicemini," etc. "Construe it, sirrah," roared the judge. The prisoner did so: "' Judge not, that ye be not judged; for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged.'" Even Jeffreys changed countenance, and sat a few minutes in a muse; but instantly recovering himself, he sent the young men to prison, where they lay a year, and would without doubt have been brought to the scaffold, had not the death of the king, which occurred in the meantime, led to their release. [15]

Meanwhile, the king's last hour was drawing nigh. To be surprised by death in the midst of his profiligacies and tyrannies was a doom unspeakably terrible — far more terrible than any to which he was condemning his victims. Such was the fate of Charles II. The king had of late begun to reflect seriously upon the state of his affairs and the condition into which his kingdom had fallen, which bred him constant uneasiness. He complained of his confidence having been abused, and dropped a hint with some warmth, that if he lived a month longer he would find a way to make himself easier the rest of his life. It was generally believed by those about the court that the king meant to send away the duke, and recall Monmouth from Holland, summon a new Parliament, and have his son acknowledged as his successor. This involved an entire change of policy, and in particular an utter frustration of the cherished project of the Romanists, so surely, as they believed, approaching consummation.

The king confided his plans to the Duchess of Portsmouth, the favorite mistress; she kept the secret from all save her confessor. Whether the confessor kept that secret we know not; what he would consider the higher good of the Church would, in this instance, release him from the obligation to secrecy, if he thought fit to break it. Be that as it may, the king, who had previously been in good health, was suddenly seized with a violent illness. The symptoms of the malady, all agreed, were those of poisoning.

When it became evident that the king was dying, Priest Huddlestone was admitted by a back door with the materials for mass, Charles received the Sacrament, and the host having stuck in his throat it was washed down with a draught of water. After this the king became calm. The English bishops were now admitted, but Charles paid no attention to their exhortations. He gave special directions to the duke his brother about his mistresses, but he spoke not a word of his wife, nor of his subjects, nor servants. What a mornful spectacle, what a chamber of horrors! Surprised by death in the midst of his harem! How ghastly his features, and how racking his pains, as he complains of the fire that burns within him! and yet his courtiers gaze with perfect indifference on the one, and listen with profound unconcern to the other. Behind him what a past of crime!

Around him are two kingdoms groaning under his tyranny. Before him that great Tribunal before which Charles, as well as the humblest of his subjects, must give account of his stewardship; and yet he neither feels the burden of guilt, nor dreads the terrors of the reckoning. This utter callousness is the saddest feature in this sad scene. "No part of his character looked wickeder, as well as meaner," says Bishop Burner, "than that he, all the while that he was professing to be of the Church of England, expressing both zeal and affection to it, was yet secretly reconciled to the Church of Rome: thus mocking God, and deceiving the world with so gross a prevarication. And his not having the honesty or courage to own it at the last: his not showing any sign of the least remorse for his ill-led life." [16] Charles II died on the 6th of February, 1684, in the fifty-fourth year of his age. With his life departed all the homage and obsequiousness that had waited round the royal person; his corpse was treated almost as if it had been so much carrion; his burial was mean, and without the pomp that usually attended the funeral of the kings of England.

If one spoke of the king's death he had to be careful in what terms he did so. His words were caught up by invisible auditors, and a hand was stretched out from the Duchess to punish the imprudence of indiscreet remarks. A physician who gave it as his opinion that the king had been poisoned was seized with a sudden illness, the symptoms of which closely resembled those of the king, whom he followed to the grave in a few days. But at Rome it was not necessary to observe the same circumspection.

The death of Charles II was there made the theme of certain

orations, which eulogized it as singularly opportune, and it was delicately insinuated that his brother was not without some share in the merit of a deed that was destined to introduce a day of glory to the Roman Church and the realm of England. Misson has given a few extracts from these orations and epigrams which are somewhat curious. "James," says the author of one of these pieces, "intending to notify to the gods his accession to the crown, that he might send the important message by an ambassador worthy of them and him, he sent his brother.'" [17] And again, "His brother, who is to be his successor, adds wings to him that he may arrive sooner at heaven." [18] The author of these orations, unable to restrain his transports at the accession of James, breaks out thus — " We will declare that he gives a new day to England; a day of joy; a day free from all obscurity. That kingdom enlightened by the setting of Charles, and the rising of James, shall suffer night no more. O happy England! a new constellation of twins, Charles and James, is risen in thy horizon. Cast thy eyes on them, and care no more for Castor and Pollux. At least divide thy veneration. And while Castor and Pollux will be the guides of thy ships, as they hitherto have been, let James and Charles conduct thee to heaven whither thou aspirest, as thou deservest it." [19]

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