The Exclusion Crisis

Worries about papists at court resurfaced shortly after the Restoration and increased after the heir to the throne, James Duke of York, acknowledged his conversion to Rome in 1673.  In 1678 a former Jesuit named Titus Oates came forward with spectacular allegations of a popish plot to murder Charles II with two silver bullets specially consecrated in Rome, and establish a Catholic monarchy.  A thoroughly disreputable character, fond of drunkeness, blasphemy and sodomy, Oates was also an accomplished liar.  But he supplied enough plausible detail to make an investigation necessary. When the magistrate assigned to examine the evidence, Sir Edmond Godfrey, was found dead in a field near London with a sword through his body the furor over the Plot exploded. A parliamentary inquiry failed to confirm Oates's story but did uncover compromising secret correspondence between the Duke of York's secretary and the French government. This broke the hold of the King's ministers on Parliament, forcing the resignation of the Lord Treasurer, Danby, who had skillfully managed the King's business in the Commons over the previous several years.

Charles dissolved Parliament, making a new election -- the first since 1661 -- necessary. In these conditions opponents of the court exploited the fears crystallized by Oates's bogus plot to mount a campaign to exclude the Duke of York from the throne. They canvassed voters and organized electoral support in a number of boroughs, circulated petitions and arranged public demonstrations, including ornate Pope-burning processions, in London before crowds that may have numberd as many as 100,000. These were organized by a Green Ribbon Club, which met in a London tavern and provided an organizational nucleus for the campaign of opposition to popery and the Duke of York, which drew support especially from the large population of religious dissenters in the metropolis. Contested parliamentary and London elections not only kept the agitation alive but extended the level of organization behind it.  So did a petitioning campaign that gathered thousands of signatures protesting the King's decision to prorogue (indefinately postpone) the sitting of the Parliament elected in 1679.  Many historians have seen these activites as marking the emergence of the first English political party. Fairly quickly a backlash developed against this agitation, which reminded many people of the attacks on the royal court that preceded the Civil War.  Anglican clergy and lay opponents of religioius toleration figured prominently in this reaction. The exclusionist coalition soon gained the name of Whigs -- a term originally applied to Scottish rebels -- while their opponents were dubbed Tories, a word meaning Irish cattle thieves, suggesting how prejudice against the inhabitants of Charles II's other kingdoms figured in England's political battles.  Both Whigs and Tories had substantial support within London, although the Whigs usually had an adavantage until the latter stages of the crisis, when the tide began to turn against them on a national scale.  Even then they remained entrenched within the City and in some suburban districts.

The fortuitous expiration of the Licensing Act, which provided for censorship of the press, at the beginning of the conflict opened the floodgates to printed works of controversy, which appeared in numbers unprecedented since the early 1640s.  The number of items issued from London presses more than doubled, from 1,081 in 1677 to 2,145 in 1680. Printed items ranged from lengthy pamphlets to broadsheets, ballads, visual caricatures and even decks of playing cards illustrated with politically relevant images, such as illustrations of episodes in Oates's narrative.  Since coffee houses stocked many of these items, Londoners did not necessarily have to buy them.  The pulpit and the theatre were also pressed into service; in 1680 huge crowds saw performances of the virulently anti-Catholic play, The Coronation of the Queen Elizabeth, at Southwark and Bartholomew fairs.  In 1681 a Whig Lord Mayor of London had a bronze plaque attached to the Monument to the Fire of London, declaring that papists had set the conflagration. 

This propaganda was deeply shaped by historical memories. Whig tracts and sermons reminded readers of popish plots and atrocities going back to the sixteenth century, and attempted to drive home the message that papists had always been enemies to Parliament and liberty as well as Protestantism. Tories responded by portraying Whigs as successors to the puritan rebels of the Civil War period, accusing them of repeating the demagogic strategy that had brought down the government of Charles I and ushered in the tyranny of Oliver Cromwell. Tories attempted to counter Whig pope-burning processions with rival demonstrations in which they burned a figure called John Presbyter. 

In the summer of 1681 Charles gained the upper hand over the Whigs, after reaching a secret deal with Louis XIV under which he was paid a French subsidy that freed him from financial dependence on Parliament. Although for a time the Whigs remained strong in London, the court and its Tory allies launched an offensive using weapons ranging from judicial prosecutions to the public press and popular ballads celebrating loyalty and ridiculing the Whigs .  Tory newspapers and pamphlets multiplied, several anti-Whig plays appeared on the stage and Anglican clergy rallied to the cause of royal divine right.  Although the Whig leader, the Earl of Shaftesbury, was acquitted by a London jury other Whigs, including the chief "pope maker" Stephen College, a London artisan who had helped fashion effigies for the pope-burning processions, were not so lucky.  

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