- "The Horrid Popish Plot": Roger L'Estrange and the Circulation of Political Discourse in Late-Seventeenth-Century London
The story of the Popish Plot of 1678 and the subsequent alarums, trials, and executions often has been told. Frequently it is treated as the prologue to the profound political crisis, labeled (among others) as the exclusion crisis or the succession crisis, which lasted from 1679 until about 1682. The greater part of this book by Peter Hinds, however, focuses on the plot, and its subtitle gives an accurate description of its contents. Although there is considerable discussion of events and politics, the main emphasis is on the rumors, controversy, and polemic provoked by the plot and the most prolific—and in some respects the most effective—writer who contributed to them. It is about reporting, representation, and reception, understanding and misunderstanding. The major part of the discussion is based on texts, particularly printed texts (with due emphasis on the form of those texts, as well as their content). But there also is material on visual images, street theater (especially pope-burning processions), and word of mouth. Much of this is fairly familiar territory, but Hinds covers it with greater breadth and depth than most. There are many reproductions of prints and texts, making this a handsomely produced [End Page 818] book. The approach is scholarly and careful, with little that is provocative or tendentious. There is much interesting and illuminating detail, but few big surprises.
Two major points need to be made. First, there is a great deal about Catholics and Catholicism, and many aspects of antipopery, but very little on how antipopery could include hostility to Protestant Dissent. There was a widely held belief that the papists had contrived the Civil War and King Charles I's death. Titus Oates's narrative included this, as well as claims that Jesuits, disguised as Presbyterians, were to incite Scotland to rebel against the king. The most effective print of Presbyterian plotting was titled "The Committee or Popery in Masquerade." Just as there were similarities between the king-killing doctrines of Jesuits and Presbyterians, so (argued Roger L'Estrange) there were increasingly sham popish plots and increasingly real republican plots hiding behind a veil of antipopery. As he wrote in 1679, the popish plot had been investigated and the guilty men punished, but the plotting of "the faction" went on. The second point is that for a book about controversy and conflict, it focuses too much on texts and decoding meanings. Dialogues in print score debating points but do not end in blows. There is little sense of the day-to-day viciousness of partisan politics in the tavern and the street—of clashes between the supporters of the dukes of York and Monmouth, and their attempts to compel passersby to drink the health of their hero and to suffer great indignities if they did not. There is little of the sense of menace and anger found in Tim Harris's work on London crowds or Mark Goldie's recent rumbustious account of popular politics.
These are not negligible weaknesses, but they should not distract attention from the fact that this is a solid, scholarly book that appreciably advances our understanding of the politics of the period.