- Gaming Restoration Politics: Playing Cards, the Penny Post, and Conspiratorial Thinking
Political culture and debates about religion “took a visual turn” in the later years of Charles II’s reign, with far-reaching and systematic use of satirical engravings by Whig and Tory polemicists in an attempt to appeal to and shape public opinion as the succession crisis and Popish Plot unfolded.1 In the fall of 1678, Titus Oates testified before the Privy Council and Parliament that he possessed a list of 20,000 Catholics in London, including members of the court and royal family, ready to assassinate the king, raise an armed rebellion, set the metropolis ablaze, and re-Catholicize England.2 As Oates’s statements circulated among the out-of-doors political nation, they took root in a ground fertilized by long-held fears about papal plots within England.3 In addition to provoking the introduction of bills to exclude the Duke of York from the crown in three subsequent Parliaments between 1679 and 1681, the Popish Plot renewed concerns about Catholic expansion and the loss of subjects’ liberties. This period witnessed a dramatic series of real and sham conspiracies that plagued national and local politics through the Revolution and beyond, including the Meal Tub Plot (1679), the Irish Plot (1680–81), Fitzharris’s Plot (1681), the Rye House Plot (1683), and so on.4 There was an almost irrational taste for plotting and plot disclosure in the last quarter of the seventeenth century, especially as the rapid expansion of the press after the temporary lapse of pre-publication censorship in 1679 pushed the preoccupation with the revelation of conspiracy to an almost insatiable level.5 Although Royalists and Parliamentarians had used visual propaganda to lampoon adversaries and fashion political and religious identities during the 1640s, topical graphic prints assumed an innovative and expanded role in the late Restoration, as polemicists confronted and debated the truth of conspiracy, the future of the succession, and the [End Page 95] sudden growth of the press. Graphic images became a central component of political life, and scholars emphasize the complex and contested visual vocabularies utilized for the negotiation of partisan and religious difference across the later seventeenth century. Due to a still-dominant historiographic focus on texts and speech, however, historians are only beginning to explore the intersection of graphic and textual literacies in the early modern public sphere—not just the ways in which images and texts worked together to produce meaning at moments of particular urgency, but also how visual techniques and interpretive practices were used to make sense of politics and the circulation of discourse.6
This essay aims to do so by considering the pictorial representation of plots and plotting between the outbreak of the Popish Plot in 1678 and the revelation of the Rye House conspiracy in 1683, which roughly aligns with the loosening and then reestablishment of press controls through the government’s more assertive use of the law of seditious libel beginning in 1682.7 I focus on the invention and use of topical engraved playing cards depicting recent and past religious and political conspiracies within the kingdom. The artist and etcher Francis Barlow designed one of the most successful sets of cards, the so-called Horrid Popish Plot pack, first issued in late 1679 and undergoing at least four subsequent editions and imitations that winter (see figs. 1 and 2).8 Priced between six pence and a shilling per pack, the market for political playing cards was competitive, and both Whig and Tory publishers produced versions of this deck, which included depictions of secret Catholic cabals, assassination attempts against the king, and the carrying out of the plot in its different incarnations. Publishers advertised that their cards were the most accurate or suggested that other sets included “ridiculous stories” that had “no connexion nor congruity.”9 Playing cards were cheaply available, mass-produced ephemeral consumer objects that circulated at multiple levels of the marketplace and across social classes. By the 1680s, approximately one million packs of English cards were being produced annually, and it therefore made sense to utilize this medium for propagandistic purposes.10
We know little about how...