The Popish Plot: Definition & Victims

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There have been many schemes to assassinate kings across history, but none quite like the Popish Plot in 1678. In this lesson, we'll check out the history and impact of this outrageous conspiracy.

The Popish Plot

When the English king Henry VIII separated England from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, he was unknowingly laying the groundwork for a century's worth of tensions. For over 100 years, English society would be deeply divided between Catholics and Protestants, with anti-Catholic fervor growing steadily over time. By the 17th century, Protestant/Catholic relations were so bad that Catholics actually tried to kill the king…or did they? Known as the Popish Plot, this crisis in 1678 was a breaking point as a hundred years' of conflict boiled over.

The Plot

In 1678, rumors emerged in London of a vicious plot. The target was Charles II, King of England. The accused conspirators were the nation's Catholics, particularly those of the Jesuit Order. The alleged plan was to kill the king and install his Catholic brother, James, onto the throne. Along with James, among those implicated were several high-ranking Jesuit priests and even Charles' wife and queen, Catherine, who was also Catholic.


To understand where these rumors came from, we need to take a look at one man: Titus Oates. Oates was educated in the Anglican clergy, but was frequently stirring up trouble through his attitude and demeanor. In the 1670s, he traveled across Europe trying to enter in Jesuit colleges and pronouncing himself as a convert to Catholicism. He was first expelled from the seminary college in Valladolid in Spain, and later from the college of St. Omer. Oates would later profess to have been lying about his conversion to Catholicism as an excuse to study Catholics and their evil ways up close. Historians dispute whether or not this was true, or if Oates was simply angered at having been expelled.

Titus Oates

Oates Presents the Popish Plot

After being kicked out of the Jesuit College in St. Omer in 1678, Oates returned to England. There, he met up with an old acquaintance Israel Tonge. Tonge was a fervent anti-Catholic radical, who seems to have convinced Oates that England's Catholics were out to kill the king. Still furious at the Jesuits and fueled by both his own prejudices and Tonge's encouragement, Oates began decrying James, Catherine, and the Jesuits as conspirators against the Crown.

The accusations made by Oates soon gained notoriety, and grew to the point that the King could no longer ignore them. As mentioned before, Oates implicated Charles' brother James and Queen Catherine, but he also accused many others, including Catherine's servants, the Archbishop of Dublin, and the Duchess of York (James' Wife). At the same time, it was discovered that the Duchess' secretary had been in frequent contact with French Catholics. While there was nothing in these correspondences that proved a plot against the King, it was enough to lend credence to the accusations. When the magistrate who was examining these correspondences was found murdered, it was enough to convince the members of Parliament that the Catholic plot must have been real, and a huge anti-Catholic frenzy swept through England. Anyone associated with the Jesuit Order was implicitly implicated.

King Charles worked tirelessly to prove that his wife, brother, and sister-in-law had nothing to do with the alleged plot. While he was able to protect them, the frenzy was so great that he was unable to save many of the others. Jesuits in particular became key targets of the investigation. With the judges pre-assuming their guilt, many were convicted with barely any evidence. In fact, even the Jesuit's testimonies under oath were dismissed on the grounds that the Pope could forgive them for lying. It's worth noting that Oates was heavily involved in the entire process. In fact, among the very first people to be formally arrested as conspirators were the same Jesuit priests who had expelled him from St. Omer's just a year before.

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