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  • Writer's pictureLucy Vinten

The Popish Plot and the Jesuit Archive

The ‘Narrative’ of Miles Prance, whose perjury led to the execution of three Catholic men

As part of our programme of cataloguing and caring for the rare books and other printed material in the British Jesuit Archive, we have noticed a lot of material relating to the Popish Plot dating from the late 1670s and early 1680s. This is unsurprising, given the devastating effects of the Plot on Jesuits – nine Jesuits were executed, and a further 12 died in prison because of the invented accusations made against them by Titus Oates, Israel Tonge and others.

The details of the events of the years 1678-1682 are complicated and some are obscure even now – historians still don’t know who murdered the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, whose body was found on Primrose Hill on 17 October 1678, run through with his own sword, only a month after he had questioned Titus Oates about his accusations. Three Catholic men (Berry, Green and Hill) were hanged for Godfrey’s murder on the confession of Miles Prance, who later pleaded guilty to perjury.

Titus Oates, the man at the centre of the plot, had left Cambridge University in ignominy, been expelled from the Royal Navy, thrown out of the Jesuit Colleges at Valladolid and at St Omers, and sacked from positions as a household chaplain and a schoolmaster. Originally an Anglican, he became a Catholic though later claimed this was a ruse to infiltrate the Jesuits. Together with his virulently anti-Catholic friend, Israel Tonge, he wrote a manuscript in August 1678 which accused the Jesuits of planning to assassinate Charles II, and this soon gained the notice of those in court who were already nervous about the possibility of plots against the King.

A True Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy by Titus Oates, published in 1679

Details of the plot grew over time and later accusations included that the Jesuits had started the Great Fire of London, and in echo of the Gunpowder plot of 1605, that they were planning to blow up parliament (a house containing gunpowder was discovered in Westminster. It turned out to be the house of the King’s firework-maker). Oates was given a squad of soldiers and began to round up Jesuits.

These claims and even wilder ones – that the Queen was plotting to kill the King, aided by the royal physician, Sir George Wakeman – were widely believed and a panic spread throughout the autumn of 1678 and continued for the next couple of years. This has been compared to other bouts of hysteria, like that resulting in the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts only a couple of decades later. The immediate effects on Catholics in Britain were profound – one contemporary described it as if ‘the very Cabinet of Hell has been opened’. High status was no guarantee of safety – five Catholic nobles who had been denounced by Oates were imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1678 and one of them, Stafford, was executed on 29 December 1680. People from all walks of life were caught up in the plot, including Elizabeth Cellier, a Catholic midwife, who was tried in 1679 but eventually freed. Five Jesuits were hanged on 20 June 1679 at Tyburn. They were Thomas White aka Thomas Whitebread, John Fenwick, William Harcourt aka William Harrison, John Gavan, and Anthony Turner.

Left: The account of the trials of the five Jesuits Thomas White SJ, William Harcourt SJ, John Fenwick SJ, John Gavan SJ and Anthony Turner SJ. Right: The Triall of Elizabeth Cellier, midwife

Fuelling the public panic was a publishing war. Not unlike a Twitter spat of today, each side argued their case vigorously (and sometimes wildly) and pamphlets were published at a prodigious rate on both sides of the debate.

Unsurprisingly, given that the Popish plot had such a profound and deleterious effect on the Society of Jesus, many of these publications were collected by Jesuits and kept as a record and as a locus of study and are now in our collection. Other contemporaneous material, especially accounts of the trials of Jesuits and others caught up in the plot is also in the Jesuit Archive. These became important items to the Society and have been cared for by Jesuit archivists over many centuries. Some publications have been bound into volumes, and indexes made by former Jesuit archivists. We do not know the identities of who made the earliest lists and indexes, but some of the later lists are in handwriting that we can identify.

One of the Jesuit archivists that we can identify is Fr Charles Newdigate SJ who was involved in looking after the Jesuit Archives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are also lists of the contents of the same volume made in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Four lists made over several centuries of the contents of one of the bound volumes of Popish Plot printed material. The handwriting of the second list has been identified as that of Fr Charles Newdigate SJ (1863-1942). The volume has been rebound at least once, but the contents have remained the same and in the same order.

The binding on this volume is relatively modern but judging from the handwriting of the earliest list the contents of the volume have been bound together in this order from the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries, demonstrating the care that the Jesuits have shown for their documentary history. The Jesuit archive is now staffed by professional lay archivists, and we are in the process of making a modern catalogue which will be searchable online. More immediately we are creating a list of all the printed material about the Popish Plot and this will soon be available here as an aid to researchers. These projects are part of the same process of ordering and caring for the records that the Jesuit archivist who made the list of pamphlets in the eighteenth century was doing. We see our work as a continuation of the care shown by earlier Jesuit archivists in preserving the history of the Jesuits in Britain.

If this brief survey of some of the material from our Antiquarian Book collection about the Popish Plot is of interest and you have any questions about this or any other parts of our archive, please contact us at

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