04 August 2022, The Tablet

Loth to die unjustly

by Mathew Lyons

Loth to die unjustly

Titus Oates in the pillory for perjury
Photo: Alamy/Hera Vintage


In 1678, a band of perjurers spread terror of a Catholic plot to kill the king

Hoax: The Popish Plot that Never Was
Tablet bookshop price £18 • tel 020 7799 4064

As daylight faded on the rainy afternoon of Thursday 17 October 1678, three men discovered a body face-down in a ditch at the foot of Primrose Hill, then beyond the northern limit of London. The body was that of Sir Edmund Godfrey, a magistrate who had been missing since the previous weekend. His hat and periwig were caught on bushes at the edge of the ditch; his sword was beneath him. Some eight inches of its blade protruded from his back.

The jury at the inquest that followed wrestled with the possibility of suicide; it remains the most likely explanation. But the deceased’s brothers claimed he had been murdered by Catholics. In this, they were riding a rising wave of anti-Catholic hysteria: for some weeks two men, Titus Oates and Israel Tonge, had been peddling stories of a vast Catholic conspiracy. Godfrey had been the magistrate who took their depositions. For many, his death proved the truth of the accusations. The House of Commons set up a committee to investigate both the murder and the conspiracy. The dogs were out and running.


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