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Royalty Restored or London under Charles II
Chapter XVIII
by Molloy, J. Fitzgerald


Reward for the discovery of murderers.--Bedlow's character and evidence.--His strange story.--Development of the "horrid plot." --William Staley is made a victim.--Three Jesuits hung.--Titus Oates pronounced the saviour of his country.--Striving to ruin the queen.--Monstrous story of Bedlow and Oates.--The king protects her majesty.--Five Jesuits executed.--Fresh rumours concerning the papists.--Bill to exclude the Duke of York.--Lord Stafford is tried.--Scene at Tower Hill.--Fate of the conspirators.

Before the remains of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey were laid to rest, a proclamation was issued by the king, offering a reward of five hundred pounds for discovery of the murderers. If one of the assassins betrayed those who helped him in the deed, he should receive, not only the sum mentioned, but likewise a free pardon, and such protection for his security as he could in reason propose. Two days after this had been made public, a man named William Bedlow put himself in communication with Sir William Coventry, Secretary of State, declaring he had a certain knowledge of the murder in question.

Archdeacon Eachard tells us this man "was one of a base birth and worse manners, who from a poor foot-boy and runner of errands, for a while got into a livery in the Lord Bellasis's family; and having for his villainies suffered hardships and want in many prisons in England, he afterwards turned a kind of post or letter carrier for those who thought fit to employ him beyond sea. By these means he got the names and habitations of men of quality, their relations, correspondents, and interests; and upon this bottom, with a daring boldness, and a, dexterous turn of fancy and address, he put himself into the world. He was skilful in all the arts and methods of cheating; but his masterpiece was his personating men of quality, getting credit for watches, coats, and horses; borrowing money, bilking vintners and tradesmen, lying and romancing to the degree of imposing upon any man of good nature. He lived like a wild Arab upon prey, and whether he was in Flanders, France, Spain, or England, he never failed in leaving the name of a notorious cheat and impostor behind him."

On the 7th of November, Bedlow was brought before the king, and examined by two Secretaries of State. Here he made the extraordinary declaration that he had seen the body of the murdered magistrate lying at Somerset House--then the residence of the queen; that two Jesuits, named La Faire and Walsh, told him they, with the assistance of an attendant in the queen's chapel, had smothered Sir Edmondbury Godfrey between two pillows; that he had been offered two thousand guineas if he would safely remove the body, which on his refusal was carried away, a couple of nights after the murder, by three persons unknown to him, who were servants of the queen's household. Hearing this statement, Sir William Coventry asked him if he knew anything of the popish plot, when he affirmed on oath he was entirely ignorant regarding it; he likewise swore he knew no such man as Titus Oates.

That night he was lodged in Whitehall, in company with Tonge and Oates; and next morning appeared before the House of Lords, when it was evident his memory had wonderfully improved since the previous day. His story now assumed a more concise form. In the beginning of October, he stated, he had been offered the sum of four thousand pounds, to be paid by Lord Bellasis, provided he murdered a man whose name was withheld from him, This he refused. He was then asked to make the acquaintance and watch the movements of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey. With this he complied. Soon after dusk on the 12th of October, the magistrate had been dragged into the court of Somerset House by the Jesuits, and asked if he would send for the documents to which Oates had sworn. On his refusal he had been smothered with a piece of linen cloth; the story of suffocation by pillows, being at variance with the medical evidence, was now abandoned. One of the Jesuits, La Faire, had asked Bedlow to call at Somerset House that night at nine o'clock; and on presenting himself, he was conducted through a gloomy passage into a spacious and sombre room, where a group of figures stood round a body lying on the floor. Advancing to these, La Faire turned the light of a lantern he carried on the face of the prostrate man, when Bedlow recognised Sir Edmondbury Godfrey. He was then offered two thousand guineas if he would remove the body, which was allowed to remain there three days. This he promised to accomplish, but afterwards, his conscience reproving him, he resolved to avoid the assassins; and rather than accept the sum proffered, he had preferred discovering the villainy to the Government.

This improbable story obtained no credit with the king, nor indeed with those whose minds were free from prejudice. "His majesty," writes Sir John Reresby, "told me Bedlow was a rogue, and that he was satisfied he had given false evidence concerning the death of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey." Many circumstances regarding the narrator and his story showed the viciousness of the one and the falsity of the other. The authority just mentioned states, when Bedlow "was taxed with having cheated a great many merchants abroad, and gentlemen at home, by personating my Lord Gerard and other men of quality, and by divers other cheats, he made it an argument to be more credited in this matter, saying nobody but a rogue could be employed in such designs." Concerning the murder, it chanced the king had been at Somerset House visiting the queen, at the time when, according to Bedlow, the deed had been committed. His majesty had been attended by a company of guards, and sentries had been placed at every door; yet not one of them had witnessed a scuffle, or heard a noise. Moreover, on the king sending Bedlow to Somerset House, that he might indicate the apartment in which the magistrate's remains had lain three days, he pointed out a room where the footman waited, and through which the queen's meals were daily carried.

But the dishonesty of his character and falsity of his statements by no means prevented the majority of his hearers from believing, or pretending to believe, his statements; and therefore, encouraged by the ready reception they met, he ventured to make fresh and startling revelations. Heedless of the oath he had taken on the first day of his examination, regarding his ignorance of the popish plot, he now asserted he was well acquainted with all its details. For some four years he had been in the secret employment of the wicked Jesuits, and knew they intended to stab and poison his majesty, establish catholicity in England, and make the pope king. So far, indeed, had their evil machinations been planned, that several popish peers already held commissions for posts they expected to fill in the future. Lord Bellasis and Lord Powis were appointed commanders of the forces in the north and south; whilst Lord Arundel of Wardour had permission to grant such positions as he pleased. Then the Dukes of Buckingham, Ormond, and Monmouth, with Lords Shaftesbury and Ossory, together with many others, were to be murdered by forty thousand papists, who were ready to rise up all over the country at a moment's notice. "Nor was there," he added, "a Roman Catholic of any quality or credit but was acquainted with these designs and had received the sacrament from their father confessors to be secret in carrying it out."

It by no means pleased Oates that Bedlow should surpass him in his knowledge of this hellish plot. Therefore, that he might not lose in repute as an informer, he now declared he was also aware of the commissions held by popish peers. He, however, assigned them in a different order. Arundel was to be made chancellor; Powis, treasurer; Bellasis general of the army; Petre, lieutenant-general; Ratcliffe, major-general; Stafford, paymaster-general; and Langhorn, advocate-general. Nay, his information far outstripped Bedlow's, for he swore that to his knowledge Coleman had given four ruffians eighty guineas to stab the king, and Sir George Wakeham had undertaken to poison his majesty for ten thousand pounds. When, however, he was brought face to face with these men, he was unable to recognise them, a fact he accounted for by stating he was exhausted by prolonged examination,

All England was scared by revelations so horrible; "the business of life," writes Macpherson, "was interrupted by confusion, panic, clamour, and dreadful rumours." In London, two thousand catholics were cast into prison; houses were daily searched for arms and treasonable documents; and in good time merciless executions filled up the sum of bitter persecutions.

One of the first victims of this so-called plot was William Staley, a catholic banker of fair renown. The manner in which his life was sacrificed will serve as an example of the injustice meted to those accused. One day, William Staley happened to enter a pastrycook's shop in Covent Garden, opposite his bank, where there chanced to stand at the time a fellow named Carstairs; one of the infamous creatures who, envious of the honours and riches heaped on Oates and Bedlow, resolved to make new discoveries and enjoy like rewards. At this time he was, as Bishop Burnet states, "looking about where he could find a lucky piece of villainy." Unfortunately the banker came under his notice, and Bedlow and an associate pretended to have heard Staley say the king was a rogue and a persecutor of the people whom he would stab if no other man was found to do the deed. These words Carstairs wrote down, and next morning called on the banker, showed him the treasonable sentence, and said he would swear it had been uttered by him, unless he, Staley, would purchase his silence. Though fully aware of his danger, he refused to do this; whereon Carstairs had him instantly arrested and committed for trial. Hearing of his situation, and knowing the infamous character of his accusers, Dr. Burnet thought it his duty to let the lord chancellor and the attorney-general know "What profligate wretches these witnesses were." His interference was received with hostility. The attorney-general took it ill that he should disparage the king's evidence; Lord Shaftesbury avowed those who sought to undermine the credit of witnesses were to be looked on as public enemies; whilst the Duke of Lauderdale said Burnet desired to save Staley because of the regard he had for anyone who would murder his majesty. Frightened by such remarks at a time when no man's life or credit was safe, Burnet shrank from further action; but rumour of his interference having got noised abroad, it was resented by the public to such an extent, that he was advised not to stir abroad for fear of public affronts.

Within five days of his arrest, William Staley was condemned to death. In vain he protested his innocence, pointed out the improbability of his using such words in a public room, and referred to his character as a loyal man and worthy citizen. He was condemned and executed as a traitor.

The next victim was Coleman. He denied having hired assassins to murder his majesty, or entertained desires for his death; but honestly stated he had striven to advance his religion, not by bloodshed, but by tolerance. Whilst lying in chains at Newgate prison under sentence of death members of both Houses of Parliament visited him, and offered him pardon if he confessed a knowledge of the plot; but, in answer to all persuasions and promises, he avowed his innocence; protesting which, he died at Tyburn.

A little later, three Jesuits, named Ireland, Whitehead, and Fenwick, and two attendants of the queen's chapel, named Grove and Pickering, were executed on a charge of conspiracy to kill the king. Oates and Bedlow swore these Jesuits had promised Grove fifteen hundred pounds as price of the murder; Pickering chose as his reward to have thirty thousand masses, at a shilling a mass, said for him. Three times they had attempted this deed with a pistol; but once the flint was loose, another time there was no powder in the pan, and again the pistol was charged only with bullets. These five men died denying their guilt to the last.

Meanwhile, Dr. Tonge, the ingenious inventor of the plot, had sunk into insignificance by comparison with his audacious pupil. Not only did the latter have apartments at Whitehall allotted him, and receive a pension of twelve hundred a year, but he was lauded as the saviour of his country, complimented with the title of doctor of divinity, honoured in public, and entertained in private. Eachard mentions "a great supper in the city," given in compliment to Oates by "twenty eminent rich citizens;" and Sir John Reresby writes of meeting him at the dinner-table of Dr. Gunning, Bishop of Ely. Nothing could exceed the insolence and arrogance of the impostor. He appeared in a silk gown and cassock, a long scarf, a broad hat with satin band and rose, and called himself a doctor of divinity. No man dared contradict or oppose him, lest he should be denounced as a conniver of the plot, and arrested as a traitor. "Whoever he pointed at was taken up and committed," says North. "So that many people got out of his way as from a blast, and glad they could prove their last two years' conversation. The very breath of him was pestilential, and if it brought not imprisonment, it surely poisoned reputation." Sir John, speaking of him at the bishop's dinner-table, says "he was blown up with the hopes of running down the Duke of York, and spoke of him and his family after a manner which showed himself both a fool and a knave. He reflected not only on him personally, but upon her majesty; nobody daring to contradict him, for fear of being made a party to the plot. I at least did not undertake to do it, when he left the room in some heat. The bishop told me this was his usual discourse, and that he had checked him formerly for taking so indecent a liberty, but he found it was to no purpose."

The impostor's conversation on this occasion furnishes the key- note of a vile plot now contrived to intercept the lawful succession, either by effectually removing the queen, and thereby enabling the king to marry again; or otherwise excluding the Duke of York by act of parliament from lawful right to the crown. Though Shaftesbury's hand was not plainly seen, there can be no doubt it was busily employed in working out his favourite design.

The blow was first aimed at her majesty by Bedlow, who, on the 25th of November, accused her of conspiring to kill her husband. About eighteen months previously, he said, there had been a consultation in the chapel gallery at Somerset House, which had been attended by Lord Bellasis, Mr. Coleman, La Faire, Pritchard, Latham, and Sheldon, four Jesuits, and two Frenchmen whom he took to be abbots, two persons of quality whose faces he did not see, and lastly by her majesty. The Jesuits afterwards confided in him as a person of trust, that the queen wept at a proposal to murder the king which had been made, but subsequently yielding to arguments of the French abbots, had consented to the design. Indeed, Bedlow, who was in the sacristy when her majesty passed through at the termination of this meeting, noticed her face had much changed. Here his story ended; but, as was now usual, it was taken up and concluded by Oates.

Appearing at the Bar of the House of Commons, this vile impostor cried out, "Aye, Taitus Oates, accause Caatharine, Quean of England, of haigh traison." Then followed his audacious evidence. In the previous July, Sir George Wakeham, in writing to a Jesuit named Ashby, stated her majesty would aid in poisoning the king. A few days afterwards, Harcourt and four other Jesuits having been sent for, attended the queen at Somerset House. On that occasion Oates waited on them; they went into a chamber, he stayed without. Whilst there he heard a woman's voice say she would endure her wrongs no longer, but should assist Sir George Wakeham in poisoning the king. He was afterwards admitted to the chamber, and saw no woman there but her majesty; and he heard the same voice ask Harcourt, whilst be was within, if he had received the last ten thousand pounds.

The appetite of public credulity seeming to increase by that on which it fed, this avowal was readily believed. That the accusation had not been previously made; that Oates had months before sworn he knew no others implicated in the plot beyond those he named; that the queen had never interfered in religious matters; that she loved her husband exceeding well, were facts completely overlooked in the general agitation. Parliament "was in a rage and flame;" and next day the Commons drew up an address to the king, stating that "having received information of a most desperate and traitorous design against the life of his sacred majesty, wherein the queen is particularly charged and accused" they besought him that "she and all her family, and all papists and reputed papists, be forthwith removed from his court." Furthermore, the House sent a message to the Peers, desiring their concurrence in this request; but the Lords made answer, before doing so they would examine the witnesses against her majesty. This resolution was loudly and indecently protested against by Lord Shaftesbury and two of his friends.

The king had discredited the story of the plot from the first; but remembering the unhappy consequences which had resulted upon the disagreement of the monarch and his parliament in the previous reign, he weakly resolved to let himself be carried away by the storm, other than offer it resistance. On the condemnation of the Jesuits, he had appeared unhappy and dissatisfied; "but," says Lord Romney, "after he had had a little advice he kept his displeasure to himself." The Duke of York states, in the Stuart Papers, that "the seeming necessity of his affairs made his majesty think he could not be safe but by consenting every day to the execution of those he knew in his heart to be most innocent." Now, however, when foul charges were made against the queen, calculated not merely to ruin her honour but destroy her life, he resolved to interfere. He therefore requested she would return to Whitehall, where she should be safe under his protection; and feeling assured Oates had received instructions from others more villainous than their tool, he ordered a strict guard to be kept upon him. This he was, however, obliged to remove next day at request of the Commons.

On the examination before the House of Lords of Oates and Bedlow, their evidence proved so vague and contradictory that it was rejected even by the most credulous. When Bedlow was asked "why be had not disclosed such a perilous matter in conjunction with his previous information touching the murder of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey," he coolly replied, "it had escaped his memory." On Oates being sent to point out the apartment in which he had seen her majesty and the Jesuits, he first selected the guard-room, and afterwards the privy chamber, places in which it would have been impossible to have held secret consultation. Aware that the king was resolved to protect her majesty, and conscious the evidence of her accusers was more wildly improbable than usual, the Lords refused to second the address of the Commons, when the charge against this hapless woman was abandoned, to the great vexation of my Lord Shaftesbury.

Though the queen happily escaped the toils of her enemies, the reign of terror was by no means at an end. At request of the king, the Duke of York left England and took refuge in Brussels; the catholic peers imprisoned in the Tower were impeached with high treason; Hill, Green, and Berry, servants of her majesty, charged with the murder of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey, were, without a shadow of evidence, hurried to the scaffold, as were soon after Whitebread, Fenwick, Harcourt, Gavan and Turner, Jesuits all, and Langhorn, a catholic lawyer, for conspiring to murder the king. On the morning when these unfortunate men stood ignominiously bound to the gallows at Tyburn, the instruments of death before their eyes, the angry murmurs of the surging mob ringing in their ears, suddenly the sound of a voice crying aloud, "A pardon! a pardon!" was heard afar off, and presently a horseman appeared riding at full speed. The soldiers with some difficulty making way for him through a line of excited people, he advanced to the foot of the scaffold, and handed a roll of paper bearing the king's seal to the sheriff, who, opening it, read a promise of pardon to those now standing face to face with death, provided "they should acknowledge the conspiracy, and lay open what they knew thereof." To this they replied they knew of no plot, and had never desired harm to the king; and, praying for those who had sought their lives, they died.

The firmness and patience with which the victims of judicial murder had one and all met death, refusing bribes, and resisting persuasions to own themselves guilty, could not fail in producing some effect upon the public mind; and towards the middle of the year 1679 the first signs of reaction became visible, when three Benedictine monks and the queen's physician were tried for conspiracy "to poison the king, subvert the government, and introduce popery." During the examination, Evelyn tells us, "the bench was crowded with the judges, lord mayor, justices, and innumerable spectators." After a tedious trial of nine hours, the jury brought the prisoners in not guilty, "without," says Evelyn, "sufficient disadvantage and reflection on witnesses, especially on Oates and Bedlow."

As my Lord Shaftesbury had not yet succeeded in his desired project of excluding the Duke of York from succession, the symptoms of change in public opinion were thoroughly distasteful to him. He therefore resolved to check them immediately, and stimulate the agitation and fear that had for many months reigned paramount through out the nation. For this purpose he had recourse to his former method of circulating wild and baseless reports. Accordingly a rumour was soon brought before the House of Commons of a horrible plot hatched by the papists to burn London to the ground. This, it was alleged, would be effected by a servant-maid setting a clothes-press on fire in the house of her master, situated in Fetter Lane. Two vile Irishmen were to feed the flames, and meanwhile the catholics would rise in rebellion, and, assisted by an army of sixty thousand French soldiers, kill the king, and put all protestants to the sword. Though this tale was in due time discredited, yet it served its purpose in the present. The violent alarm it caused had not subsided when another terrible story, started on the excellent authority of Lord Shaftesbury's cook, added a new terror. This stated the Duke of York had placed himself at the head of the French troops, with intention of landing in England, murdering the king and forcing papacy on his subjects. The scare was sufficiently effectual to cause Parliament to petition his majesty that he might revoke all licenses recently granted catholic householders to reside in the capital; and order the execution of all priests who administered sacraments or celebrated mass within the kingdom. Soon after this address, Lord Russell was sent by the Commons to the Peers, requesting their concurrence in the statement that "the Duke of York's being a papist, the hope of his coming to the crown had given the greatest countenance and encouragement to the conspiracies and designs of the papists." And now, in May, 1679, the condition of popular feeling promising well for its success. the Bill of Exclusion was introduced, ordaining that "James, Duke of York should be incapable of inheriting the crowns of England and Ireland; that on the demise of his majesty without heirs of his body, his dominions should devolve, as if the Duke of York were also dead, on that person next in succession who had always professed the protestant religion established by law." This passed the House of Commons by a majority of seventy-nine votes.

Alarmed by this bill, Charles resolved to show signs of resentment, and at the same time check the increasing power of the Commons, by a sudden and decisive movement. Therefore, without previously hinting at his intentions, he prorogued parliament before the bill was sent to the House of Lords. This was a keen surprise to all, and a bitter disappointment to Shaftesbury, who vowed those who advised the king to this measure should answer for it with their heads. Owing to various delays, the Bill of Exclusion was not brought before the Peers until eighteen months later. Its introduction was followed by a debate lasting six hours, in which Shaftesbury distinguished himself by his force and bitterness. At nine o'clock at night the House divided, when the measure was rejected by a majority of thirty- three votes, amongst which were those of the fourteen bishops present.

Mortified by this unexpected decision, the violent passions of the defeated party hurried them on to seek the blood of those peers lodged in the Tower. Of the five, William Howard, Viscount Stafford--youngest son of the Earl of Arran, and nephew of the Duke of Norfolk--was selected to be first put upon his trial; inasmuch as, being over sixty years, and a sufferer from many infirmities, it was judged he would be the least capable of making a vigorous defence. Three perjured witnesses swore he had plotted against the king's life, but no proof was forthcoming to support their evidence. Notwithstanding this was "bespattered and falsified in almost every point," it was received as authentic by the judges, who made a national cause of his prosecution, and considered no punishment too severe for a papist. After a trial of five days sentence of death was pronounced upon him, and on the 29th of December, 1680, he was beheaded on Tower Hill.

Like those who had suffered from similar charges, he protested his innocence to the last; but his words met with a reception different from theirs. Their dying speeches had been greeted by groans, hisses, and signs of insatiable fury; but his declarations fell upon silent and sympathizing hearts. When he had made denial of the crimes of which he was accused, a great cry rose from the mob, "We believe you--we believe you, my lord;" and then a single voice calling out "God bless you!" the words were taken up and repeated by a vast throng, so that the last sounds he heard on earth were those of prayer. He died with a firmness worthy of his caste. Having laid his head upon the block, the executioner brandished his axe in the air, and then set it quietly down at his feet. Raising his head, Lord Stafford inquired the cause of delay; the executioner replied he awaited a sign. "Take your time," said he who stood at the verge of eternity; "I shall make no sign." He who held the axe in his hand hesitated a second, and then said in a low and troubled voice, "Do you forgive me, sir?" To which Lord Stafford made brief answer, "I do." Then he laid his head again upon the blood-stained block. Once more the glitter of steel flashed through the air, a groan arose from the crowd, and Lord Stafford's head was severed from his body.

A reaction now set in, and gained strength daily. The remaining peers were in due time liberated; the blood of innocent victims was no longer shed; and the Duke of York was recalled. Such was the end of the popish plot, which, says Archdeacon Eachard, "after the strictest and coolest examinations, and after a full length of time, the government could find very little foundation to support so vast a fabrick, besides downright swearing and assurance; not a gun, sword, nor dagger, not a flask of powder or dark lanthorn, to effect this strange villainy, and with the exception of Coleman's writings, not one slip of an original letter of commission among those great numbers alledged to uphold the reputation of the discoveries."

Concerning those through whose malice such disturbance was wrought, and so much blood shed, a few words may be added. Within twelve months of Lord Stafford's execution, Shaftesbury was charged with high treason, but escaping condemnation, fled from further molestation to Holland, where, after a residence of six weeks, he died. Tonge departed this life in 1680, unbenefited by the monstrous plot he had so skilfully devised; and in the same year Bedlow was carried to the grave after an illness of four days. Oates survived to meet a share of the ignominy and punishment due to his crimes. After a residence of three years in Whitehall, he was driven out of the palace on account of "certain misdemeanors laid to his charge," and deprived of his salary. Two years later, in May, 1683, he was accused of calling the Duke of York a traitor, and using scandalous words towards his royal highness. Upon hearing of the case the jury fined him one hundred thousand pounds. Unable to pay the sum, he was cast into prison, where he remained six years, until liberated in the reign of William and Mary, His punishment was not, however, at an end. At the Michaelmas term of 1684 he was accused of having wilfully perjured himself at the late trials. As he pleaded not guilty, his case was appointed to be heard at the King's Bench Court. His trial did not take place until May, 1685, on which occasion the lord chief justice, in summing up the evidence, declared, "There does not remain the slightest doubt that Oates is the blackest and most perjured villain on the face of the earth."

After a quarter of an hour's absence from court, the jury returned a verdict of guilty, and sentence was pronounced against him. He was stripped of his canonical habit; forced to walk through all the courts of Westminster Hall proclaiming his crimes; to stand an hour on the pillory opposite Westminster Hall gate on Monday; an hour on the pillory at the Royal Exchange on Tuesday; and on Wednesday he was tied to a cart and whipt at the hands of the common hangman from Aldgate to Newgate, in the presence, says Eachard, "of innumerable spectators, who had a more than ordinary curiosity to see the sight."

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