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Starting point (Religion as politics)

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  1. Introduction
  2. Catholicism
  3. Charles II
  4. William III
  5. Disintegration and Defeat
  6. World war and the invention of Britain
  7. Splendid isolation and war
  8. Empire to Europe
  9. Conclusion

In 1670 Charles II signed the secret Treaty of Dover, the first of a series with France whereby he became a pensioner, albeit a modest one, of Louis XIV and, in the words of the treaty sought jointly 'to humble the pride of The States General' (the Netherlands). Few in 1670 could have foreseen that within twenty years, France was to become Britain's enemy in a power struggle lasting over a century. The secret part was to be toleration for Catholics and the announcement of his own conversion. No one was able to explain precisely the king's motives for this and even Louis XIV had reservations. Charles was in fact not to convert until his deathbed.

Such a foreign policy ran counter to an increasingly anti French sentiment and a hostility to the flaunting of Catholicism at court, both by the queen, the king's mistress, and some of his ministers. Parliament viewed all of this with increasing suspicion. In 1672, as a step on the path to alleviating the position of Catholics, the king issued a Declaration of Indulgence, suspending the penal laws, including the notorious Clarendon Code against all non-¬Anglicans, allowing Catholics to hold services in private and Protestant dissenters to worship in places under license. So strong was the reaction of the Anglican Royalists in the Cavalier Parliament that when they met in the following year they threatened to curtail the royal finances. The king was forced to withdraw the Declaration.

Parliament then went on to pass the Test Act, which laid down that everyone holding any form of public office should swear loyalty to the Established Church and affirm their abhorrence of Catholicism. The effect of that was not only an exodus of Catholics from office but the revelation that the king's brother, James, Duke of York, was a convert. As Charles's wife, the Portuguese Catholic Catherine of Braganza, had failed to produce a child, James was the heir to the throne. Although Catholics formed only 1% of the population, fear distorted that into a popular belief that what had been going on at court was part of some international plot whereby the country would be converted, if need be by force of arms, and a French style rule introduced.

And it was this atmosphere of hot-house intrigue which provided the fruitful ground upon which those who concocted what was called the Popish Plot built. Such a plot never existed outside the mind of its inventor, a devious and deceitful ex Anglican cleric called Titus Oates. The political consequences of his fantasy were to be appalling, for they awoke in the English consciousness all of the irrational fear of Catholicism which stretched back to the burnings of Mary's reign, on through the Armada and the Gunpowder Plot, to the fears of Rome engendered by the dealings of the court of the king's father.

Oates worked in tandem with another disreputable cleric, Israel Tonge, and together they fabricated the details of a plot which included firing the City of London, England being invaded by French and Irish forces (who would put to the sword anyone who refused to convert), and the murder of the king so that his Catholic brother might take over. The plotters claimed the whole scheme was financed by the pope and engineered under the auspices of the Jesuits.

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