Titus Oates’ claimed discovery of a Popish Plot to attack Charles II and England’s Protestants led to renewed crisis between the Stuart Monarchy and its Whig opponents in Parliament. The revived threat of a Catholic conquest of England provided the opposition the opportunity to campaign for the removal of the Catholic Duke of York from the succession, and the imposition of limits on the power of the monarchy and the Anglican Church hierarchy. Unlike his father, Charles II was able to survive his enemy’s attacks by engaging in his own propaganda campaign, by securing royal income without having to call Parliament, and by avoiding war while dealing with a domestic political crisis.
The Exclusion Crisis was precipitated by the 1678 discovery of the Popish Plot, which Oates claimed was a Jesuit design to conquer England and convert the populace to Catholicism. He claimed that the Jesuits would disguise themselves as presbyters and foment a rebellion in Scotland, which would accompany an Irish Catholic revolt. Once these revolutions began, the Jesuits would assassinate Charles II and burn London to the ground. The Plot fed English anxiety about the security of the Protestantism and coincided with a rebellion of 8,000 Covenanters in Scotland in response to perceived oppression at the hands of the Scottish church hierarchy. Rumors of massacres in Ireland in 1679 and a French-backed Irish rebellion in 1680 lent further credence to Oates tale.
Fear of rebellion combined with English fears of the security of the Protestant Reformation in Northwest Europe to lead religious dissenters to worry that Charles or his Catholic heir would adopt arbitrary power in the manner of Louis XIV of France to reintroduce Catholicism. Jonathan Scott argues that the Whigs’ parliamentary movement for limitations on the monarchy and Anglican hierarchy that they believed would protect them from persecution by an absolute ruler represent a reawakening of republican ideals. Although members of the House of Commons offered lesser solutions such as creating a regency council during the reign of future Catholic monarchs, or having Charles remarry to produce a legitimate heir, their primary goal remained the exclusion of his Catholic brother, the Duke of York, from the succession primarily due to this dormant republicanism. In the Duke of York’s place, Charles’ parliamentary opponents asked him to declare his illegitimate son, the Duke on Monmouth, legitimate, making him next in the line of succession.
When Charles proved unwilling to alter the succession, Whig parliamentarians attempted to force the issue by introducing the Acts of Exclusion in parliaments of 1679, 1680, and 1681. Charles prevented passage of all three attempts by suspending, and then dissolving parliament. Frustrated by his intransigence, and unable to coerce Charles into either maintaining parliament or calling new ones due to his ready income, the Whig waged a propaganda campaign of pamphlets, broadsheets, and newspapers. The Whigs also utilized popular coffee houses to coordinate their attacks on Charles and his ministers. The propaganda campaign was an effective one, allowing the Whigs to return majorities to the parliaments of 1680 and 1681 by playing on the electors’ fear of Catholics and arbitrary rule. When these measures did not achieve the desired effect, parliamentary Whigs impeached or imprisoned Charles’ ministers.
The Whig campaign included defenses of the “Right of War” espoused by John Locke, who argued that when government invaded the rights of the individual; the government lost its authority to govern. Locke expanded on the arguments of William Penn and William Mead, who argued that laws had no force if they ran counter to the rights provided by Magna Carta, and that the individual would therefore be in a state of war against the oppressive regime. In addition to the contention that a government that violated individual rights, Scott finds that radicals revived the rhetoric and idealism of the revolution in order to defend their religious freedom. John Locke and Algernon Sidney wrote their treatises on civil government in response to the belief that spiritual and civil oppression were irrevocably linked.
To Charles II and his Tory supporters it appeared that the Whig campaign was leading in the direction of the First Civil War, and responded by fighting fire with fire. When the Duke of York was charged with recusancy, the grand jury was dissolved before it could indict him. When he was ultimately indicted in Middlesex, the case was moved to the King’s Bench and not prosecuted. In response to Whig sermons that equated Catholicism with arbitrary rule and persecution of Protestants, the Anglican hierarchy preached that dissent and Civil War would return England to the arbitrary rule of Parliament. Dissolving the eight-day Parliament of 1681, Charles publicly accused the sitting parliament of arbitrary use of its power by imprisoning his supporters without due process.
The Parliament of 1681 was the last called during his reign. After dissolving parliament, Charles and the Tories embarked on a campaign to suppress all political and religious dissent. He accomplished this by appealing to public opinion and by purging Whigs from local and national government. The purge allowed Charles to silence dissent using his powers to censor the press. Unlike his father, Charles II was able to pursue this course because he was not dependent upon parliament for income. The 1660 restoration provided the monarchy with permanent revenues in the form of excise taxes and monthly assessments, which later supplemented by chimney money and poll taxes. Increasing trade and efficiency in collecting customs duties further bolstered Charles revenue. Charles also received a secret subsidy from Louis XIV, a result of his agreement to stay neutral in the Franco-Dutch conflict.
Freedom from parliamentary interference, allowed Charles and the Tories to sway public opinion through a propaganda campaign that not only matched Whig treatises and newspapers with persuasive arguments, but also popular clubs. Charles published his own works, which he ordered read from the pulpit. In order to keep the peace and to demonstrate his divine right to rule, Charles’ supporters targeted all levels of society, not just the propertied elite who voted or served in parliament. Harris argues that the propaganda campaign was a direct response to the opposition appeals to the public that led to the Civil War in the 1640’s (Harris, 219). Addresses, or petitions supporting the King, were also used to demonstrate public support for the monarchy. Towns, counties, and groups collected signatures of individuals agreeing to statements supporting Charles’ policies in a coordinated campaign. The receipt of the addresses was then published in the Tory press to convince the reading public of wide support for the King. Like other propaganda efforts, the addresses targeted the muddled middle that initially supported the Whigs in the absence of counter arguments.
The propaganda campaign accompanied the purge of Whigs and dissenters from local offices and returned loyalists to their places. Justices of the Peace and militia leaders not loyal to the crown lost their offices. The purge was not limited to the counties, but extended to the corporations. Corporations were a particularly tricky issue, as they selected their own magistrates, voted for the majority of MPs, and had their own judicial systems. The corporations were purged through a series of systematic challenges of their charters. The purpose of the corporate purge was to prevent Whigs from packing juries. By controlling municipal juries, the crown could ensure that its censorship efforts were effective, as juries controlled by Tories returned staggering judgments against Whig partisans for libel or recusancy. Excessive fines allowed the crown to imprison its opponents, removing them from the political scene.
The combination of propaganda, income, and control of local government allowed Charles and the Tories to quash opposition to his reign and his brothers’ succession through his death in 1685. Charles’ success was furthered by his ability to play his three kingdoms against each other. His supporters in the Scottish parliament passed an act declaring that the parliament in England could not alter the succession. During the Exclusion Crisis, Charles II enjoyed freedom of action because he did not have to rely on parliament for income, and the fact that he was not held as a virtual hostage by an invading army from the north. His understanding of the need to placate the populace combined with his financial freedom to allow him to strengthen the Stuart monarchy during his reign.
The causes of the Exclusion Crisis remain a matter of debate. Steven Pincus argues that the debate was a wholly secular one on the nature of government, while Richard Greaves argues that radicals primarily focused on defending Protestantism in England, Scotland, and the Netherlands against encroaching Catholic gains in Europe. Jonathan Scott contends that the work of Locke and Sidney clearly focus on the combination of arbitrary government and imposition of Catholicism. Tim Harris supports Scott’s interpretation of the Exclusion Crisis and political conflict in the later restoration. The contrast shows that the main historiographical issue is whether the radicalism of the Restoration period was more due to religious dissent, republican political ideals, or a combination of the two extremes.