Character and Reign
S OME of the traits of character for which King Charles II. has been most noted among mankind are well illustrated by his management of the affair of Lady Castlemaine, when the queen arrived at her new home in Hampton Court. Hampton Court is a very spacious and beautiful palace on the banks of the Thames, some miles above London, splendidly built, and very pleasantly situated at a graceful bend of the river. It was magnificently fitted up and furnished for Catharine's reception. Her suite of apartments were supplied and adorned in the most sumptuous manner. Her bed, which was a present to Charles, at the time of his restoration, from the States of Holland, was said to have cost, with all the appurtenances, a sum equal to between thirty and forty thousand dollars. The hangings were an embroidery of silver on crimson velvet. The other articles of furniture in the apartment, the mirrors, the richly inlaid cabinets, the toilet service of massive gold, the canopies, the carved chairs, the curtains, the tapestries, and the paintings, corresponded in magnificence with the bed, so that Catharine, when she was introduced to the scene, felt that she had attained to the very summit of human grandeur.
For a few weeks Catharine neither saw nor heard any thing of Lady Castlemaine. She was confined to her house at the time by the care of an infant, born a few days after the arrival of the queen. Her husband had the child baptized soon after its birth as his son and heir; but the mother soon afterward had it baptized again as the son of the king, Charles himself standing sponsor on the occasion. A violent quarrel followed between Lady Castlemaine and her husband. She left the house, taking with her all her servants and attendants, and all the plate and other valuables which she could carry away. The husband, overwhelmed with wretchedness and shame, abandoned every thing, and went to France, in voluntary exile. His wife then came and took up her residence at Richmond, which is not far from Hampton Court, so as to be near the king. In all these proceedings the king himself gave her his continued countenance, encouragement, and aid.
Although Catharine, in the confiding simplicity of her character, had fully believed, in coming to London, that Charles would be to her a true and faithful husband, still she had heard the name of Lady Castlemaine before she left Lisbon. Her mother had once briefly alluded to the subject, and gave her a warning, charging her to remember the name, and to be on her guard against the lady herself, and never to tolerate her in her presence on any pretext. Things were in this state, when, one day, after Catharine had been about six weeks in her new home, Charles brought in a list of ladies whom he proposed that she should make the ladies of her household. Catharine took the list, and there, to her surprise and indignation, she saw the dreaded name of Lady Castlemaine at the head of it.
Very much agitated, she began to prick out the name, and to declare that she could not listen to any such proposition. Charles was angry, and remonstrated. She persisted, and said that he must either yield to her in that point, or send her back to Lisbon. Charles was determined to have his way, and Catharine was overwhelmed with anguish and grief. This lasted two days, when Charles made his peace with his wife by solemnly promising to give up Lady Castlemaine, and to have from that time forward nothing more to do with her.
King Charles II. has always been famed for his good nature. This was a specimen of it. He never liked to quarrel with any body, and was always ready to give up his point, in appearance and form at least, for the sake of peace and good humor. Accordingly, when he found how immovably averse his wife was to having Lady Castlemaine for an inmate of her family, instead of declaring that she must and should submit to his will, he gave up himself, and said that he would think no more about it, without, however, having the remotest idea of keeping his word. He was only intending, since he found the resistance so decided on this side of the citadel, to try to find some other approach.
Accordingly, a short time after this, one evening when the queen was holding a sort of levee in a brilliant saloon, surrounded by her Portuguese ladies, and receiving English ladies, as they were one after another presented to her by the king, the company were astonished at seeing Lady Castlemaine appear with the rest, and, as she advanced, the king presented her to the queen. To the surprise of every one, Catharine received her as graciously as the rest, and gave her her hand. The fact was, that Catharine, not being familiar with the sound and pronunciation of English words, had not understood the name. One of the Portuguese ladies who stood near her whispered to inquire if she knew that that was Lady Castlemaine. Catharine was stunned and staggered by the words as by a blow. The blood gushed from her nose, she fell over into the arms of her attendants in a fainting fit, and was borne out of the room.
There followed, after this scene, a long and dreadful quarrel. Charles accused his wife of unreasonable and foolish jealousy, and of putting a public insult upon one of the ladies of his court, whom she was bound to treat with civility and respect, since he chose to have it so. She, on the other hand, declared that he was cruel and tyrannical in making such demands upon her, and that she would go back to Portugal rather than submit to such an intolerable indignity. She criminated Charles, and Charles recriminated and threatened her, and for one night the palace was filled with the noise and uproar of the quarrel. The ladies and gentlemen of the household were very glad, they said, that they were not in London, where there would have been so many more witnesses of the scene.
Some of Charles's counselors and ministers of state were disposed at first to remonstrate with him for laying commands on his wife, with which, as they expressed it, flesh and blood could not comply. He, however, peremptorily silenced all their expostulations, and required them, as they valued his favor, to aid him in effecting his purposes. Good natured as he was, his determination was fully aroused, and he was now resolved to compel the queen to submit. He wrote a letter to Lord Clarendon, in which he declared his absolute and unalterable determination to make Lady Castlemaine "of the queen's bed chamber," and hoped he might be miserable in this world and in the world to come if he failed in the least degree in what he had undertaken; and if any one of his friends attempted to thwart or impede him in it in any way, he would make him repent of it as long as he lived. The king concluded his letter with asking Clarendon to show it to some others concerned, that they might all understand distinctly what they were to expect.
Of course, every body, after this, took sides against the queen, and all who had access to her urged her to comply with the wishes of the king. She begged and prayed to be spared such an indignity. She remonstrated, sometimes with impetuous passion, and sometimes with silent grief and bitter tears. She wanted to go back again to Portugal; but this, of course, could not be. The end of it was, that she was worn out at last. Lady Castlemaine was admitted, and remained an inmate of her family as long as she retained her place in the king's regard.
Lady Castlemaine was a proud and imperious beauty, who abused the power which she soon found that she possessed over the king, in a manner to make her an object of hatred to every one else. She interfered with every thing, and had a vast influence even over the affairs of state. The king was sometimes out of patience, and attempted resistance, but she soon reduced him to submission. There was once some question about sending a certain nobleman, who was charged with some political offenses, to the Tower. She declared that he should not be sent there. The king rebuked her interference, and they got into a high dispute on the subject, the king telling her, in the end, "that she was an impertinent jade, that meddled with things she had nothing to do with." To which she replied "that he was a great fool, that let fools have the management of his affairs, and sent his faithful servants to prison." In the end, the lady gained the victory, and the nobleman went free. Violent quarrels of this kind were very frequent between these high life lovers, and they always ended in the triumph of Lady Castlemaine. She used to threaten, as a last resort, that if the king came to an open rupture with her, she would print the letters that he had written to her, and this always brought him to terms.
These incidents indicate a very extraordinary freedom and familiarity of manners on the part of Charles, and he probably appears, in all these transactions, to much greater disadvantage in some respects than he otherwise would have done, on account of the extreme openness and frankness of his character. He lived, in fact, on the most free and familiar terms with all around him, jesting continually with every body, and taking jests, with perfect good nature, from others in return. In fact, his jests, gibes, and frolics kept the whole court continually in a condition of frivolous gayety and fun, which would have excited the astonishment of all the serious portion of mankind, if the extreme and universal dissipation and vice which prevailed had not awakened a far deeper emotion.
In fact, there seemed to be no serious element whatever in the monarch's character. He was, for instance, very fond of dogs, and cultivated a particular breed, since called King Charles's spaniels, which he kept at one time in great numbers, and in all stages of age and condition, in his palace, and in his very bed chamber, making all the apartments around very disagreeable by the effluvia. Rewards were constantly offered for certain of the king's dogs which had escaped. They were always escaping. He was attended by these dogs wherever he went, and at his meetings with his council, while the gravest and most momentous national interests were under discussion, he would amuse himself by playing with them under the table. He read his speeches at Parliament, that is, the brief messages with which the sovereign usually opens the session, in a ridiculous manner, and at church, instead of attending to the service, he would play at peep with Lady Castlemaine between the curtains which separated his box from that of the ladies of the household. And yet he pretended to be a firm believer in Christianity; and while he had no objection to any extreme of vice, he discountenanced infidelity. On one occasion, when a philosophical skeptic had been enlarging for some time on his objections to the Christian faith, Charles replied by saying, "My lord, I am a great deal older than your grace, and have heard more arguments in favor of atheism than you, but I have lived long enough to see that there is nothing in them, and I hope your grace will."
Charles spent most of his time, at some periods of his reign, in idle amusements, lounging about his palace, playing at tennis in the tennis court like a boy, and then weighing himself afterward to see how much he was gaining. In the afternoons and evenings he would loiter in the rooms of his favorites while they were finishing their dressing, gamble at cards, and often would get very much intoxicated at wild midnight carousals. He would ramble in the mall and in the parks, and feed the aquatic birds upon the ponds there, day after day, with all the interest and pleasure of a truant schoolboy. He roamed about thus in the most free and careless manner, and accosted people far beneath him in rank in what was considered a undignified way for a king.
His brother James, the Duke of York, sometimes remonstrated with him on this subject. James was, of course, so long as the queen, Charles's lawful wife, had no children, the next heir to the crown. He spent most of his life in the court of his brother, and they were generally very warm friends to each other. On one of Charles's frolicking excursions, when he was away far from his palace, without any suitable attendants or guards, James told him that he really thought his life was not safe in such exposures. Charles replied by telling James not to give himself any uneasiness. "You may depend upon it," said he, "that nobody will ever think of killing me to make you king."
The king was not unwilling, too, to take, himself, such jests as he gave. One day, in conversation with a dissolute member of the court, after they had been joking each other for some time, he said, "Ah! Shaftesbury, I verily believe you are the wickedest dog in my dominions." "Yes," replied Shaftesbury, "for a subject, I think I am."
There was a mischievous and unmanageable goat in one of the palace courtyards, whose name was Old Rowley, and the courtiers considered the beast as affording so just an emblem of the character of the king, that they gave the king his name. Charles, instead of resenting it, entered into the jest; and one day, as he was going into the apartment of some of the ladies, be heard them singing a song, in which he figured ridiculously as the goat. He knocked at the door. They asked who was there. "Only Old Rowley," said the king.
The king's repartees were some of them really good, and he obtained in his day the reputation of being quite a wit, while yet all his actions, and the whole of his management of his affairs, were so utterly unwise and so wholly unworthy of his station, that every one was struck with the contrast. One of the wits of his court one day wrote an epitaph for him, over his door, as follows:
When the king came and saw this inscription, he stopped to read it, and said, "Yes, that is very true; and the reason is, my doings are those of my ministers, while my sayings are my own."
Charles had, in fact, very little to do with the public affairs of his kingdom. He liked to build palaces and ships, and he expended vast sums, not very judiciously, on these plans. Sir Christopher Wren, the famous architect, planned one of these palaces, and Charles, when he went to see it, complained that the rooms were too small. Sir Christopher walked about with a self-important air, looking up at the ceiling, and said that he thought they were high enough. Sir Christopher was very small in stature. Charles accordingly squatted down as well as he could, to get his head in as low a position as the architect's, and walked about the room in that ridiculous attitude, looking up in mimicry of Sir Christopher's manner, and then said, "Oh, yes, now I think they are high enough."
These building plans, and other similar undertakings, together with the vast amounts which the king lavished upon his numerous female favorites, exhausted his resources, and kept him in continual straits for money. He was always urging Parliament to make new grants, and to lay more taxes, until, as he said himself, he was ashamed to look his Parliament in the face, he was so continually begging them for supplies. The people caricatured him by the representation of a poverty-stricken man, with his pockets turned inside out, and begging money. At another time the caricature took the form of a man led along against his will by two women, and threatened by a third, wearing all the time a countenance expressive of helplessness and distress.
The king bore all these things with the utmost good nature, satisfied, apparently, if he could only enjoy the pleasures of dissipation and vice, and continue, in his palaces, a perpetual round of reckless merriment and fun. Some of the stories which are gravely told by the historians of the day are scarcely credible. For instance, it is said that a thief one day found his way, in the guise of a gentleman, into one of the royal drawing rooms, and contrived to get a gold snuff box out of the pocket of one of the noblemen there. Just as he had successfully accomplished his object, unobserved, as he supposed, he looked up, and saw the king's eyes fastened upon him. Knowing his majesty's character, the thief had the presence of mind to give him a wink, with a sly gesture enjoining secrecy. The king nodded assent, and the thief went away with his prize. When the nobleman missed his snuff box, the king amused himself some time with his perplexity and surprise, and then told him that it was of no use for him to search for his snuff box, for a thief had gone off with it half an hour ago. "I saw him," said the king, with a countenance full of fun, "but I could not do any thing. The rascal made me his confidant, and, of course, you know, I could not betray him."
Under the government of such a sovereign, it could not be expected that the public affairs of the realm would have gone on very prosperously. Still, however, they might have been conducted with ordinary success by his ministers, and perhaps they were, in fact, managed as well as was usual with the governments of Europe in those days. It happened, however, that three great public calamities occurred, all of a most marked and signal character, which were, perhaps, not owing at all to causes for which Charles was responsible, but which have nevertheless connected such associations in men's minds with this unfortunate reign, as that Englishmen have since looked back upon it with very little pleasure. These three calamities were the plague, the fire, and the Dutch invasion.
There have been a great many seasons of plague in London, all inconceivably dreadful; but as King Charles's fire was first among conflagrations, so his plague was the greatest pestilence that ever ravaged the city. London was, in those days, in a condition which exactly adapted it to be the easy prey of pestilence, famine, and fire. The people were crowded together in vast masses, with no comforts, no cleanliness, no proper organization. The enormous vegetable and animal accumulations of such a multitude, living more like brutes than men, produced a continual miasma, which prepared the constitutions of thousands for any infection which might chance to light among them. Pestilence is, in fact, the rude and dreadful remedy which nature provides for the human misery which man himself can not or will not cure. When the dictates of reason and conscience are neglected or disobeyed, and the ills which they might have averted sink the social state into a condition of degradation and wretchedness so great that the denser accumulations of the people become vast and corrupted swarms of vermin instead of organized communities of men, then plague and fever come in as the last resort—half remedy, half retribution—devised by that mysterious principle which struggles perpetually for the preservation of the human race, to thin off the excessive accumulation by destroying a portion of the surplus in so frightful a way as to drive away the rest in terror.
The great plague of London took place in 1665, one year before the fire. The awful scenes which the whole city presented, no pen can describe. A hundred thousand persons are said to have died. The houses where cases of the plague existed were marked with a red cross and shut up, the inmates being all fastened in, to live or die, at the mercy of the infection. Every day carts rolled through the otherwise silent and desolate streets, men accompanying them to gather up with pitchforks the dead bodies which had been dragged out from the dwellings, and crying "Bring out your dead" as they went along. Thousands went mad with their uncontrollable terror, and roamed about the streets in raving delirium, killing themselves, and mothers killing their children, in an insane and phrensied idea of escaping by that means, somehow or other, from the dreadful destroyer.
Every body whose reason remained to them avoided all possible contact or communication with others. Even in the country, in the exchange of commodities, a thousand contrivances were resorted to, to avoid all personal connection. In one place there was a stone, where those who had any thing to sell placed their goods and then retreated, while he who wished to buy came up, and, depositing his money on the stone in the place of the merchandise, took what he had thus bought away.
The great fire took place in 1666, about a year after the plague, and burned a very large part of London. It commenced accidentally in a baker's shop, where a great store of fagots had been collected, and spread so rapidly among the buildings which surrounded the spot that it was soon entirely beyond control. The city of London was then composed of an immense mass of mean buildings, crowded densely together, with very narrow streets intervening, and the wind carried the flames, with inconceivable rapidity, far and wide. The people seemed struck universally with a sense of terror and despair, and nothing was to be heard but shrieks, outcries, and wild lamentations. The sky was one vast lurid canopy, like molten brass, day and night, for four days, while the whole city presented a scene of indescribable and awful din; the cracking and thundering of the flames, the phrensied screams of the women and children, the terrific falling of spires, towers, walls, and lofty battlements, the frightful explosions of the houses, blown up by gunpowder in the vain hope of stopping the progress of the flames, all formed a scene of grandeur so terrific and dreadful, that they who witnessed the spectacle were haunted by the recollection of it long afterward, as by a frightful dream. A tall monument was built upon the spot where the baker's shop stood, to commemorate the calamity. The fire held, in fact, in the estimation of mankind, the rank of the greatest and most terrible of all conflagrations, until the burning of Moscow, in the time of Napoleon, in some degree eclipsed its fame.
The Dutch invasion was the third great calamity which signalized King Charles's unfortunate reign. The ships of the enemy came up the Thames and the Medway, which is a branch of the Thames; they took possession of a fort at Sheerness, near the mouth of the river, and, after seizing all the military stores, which had been collected there to an enormous amount, they set fire to the powder magazine, and blew up the whole fortress with a terrific explosion. The way was now open to them to London, unless the English could contrive some way to arrest their progress. They attempted to do this by sinking some ships in the river, and drawing a strong chain across from one sunken vessel to the other, and fastening the ends to the shores. The Dutch, however, broke through this obstruction. They seized an opportunity when the tide was setting strongly up the river, and a fresh wind was blowing; their ships, impelled thus by a double force, broke through the chains, passed safely between the sunken ships, and came on in triumph up the river, throwing the city of London into universal consternation. There were several English ships of war, and several Dutch ships, which had been captured and brought up the Thames as prizes, lying in the river; these vessels were all seized by the Dutch, and burned; one of the English ships which they thus destroyed was called the Royal Oak.
Of course, there was now a universal scene of confusion and terror in London. Every body laid the blame of the calamity upon the king; the money which he had received for building ships, and other national defenses, he had squandered, they said, upon his guilty pleasures; then the war, which had resulted in this invasion, was caused by the political mismanagement of his reign. While the people, however, thus loudly condemned the conduct of their monarch, they went energetically at work to arrest the progress of their invaders; they sunk other ships in greater numbers, and built platforms, on which they raised batteries of cannon. At length the further progress of the enemy was stopped, and the ships were finally compelled to retire.
Among the other events which occurred during the reign of King Charles the Second, and which tended to connect unfavorable associations with the recollection of it in the minds of men, was a very extraordinary affair, which is known in history by the name of Titus Oates's Popish Plot. It was the story of a plot, said to have been formed by the Catholics, to put King Charles to death, and place his brother James, who, it will be recollected, was a Catholic, upon the throne in his stead. The story of this plot was told by a man named Titus Oates, and as it was at first generally believed, it occasioned infinite trouble and difficulty. In after times, however, the whole story came to be regarded as the fabrication of Oates, without there being any foundation for it whatever; hence the name of Titus Oates's Popish Plot, by which the affair has always since been designated in history. The circumstances were these:
Among his other various accomplishments, King Charles was quite a chemist and philosopher. He had a laboratory where he amused himself with experiments, having, of course, several persons associated with him, and attendant upon him in these researches. Among these was a man named Kirby. Mr. Kirby was an intelligent man, of agreeable manners, and of considerable scientific attainments. Charles devoted, at some periods of his life, a considerable portion of his time to these researches in experimental philosophy, and he took, likewise, an interest in facilitating the progress of others in the same pursuits. There was a small society of philosophers that was accustomed to meet sometimes in Oxford and sometimes in London. The object of this society was to provide apparatus and other facilities for making experiments, and to communicate to each other at their meetings the result of their investigations. The king took this society under his patronage, and made it, as it were, his own. He gave it the name of The Royal Society, and granted it a charter, by which it was incorporated as a permanent organization, with the most ample powers. This association has since become one of the most celebrated learned societies in the world, and its establishment is one of the very few transactions of King Charles's reign which have been since remembered with pleasure.
But to return to Mr. Kirby. One day, when the king was walking in the park with a party of companions and attendants, who were separated more or less from him, as was usual on such occasions, Mr. Kirby came up to him, and, with a mysterious and earnest air, begged the king not to allow himself to be separated from the company, for his life, he said, was in danger. "Keep with your company, sir," said he, "your enemies have a design upon your life. You may be suddenly shot on this very walk." Charles was not easily frightened, and he received this announcement with great composure. He asked an explanation, however, and Mr. Kirby informed him that a plot had been formed by the Catholics to destroy him; that two men had been engaged to shoot him; and, to make the result doubly sure, another arrangement had been made to poison him. The queen's physician was the person, he said, who was charged with this latter design. Mr. Kirby said, moreover, that there was a clergyman, Dr. Tong, who was fully acquainted with all the particulars of the plot, and that, if the king would grant him an interview that evening, he would make them all known.
The king agreed to this, and in the evening Dr. Tong was introduced. He had a budget of papers which he began to open and read, but Charles had not patience to hear them; his mind was full of a plan which he was contemplating of going to Windsor the next day, to look at some new decorations which he had ordered for several of the apartments of the palace. He did not believe in the existence of any plot. It is true that plots and conspiracies were very common in those days, but false rumors and unfounded tales of plots were more common still. There was so much excitement in the minds of the community on the subject of the Catholic and Protestant faith, and such vastly extended interests depended on whether the sovereign belonged to one side or the other on this question, that every thing relating to the subject was invested with a mysterious awe, and the most wonderful stories were readily circulated and believed. The public mind was always particularly sensitive and excitable in such a case as that of Charles and his brother James at the time of which we are writing, where the reigning monarch, Charles, was of one religious faith, and his brother James, the next heir, was of the other. The death of Charles, which might at any time take place, would naturally lead to a religious revolution, and this kept the whole community in an exceedingly excitable and feverish state. There was a great temptation to form plots on the one hand, and a great eagerness to discover them on the other; and any man who could tell a story of treasonable schemes, whether his tale was true or fabricated, became immediately a personage of great importance.
Charles was well aware of these things, and was accordingly disposed to pay very little attention to Dr. Tong's papers. He said he had no time to look into them, and so he referred the whole case to the Lord Treasurer Danby, an officer of his court, whom he requested to examine into the affair. Dr. Tong, therefore, laid his papers before Danby, while the king went off the next day to Windsor to examine the new fresco paintings and the other decorations of the palace.
Danby was disposed to regard the story in a very different light from that in which it had appeared to the king. It is said that there were some charges about to be brought forward against himself for certain malpractices in his office, and that he was very much pleased, accordingly, at the prospect of having something come up to attract public attention, and turn it away from his own misdemeanors. He listened, therefore, with great interest to Dr. Tong's account of the plot, and made many minute and careful inquiries. Dr. Tong informed him that he had himself no personal knowledge of the conspiracy; that the papers, which contained all the information that he was possessed of, had been thrown into the hall of his house from the front door, and that he did not certainly know by whom, though he suspected, he said, one Titus Oates, who had formerly been a Catholic priest, and was still so far connected with the Catholics as to have very favorable opportunities to become acquainted with their designs.
Soon after this Dr. Tong had another interview with the lord treasurer, and informed him that his surmise had proved true; that it was Titus Oates who had drawn up the papers, and that he was informed in regard to all the particulars of the plot, but that he did not dare to do any thing openly in revealing them, for fear that the conspirators would kill him. The lord treasurer communicated the result of his inquiries to the king, and urged the affair upon his attention as one of the utmost possible importance. The king himself, however, was very skeptical on the subject. He laughed at the lord treasurer's earnestness and anxiety. The lord treasurer wished to have a meeting of the council called, that the case might be laid before them, but Charles refused. Nobody should know any thing about it, he said, not even his brother. It would only create excitement and alarm, and perhaps put it into somebody's head to murder him, though nobody at present had any such design.
But, notwithstanding the king's determination not to give publicity to the story of the plot, rumors of it gradually transpired, and began to excite attention. The fact that such stories were in circulation soon came to the knowledge of the Duke of York, and, of course, immediately arrested his earnest attention. As he was himself a Catholic, and the heir to the crown, any suspicion of a Catholic plot formed to dethrone his brother necessarily implicated him. He demanded an examination into the case. In a short time, vague but exaggerated rumors on the subject began to circulate through the community at large, which awakened, of course, a very general anxiety and alarm. So great was the virulence of both political and religious animosities in those days, that no one knew to what scenes of persecution or of massacre such secret conspiracies might tend. Oates, whose only object was to bring himself into notice, and to obtain rewards for making known the plot which he had pretended to discover, now found, to his great satisfaction, that the fire which he had kindled was beginning to burn. The meeting of the council was called, and he was summoned to attend it. Before the time arrived, however, he went to a justice of the peace, and laid the evidence before him of the existence of the conspiracy, and of all the details respecting it which he pretended to have discovered. The name of this justice was Sir Edmondsbury Godfrey. A remarkable circumstance afterward occurred in respect to him, as will presently be related, which greatly increased and extended the popular excitement in relation to the pretended plot.
The plot, as Oates invented and detailed it, was on the most magnificent scale imaginable. The pope himself was at the head of it. The pope, he said, had laid the subject before a society of learned theologians at Rome, and they had decided that in such a case as that of England, where the sovereign and a majority of the people had renounced the true religion, and given themselves up to avowed and open heresy, the monarch lost all title to his crown, and the realms thus fallen from the faith lapsed to the pope, and were to be reclaimed by him by any mode which it seemed to him expedient to adopt. Under these circumstances, the pope had assumed the sovereignty over England, and had commissioned the society of the Jesuits—a very powerful religious society, extending over most of the countries of Europe— to take possession of the realm; that, in the prosecution of this plan, the king was to be assassinated, and that a very large sum of money had been raised and set apart, to be paid to any person who would kill the king; that an offer of ten thousand pounds had been made to the queen's physician if he would poison him. The physician had insisted upon fifteen thousand for so great a service, and this demand had finally been acceded to; and five thousand had actually been paid him in advance. Besides the murder of the king, a general assassination of the Protestants was to take place. There were twenty thousand Catholics in London, for instance, who, according to Oates's account of the plan, were to rise on a preconcerted night, and each one was to kill five Protestants, which it was thought they could easily do, as the Protestants would be taken wholly by surprise, and would be unarmed. The revolution being thus effected, the crown was to be offered to Charles's brother, the Duke of York, as a gift from the pope, and, if he should refuse to accept it on such conditions as the pope might see fit to impose, he was himself to be immediately assassinated, and some other disposal to be made of the kingdom.
Oates was examined before the council very closely, and he contradicted himself so much, and made so many misstatements about absent persons, and the places where he pretended that certain transactions had taken place, as to prove the falseness of his whole story. The public, however, knew little or thought little of these proofs. They hated the Catholics, and were eager to believe and to circulate any thing which tended to excite the public mind against them. The most extravagant stories were accordingly circulated, and most excessive and universal fears prevailed, increasing continually by the influence of mutual action and reaction, and of sympathy, until the whole country was in a state of terror. A circumstance now occurred which added tenfold to the excitement, and produced, in fact, a general consternation.
This circumstance was the sudden and mysterious death of Sir Edmondsbury Godfrey, the justice who had taken the depositions of Oates in respect to the conspiracy. He had been missing for several days, and at length his body was found in a trench, by the side of a field, in a solitary place not far from London. His own sword had been run into his body, and was remaining in the wound. His watch and his money were safe in his pocket, showing that he had not been killed by robbers. This event added greatly to the excitement that prevailed. The story was circulated that he had been killed by the Catholics for having aided in publishing the discovery of their plot. They who wished to believe Oates's story found in the justice's death most ample confirmation of it. The body was brought forward and exhibited to the public gaze in a grand procession, which moved through the streets of London; and at the funeral guards were stationed, one on each side of the preacher, while he was delivering the funeral discourse, to impress the people with a sense of the desperate recklessness of Catholic hate, by the implication that even a minister of the Gospel, in the exercise of the most solemn of his functions, was not safe without an effectual guard.
From this time the excitement and commotion went on increasing at a very rapid rate. Oates himself, of course, became immediately a man of great importance; and to maintain himself in his new position, he invented continually new stories, each more terrible than the preceding. New informers, too, began to appear, confirming Oates's statements, and adding new details of their own, that they might share his distinctions and rewards. These men became continually more and more bold, in proportion to the increasing readiness of the people to receive their inventions for truths. They accused persons of higher and higher rank, until at last they dared to implicate the queen herself in their charges. They knew that, as she was a Catholic, she was unpopular with the nation at large, and as Charles had so many other lady favorites, they concluded that he would feel no interest in vindicating her from false aspersions. They accordingly brought forward accusations against the queen of having joined in the conspiracy, of having been privy to the plan of murdering the king, and of having actually arranged and directed the assassination of the justice, Sir Edmondsbury. These charges produced, of course, great excitement. The people of the country were generally predisposed to believe them true. There were various investigations of them, and long protracted examinations of the witnesses before the council and before judicial commissions appointed to inquire into and decide upon the case. These inquisitions led to debates and disputes, to criminations and recriminations without number, and they threw the whole court and the whole nation into a state of extreme excitement, some taking sides against, and some in favor of the queen. Although the popular sentiment was against her, every fair and candid mind, that attended carefully to the evidence, decided unhesitatingly in her favor. The stories of the witnesses were utterly inconsistent with each other, and in many of their details impossible. Still, so great was the public credulity, and so eager the desire to believe every thing, however absurd, which would arouse and strengthen the anti-Catholic feeling, that the queen found herself soon the object of extreme and universal odium.
The king, however, much to his credit, refused all belief of these accusations against Catharine, and strongly defended her cause. He took care to have the witnesses cross examined, and to have the inconsistencies in their testimony, and the utter impossibility that their statements could be true, pointed out. He believed, he said, that she was entirely innocent, and that the whole plan was a conspiracy to effect her destruction. "They think, I suppose," said the king, "that I should like a new wife, but I will not suffer an innocent woman to be wronged." He also told one of the ministers of state, in speaking of the subject, that, considering how hardly he had treated his wife, and how much reason she had for just complaints against him, it would be an atrocious thing for him to abandon her in such an extremity.
A volume might be filled with stories of the strange and exciting incidents that grew out of this pretended popish plot. Its consequences extended disastrously through many years, and involved a vast number of innocent persons in irretrievable ruin. The true character of Oates and his accomplices was, however, at length fully proved, and they themselves suffered the fate at last which they had brought upon others. The whole affair was a disgrace to the age. There is no circumstance connected with it which can be looked upon with any pleasure except King Charles's fidelity to his injured wife in refusing to abandon her, though he no longer loved her. His defense of her innocence, involving, as it did, a continuance of the matrimonial tie, which bound them together when all the world supposed that he wished it sundered, seems to have resulted from a conscientious sense of duty, and implies certain latent traits of generosity and nobleness in Charles's character, which, though ordinarily overpowered and nullified by the influences of folly and vice, still always seem to have maintained their hold, and to come out to view from time to time, in the course of the gay monarch's life, whenever any emergency occurred sufficient to call them into action.
The reign of King Charles the Second was signalized by many other untoward and disastrous events besides those which we have enumerated. There were unfortunate wars, great defeats in naval battles, unlucky negotiations abroad, and plots and conspiracies, dangerous and disgraceful, at home. The king, however, took all these things very good naturedly, and allowed them to interfere very little with his own personal pleasures. Whatever troubles or embarrassments affected the state, he left the anxiety and care which pertained to them to his ministers and his council, banishing all solicitude from his own mind, and enjoying himself all the time with his experiments, his ladies, his dogs, and his perpetual fun.