1977: Benigno Aquino condemned 1835: John Smith and James Pratt, the last hanged for sodomy in Great Britain

1678: William Staley, “the prologue to the bloody tragedy”

November 26th, 2012 Headsman

David’s mildness managed it so well,
The bad found no occasion to rebel.
But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, [80]
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.

-John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a Biblical allegory of the English political/religious scene in which the Popish Plot (“plots, true or false”) took place

On this date in 1679, a Catholic goldsmith was hanged and quartered for treason … a preposterous case that would preview the tragic main acts of the “Popish Plot”.

This 17th century anti-Catholic witch hunt traced to weird and unprincipled Anglican divine Titus Oates.

With his friend Israel Tonge, Oates in 1678 ginned up a fantastical Jesuit plot against the life of Charles II — which supposed conspiracy played insidiously to the realm’s age-old religious divisions, in a moment when a Catholic royal sibling stood next in line to the throne.

Indeed, Oates’s “revelations” would trigger the Exclusion Crisis, an unsuccessful parliamentary bid to balk the heir presumptive James (eventually James II) of his throne. Parliament, argued Henry Capell, “must quiet the minds of the people, as to their fears of Popery and the Succession.”

In Queen Elizabeth’s time there were conspiracies against her, when Mary Queen of Scots was taken off. In King James’s time, the Gunpowder-Treason. In the last King’s time, a horrid Rebellion, that ended in his murder; but here the Crown is under such a character as is more dangerous than all those; and from Popery came the notion of a standing Army and arbitrary power.

Oh, and London had just burned down within everyone’s living memory, an event popularly ascribed to a French Catholic conspiracy even into the 19th century.

There was an awful lot of latent (and not-so-latent) anti-Popery around for Oates to stir up, and he proved to have a gift for this demagoguery. (pdf) In late 1678, a magistrate investigating Oates’s claims, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was mysteriously murdered, and all hell broke loose: a political assassination could now be hung on the alleged Catholic conspiracy. In short order, alleged Catholic conspirators would themselves hang for it.

It was a full 9/12 mentality: people going about armed, loyalty oaths, rumors of French invasion or Guy Fawkes tunneling.

Oates, when feeling his, would have the juice to put peers of the realm on the scaffold … so what chance did poor William Staley have?

This patsy, no great ornament of the “plot”, was more an incidental (and expedient) casualty of the swelling paranoia. Overheard at a tavern chatting about the Protestant freak-out, in French (quelle horreur!), a couple of unscrupulous eavesdroppers shopped for treason when they couldn’t blackmail him.

The sovereign was supposed to have been characterized in this chat as “a great Persecutor or Tormentor of the people of God … And ([Staley] stretching forth his Arm, and then clapping his Hand on his Breast), speaking of His Sacred Majesty, said, I my self will kill him.” (Source) Whether a frustrated Catholic into his cups incautiously popping off, an innocent naif set up by reprobates, or a case of lost in translation, it seems safe to say that William Staley was no danger to the monarchy.

Staley, at any rate, denied having said anything of the sort all the few hours that remained to draw breath, which wasn’t many. It was a mere 12 days from the “treasonable” conversation on Nov. 14 to Staley’s execution.

Image from William Faithorne‘s 1681 (misdated) engraving depicting William Staley being drawn to execution.

With this hanging, and another (that of Edward Coleman) a week later, the Popish Plot persecutions were into full swing … three years of Stuart England McCarthyism that would claim at least 15 lives and end with Titus Oates imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried.

After the Orange Revolution chased the Catholic monarch out of England, Oates was released and pensioned: the incident long remained an ideological litmus test between proto-Whigs (pro-Oates, as he was a club wielded against the absolutist aspirations of Charles II and James II) and Tories (anti-Oates, for the same reason). Centuries later, one commenter could still remark, “There are three events in our history that may be regarded as the touchstone of party men: an English whig who asserts the reality of the Popish plot, an Irish Catholic who denies the massacre of 1641, a Scotch Jacobite who maintains the innocence of Queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason.”

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Notable for their Victims,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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One Response to “1678: William Staley, “the prologue to the bloody tragedy””

  1. 1
    ExecutedToday.com » 1692: A batch at Tyburn, escorted by the Ordinary of Newgate Says:

    [...] Tyburn, lament, in pensive sable mourn, For from the world thy ancient priest is torn. Death, cruel death, thy learn’d divine has ended, And by a quinsey from his place suspended. Thus he expir’d in his old occupation, And as he liv’d, he dy’d by suffocation. Thou rev’rend pillar of the triple-tree, I would say post, for it was prop’d by thee; Thou penny-chronicler of hasty fate, Death’s annalist, reformer of the state; Cut-throat of texts, and chaplain of the halter, In whose sage presence vice itself did faulter: How many criminals, by thee assisted, Old Smith, have been most orthodoxly twisted? And when they labour’d with a dying qualm, Were decently suspended to a psalm? How oft hast thou set harden’d rogues a squeaking, By urging the great sin of Sabbath-breaking; And sav’d delinquents from Old Nick’s embraces, By flashing fire and brimstone in their faces? Thou wast a Gospel Smith, and after sentence Brought’st sinners to the anvil of repentance; And tho’ they prov’d obdurate at the sessions, Couldst hammer out of them most strange confessions, When plate was stray’d, and silver spoons were missing, And chamber-maid betray’d by Judas kissing. Thy christian bowels chearfully extended Towards such, as by their Mammon were befriended. Tho’ Culprit in enormous acts was taken, Thou would’st devise a way to save his bacon; And if his purse could bleed a half pistole, Legit, my lord, he reads, upon my soul. Spite of thy charity to dying wretches, Some fools would live to bilk thy gallows speeches. But who’d refuse, that has a taste of writing, To hang, for one learn’d speech of thy inditing? Thou always hadst a conscientious itching, To rescue penitents from Pluto’s kitchen; And hast committed upon many a soul A pious theft, but so St. Austin stole: And shoals of robbers, purg’d of sinful leaven, By thee were set in the high road to heaven. With sev’ral mayors hast thou eat beef and mustard, And frail mince-pies, and transitory custard. But now that learned head in dust is laid, Which has so sweetly sung, and sweetly pray’d: Yet, tho’ thy outward man is gone and rotten, Thy better part shall never be forgotten. While Newgate is a mansion for good fellows, And Sternhold‘s rhimes are murder’d at the gallows; While Holborn cits at execution gape, And cut-purse follow’d is by man of crape; While Grub-street Muse, in garrets so sublime, Trafficks in doggrel, and aspires to rhime; Thy deathless name and memory shall reign, From fam’d St. Giles’s, to Smithfield, and Duck-lane. But since thy death does general sorrow give, We hope thou in thy successor will live. Newgate and Tyburn jointly give their votes, Thou may’st succeeded be by Dr. Oates. [...]

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