- Fake news isn’t a new phenomenon.
- In 1678, rumours of a fabricated plot against the king gripped England.
- Public sentiments became more heated in the wake of a mysterious murder.
- Many innocent people were hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Fake news seems to be everywhere nowadays.
It spreads like crazy across the web and is blind to ideology. It’s allegedly a tactic used in Russia’s campaign to influence democratic elections. It’s a favourite term of President Donald Trump, too — especially when it comes to unflattering media coverage.
It’s also easier than ever for conspiracy theories to gain steam and spread fast.
Google accidentally promoted a fake story accusing former President Barack Obama of planning a coup, some conservative media figures have embraced the fringe theory that the CIA hacked the Democratic National Committee and framed Russia, and a recent lawsuit against Fox News alleges that the network worked with the White House to promote a conspiracy theory about the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich, a claim the Trump administration has denied.
There’s no end in sight to all this misinformation.
But while the term “fake news” might be having a moment, the idea is really nothing new. Fake news is in many ways older than its more legitimate counterpart, as historian Jacob Soll wrote for Politico.
In fact, 339 years ago, fake news whipped up such a fury across the Atlantic that the English Crown hanged and disemboweled about 15 people, including an ancestor of mine — St. Oliver Plunkett.
Today, his severed head is displayed as a relic at St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda. It’s kind of creepy, with stretched skin, hollow eye sockets, and frozen grimace. My family stops by to see it every time we visit Ireland. We are said to be related to him through my great-grandmother, Mary Plunkett. Several of my grand aunts and grand uncles even attended his 1975 canonization, travelling to Rome from as far away as Uganda.
So how did Plunkett’s head get separated from his body? It all boils down to a bad bout of seventeenth century fake news, spread by the machinations of a band of conspiracy merchants, a brutal, still-unsolved murder, and a city teetering on the edge of hysteria.
Here’s how it all went down:
This panic -- now dubbed the Popish Plot, or Oates' Plot -- was sparked in London in 1678. Ever since Henry VIII's break with Pope Clement VII in 1533, England had been in the throes of a religious upheaval, pitting Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Protestant nonconformists against one another.
The subsequent century saw more strife, including recurring religious persecutions, a failed Catholic conspiracy to blow up the House of Lords, a civil war between the Anglican Crown and a Puritan Parliament, the beheading of King Charles I, and the rise of Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell.
After the death of Cromwell in 1658, the previously deposed King Charles II returned to an England suspicious of any perceived foreign or Catholic influence.
Historian and 'The Popish Plot' author John Kenyon estimates that Catholics made up only 4.7% of England's population by the reign of Charles II, but they were still popularly perceived as getting away with flouting the rules at best, and a dangerous fifth column at worst.
This was an issue for a monarch who had spent his exile mingling in Catholic France, married the Catholic Catherine of Braganza, and was still close with his openly Catholic brother and eventual successor, the future King James II.
What's more, political engagement and media output in England was at a high point by the latter half of the 1600s, especially in urban centres like London.
'These media included new forms like newspapers, but also older ones, like gossip and rumour, both of which doled out what might look like conspiracy theories as part of their news,' College of William and Mary history professor Nicholas Popper tells Business Insider. 'In many ways, the context was perfect for an opportunist alarmist to gain political purchase.'
Doubt about King Charles' spiritual affiliation continued to simmer once he abolished laws punishing people who didn't attend Church of England services in 1672. Parliament later forced him to cancel that declaration, but the damage was done.
During the reign of Charles II, London was also struck with a series of tragedies, including a plague in 1665 and a devastating fire in 1666. Conspiracy theories swirled that the disasters were somehow the result of Catholic subterfuge. The inscription on the monument to the victims of the Great Fire of London even included a shot at the 'treachery and malice of the popish faction,' according to Kenyon.
Meanwhile, Jesuits, members of the Catholic Society of Jesus, often functioned as a sort of popular bogeyman during this time. Upheaval on the continent sparked fears of a potential French invasion.
About a year before rumours of the Popish Plot began to spread, an anonymous pamphlet accusing Pope Innocent XI of plotting the overthrow of the English monarchy -- which some historians believe was penned by the poet Andrew Marvell -- was circulated about London.
For English people, anti-Catholic and xenophobic fervor coloured everyday life, seeping into print, Anglican religious sermons, and ordinary conversation.
'This polemic told them that foreign Catholics -- since the Catholic who lived down the street was usually considered fine -- were depraved, Machiavellian creatures bent on conquering England and reviving its subordination to tyrannical, absolutist Rome -- though plenty of people, of course, viewed this with at least a degree of scepticism,' Popper says.
He says that this atmosphere, combined with Charles' tolerant policies, caused many Protestants to fear for the future of England.
'This group, for that matter, was particularly well-represented in Parliament,' he says.
By 1678, the city had become a cradle of anxiety and religious resentment. The powder had been scattered. All that was needed was a spark.
Enter Titus Oates, a Cambridge dropout with a sing-song voice and at least one outstanding perjury charge to his name.
After a series of career mishaps, he sailed to France in 1677 to attend the Jesuit-run College of St. Omers. The following summer, Jesuit Superior Thomas Whitbread expelled him from the school, likely due to his off-putting presence and inability to speak Latin, writes Kenyon.
Adrift back in England, Oates rekindled an old acquaintance with Israel Tonge, a paranoid Puritan minister who blamed Catholics for the loss of his church during the Great Fire of London.
Oates won his friend's admiration by spinning an insane story about working as a double agent at St. Omers and being assigned the devious mission of killing Tonge, who had penned an unpublished manuscript excoriating the Society of Jesus.
'A suitably flattered Tonge subsequently demanded that Oates write down all he knew of the plot,' writes Alan Marshall for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
From there, a conspiracy was hatched.
Oates cranked out a large manuscript, detailing an insidious but fictional Jesuit plot to spur rebellions in England, Scotland, and Ireland and murder Tonge, King Charles II and his brother James, with poison and silver bullets. Oates then slipped the document under the wainscot of Tonge's home.
Tonge pretended to be surprised to find the manuscript, which he shared with acquaintance and chemist Christopher Kirkby. Kirkby, who had once conducted scientific experiments with the king, brought the news to the monarch's attention in August 1678 and arranged a meeting between Tonge and the king. Charles was sceptical about the plot, but any threat against the king's life was always to be thoroughly investigated.
Parliament's House of Commons summoned Oates before them, who heightened the drama by demanding an armed escort. He testified that, during his time with the Society of Jesus, he learned that a number of well-connected lords had also been ordered by the Pope to assassinate the king and take over the government.
Parliament bought it. The accused lords were seized and jailed, according to Kenyon.
Oates quickly honed in on Edward Colman as his first major target. Colman was a Catholic who had served as James' secretary, and now worked as James' wife's secretary. He was widely viewed as a dangerous religious influence and had, in fact, secretly gone rogue in his attempts to secure French investments to free the Crown up from relying on Parliament.
By sheer dumb luck, Oates had 'hit upon one of the more likely figures for a serious Catholic plot,' according to Marshall.
Parliament was on the case, but King Charles II wasn't confident in Oates' testimony. That's why, on September 6, 1678, Oates and Tonge called upon Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a minister of the peace.
The pair asked him to formally take their oaths, to prove that they were telling the truth regarding their allegations. Godfrey agreed and took their depositions later in October.
By all accounts, Godfrey had a somewhat melancholy, even misanthropic, disposition, held liberal views for the time, and even had Catholic and dissenting friends, including Colman.
He was also a bit of an early modern 'amateur sleuth,' writes Marshall in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Godfrey patrolled alleys 'in search of misconduct,' patrolled the streets late at night, and once chased a fugitive into a plague house.
But Godfrey's legacy was about to expand beyond his zealous attempts to fight neighbourhood crime.
According to his household staff, he began to say strange things shortly after news of Oates' accusations began to trickle throughout London's rumour mill. Godfrey even speculated that he might be 'knocked on the head' -- or assassinated. Some of his servants feared that he was suicidal, based on the sharp shift in his demeanour.
He also likely tipped a key Popish Plot figure off. 'There seems to be little doubt that he subsequently advised Edward Colman of his dealings with the informers,' writes Marshall.
On the morning of October 12, Godfrey left his house, as usual. He was last seen alive walking on St. Martin's Lane at about three in the afternoon.
Five days later, a gruesome discovery was made in a ditch on Primrose Hill in London.
Godfrey's body was found lying face down. He had been strangled and run through with his own sword. The money and valuables on his person were untouched. His corpse was dry, despite the recent rain. His neck was broken and his stab wound hadn't bled, indicating that he was dead before he was impaled.
Investigators at the time dragged his corpse to a nearby pub and immediately labelled the death a homicide.
Shortly after the news of the murder broke, London descended into what became known as 'Godfrey's Autumn.' Pamphlets, sermons, and even memorabilia were produced and dedicated to the dead magistrate.
Godfrey was declared a new Protestant martyr. His mass funeral on October 31 proved to be 'a highly organised piece of propaganda,' as Londoners trailed after a procession led by 72 divines and 1,000 'quality' mourners, according to Marshall.
Given his ties to Titus Oates, Godfrey's murder was quickly ascribed to the plot. Colman's letters were seized.
While they revealed no plot to assassinate Charles, Colman's actions regarding France proved to be a bombshell. Yelling 'Colman's letters!' in Parliament became a surefire way to start a ruckus. During this time, one member of Parliament ended up getting sent to the Tower for punching out a colleague.
Rumours about the plot had previously been whispered throughout London. Now, the rise of printing allowed the alarming news to spread fast.
'Pamphlets were probably the most powerful way to transmit news or rumour of this sort to a broader audience, and perhaps the most essential in blowing it wide open,' Popper says. 'Of course, oral communication like rumour and gossip fanned the flames.'
Godfrey's murder fanned the flames of panic in Parliament.
Oates' testimony against Colman was taken more seriously than ever, despite the fact that he wasn't even able to identify the secretary.
Charles, however, still didn't believe the informant. He interrogated Oates himself and even had him arrested after catching him in several lies. Parliament forced Oates' release. The informant was granted a pension, apartments in Whitehall, and a squad of soldiers to help round up Jesuits. He even received a coat of arms from a family that had died off.
Paranoia set in. Plotters, priests, and papist invaders were seen lurking in the shadows throughout the realm. Parliament was evacuated and searched, as fears of a second Gunpowder Plot grew. The national militia was deployed. In Sussex, people became frightened of 'a great light' burning in the house of a local Catholic, while 'forty horsemen armed were heard and seen to march through Skelton and Brotton in the dead of night,' writes Kenyon.
Meanwhile, even more informers were popping out of the woodwork. 'Captain' William Bedloe, a conman and highway robber, stepped out with his own list of Catholic plotters, to supplement Oates' accusations.
Parliament committees and subcommittees spent their days 'sifting through papers and taking depositions' of scores of concerned subjects, according to Kenyon.
The first victim of the hysteria was William Staley, the young son of a Catholic banker. He was hung, drawn, and quartered a week after he was allegedly heard threatening the king over ale and roast beef at a pub called the Black Lion.
Colman was condemned and hung, drawn, and quartered in December of 1678. He never stood a chance in court. 'Treason was so heinous a crime... that any man who was detected and accused could not be allowed the least advantage in a court of law; he must be convicted,' Kenyon writes.
One Catholic craftsman named Miles Prance became caught up in the mess. After being arrested and threatened with torture, he falsely confessed to witnessing Godfrey's murder at the hands of two Irish priests, three local workmen, and even the queen's chaplain.
Kenyon says that it's likely that the three workmen, who were all subsequently executed, were merely random people that Prance happened to dislike.
All in all, about fifteen people were rounded up and executed during the panic. One of them was Whitbread, the very person who had kicked Oates out of the Jesuit college in France.
The last person to be killed was my ancestor.
Plunkett was born in 1625 in County Meath, Ireland. At the age of 22, he left Ireland for Rome, where he was ordained as a priest and became a professor of theology. Cromwell's bloody rampage through Ireland forced him to remain in Italy.
After the monarchy was restored, Plunkett returned to his home country as the archbishop of Armagh. There, he adopted the disguise of a soldier by carrying a sword and pistols, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
He fought drunkenness in the clergy, forbidding priests from drinking whiskey or hanging out in taverns. Plunkett set up the first religiously integrated school in Ireland, which both Catholics and Protestants attended. He also mediated a conflict between the Franciscan and Dominican orders.
'For those who were unwilling to implement any type of reform in the Church in Ireland, so badly needed at the time, Archbishop Oliver was becoming public enemy number one,' 'St. Oliver Plunkett: Journey to Sainthood' author Tommy Burns tells Business Insider.
His problems only got worse from there.
In 1673, when he refused to submit to the Test Act -- penal laws ensuring that only individuals belonging to the Church of England could hold public office -- his school was destroyed.
Fleeing for his life in the middle of a blizzard, Plunkett tried his best to disappear.
Plunkett managed to evade capture for about six years, but his luck ran out at the worst possible time. The Popish Plot brought about a renewed vigour to capture fugitives and potential plotters.
He was arrested in Dublin in December 1679 and subsequently moved to Newgate Prison.
By the time Plunkett was arraigned, London had grown blood-weary. The first jury assigned to his case chose not to indict him, and several other individuals accused of participating in the Popish Plot had been acquitted.
He was not so lucky.
During Plunkett's second trial, he was denied counsel and subsequently found guilty of high treason for promoting Catholicism, raising an army of 7,000, and opening up a harbour in County Louth for a French invasion.
'Such romances as would not be believed by any jury in Ireland,' Plunkett wrote, according to 'Saint Oliver Plunkett' author John Hanly. 'I expect daily to be brought to the place of execution, where my bowels are to be cut out and burned before my face, and then my head to be cut off, etc. -- which death I embrace willingly.'
There were quiet petitions for Charles II to spare Plunkett, but he apparently deemed it too risky a political move.
Plunkett himself was resigned to die, writing that 'the most paineful death of the cross which … compared to that of Tyburne, as I hear ye description of it is but a fleabyting,' according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
On July 1, 1679, Plunkett was tied to a hurdle and dragged to his execution.
'In a moving speech from Tyburn gallows immediately before his martyrdom, he forgave all those who had any part in his downfall, including the judges and all who gave gave false testimony against him at his trial,' Burns says.
Then he was hung, drawn, and quartered.
His executioner had been bribed to not cremate his body. Two years later, it was dug up and his head was removed. Plunkett's head didn't make it back home to Ireland until 1721.
By the time Plunkett was executed, sentiment had begun to sour against Oates. After the death of Charles II in 1685, the conspiracy theorist was put on trial for perjury and convicted.
After receiving a life sentence, he was put in a pillory, publicly flogged, and pelted with eggs.
In 1689, however, Oates was released when the Protestant King William and Queen Mary seized the throne from King James II. They granted the perjurer a meager pension and he died in obscurity.
So, why did Oates spread lies in the first place? It's hard to say. It's possible that he wanted revenge on the Jesuits who expelled him from St. Omers, or that he sought fame and riches.
'It's worth considering whether toxic environments like this actually attract, encourage, and amplify figures who willingly lie in pursuit if their personal and political gains,' Popper says.
Like the subjects of seventeenth century England, we're now living in a time where technological advancements make it easier than ever to access and publish new ideas.
'The dynamic, in which democratization, for lack of a better term, of access both to authorship and to written texts eases the spreading information and misinformation, is something that previous generations of media scholars have often missed,' Popper says. 'Many assumed that the printing press made possible an enlightened, smooth-running marketplace of ideas where good ideas would win out and bad ones would lose.'
But the influx of information has a dark side. Lies and hate can be stirred in with truth and knowledge. Passions are all too easy to inflame, manipulate, and unleash.
That's as true today as it was in the seventeenth century.
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