Anti-Catholic hysteria

Titus Oates in the pillory outside Westminster Hall after being convicted of perjury; he was behind the false 'Popish Plot' claims of a plan to assassinate Charles II and install a Catholic monarch.
Titus Oates in the pillory outside Westminster Hall after being convicted of perjury; he was behind the false 'Popish Plot' claims of a plan to assassinate Charles II and install a Catholic monarch.

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Yorkshire’s Roman Catholics generally welcomed the return of the monarchy in 1660 and looked forward to rewards for their loyal and costly service to the Crown during the Civil Wars.

At first, they were not disappointed. Many county gentlemen received baronies, baronetcies and knighthoods. Sir Jordan Crosland of Helmsley and Newby, who had fought for King Charles so bravely, was given command of the North Riding’s trained band of home guard and trusted with the key position of governor of a garrisoned Scarborough castle. During the next decade, he was made responsible there for guarding several political prisoners, most notably George Fox, the Quaker. At Michaelmas 1660, Sir Jordan was elected number one in the Common Hall First Twelve and held this highest honorary place as well as that of senior of the borough’s two MPs until his death in 1670.

But Crosland’s case was exceptional. Distrust and even hatred of Roman Catholics was still endemic. Recusancy laws against them had been suspended in 1650, yet they were not repealed and after 1660 most of them were excluded from public office and commissions in the armed forces. Such was the prejudice of Protestants that they blamed Catholics for the fire of London in 1666 and suspected that Charles II, whose mother, brother and wife were all open, practising Catholics, had secret Catholic sympathies. Queen Catherine of Braganza received the royal manor of Northstead from her husband. The King’s suspension of the penal laws in 1672, allowing Catholics as well as Dissenters to worship freely, was so unpopular that within a year he was compelled to withdraw the order.

The true extent and depth of anti-Catholic hysteria was revealed during the national crisis known as the Popish Plot in 1678-81. Though there never was a Jesuit conspiracy to kill Charles II, there was certainly a wave of anti-Catholic paranoia and panic prompted by widespread belief in the lies of Titus Oates. By 1680, York castle was full of Roman Catholic Yorkshiremen and women who had refused to take the oath of loyalty to the Crown. Corrupt informers worked over-time; false accusations of treason thickened the air.

For 34 years Nicholas Postgate had converted, baptised, married, and buried thousands of Catholics from Egton, his birthplace, as far south as Pickering, but in December 1678 he was brought before Justice Sir William Cayley at Brompton and from there sent for trial at the York assizes. Though 80-years-old, as a self-confessed practising priest, he was found guilty of a capital crime and hanged, drawn and quartered.

National and, in particular, parliamentary attention now focused on James, Duke of York, the King’s younger brother and natural heir to the throne. Charles had kept his attachment to Rome a personal secret, but James had declared his true religion as early as 1673. When the House of Commons passed an Exclusion Bill in 1679 disqualifying James from the succession on account of his faith, the country was split between pro-exclusionist “Whigs” and anti-exclusionist “Tories”.

At Scarborough, it was alleged that Cornelius Fysh, son of Tristram, had said, when drunk, that “he hoped before Candlemas day to wash his hands in the bloode of those that would not drinke the Duke of Yorkes health”.

Determined to guarantee his brother’s succession, Charles dissolved Parliament and made plans to secure a more amenable replacement. Between 1681 and 1685 eight of Yorkshire’s 14 Parliamentary boroughs had their royal charters of incorporation rescinded and had to pay for new ones which altered their rules of franchise. As a result, whereas in 1681 Yorkshire’s MPs had been overwhelmingly Whig, by 1685 they were mostly Tory. Scarborough was one of these eight boroughs.

The corporation was required to pay the Treasury £300 for a new charter and to raise it they had to mortgage Wheatcroft, their 50-acre farm, and two pastures, Great and Little Northstead closes. Under the new charter, the Common Hall still had 44 seats, but now there was a mayor and 12 aldermen, all appointed by the Crown, and 31 burgesses. Unwilling to trust Scarborough’s predominantly Whig townsmen, the King had drafted in Tory squires from outside and made them governing aldermen.

The King’s plan seemed to be working: after his death James succeeded to the throne without resistance from Yorkshire’s Tory squires. To his first Parliament of 1685, obediently Scarborough’s Common Hall elected two Tories, Sir Thomas Slingsby and William Osbaldeston, and sent addresses of sycophantic loyalty “for so gracious a King”. However, when King James issued his Declaration of Indulgence in April 1688, granting liberty of worship to all Roman Catholics as well as Dissenters, it proved to be a step too far.

James ordered that his Declaration should be read from every pulpit by every vicar in every parish church in the land. But at Scarborough, Noel Boteler, St Mary’s vicar since 1676, declared himself “no friend to Popery” and refused to read out the Declaration during Sunday service, August 11, 1688. Sitting below him in the mayor’s pew was Thomas Aislabie, the fifth mayor under the new charter, and a Roman Catholic. To the astonishment and dismay of the congregation, Aislabie then rose from his seat, climbed the pulpit steps, and hit Boteler with his cane at least once.

Outraged by this act of violence against a man of the cloth in his own church, Captain William Wolseley, senior officer in the castle garrison, summoned the mayor to meet him at the old bowling green (the site now occupied by the YMCA). When Aislabie ignored the unfriendly invitation, Wolseley sent a squad of musketeers to escort him to the green where four officers from the garrison tossed him in a blanket. Mayor Aislabie took his complaint up to London, but it was too late: in November Protestant William of Orange landed at Tor Bay and Catholic James fled the country.

Aislabie was the last mayor of Scarborough for the next 150 years. In 1689 the borough’s old constitution was restored; the Whig Thompsons were re-elected to represent the town in the next Parliament of William and Mary; and Wolseley won a great victory in Ireland over the Catholic Jacobites. The last fleeting hope of a Roman Catholic restoration had gone forever.