In seventeenth-century London, thirteen years after the plague and twelve years after the Great Fire, the restoration of King Charles II has dulled the memory of Cromwell’s puritan rule, yet fear and suspicion are rife. Religious turmoil is rarely far from tipping the scales into hysteria.
Elizabeth Cellier, a bold and outspoken midwife, regularly visits Newgate Prison to distribute alms to victims of religious persecution. There she falls in with the charming Captain Willoughby, a debtor, whom she enlists to gather information about crimes against prisoners, so she might involve herself in petitioning the king in their name.
‘Tis a plot, Madam, of the direst sort.’ With these whispered words Willoughby draws Elizabeth unwittingly into the infamous Popish Plot and soon not even the fearful warnings of her husband, Pierre, can loosen her bond with it.
This is the incredible true story of one woman ahead of her time and her fight against prejudice and injustice.
Guy Fawkes Day and the Solemn Mock Processions
by Annelisa Christensen
Many know Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Night, on November 5th – the annual event of burning a ‘Guy’ on top of a bonfire to celebrate the foiling of Guy Fawkes and his men in their attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament, London’s government seat – but not so many know that for a few years on another day in November many other religious representatives were ceremoniously placed atop the burning pyres.
The November 5th bonfires began in 1605 to commemorate the failed Gunpowder Plot and the saving of King James I. The anniversary fast became an opportunity for Protestants to vent their fear and distrust of Catholics and Guido Fawkes (Guy Fawkes), the man found guarding the barrels of gunpowder beneath the building, became a figurehead for that hatred. Gradually, the celebrations became bigger than simple bonfires and the burning of the ‘Guy’– a convenient excuse to symbolically exorcise Catholicism from the British shores – with sermons and fireworks added for good measure. The annual event became an explosive, yet steadfast, addition to the English Calendar.
But there were periods where it wasn’t appropriate to celebrate so heartily, for instance the years after King James’s son, Charles, took a Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria of France (1625), the anti-Catholicism angle was played down somewhat. The displays were also muted for over a decade after King Charles I was executed (beheaded) in 1649. Not for reasons of mourning, but because Cromwell’s puritan rule that followed forbade most celebrations and some were stopped altogether. November 5th was one of the few events that survived and it was used by Cromwell to mark the superiority of the Government and the Protestant religion. But, when King James’s grandson, King Charles II took his place on the throne at the start of the Restoration, the day was once more reinstated as an exuberant celebration of the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot.
This anti-Catholic ceremony became particularly huge for a few years around the time of The Popish Plot, a false plot created by Titus Oates, stirring up (or, rather, playing on) the strong religious undercurrents. His accusations that a group of Catholic priests had plotted to murder the King and take over England, while not taken seriously at first by the King, were given credence when the body of Sir Edmund-Bury Godfrey, the magistrate to whom Oates had sworn the affidavit as to the truth of his accusations, was found run through with his own sword on the green. At first it was thought to be suicide. Strangely, it wasn’t questioned too deeply how he had managed to do this after hanging himself first – the rope marks were still around his neck. It can only be supposed his ghost wasn’t satisfied with his first effort and he killed himself twice over. Oates was quick to point his finger at the Catholics, said this was proof of a Catholic plot, and begun the anti-Catholic ‘witch-hunt’ lasting from 1678 to 1681, where many innocent (and possibly guilty) Catholics were thrown into the prisons, charged with treason.
Many died the terrible death of being hanged, drawn (the belly cut open and entrails burned in front of the person) and quartered (the cleaving of the body into four to denigrate it) without ever having had representation in court nor a chance of a fair trial. It was simply a frenzy of persecution. And on the 17th day of November, in at least three of those years (1679, 1680 and 1681), the bonfire became a particularly huge event, where thousands of spectators watched the effigies of Catholics, Jesuits, Friars and monks paraded through the streets of London and burned with great cheer.
For her part in the whole Popish Plot, Elizabeth Cellier was one of the most despised Catholics of the time. Nicknamed ‘The Popish Midwife’ (‘Popish’, like ‘Romish’, being an often-used derogatory term for Catholics), Cellier foolishly trusted a schemer she met in prison to do some work for her, but was unfortunately betrayed by him. Already a well-known Catholic, associated by her work as midwife to Anne Hyde, the Duke of York’s (future King James II) Catholic first wife. She became notorious when certain incriminating documents were found in a tub of flour in her kitchen ‘between the pewter’ (giving rise to calling her plot, ‘The Mealtub Plot’). Her subsequent treason trial made her the talk of the town – discussed in coffee houses, sneered at in the streets, mocked in the taverns. And, while she was in prison on 17th November 1679, an effigy of her was carried with all the other religious effigies on a float through the city and burned on a huge bonfire outside of the Green Club (the seat of Oates’s Protestant cronies).
Luckily, over time, the worst of this whipped-up frenzy died down; people realised they may have gone too far when they executed one after another good priest; lords and ladies were accused, and the evidence for all their deaths was based on the flimsy word of a few paid, untrustworthy lowlifes, several of whom had previous convictions. And, as the high state of agitation abated, so the processions stopped. Somehow, though the effigy on top of the pyre is often omitted now, the Guy Fawkes bonfires survived to continue even to this day.
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