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“That is Impossible,” He Told the Court

By (August 1, 2008) No Comment

The Plot Against Pepys

by James Long & Ben Long
The Overlook Press, 2008

It was good to be Samuel Pepys at the beginning of 1678.

He had a comfortable house, a decent income, and a devoted circle of friends. His position as Secretary of the Navy provided him with work he could dig into with both hands (not to mention a regular salary, social standing that allowed him to stand as Justice of the Peace for Kent, and the occasional royal notice), and he enjoyed the patronage of no less a person than James, the Duke of York, brother to the King. Charles II knew Pepys by name, and when he wasn’t working, Pepys could enjoy his music, his beloved library, stage-plays, and the favors of various willing ladies about town. James was the heirless Charles’ designated successor, so even a cautious man such as Pepys might have allowed himself to see a hopeful, prosperous future stretching before him.  

There was a subterranean problem, however, that had nothing whatsoever to do with Pepys. England’s tendency toward periodic spasms of anti-Catholic hysteria had been strengthened in recent years, by a marked increase in the number of Catholic priests seen in notable positions, the number of Catholic officers in the armed services, and Charles’ rumored friendliness with the Catholic court of France. That strain coalesced into the obsessions of one man: Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury.

  Shaftesbury was a monster, in every fold of that term. He was short and gnarled, crippled in both legs, and in later life afflicted with an incurable tumorous discharge over his liver that required him to live every day with a metal spigot sticking out of his lower abdomen, constantly draining discharge whose buildup would otherwise kill him (his political opponents – and omnipresent wags – referred to him, among other things, as the ‘Earl of Tapsbury,’). And he was illuminated from within by a wide variety of hatreds so deep, so tangled and athletic, that even randomly kicking small street urchins brought him no relief from their whips by day or night.This monster hated Catholics. He therefore hated their seeming resurgence at court, and he hated the publically, avowedly Catholic Duke of York (and the prospect of a Catholic king one day), and idly, almost as an afterthought, his hatred encompassed the Duke’s servants, including Pepys, who’d had a terse encounter with the minister years before and then no doubt forgot all about it.

Even so, it might not have mattered, had not a deeply flawed but nonetheless serviceable instrument come into Shaftesbury’s hands in 1678. This was an odious little creature named Titus Oates, who in the late summer of 1678 came to the earl’s notice with a story of plots, treasons, and grand conspiracies. Father and son writing team James and Ben Long, in their new book The Plot Against Pepys, take a properly dim view of this scurrilous little clot:

Oates had a startling physical appearance. He had a dished face with his mouth right at the centre of it, the space below taken up by an enormous chin. His eyes were small and sunken, his cheeks prominent and ruddy. His voice left a strong and unpleasant impression on all who heard it; it was harsh, high-pitched and braying.

To attack the specter of Catholicism where he saw it rising, Shaftesbury took Oates and his dribbling fabrications at face value and gave them the gravity of a state’s inquiry. The resultant scandal, known to history as the Popish Plot (a term the Longs are curiously reluctant to use), took on a momentum of its own and cost many innocent men their lives, cost many more their liberty, and cost a wide scattering of thousands of others their settled securities as they knew them.

This, in small, was the ‘plot against Pepys’ that forms the central story of the book by that name, as thoroughly researched and engrossingly told an addition to the broad roll of Pepys literature as the reading world has seen in many a long and fallow month. The Longs are to be congratulated for not only delving deep into the depths of Restoration politics but emerging with a thrilling story to tell.

Father and son creative teams are something of an ongoing mystery. Writing collaborations are fragile enough as it is – this fragility is infinitely heightened when one of the collaborators sprang from a twinkle in the other’s eye? Blinders abound: on the father’s behalf, how to acknowledge the yawning gap between first pants-poop and a newfound familiarity with the prose style of Edmund Wilson? On the son’s behalf, how to reconcile the odd glimpse of usefulness with the steadfast belief of youth in the general thwarted futility of age? In times past, a common-sense task-breakdown held sway: the young sprout races from library to library, from special collection to special collection, and the fruits of his labors are then collated and shaped into a narrative by the old coot, utilizing editorial and rhetorical tricks unknown to the young sprout his fellow denizens of Gen-XBox. Perhaps the young sprout jazzes up the resultant story specifically for the reading benefit of his spastic and illiterate generation, but the main work is left to the older generation, skilled as it is in actual industry and the task of crafting raw data.

Such was the state of affairs in, say, Battlefield Britain, the BBC’s fantastic and much-lauded documentary series on some of the most pivotal battles of British history. Father and son team Peter and Dan Snow were nominally responsible for all aspects of the show, but the division of labor in the finished product couldn’t be easier to resolve: the elderly Peter sits back and explains the historical context of each epic battle, gleefully sending his tall, strapping son Dan into one after another bone-crunching historical simulations. While Dan is experiencing first-hand what a 12th-century cavalry charge might have felt like to the hapless kerns on the ground, Peter is safely on the sidelines, explaining tactics to the audience and chuckling “That must have hurt,” over the fate of his offspring.

Was this the way of it with the Longs? Their Author’s Note is unhelpfully vague, but there’s no arguing with results: the book they’ve somehow crafted between them is the next best thing to stepping directly into Pepys’ complicated world just as attacks from all quarters were beginning to make it come apart.

The accusations of Titus Oates were the spark that set the anti-Catholicism of 1678 burning, but that spark would likely have died out as so many others had, if not for an event neither Oates nor anyone else could have foreseen: the murder of Edmund Berry Godfrey. Godfrey was a well-known Justice of the Peace who’d lately taken record of the ravings of none other than Titus Oates. When he was found dead in a ditch, the public at large lept to the conclusion that it was the work of rabid Catholics. Pepys had faced and rebuffed occasional accusations of Catholic sympathy in the past, and he no doubt felt some touch of the hysteria now gripping the city. When a report crossed his desk of a suspicious man at Gravesend calling himself “Godfrey,” he acted immediately in his capacity of Kent’s Justice of the Peace to order the man’s arrest.

The man escaped his reach and fled to France, but the Longs have tracked him assiduously, and he is the central dramatic point of their story. He’s a scoundrel by the name of “Colonel” John Scott, and he shifted from one murky self-enriching scheme to the next in a life of lying and cheating, until chance found him in the employ of the Duke of Buckingham at the time of Edmund Godfrey’s murder. The Duke sought to use the public unrest the murder engendered to gain the support of the King of France for a change of government in England, and he used Scott as one of his messengers in the whole seditious business. Scott’s ultimate motivation in all this, as the Longs no doubt correctly surmise, was the prospect of advancement in whatever new order Buckingham thought to create. Pepys’ hounding him out of Gravesend – on quite unrelated suspicions – scotched all those dreams, and the Longs maintain he never forgave Pepys.

They trace his life in England and the New World, to which he fled to make his fortune and where he worked his greatest swindles in (as so many miscreants do) the state of Connecticut. They trace his movements even when he was making (admittedly amateurish) attempts to conceal what he was doing. And the Longs do all this detective work with one object in mind – to place Scott eventually exactly where they want him: smack in the middle of a rip-roaring courtroom drama. For Pepys was arrested in connection with the lies Scott and Oates and others told about him, and he and others were forced to stand trial for the accusations made against them.

For comfortable denizens of 21st century America, the legal system of Restoration England is a thing of nightmares. Persons accused could be held indefinitely without even learning the nature of the charges against them (Pepys had connections and thus had advance warning of his charges – and invaluable time to set his brother-in-law Balthazar St. Michel to the task of gathering exonerating evidence), and the presence of even one or two witnesses willing to swear to God they were speaking the truth against the accused was often enough to clinch the case, however fraudulent it might be. Pepys knew perfectly well he was on trial for his life, and he worked harder than he’d ever worked to save himself. Where the Longs excel – even in a book not shy of excellences – is in their dramatic evocation of the dramatic realities of this trial, as in their serial narration of Pepys’ confrontation with his accuser:

Scott came in from the lobby and stood at the bar of the House [of Commons]. Pepys had never seen him before but as he stared at him and turned the name over in his mind, memories began to stir – of murder, a chase and a flight from Gravesend.

Scott gives his lying evidence, about having seen naval documents prepared and signed by Pepys that exhaustively described every detail of the ships in the English fleet:

Scott had finished. He left the chamber. Pepys’s mind must have been whirling. In April, 1675, four months before Scott said he had seen them in France,Pepys had prepared exactly those papers and given them to Parliament. They information they contained had been so detailed and sensitive that the worried Secretary Coventry had moved the House that the papers should ‘not be exposed to public view’ but instead kept safely by a committee. The House had refused and the papers were made available for any MP to see. Some had made copies of them. When Scott disappeared from Gravesend six months before, his lodgings and possessions were searched. Among the odd assortment of mathematical instruments, political speeches and poetry were copies of exactly these papers. Pepys knew this.

The Longs always remember to include the human immediacy of what they’re describing:

At the bar, Pepys saw Scott for the second time in his life – indeed, was forced to stand just a few feet from him as Scott swore his evidence about the encounter in [French naval treasurer Georges] Pellissary’s garden again. The air between them must have crackled with indignation.

Like Oates, Scott suffered from one crucial drawback as a witness for the prosecution: he was an imbecile. Under even the most cursory cross-examination, he could be relied upon to shoot himself in the foot, and the Longs can likewise be relied upon to savor such instances with a novelist’s relish:

The court wondered whether Pepys’s signature was sufficiently remarkable to remember. [Lord Chief Justice William] Scroggs asked Pepys to write it out for them. The judges agreed that it was remarkable. Pepys informed the court that his signature had often been faked by others. His clerks could prove how easy it was to copy, but he kept the fact to himself. He might need it at trial. [to this the Longs add this puckish footnote: “This might make collectors think twice about the high prices demanded by rare book dealers for Pepys’s autograph on run-of-the-mill navy documents”] Scoggs had shown a rare display of support for Pepys and, well aware that he should capitalise on it, Pepys made the point to the court again: Scott had not known his signature before he saw it on the papers. How could he possibly have recognised it? Quite unexpectedly, and for himself disastrously, Scott snapped.

“The court is mistaken,” he said, “in thinking I have said I have never seen his hand before I saw that letter. I never said any such thing.”

Uproar in the courtroom. Even the more partial judges disliked being told that they had not heard something when they had heard it, just minutes before. Scroggs and Judge Dolben insisted he had plainly said it. Pepys joined them indignantly – and then stopped. He realised he had his accuser pinned.

Scott, as was his way, sought refuge in the dead. Captain La Piogerie had shown it to him, he said. Piogerie had had twenty orders – all signed by Pepys – while he was major of the fleet in the Channel. Scott gave a date.

“That is impossible,” Pepys told the court. He had been paying close attention to the details of Scott’s claims. He was putting into effect advice he had given [his brother-in-law] Balty; the best way to trap a liar was to snare them with their own detail. Scott had already given the court an account of Piogerie’s movements and – by that account – Piogerie could not have shown Scott those orders before he showed Scott the letter. The court was impressed.

The sheer amount of work the Longs have done, both historiographical and narrative, is also impressive, and their prolonged indictment of John Scott is groundbreaking. Their conclusion – that Scott was embittered enough with Pepys for fouling his plans for high place in a Buckingham coup to months later concoct damning accusations against him in open court – is certainly the most plausible one and deserves to stand as definitive. Their dismissal of Titus Oates (and his comrade in deceit, Israel Tonge, whom the Longs rather pithily describe as a “half-mad ex Puritan”) is lathered in the appropriate scorn. Indeed, there’s only one person connected with the Popish Plot who gets a pass from the Longs, and this is curious, since that person is the guiltiest of all. Of course, that person is King Charles II.

Titus Oates left Cambridge without a degree, under a cloud of suspicion for lying (and sodomy); he was dismissed as a naval chaplain under suspicion of tale-telling (and sodomy); he was recruited to the Jesuit college at Vallodolid, Spain but quickly expelled under suspicion of deceit (and sodomy); he was accepted at the Jesuit academy at Omer in France and almost immediately rejected under suspicion of treachery (and sodomy). When he was first brought before King Charles to tell his tales of a Popish Plot being concocted against the King by Jesuits working from France and Spain, Charles roused himself from the habitual indifference with which he dealt with everything just long enough to ask Oates a couple of questions – and promptly caught him in a couple of black-and-white lies. Charles told his council that as far as he was concerned, the man was an arrant liar.

And yet, weeks later, he let the whole business go forward. He knew – as well as anybody then could know – that there was no Popish Plot; he knew as quickly and as surely as did everybody who met the man that Titus Oates was a diseased little piece of human garbage, utterly untrustworthy, and yet he let the whole business go forward, to the death of many and the ruination and uprooting of many more. People who’d made their home in England for many years – some of whom had served the crown in those years – were forced by the resultant hysteria to flee abroad, all because this king would not find the courage to call a liar a liar and forcibly calm the mob that liar had encited incited.

But however lightly the Longs might let Charles off, they tell their own chosen story with a verve even non-specialist readers will find infectious. Pepys kept records of all the efforts he made to collect materials and statements in his own defense, and as was his way, he organized the resultant material with care and at length, referring to the volume as “The Book of Mornamont.” In her delightful 2002 biography of Pepys, Claire Tomalin notes the untapped potential of this odd work:

It [Pepys’ herculean efforts at assembling his own defense] was a colossal task. It was also responsible for a colossal book, one that has never been printed and still sits in manuscript in the Pepys Library, leather bound and gilded, in two volumes of 1,338 pages and something like 400,000 words. The volumes make up one of the oddities of literature. They contain a collage of documents, letters, journals, verbatim statements and accounts of court proceedings.

She concludes:

It [the Book of Mornamont] has all the raw materials for a novel by Defoe, and it is Pepys’ most surprising legacy.

Lacking as we are a modern Defoe, we should all be grateful for James and Ben Long: their account, though perhaps no Moll Flanders, will do just fine.

Thurlow Truman of Magdalena, New Mexico, spent many years in journalism and the freelance world before his retirement in 1988. His son Zach Truman, of nearby Kelly, New Mexico, who is first published here, is a recent university graduate in Economics. This is their first collaboration.