August 10, 2008

The Plot against Pepys

Between 1679 and 1681 the diarist Samuel Pepys, serving as a member of Charles II's naval administration, was threatened with execution for transmitting secret plans to France. The reasons for Pepys's narrow brush with death lie in the tangles of Charles II's court and its relationship to Parliament. A recent book by James and Ben Long has attempted to tell the story of Pepys's moment of danger. They tell the tale well- its a pretty simple one. Pepys was arrested and taken from the House of Commons down the Thames to the Tower after a Whig inspired prosecution: he survived the experience by discrediting his accuser a Colonel John Scott using information from Scott's disreputable past in the Netherlands and in New England. Pepys was saved because of his own abilities and contacts within the world of restoration Europe. The Longs manage as far as I can tell to tell a straightforward story well- but I think there are points which we can bring out of their narrative and which are more interesting than the bare bones of what they say.

Firstly they convey well the insecurity of 17th Century political life. They get what is central to the reign of Charles II, which is that his father Charles I mounted the scaffold and was executed in 1649. The ghost of that scaffold lay behind the King at every point through his long reign- it haunted his successors as well and to some extent attitudes to the civil war lay at the heart of politics right into the 18th Century and beyond. As part of that civil war, Pepys a servant of the crown would know, that other servants of the crown had met a grisly end- Strafford and Laud executed by Parliament. In the late seventies that danger constantly present became uniquely severe- a fantasist Titus Oates accused several prominent men in the English government of being Catholics and sympathisers with a Popish plot that aimed to place Charles's Catholic brother James, Duke of York on the throne. James had to leave England. As an associate of James Pepys was vulnerable and he knew about the trials of other prominent Catholics and allies of York which ended in slaughter and death. Politics was an insecure and dangerous game- where treason was always ready as a charge against opponents.

The Popish plot was stoked up by the second of the great forces that we see present in this set of occurances and that is that this late seventeenth century period was the first great age of party. The Tory party stood for anglicanism and the crown, the Whigs for the low church and Parliament. That is a gross simplification- but it will have to do for the moment. Its worth remembering that Tory originally meant Irish Catholic rebel and Whig meant Presbyterian rebel. The point I want to capture here though is less the ideologies of the parties- which are incredibly complicated to both understand and locate- but the violence of the passion between them. Between about 1679 and 1715 the parties held office successively and frequently made use of the London mob. Shaftesbury called it into action during the Popish plot, the Tories used it to great effect in the Sachravell case of the 1710s. The roots of this emotion were religious- religion more than politics fuelled the rage of the parties. When someone like Pepys was under attack, they were under attack as someone helping to fuel the rise of modern Babylon.

The third thing I think that is worth understanding from this story is that both Pepys and his accuser attest to the incredible mobility of seventeenth century society. Their careers are completely at odds with the impression that the past is an age in which people did not move. Scott was a bright man from America- who almost conned his way into becoming a senior figure in Massachussets and Long Island politics. After that he attempted various schemes on the margins of French and Dutch politics- always an opportunist, he comes out of the Long's account as a man with incredible charm and a man who believed his own lies. His career collapsed when early in the 1670s the Duke of York's agents managed to connect the dots. Pepys also managed to connect the dots- through his own network of geographically wide contacts. Pepys through the admiralty was connected to Netherlands, to France and to America. But furthermore Pepys too had risen from a fairly humble background. That is not to say that seventeenth century society was incredibly mobile- of course it wasn't- but there was mobility and to say that a society is not as mobile as today's is not to imply that it was completely static.

Those three points are not historical points of genius- but they are crucial to any understanding of this period. The Longs do manage to get to them but there isn't much more than that and their story- they could have got more out of their material- particularly about Scott who in my view is an even more interesting character in some ways than Pepys. But that apart, its worth recalling these points because without understanding the ferocity of party anger and its religious nature, the insecurity of politics and the curious mixture of a static and dynamic society that the seventeenth century was, it is very difficult to get to what the century was about and why people thought they thought and hence did what they did. In order to get deeper, you need to get deeper into the minds of those who lived through the period and the conditions in which they lived but these three insights carry the Longs and ourselves quite a long way.