It is the year 1678 in London and an uneasy religious calm and simmering tensions prevails in the city. Indeed, this is the prevalent mood across England and Wales. Though it has been 150 years since the English Church split from the Roman Catholic Church bitter differences remain between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority. The reigning monarch, Charles II, is a worried man as his successor and brother, James II is a Roman Catholic.
On the morning of 12 October, the magistrate of Westminster and strong supporter of Protestantism, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey receives a report of an alleged Catholic plot to assassinate the King. On October 17, Godfrey’s body is found on Primrose Hill; it is automatically assumed that he has been killed by the Catholic plotters. This discovery sets off a wave of anti-Catholic sentiments and a chain of arrests and executions follow.
This event, which becomes part of the larger Popish Plot, is widely documented and recorded. One of the more unusual ways it has been documented is in a pack of cards now displayed at the British Museum, London !
One lazy afternoon in early 2009, I was at the British Museum in London idly looking at pen, ink, charcoal and chalk sketches, when this pack of cards drew my attention. This suit of cards, an etching, dates back to 1679 and its creator remains unknown even today.
The full suit of spades tells the story of the Godfrey murder from the time the plot is hatched, to how Godfrey is lured to meet his would-be murderers at Somerset House in London, to his actual murder there, to the discovery of his body at Primrose Hill, to his funeral, to the execution of his murderers. The etching is amazingly clear and detailed it was like watching a B&W film. The cards also connected at another level with me as Somerset House and Primrose Hill were places that I had visited.
And yet, in this case I do realise that these cards may very cleverly have served the purpose of anti-Catholic propaganda at a time when blaming Catholics for everything from fire to murder to disease was the fashion. It was never proven that Godfrey was indeed killed by Catholics. In fact, it was later discovered that the Popish Plot was a fictitious conspiracy theory floated by an Anglican priest, Titus Oates !
The many ways in which history is recorded never ceases to surprise me. Each time I visit a museum, I always come away amazed at yet another creative attempt to narrate an event, a story…
Have you come across any such creative way of recording history as propaganda, and not necessarily at a museum? If yes, do share it here.
To read more posts from the Museum Treasure Series, please click here.