They were stirring rebellion in Ireland; in Scotland they disguised themselves as Cameronians; in England their aim was to assassinate the King, and to leave the throne open to the Papist Duke of York. The extracts from Jesuit letters however which he produced, though they showed the disappointment and anger of the writers, threw no light on the monstrous charges of a plot for assassination. Oates would have been dismissed indeed with contempt but for the seizure of Coleman's correspondence. His letters gave a new colour to the plot. Danby himself, conscious of the truth that there were designs which Charles dared not avow, was shaken in his rejection of the disclosures, and inclined to use them as weapons to check the King in his Catholic policy. But a more dexterous hand had already seized on the growing panic. Shaftesbury, released after a long imprisonment and hopeless of foiling the King's policy in any other way, threw himself into the plot. "Let the Treasurer cry as loud as he pleases against Popery," he laughed, "I will cry a note louder." But no cry was needed to heighten the popular frenzy from the moment when Sir Edmondsbury Godfrey, the magistrate before whom Oates had laid his information, was found in a field near London with his sword run through his heart.
His death was assumed to be murder, and the murder to be an attempt of the Jesuits to "stifle the plot." A solemn funeral added to public agitation; and the two Houses named committees to investigate the charges made by Oates.
In this investigation Shaftesbury took the lead. Whatever his personal ambition may have been, his public aims in all that followed were wise and far-sighted. He aimed at forcing Charles to dissolve Parliament and appeal to the nation. He aimed at driving Danby out of office and at forcing on Charles a ministry which should break his dependence on France and give a constitutional turn to his policy. He saw that no security would really avail to meet the danger of a Catholic sovereign, and he aimed at excluding James from the throne. But in pursuing these aims he rested wholly on the plot. He fanned the popular panic by accepting without question some fresh depositions in which Oates charged five Catholic peers with part in the Jesuit conspiracy. The peers were sent to the Tower, and two thousand suspected persons were hurried to prison. A proclamation ordered every Catholic to leave London. The trainbands were called to arms, and patrols paraded through the streets, to guard against the Catholic rising which Oates declared to be at hand.
Meanwhile Shaftesbury turned the panic to political account by forcing through Parliament a bill which excluded Catholics from a seat in either House. The exclusion remained in force for a century and a half; but it had really been aimed against the Duke of York, and Shaftesbury was defeated by a proviso which exempted James from the operation of the bill. The plot, which had been supported for four months by the sole evidence of Oates, began to hang fire; but a promise of reward brought forward a villain, named Bedloe, with tales beside which those of Oates seemed tame. The two informers were now pressed forward by an infamous rivalry to stranger and stranger revelations. Bedloe swore to the existence of a plot for the landing of a Catholic army and a general massacre of the Protestants. Oates capped the revelations of Bedloe by charging the Queen herself, at the bar of the Lords, with knowledge of the plot to murder her husband. Monstrous as such charges were, they revived the waning frenzy of the people and of the two Houses. The peers under arrest were ordered to be impeached. A new proclamation enjoined the arrest of every Catholic in the realm. A series of judicial murders began with the trial and execution of Coleman, which even now can only be remembered with horror.
But the alarm must soon have worn out had it only been supported by perjury. What gave force to the false plot was the existence of a true one. Coleman's letters had won credit for the perjuries of Oates, and a fresh discovery now won credit for the perjuries of Bedloe. From the moment when the pressure of the Commons and of Danby had forced Charles into a position of seeming antagonism to France, Lewis had resolved to bring about the dissolution of the Parliament, the fall of the Minister, and the disbanding of the army which Danby still looked on as a weapon against him. For this purpose the French ambassador had entered into negotiations with the leaders of the Country party. The English ambassador at Paris, Ralph Montagu, now returned home on a quarrel with Danby, obtained a seat in the House of Commons, and in spite of the seizure of his papers, laid on the table of the House the despatch which had been forwarded to Lewis, demanding payment for the King's services to France during the late negotiations. The House was thunderstruck; for strong as had been the general suspicion, the fact of the dependence of England on a foreign power had never before been proved. Danby's name was signed to the despatch, and he was at once impeached on a charge of high treason.
But Shaftesbury was more eager to secure the election of a new Parliament than to punish his rival, and Charles was resolved to prevent at any price a trial which could not fail to reveal the disgraceful secret of his foreign policy. Charles was in fact at Shaftesbury's mercy, and the end for which Shaftesbury had been playing was at last secured. In January, 1679, the Parliament of 1661, after the longest unbroken life in our Parliamentary annals, was at last dissolved