Fresh informers were brought forward to swear to a plot for the assassination of the Earl himself, and to the share of the Duke of York in the conspiracies of his fellow-religionists. A paper found in a meal-tub was produced as evidence of the new danger. Gigantic torch-light processions paraded the streets of London, and the effigy of the Pope was burnt amidst the wild outcry of a vast multitude.
Acts of yet greater daring showed the lengths to which Shaftesbury was ready to go. He had grown up amidst the tumults of civil war, and, greyheaded as he was, the fire and vehemence of his early days seemed to wake again in the singular recklessness with which he drove on the nation to a struggle in arms. Early in 1680 he formed a committee for promoting agitation throughout the country; and the petitions which it drew up for the assembly of the Parliament were sent to every town and grand jury, and sent back again with thousands of signatures. Monmouth, in spite of the King's orders, returned at Shaftesbury's call to London; and a daring pamphlet pointed him out as the nation's leader in the coming struggle "against Popery and tyranny." So great was the alarm of the Council that the garrison in every fortress was held in readiness for instant war. But the danger was really less than it seemed. The tide of opinion had fairly turned. Acquittal followed acquittal. A reaction of horror and remorse at the cruelty which had hurried victim after victim to the gallows succeeded to the pitiless frenzy which Shaftesbury had fanned into a flame.
Anxious as the nation was for a Protestant sovereign, its sense of justice revolted against the wrong threatened to James's Protestant children; and every gentleman in the realm felt insulted at the project of setting Mary aside to put the crown of England on the head of a bastard. The memory too of the Civil War was still fresh and keen, and the rumour of an outbreak of revolt rallied men more and more round the King. The host of petitions which Shaftesbury procured from the counties was answered by a counter host of addresses from thousands who declared their "abhorrence " of the plans against the Crown. The country was divided into two great factions of "petitioners" and "abhorrers," the germs of the two great parties of "Whigs" and "Tories" which have played so prominent a part in our political history from the time of the Exclusion Bill. Charles at once took advantage of this turn of affairs. He recalled the Duke of York to the Court. He received the resignations of Russell and Cavendish, as well as of the Earl of Essex, who had at last gone over to Shaftesbury's projects "with all his heart." Shaftesbury met defiance with defiance.
Followed by a crowd of his adherents he attended before the Grand Jury of Middlesex, to indict the Duke of York as a Catholic recusant, and the King's mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth, as a national nuisance, while Monmouth made a progress through the country, and gained favour everywhere by his winning demeanour. Above all, Shaftesbury relied on the temper of the Commons, elected as they had been in the very heat of the panic and irritated by the long delay in calling them together. The first act of the House on meeting in October was to vote that their care should be "to suppress Popery and prevent a Popish successor." Rumours of a Catholic plot in Ireland were hardly needed to push the Exclusion Bill through the Commons without a division. So resolute was the temper of the Lower House that even Temple and Essex now gave their adhesion to it as a necessity, and Sunderland himself wavered towards accepting it. Halifax, whose ability and eloquence had now brought him fairly to the front, opposed it resolutely and successfully in the Lords; but Halifax was only the mouthpiece of William. "My Lord Halifax is entirely in the interest of the Prince of Orange," the French ambassador, Barillon, wrote to his master, " and what he seems to be doing for the Duke of York is really in order to make an opening for a compromise by which the Prince of Orange may benefit." The Exclusion Bill once rejected, Halifax followed up the blow by bringing forward a plan of Protestant securities, which would have taken from James on his accession the right of veto on any bill passed by the two Houses, the right of negotiating with foreign states, or of appointing either civil or military officers save with the consent of Parliament. This plan also was no doubt prompted by the Prince of Orange; and the States of Holland supported it by pressing Charles to come to an accommodation with his subjects which would enable them to check the perpetual aggressions which France was making on her neighbours.
But if the Lords would have no Exclusion Bill the Commons with as good reason would have no Securities Bill. They felt - as one of the members for London fairly put it - that such securities would break down at the very moment they were needed. A Catholic king, should he ever come to the throne, would have other forces besides those in England to back him. "The Duke rules over Scotland; the Irish and the English Papists will follow him; he will be obeyed by the officials of high and low rank whom the King has appointed; he will be just such a king as he thinks good." Shaftesbury however was far from resting in a merely negative position. He made a despairing effort to do the work of exclusion by a Bill of Divorce, which would have enabled Charles to put away his Queen on the ground of barrenness, and by a fresh marriage to give a Protestant heir to the throne. The Earl was perhaps already sensible of a change in public feeling, and this he resolved to check and turn by a great public impeachment which would revive and establish the general belief in the Plot. Lord Stafford, who from his age and rank was looked on as the leader of the Catholic party, had lain a prisoner in the Tower since the first outburst of popular frenzy.
He was now solemnly impeached; and his trial in December 1680 mustered the whole force of informers to prove the truth of a Catholic conspiracy against the King and the realm. The evidence was worthless; but the trial revived, as Shaftesbury had hoped, much of the old panic, and the condemnation of the prisoner by a majority of his peers was followed by his death on the scaffold. The blow produced its effect on all but Charles. Sunderland again pressed the King to give way. But deserted as he was by his ministers, and even by his mistress, for the Duchess of Portsmouth had been cowed into supporting the exclusion by the threats of Shaftesbury, Charles was determined to resist. On the coupling of a grant of supplies with demands for a voice in the appointment of officers of the royal garrisons he prorogued the Parliament. The truth was that he was again planning an alliance with France. With characteristic subtlety, however, he dissolved the existing Parliament, and called a new one to meet in March. The act was a mere blind.