A Plague of Informers: Conspiracy and Political Trust in William III's England

A Plague of Informers: Conspiracy and Political Trust in William III's England

by Rachel Weil

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Stories of plots, sham plots, and the citizen-informers who discovered them are at the center of Rachel Weil's compelling study of the turbulent decade following the Revolution of 1688. Most studies of the Glorious Revolution focus on its causes or long-term effects, but Weil instead zeroes in on the early years when the survival of the new regime was in doubt. By… See more details below


Stories of plots, sham plots, and the citizen-informers who discovered them are at the center of Rachel Weil's compelling study of the turbulent decade following the Revolution of 1688. Most studies of the Glorious Revolution focus on its causes or long-term effects, but Weil instead zeroes in on the early years when the survival of the new regime was in doubt. By encouraging informers, imposing loyalty oaths, suspending habeas corpus, and delaying the long-promised reform of treason trial procedure, the Williamite regime protected itself from enemies and cemented its bonds with supporters, but also put its own credibility at risk.

Editorial Reviews

Alan Houston

"A Plague of Informers is an exciting and important contribution to our understanding of the politics of transitions. Weil preserves the chaos and uncertainty of her story, noting the limits of the evidence and inviting the reader to share in the challenges of interpretation. This is a rare and lovely accomplishment."—Alan Houston, University of California, San Diego
John Marshall

"Written in a thoroughly accessible and engaging style, with rattling good stories about plots and alleged plots, informers and government surveillance, con men and rogues, and political pamphleteering and propaganda, A Plague of Informers offers and extremely important new interpretation of the revolutionary regime established in 1688-89 by studying in detail its fragile and highly contested first years from 1689 to 1697. It should appeal to general readers as well as to students and specialists in English, history, and political science."—John Marshall, Johns Hopkins University
Steve Pincus

"Rachel Weil is one of the very few most creative historians of early modern Britain. In A Plague of Informers she asks how and why a government is able to gain political trust in the wake of revolution or regime change. In a carefully argued and engaging narrative,  Weil demonstrates what new regimes, no matter their commitment to 'liberty' however defined, have to generate trust from their subjects by dealing with those who do not share in their definitions of liberty and security. Liberal regimes, even paradigmatic ones such as that established in Britain after 1688, have to establish themselves with illiberal actions."—Steve Pincus, Yale University

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Yale University Press
Publication date:
The Lewis Walpole Series in Eighteenth-Century Culture and History
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6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

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Conspiracy and Political Trust in William III's England

By Rachel Weil


Copyright © 2013 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-17104-4


Debates on National Security

To be trusted was itself a complicated project: the new regime had to prove both that it could survive threats to its security and that it could make good on the story it told to justify its existence, that is, that it had restored law and liberty. There were obvious tensions between those two goals and, as this chapter will show, significant disagreement among contemporaries as to how to achieve them, which emerged during parliamentary debates on a range of subjects. The two chapters that follow this one consider other dimensions of the Williamite regime's quest for trust. Chapter 2 examines national and local institutions responsible for the security of the new regime, asking how these might enhance or undermine trust in the government (or do both at once). Chapter 3 focuses on the political informers who were necessary to the survival of the regime but who might undermine trust in it. The challenge the government faced in attracting trust was intertwined with the related challenge of deciding which subjects were trustworthy: building political trust was a two-way street.

"The head of Thomas Armstrong, executed for Rye House Plot, is taken down from Westminster Hall," wrote Narcissus Luttrell in his diary entry of 5 April 1689. Armstrong's head (along with his quarters) had been publicly displayed since 1684, when he had been condemned to a traitor's death by George Jeffreys, the judge later notorious for his savage punishment of Monmouth's rebels. Armstrong had been a suspect in the Rye House Plot, an alleged conspiracy by Whigs to kill Charles II and raise an insurrection. He had fled the country to escape prosecution, been outlawed, and then recaptured within the year. Armstrong then tried to take advantage of an Edwardian statute which gave outlawed persons the right to request a trial within a year of being outlawed but had been denied.

The spectacular, public redress of what were perceived to be legal abuses of the old regime so quickly after the new one took power attests to the centrality of narratives about law to the Revolution of 1688. William of Orange had opened his 1689 Declaration, explaining in advance the reasons for his invasion with a ringing affirmation:

It is both certain and evident to all men, that the public peace and happiness of any state or kingdom cannot be preserved, where the laws, liberties and customs established by the lawful authority in it, are openly transgressed and annulled.

Accordingly, in the first few months of the new regime's existence several legal decisions of the old regime came under hostile scrutiny in Parliament and the press. The attainder of the Whig martyr Lord William Russell was reversed and his property restored to his widow. Inquiries were made into the death in the Tower of the Earl of Essex, another Rye House Plot defendant whose suicide while awaiting trial was suspected by many to have been murder. Parliament reviewed the past behavior of individual judges, asking who was to blame for allowing the previous two kings to murder judicial opponents, dispense with the laws, and conduct the notorious quo warranto campaigns against town corporations. Armstrong's case, for example, loomed large in Parliament's discussion of George Jeffreys, who, as Robert Howard put it, had "committed murder, and without the help of a jury."

If the legitimacy of the new regime was connected to the appearance of upholding the law, that goal in turn might conflict with security. The many threats to the new government, both real and imagined, created an acute dilemma with respect to reconciling liberty and security. William of Orange had promised to restore the liberties of Englishmen. But the access of prisoners to the writ of habeas corpus was suspended for seven months in 1689 and then again in 1696. New legislation by Parliament banished Catholics from London and enabled the search and disarming of Catholics and other allegedly disaffected persons. Freedom of movement in and out of England was severely restricted. Books were burned, and the government conducted energetic searches for the writers and publishers of seditious material. The reform of treason trials to make them fairer to the defendant, which had been promised at the outset of the revolution, was repeatedly postponed by Parliaments that refused to pass a bill until 1696. Also during the early years of the revolution, Parliament considered (but did not enact) legislation that expanded the definition of treason to include printing and speaking.

For contemporary commentators who supported the exiled James II, the policies described above completely discredited the revolution: William III was held to be as bad as or worse than his predecessor. This point was made repeatedly in the pamphlets of the Whig-turned-Jacobite Robert Ferguson, who compared William's reign to that of Tiberius and lamented that "England under pretence of having its rights and liberties secured and vindicated, should be reduced to this worse than Turkish bondage and slavery." At the other extreme, the measures taken in the 1690s to secure the new government could be viewed as a temporary and understandable delay in a teleology of greater liberty. I reject both approaches: the compromises to civil liberty in the 1690s should be neither trivialized nor magnified to the point of indicting the revolution as a whole. My goal instead is to explore the controversies around the handling of threats to the regime as a window into the experience and process of regime change after 1688.

This chapter looks at parliamentary debates on indemnity, loyalty oaths, habeas corpus, the reform of treason trials, the reversal of the conviction of Titus Oates, and the use of attainder. These debates reveal many kinds of divisions. Members of Parliament argued about the relative value of liberty and security, as well as about the relative importance of different institutions in upholding the revolution. Most important, however, these debates reveal the importance of ideology.

Whig and Tory Narratives

Whigs and Tories had very different experiences in the old regime, which in turn gave them very different approaches to justifying and preserving the revolution. A brief overview of the Whig and Tory parties in the late seventeenth century will help to clarify these differences.

The Whigs' relationship to the old regime and the revolution was formed in the matrix of the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis, in which, under the aegis of anti-Catholicism, they sought to circumscribe the power of the Crown and elevate that of Parliament. Given the prominence of the Popish Plot in later discussions of conspiracy, informers, and credibility, it is worth briefly recalling what it was (or was alleged to be).

In 1678, Titus Oates appeared at the office of the London magistrate Edmundbury Godfrey. He told Godfrey that Catholics were planning to kill the king, set fire to London, support a French invasion, and destroy the Protestant religion in England. The plotters, he alleged, were in the government, close to the king: his wife, his mistresses, his closest advisors, and his Catholic brother, the future James II.

Shortly after Oates made these revelations, Edmundbury Godfrey's body was found in a ditch, strangled. The murder gave Oates's story credibility. Despite the air of sleaze hanging about Oates—he was rumored to be homosexual, his father was an Anabaptist, he had converted to and from Catholicism several times, and he was ignorant of Latin, despite his claims of having been in a Jesuit seminary—his allegations resulted in the execution of around twenty-five Catholics. Oates's revelations spurred Whigs in Parliament to press for an "exclusion bill" barring Catholics from inheriting the throne. Their immediate target was James, brother of Charles II and heir apparent to the throne, who had converted to Catholicism. But more broadly, Exclusionists were driven by a fear that Charles II would magnify royal power. By asserting a right to control royal succession, they made a radical claim about the superiority of law and Parliament over the king. Allegations about Catholics in positions of influence at court spilled over into a wider attack on powerful courtiers of any religion (like the Earl of Danby, the king's close advisor) who encouraged the king to ignore or manipulate his Parliament.

The Whig party that emerged in the Popish Plot and Exclusion Crisis was, then, not only anti-Catholic but also (as its enemies would allege) proto-republican or (as Whigs themselves would more likely put it) in favor of maintaining the structure of the ancient constitution in which kings were bound by law and ruled in conjunction with their Parliaments. The Whigs also emerged from the Exclusion Crisis as the party more sympathetic to the rights of Protestant dissenters (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers), who suffered political disabilities and at times severe persecution because they defied the religious and political monopoly of the Church of England. This tie between dissenters and Whigs was cemented in part through the notion that all Protestants needed to unite against Catholics and in part because of deep historic links between Puritanism (from which Protestant dissent had emerged) and parliamentarianism/republicanism dating back to the first of the English revolutions.

The revelation of a Popish Plot gave Whigs a temporary upper hand in their struggles with the king, but eventually a backlash set in. Titus Oates became less credible as his story grew and changed. He was convicted of perjury and sentenced to be pilloried and whipped with unusual brutality. Meanwhile, the government took advantage of the backlash against Oates to "discover" (scare quotes deliberate) the Rye House Plot in 1683, which allegedly involved prominent Whig opponents of the government (such as Algernon Sidney, the Earl of Shaftsbury, and Lord William Russell) in a scheme to assassinate King Charles II. The king also exploited fears of republicanism that had been raised by the Whig assault on his prerogative. Royal propagandists revived memories of the English Civil War, when a combination of religious radicals and anti-monarchical republicans had used the specter of popery in high places to plunge the country into horrific violence and, worse yet, chop off the head of their king. This royalist narrative now came to lay the groundwork for Tory identity. Casting themselves as supporters of the twin pillars of the monarchy and Anglican Church, the Tories (also known as "High Churchmen") preached that passive obedience to the monarch was a core doctrine of the Church of England, that dissenters threatened not only to the Church of England but also to the monarchy, and that consequently the king owed it to himself and the Church of England to stamp out Protestant dissent—or at the very least prevent dissenters from gaining any political power.

The Tories cast their lot so firmly with the monarchy that, despite their own anti-Catholicism, they opposed the Whigs' Exclusion Bill. They also supported Charles in a series of measures designed to curb the power of the Whigs by constitutionally dubious means. In the infamous quo warranto campaign of 1684, for example, Charles revoked and then rewrote the charters of a number of boroughs and corporations that sent members to Parliament in order to ensure that access to voting rights would be organized in a way that made it likelier that Tories would be elected as MPs. When Charles died in 1685, the Tories enthusiastically proclaimed allegiance to James II, in spite of his Catholic faith, in the belief that his reliance upon them as the promonarchical party would lead him to respect the rights of the Church of England and the Anglican monopoly on all political and military offices.

But over the next three years, James alienated his Tory supporters. He put Catholics into offices from which all non-Anglicans were by law excluded, claiming that as king he had power to dispense with such laws. He appointed Catholics to the governing board of Magdalen College, Oxford, which violated the college 's charter and defeated its purpose as an Anglican seminary. Moreover, James tried to win support for his pro-Catholic policies from Protestant dissenters by promising that both groups would get the benefit of religious toleration. To this end, he issued a Declaration of Indulgence, establishing toleration for Catholics and dissenters by royal fiat, without the consent of Parliament. To add insult to injury, James ordered the clergy of the Church of England to read the Declaration of Indulgence from their pulpits. Many clergymen refused, and seven Anglican bishops who had spearheaded the resistance were thrown in the Tower and tried for sedition. So it was that the High Church Tories who had brought James II to the throne united with their Whig opponents to overthrow him.

Although Whigs and Tories had joined to bring William of Orange to the throne, each group had a different relationship to the revolution and to the new king. Tories wrestled with ambivalence about the act of deposing a sovereign after having spent the previous thirty years preaching the doctrine of passive obedience. Their allegiance to William was thus in some doubt, and there was reason to wonder if, in a paroxysm of conscience, the High Churchmen would revert to their former support for James. But the Tories also had a claim on William's favor because they despised republican or commonwealth notions of the people being able to dictate to a king and were committed to upholding the powers and prerogatives of the Crown in relation to Parliament. Moreover, the very ambivalence of the Tories about the revolution meant that William had to placate them. At the beginning of his reign, then, William found reasons to trust and to distrust both Whigs and Tories, and he strove to balance places on his council and important offices of state between members of both parties. As a result, some of his influential advisors were Tories who had held high office in previous reigns. These included the Marquis of Halifax and the Earl of Danby (now elevated to Marquis of Carmarthen), who as noted above had been attacked by Whigs in the Exclusion Crisis.

Loyalty Oaths and Indemnity

Divisions between Whigs and Tories emerged most clearly in the debates about loyalty oaths and about indemnity for persons who actively supported the previous regime. These two debates hinged on the same question: Should the new government include or exclude those with a checkered political past or suspect political loyalties? How members of Parliament responded to that question was related to their own historical relationships to the governments of Charles II and James II and the paths by and terms upon which they had come to support the revolution. Not surprisingly, there were crass partisan stakes in these debates. Both Whigs and Tories tried to manipulate legislation on loyalty oaths and indemnity in such a way as to preserve their friends and disable their enemies. But alongside these strategic considerations there existed very different notions held by Whigs and Tories of what the revolution meant and how to legitimate and secure it.

Whigs felt that the Revolution of 1688 needed to be continually reaffirmed and vindicated. Parliament had to be seen to be active in defense of the regime not only financially and militarily but ideologically, promoting a narrative that established the unquestionable rightness of its actions and the legitimacy of the current order. To truly support the revolution, individuals were required to embrace that narrative. The Tories, following the fine Elizabethan tradition of "not making windows into men's souls," preferred to let people reconcile themselves to the revolution on their own terms; it was enough that subjects behave as if they accepted William's authority, and in return the government would treat its subjects as if they were (now) loyal. These two approaches to revolution did not coexist easily. To Tories, Whigs were ripping open wounds, creating unnecessary fears and divisions. To Whigs, Tories were probably crypto-Jacobites.

Loyalty Oaths

Loyalty oaths were fraught because they called to mind a history of infidelity and insincerity. During a discussion of a proposed oath to abjure James II, MP Robert Harley offered a scathing historical reflection:

In the late times, how many oaths were taken? And yet when King Charles II returned, they took them again to him—nay, when the oath of abjuration of the royal family was taken some of those very men were at that time contriving to restore him. So that I think multitudes of oaths no great security; they serve but as a snare to some men and will not hold such as are your enemies.

Excerpted from A PLAGUE OF INFORMERS by Rachel Weil. Copyright © 2013 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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