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Catholic murderers in your area put loyal Protestants at risk, SAD! – Benjamin Harris, fake news, and the Popish Plot

By Alex Wakelam – @A_Wakelam

Anyone with even a passing awareness of  western politics over the last year will have been bombarded with the phrase “Fake News”, whether to describe genuine falsehood circulated as fact or as the rallying cry of bombastic autocrats denying the validity of news sources that disagree with them. While the phrase seems like a recent development (the Wikipedia page for fake news was only created in January 2017), the concept of disseminating falsehoods as factual recaps of events is certainly not a new one. Probably one of the most famous pre-modern examples is the Donation of Constantine, an excerpt of the Constitutum Constantini which was itself drawn up from a ninth century Frankish work entitled Peseudo-Isidorian Dectrals, also known as the False Dectrals. This forgery supposedly consists of a decree of the Emperor Constantine (the first Christian Emperor) giving the Pope control over Rome and the Western Roman Empire. Unsurprisingly, it was used by a number of Popes from the eleventh century in their attempts to enforce authority over unruly feudal lords until it was finally proved to be a forgery in the fifteenth century by humanist Lorenzo Valla.[1] Spreading deliberate, politically motivated, fake news in the middle ages took a serious amount of effort and while false stories of a mythical nature travelled across Europe organically, it took the printing press and the continent wide paranoia that came with the Reformation to usher in the first great age of fake news.

While there are many examples of false news disseminated in the early modern period, none is perhaps as striking as A Narrative and Impartial Discovery of the Horrid Popish Plot. The short tract of only 27 pages was printed in 1679 at the height of the Popish Plot, a fictional conspiracy that had begun to spread the year before. In short, the plot was a concoction of Titus Oates, a perpetual failure who had left Cambridge without a degree, falsely gained a license to preach, was arrested for perjury, lasted a year as a ship’s chaplain, converted to Catholicism, became a Jesuit, converted back to Protestantism, was imprisoned after the plot for three years, and died, at best forgotten, at worst in ignominy. The plot itself claimed that the Catholic Church had approved the assassination of Charles II, then king of England, by Jesuit agents. Though the state investigated his claims, it did not carry much credibility until the mysterious murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey, an MP involved in the investigation, supposedly by Catholics. Belief in the plot spread widely, aided by cheap publications such as Impartial Discovery. While the hysteria would fizzle out by 1681, the fake news publications had a real impact on policy as a significant number of prominent figures were accused while many others were arrested particularly Jesuits, nine of whom were executed with twelve more dying in prison.

Much of this hysteria was spread by a small group of anti-Catholic printers who were behind the Impartial Discovery, which despite its focus on the current plot, contained many other bizarre Catholic crimes including starting the Great Fire of London with fireballs.[2] Amongst the publishers listed upon its title page was Benjamin Harris who, though starting his career with astrological guides and a cookery book for women, became known for his dissemination of fake news. Following his “success” with Impartial Discovery Harris began a newspaper entitled Domestick Intelligence, published bi-weekly emblazoned with the phrase: ‘Published to prevent false reports’. The paper proved successful, the ‘click-bait’ of its day with stories of strange murders and Jesuits attempting to enact ‘horrid Villainy’ against good Protestants.[3] Despite its subtitle the paper contained almost nothing based in reality, or as Mark Knights has described it ‘anti-Catholic venom … in lively prose’.[4]

In one typical edition, after a number of updates on Jesuits attempting to assassinate the King and arrests “made” in connection to it, is the story of a protestant in Dorsetshire finding themselves in an ale house ‘there being several Papists’. Conversation shortly turned to the plot. The papists not being able to prove their innocence and ‘finding themselves unable to answer his Reasons, resolved to use the most Invincible & Infallible Argument of the Catholick Church, and as we hear barboursly murdered the Protestant’.[5] This story, designed to create feelings of rage and fear, lacks any subtlety and makes no attempt to come across as genuinely believable. While some of the reports in his paper are somewhat more conceivable, such as the King of France’s desire to force the city of Geneva to build a Catholic chapel, the majority are unabashedly absurd. Were such reports believed? It is hard to tell, though one might assume that at least some of the readers would have taken these reports at their word – nor is this unique to the early modern period as one man powerfully demonstrated last year when he held up a DC pizzeria with an AR15 rifle after being convinced by fake news allegations that it was the centre of a Clinton campaign child sex ring.[6]

Harris’s success with these fabricated reports led him to grow bolder, publishing accounts of imagined catholic massacres and openly supporting the succession of the Duke of Monmouth (Charles II’s illegitimate son) to the throne, an action that ultimately led to his imprisonment for sedition, bringing his newspaper to a close. Subsequently Harris moved to Boston (printing America’s first newspaper though only the one issue) where he found far greater success printing religious material. However, Harris returned to England in 1695 and after only a few months was ‘taken into custody for printing false news’.[7] Though continuing to print for the rest of his life his fortunes never really recovered and Harris died selling quack remedies.[8] In a less authoritarian age (for now at least) it is harder to punish perpetrators for propagating deliberate and dangerous falsehoods but it is worth noting that even though fake news might seems less fanciful than in the early modern period, much of it is still created with specific purposes in mind. Though some is created to entertain the readers or spreaders, or merely in a schadenfreuden effort to mess with the minds of anonymous readers, much of it comes from a malevolent and purposeful place. Fake news despite its moniker has always had real impact, whether upon the actions of paranoid Protestants or upon the fidgety trigger finger of a right wing paedophile hunter at a pizzeria.

(Image Printer in 1568 Woodcut, wikimedia commons)

[1] C.G. Bateman, “Donation of Constantine”, in The Encyclopedia of Political Thought (2014)

[2] William Bedloe, A Narrative and Impartial Discovery of the Horrid Popish Plot (1679), p.5.

[3] Domestick Intelligence, issue 3, July 14, 1679, p1.

[4] Mark Knights, “Benjamin Harris”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

[5] Domestick Intelligence, issue 3, July 14, 1679, p1.

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/dec/05/gunman-detained-at-comet-pizza-restaurant-was-self-investigating-fake-news-reports

[7] Narcissues Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs from September 1678 to April 1714, vol.4, p.497.

[8] Mark Knights, “Benjamin Harris”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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