“Notwithstanding all the Favours and Priviledges the Gregorians enjoyed under the peaceful Reign of Conradus, by means of the Prince of Purdino, they were not therewith content, but greatly desiring to have their Religion the Religion established by Law, which could not be while Conradus lived, they began to think he had reigned long enough…”
The period from the Restoration in 1660 to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was a time of continuous political and religious upheaval in Britain, and it is not surprising that much of what was published during those years was political and/or religious in focus as well. Fiction for entertainment alone took a back seat at this time to fiction with a purpose, including the emergence of the roman à clef as a political weapon. The “novel with a key” had been popularised throughout Europe in the middle of the 17th century by the elephantine productions of Madeleine de Scudéry, which in spite of their “Oriental” or “classical” settings were populated by characters based upon herself and her friends and acquaintances, and who spoke, thought and acted accordingly. Finding yourself in one of de Scudéry’s novels was a popular past-time amongst the habitués of French salon society.
In England, however, such writing took on a deeper and darker meaning during the reign of Charles II, when it became a means of taking a political stance while (at least in theory) avoiding accusations of libel or sedition. A perfect example of the genre is The Perplex’d Prince, published in 1682 and attributed only to one “T.S.”, which gives a fictionalised account of the Popish Plot of 1679 – 1681, and the supposed role played in it by the Duke of York.
Briefly, the Popish Plot was – allegedly – a plan to assassinate Charles II and thus ensure the succession of his Catholic brother, James. It was held to have emanated directly from the Pope and been propagated by the Jesuits; to consist of several separate murder schemes, so that one might succeed if the others failed; and to be the prelude to an uprising of the Catholic population of London and the slaughter of its Protestant inhabitants. The Plot became public on the testimony of Titus Oates, who claimed that he had infiltrated the Jesuits and learned of their plans. Oates himself had a chequered and fairly disgraceful history, and most of those supporting his claims were no better; but the time was one of growing and passionate anti-Catholic feeling, particularly in view of the failure of Charles to produce a legitimate Protestant heir, and Oates’ accusations did not fall upon deaf ears. Although Charles himself considered the claims preposterous, Parliament saw its chance and – in an unmistakable case of “I want to believe” – took the incredible and unreliable evidence of Titus Oates at face value.
A bloodbath followed. Sixteen Catholics were quickly executed for their supposed involvement, and eight Catholic priests for having knowledge of the plot beforehand; before a halt was called, thirty-five people lost their lives to Oates’ accusations. Among those to die was Edward Coleman, the personal secretary of Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York. The Queen’s physician, Sir George Wakeman, was also accused; while rumour was busy with Catherine herself. In the Parliament, the Earl of Shaftesbury in particular seized upon the situation (which became known in some quarters as “the Shaftesbury Plot”) and began an agitation that would eventually evolve into the Exclusion Crisis. Meanwhile, Oates was rewarded for his “services” with state apartments and a fat pension. At length, however, although too late for many of the accused, the holes in Oates’ claims, his contradictions and the failure to find any hard corroborating evidence turned the tide in many minds, including judicial ones. Acquittals of accused Catholics became more common, and attacks on Oates himself more frequent. Apparently quite unable ever to keep his mouth shut, Oates retaliated in kind, accusing James outright of involvement in the Plot, and initiating a chain of events that would lead to the pillory and prison for him, and post-mortem pardons for some of his victims.
The Perplex’d Prince was published in 1682, after Oates’ eviction from Whitehall, his accusations against James, and his consequence imprisonment for sedition. However, despite Oates’ fall from grace at court, there was still great belief in the Popish Plot amongst the population in general, with many seeing Oates’ imprisonment not as the just result of his exposure, but as an act of revenge by the Catholic James. The pamphlet was therefore speaking to an eager audience when it chose to take the events of the Plot at face value. Nor did it stop there, but also latched onto a rumour that was gaining strength under the looming threat of a Catholic monarch: namely, that Charles had been legally married to Lucy Walter, the mother of his eldest son, the Duke of Monmouth; and that Monmouth, a Protestant, was the legitimate heir to the English throne. This was the so-called “black box” theory, in which Lucy Walter was supposed to have sealed her marriage-lines in a certain locked black box, which was then given into the keeping of John Cosin, an Anglican bishop, who by the time this theory became public was, like Lucy Walter herself, conveniently dead. The furious and exasperated Charles retaliated by declaring publicly that Catherine of Braganza was his only wife, and Monmouth illegitimate, but the conspiracy theorists – and the Exclusionists – paid little heed.
The Perplex’d Prince deals, self-evidently, with dangerous if popular material. Small wonder, then, that its anonymous author chose to pass it off as mere fiction, by telling the story of the country of Otenia, and the terrible plots against its Good King Conradus by a religious faction known as the Gregorians. The pamphlet opens with a brief, head-shaking account of the overthrow of Conradus’ father by the vile Vallinsia. After an unsuccessful attempt to defeat Vallinsia’s army, Conradus, Prince of West-tenia, goes into exile in Denesia in company with his younger brother, Heclasius, Prince of Purdino. There, Conradus falls in love with one of the ladies of the court, Lucilious, who he finally persuades into a secret marriage to which the only witnesses are the officiating priest and Heclasius. Lucilious bears Conradus a son, and they live happily together until Lucilious’ death.
Shortly afterwards, the people of Otenia decide they want their king back. Conradus is reinstated with all pomp and ceremony, and a desirable marriage is soon proposed to him with Berrelia of Legentine. The one fly in the ointment is a clause in the contract insisting that Berrelia’s children will be Conradus’ direct heirs. Conradus baulks at this, but finally declares the young Prince of Burranto illegitimate under the persuasions of Heclasius, who has already tried (and failed) to deny his own secret marriage.
Things do not remain peaceful in Otenia for long. The Gregorian faction begins to plot against Conradus, with the help of Heclasius, a secret Gregorian. Heclasius manages to surround the unsuspecting Conradus with his own people, who set to work poisoning the king’s mind against their religious enemies, the Calvenians. However, unable to push Conradus into action either in favour of the Gregorians or against the Calvenians, the Gregorians decide that the king must die…
Although the early section of The Perplex’d Prince, with its protracted account of Charles’ courtship of Lucy Walter, is fairly tedious, once the “Gregorian” plot is under way, it barely misses a beat. Scheme piles upon scheme, all attempts on the king’s life discovered in time purely by the grace of God – Who is, of course, a staunch anti-Gregorian. In light of what we now know about Titus Oates and the Popish Plot, this matter-of-fact account of the evil-doing of the Gregorians is rather chilling; but at the same time there is an amusing side to The Perplex’d Prince, albeit an unintentional one.
Virulently anti-Catholic as it is, we are not surprised at the pamphlet’s depiction of James as profoundly self-interested and deceitful, prepared to do anything to gain his ends, even to the extent of murdering his brother. The pamphlet makes much of the Gregorians, Heclasius included, having been absolved a priori by the “Pontify” for any sins they might commit for their cause. The difficulty for the anonymous author, clearly, was how to depict Charles, who in his inability to see through his brother’s façade to the dangerous plotter and religious fanatic beyond comes across as terribly naive – or as terribly thick, depending upon how you read it. Time and again, the evidence points to James as one of the main conspirators; time and again, Charles allows himself to be convinced by his brother’s tearful declarations of innocence and protestations of fraternal love.
The gap between the theoretical “Conradus” – So excellent a Prince as he was…every one who had the happiness to know him, highly commending him for a valiant, wise, and religious Prince – and the behaviour of the actual Charles was obviously a significant problem for the author, but perhaps no greater than the one he created for himself. With the best will in the world, the author cannot justify or explain away the perfect Conradus’ bastardising of the Prince of Burranto, whose birth is greeted with a solemn speech – “Sweet babe, thou art born Heir to a Crown, and although thy Father be at present out of possession thereof, yet he hopes shortly to recover it, and leave thee in quiet injoyment of it” – and who is subsequently disinherited under the pragmatic reflection that Conradus, Might safely do it to serve a present turn; and if his Highness saw occasion for it, he might right the young Prince at any time.
Very valiant, wise and religious of you, Charlie.
But of course, we see the author’s dilemma. Disgusted by the thought of a republic, a staunch believer in monarchy, a rabid anti-Catholic— How, then, to react in the face of a Catholic heir to the English throne? We cannot tell whether the author actually believed in either the Popish Plot or the “black box”, but we can understand why he might have seized upon both so avidly. In his view of the world, and of the natural fitness of things, Monmouth simply had to be legitimate.
The Perplex’d Prince is also an illustration of the dangers of writing to the minute, as it has no real ending. There is a concluding passage in which Conradus is separated from his brother and the rest of his party while out hunting (Heclasius hoping fervently that the leopard he was chasing has gotten him), after which he spends the night at the cottage of a simple countryman who doesn’t know who his guest is, and thus favours him with a few home truths about wicked Gregorians and saintly Calvenians, and how everyone knows the Prince of Burranto is the true heir and not Heclasius. This seems to be leading somewhere – back to the court for a showdown with Heclasius, perhaps – but instead the story just stops.
Although I’ve already gone on much longer than I intended (it’s hard to be brief when discussing the politics of this era), there are a couple of side-points I want to make about The Perplex’d Prince, one funny, one not funny at all. First of all we have the fact that no-one connected with this work seems to have been able to settle on the spelling of its adjective, which is given as “perplexed” in the first chapter heading, “perplext” in the dedication, and “perplex’d” on the title page, which is what I’ve gone with. It is also in the dedication that we get the feeling that the author may have had more of a sense of humour than his main text suggests, as he bemoans the unlikelihood of his pamphlet getting noticed at all amongst such a plethora of, “Intelligencies, Addresses, Absolom and Achitophels, Medals, Prologues, Epilogues…” and envisages the reaction of the customers: “The Perplext Prince! say some; Away with him, and tell us of the Victorious Prince… The Perplext Prince, says others, how can that be? Since he was indewed by Heaven with a Power to remove all Persons that occasioned any displeasing or Perplexing Thoughts…”
(That reference to Absalom And Achitophel is something I’ll be coming back to later on.)
We can smile at these reflections upon the perils of authorship and bookselling, but the dedication in which they appear wipes the smile from our faces. In a discomforting touch, The Perplex’d Prince is dedicated to William, Lord Russell, who at the time was one of the leaders of the Exclusionists, and who was subsequently accused of involvement in the Rye House Plot (a plot to assassinate Charles and James), convicted and executed, although I’m not aware that there was any particular evidence against him.
The final point to be made about The Perplex’d Prince (Thank God! I hear you cry) is its source. The copy I have studied was originally owned by the bibliophile Narcissus Luttrell. Luttrell was a Tory, although not a particularly rabid one by the standards of the time, and an avid collector of material relating to the Popish Plot and the Exclusion Crisis. In later years, financial trouble forced him to sell off his collection of printed material, much of which eventually ended up in the British Library.
There are, and will continue to be, very passionate debates about the future of books and bookselling, and the part to be played by eReaders. My own stance on the subject is simple and selfish: I love actual books as much as anyone, but the eReader allows me access to material I would otherwise never get within a thousand miles of – like Narcissus Luttrell’s copy of The Perplex’d Prince. We know it’s his because he wrote his name on the fly-leaf. What’s more, recognising it as a roman à clef, he declared as much on the title page (see above), and then while reading it tried to break its code, adding notes about who and where he believed the characters and places were intended to be – and fixing up the typos. On the accessible electronic version, these hand-written annotations have a startling immediacy, effortlessly bridging the 350-year gulf between reader and reader, book-lover and book-lover. I can think of no better argument in favour of the eReader.