News of the Popish plot

Dr McIlvenna performing an execution ballad from the Popish plot pamphlets.
Dr McIlvenna performing an execution ballad from the Popish plot pamphlets.

The 2019 object-based learning program created a headline through the Popish plot pamphlets which amazed students in the summer intensive course: The History of News from Street Ballads to Social Media. The Popish plot pamphlets are a compilation of bound printed items such as speeches, broadsides, poems, plays and ballads which are titled after the first publication in the volume: A true narrative of the late design of the papists to charge their horrid plot upon the Protestants (1679). Many brutal wars and plots took place across Europe between the Catholics and the Protestants after the Protestant Reformation was set in motion in 1517. It is a powerful and sobering experience to behold these pamphlets which are a physical record of religiopolitical terrorism. Plots such as those in 17th century England including this scheme to assassinate the Protestant King Charles II, had in other instances such as in France, resulted in the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in which thousands of Protestants were savagely slain. The Popish plot, however, was later revealed to be a fictitious conspiracy invented by the priest Titus Oates, but not before alleged ‘papist plotters’ had been grimly executed.

Toward the back of the volume are execution ballads, and these ballads were performed by street singers at public executions; attendees could purchase a printed copy of the song as a souvenir. Students in the course were enthralled to hear Dr Una McIlvenna perform Early Modern execution ballads, including one of the examples bound into the Popish plot pamphlets, then to actually see the printed ballad before them during the lecture. The study of execution ballads is part of a broader research project within the Faculty of Arts and when the Popish plot pamphlets are digitised later this year, the ballads will be made available through new online databases.

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