Popish Plot Playing Cards

Accessible here: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O77469/the-popish-plot-pack-of-playing-barlow-francis/

Ballads, poems, public speeches, songs, word of mouth, leaflets, pamphlets, posters, and newspapers; seventeenth century life teemed with outlets and opinions of politics among the everyday folk. In a century of political and religious turmoil from the gunpowder plot to the glorious revolution, it comes as no surprise that the ‘little’ people found great interest and entertainment in these matters.

In a period where these methods of communication surrounded everyday lives, in a time where unrest and fear (of nonconformists, of foreigners, of plague) were common, hysteria and panic were always ready to take hold. And so, in 1678, it did – in the form of a fictitious catholic plot to assassinate King Charles II; labelled the Popish Plot, it gripped the nation in a panic for three years.

This set of playing cards is a fantastic example of seventeenth century media. It bypasses the barriers of illiteracy, as much as 80% of the lower classes and 50% amongst the middle class could not read or write.[1] These playing cards could, therefore, convey a political message to those which Richard Baxter contemporaneously and so affectionately labelled ‘the rabble that cannot read’.[2]

Another issue facing the diffusion of political propaganda was cost. Playing cards were cheap to produce and accessible, though not necessarily owned, by most people.[3] Following the founding by charter by Charles I of the ‘Mistery of Makers of Playing Cards of the City of London’ on 22nd October 1628, 336,960 packs of playing cards were produced a year.[4] This equated to roughly one pack per fifteen people.[5] It is likely that whatever message was being presented through playing cards would have reached the majority of the population, at little cost to the authority producing it.

The images, produced by influential, pro-whig, political satirist (and wildlife painter), Francis Barlow give an explanation to the anti-Catholic hysteria that fell on England during the popish plot. Having such quality images on these cards promotes the idea of the popish plot being a true and very present problem. The very position that Barlow held as a whig aligned political satirist gives an insight into early modern propaganda. These messages were clearly created with a political and religious motive, that of anti-Catholicism. In doing so a political ideal has been diffused in the public mind by surrounding the people with the message, propaganda and mass communication had taken another step toward the modern age.  It is understandable then why public opinion generated so much panic borne of the plot.

[1] David Cressy, ‘Levels of Illiteracy in England, 1530-1730’, The Historical Journal, 20:1, 1977

[2] https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2014/10/13/the-rabble-that-cannot-read-ordinary-peoples-literacy-in-seventeenth-century-england/#_ftn1

[3] http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O77469/the-popish-plot-pack-of-playing-barlow-francis/ (accessed 01/12/2016)

[4] http://www.makersofplayingcards.co.uk/ (accessed 01/12/2016)

[5] Wrigley and Schofield, “The Population History of England, 1541–1871. A reconstruction.”, Harvard University Press, 1981, Table 7.8, pgs. 208-9. Taking their population average estimate of 5,310,000 and dividing it by the number of packs produced. However, there is considerable variance of +/- 29% in regards to the population.


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