17th-Century Fake News | Newberry

17th-Century Fake News

In this episode of “Shelf Life,” we discuss a dastardly chapter from the annals of fake news: the Popish Plot, a conspiracy theory promoted by a man named Titus Oates.

According to Oates’s writings in the late 1670s, a cabal of Catholics was conspiring to kill King Charles II and replace him with a Catholic ruler. Even though Oates was a notorious liar and had little to no evidence to support his claim, the story lodged itself in the public’s imagination and led to the execution of dozens of people. How did this happen? And what parallels can we draw between seventeenth-century print culture (the vehicle for spreading Oates’s lies) and the media environment we live in today?

17th-Century Fake News by Shelf Life, from the Newberry Library

Show Notes


Titus Oates disseminated the Popish Plot (and passed it off as truth) through printed pamphlets. According to Oates, a Catholic cabal was conspiring to kill King Charles II.

1:45 – Who was Titus Oates?

3:59 – TItus Oates concocts the Popish Plot.

4:43 – Pre-existing anti-Catholic sentiment makes the public receptive to Oates’s story.

12:10 – The role of print as a vehicle for spreading the Popish Plot far and wide.

16:14 – Print networks consist of a long chain of authors, printers, publishers, and booksellers who have an incentive to monetize news and serve readers inflammatory printed materials that could spark debate.

21:10 – Publishing “news” related to the Popish Plot becomes a profitable industry.

24:14 – Was the Popish Plot able to spread because people didn’t have the phrase “fake news” to discredit it?

Suggested Reading

A True Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party, by Titus Oates. London: 1679.

The Memoires of Titus Oates [a scathing diatribe against Oates and everyone who believed him]. London: 1685.