If you go to London today and make your way to the intersection of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill (Google Maps link) you can see a large white obelisk with a golden top, the official monument to the Great Fire of London in 1666. For a little money, you can even climb the 311 steps and make your way to the top, which still offers a panoramic view of the city.
While the top of the obelisk is round, the base is square and three sides of the base have an elaborate inscription in Latin and English, describing (a little bit about) what happened in the fire, who authorized and paid for and designed the monument itself and all about how resolute England was in rebuilding from that devastating fire in such a short amount of time. The reason that only three of the four sides have an inscription is that the panel on the east side was physically removed in 1831 and never replaced.
It is what was originally written on that eastern panel which interests me because I’ve spent most of the last week wondering exactly how it is that such execrable and blatantly criminally culpable politicians such as Renu Fenechiu rise to power in Romania.
The answer, in short, lies with how political parties are organized (everywhere, not just in Romania) and what kind of behavior is rewarded for members of such parties.
That branches off into a whole field of study known as hierarchiology or the study of hierarchies (which I guess in Romanian would be ierarhiologie, a tongue twister for sure). Certain “natural” laws and principles dictate which members of any given political party will rise in prominence and power and be “promoted” to the top ranks, even when that high-ranking member might be otherwise a liability, such as Renu Fenechiu.
But setting all of that hierarchiology stuff aside for a moment (which I am sorely tempted to delve into for another article), the question I began asking was exactly how did political parties come about in the first place? The concept of democracy as originally conceived by the Ancient Greeks had no political parties or factions at all. During the voting procedure, you voted for the man you liked best. That was it.
Clearly there are politicians today, called “independents”, meaning independent of any political party, who run for office and are elected. Although he was a long-time member of the PSD, the current mayor of Bucharest, Sorin Oprescu, has been officially “independent” since 2008. But the vast majority of politicians in Romania, as well as in every other modern democracy, are members of political parties.
It’s an interesting question, especially since there is nothing inherent in a democracy that would promote the creation of permanent political parties. George Washington (the first American president) himself was a strong opponent of political parties, as was Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, some of the most influential founders of democracy in the United States. And since we know the Ancient Greeks didn’t have them, how exactly did political parties come about?
It turns out that the answer has everything to do with that missing inscription on the east face of the monument to the Great Fire of London. Long gone now, the text doesn’t even appear anywhere on the official website for the monument nor on its Wikipedia entry nor just about anywhere else on the internet.
I had to do some serious digging to find the original text, which read (original spelling):
This pillar was sett up in perpetuell remembrance of the most dreadful Burning of this Protestant City, begun and carried on by the treachery and malice of the Popish faction
In short, the monument, which began construction in 1671, directly blamed Catholics (the “Popish faction”) for starting the The Great Fire of London of 1666.
Another plaque memorializing the Great Fire has also since been removed but was originally in front of the nearby bakery where the fire began. And that plaque read:
Here by the permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant City from the malicious Hearts of barbarous Papists, by the hand of their agent, Hubert, who confessed and on the ruins of this place declared the fact, for which he was hanged vizt. that here began that dreadful fire, which is described and perpetuated on and by the neighbouring pillar.
The Hubert the inscription is referring to was Robert Hubert, who was a crippled, mildly retarded French Catholic watchmaker who wasn’t even in London at the time of the fire but nonetheless was duped into “confessing” that he started the fire and was then hanged to death for the “crime”.
There are a lot of interweaving reasons as to why many people in England were so hostile against Catholics, all of it stemming from when King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife and this request was denied by the Pope and so broke off from the Catholic Church and formed his own church in 1534.
From then on there was a constant struggle in England. Who would rule the country, a Protestant (loyal to the Church of England) or a Catholic (nominally loyal to the Pope)? After Henry VIII came Edward VI, who was a Protestant but who was then succeeded by Mary, a Catholic. After that came Elizabeth I, a Protestant and then James I, another Protestant. In 1605, the infamous Gunpowder Plot came to light in which a group of Catholics had conspired to blow up (and kill) the king, an event still celebrated in Britain today on a holiday known as Guy Fawkes Day (named after the conspirator in charge of placing the bomb).
After James I came Charles I, who was executed in 1649 at the beginning of the English Civil War, which led to the brief republic, headed by Oliver Cromwell. The monarchy was re-established in 1660 and thus it was only a short time after the restoration that the devastating Great Fire of London occurred. This was all combined with an economic depression and a lot of religious tension amongst other groups, especially the Puritans.
During the Fire of 1666, a minor Baptist priest named Israel Tonge had his church burn down and thus lost his job. Tonge, apparently already an established anti-Catholic, became positively obsessed with Catholics after the fire, blaming them both for setting it (the “confession” of the retarded Robert Hubert being part of this) but also being behind every act of wrongdoing and perfidy in the entire kingdom. In fact, his obsession and fervor on the subject caused even most of his friends to consider him what today we would call a “nutter” or a “nutjob” and he’d probably be considered a “Great Fire Truther” if he were alive today.
But somewhere along the line Tonge met another Baptist preacher named Samuel Oates. And it was Samuel Oates’s son Titus who is directly responsible for all modern political parties today.
Tonge, for all of his faults, seemed to genuinely believe most of his conspiracies. Titus Oates on the other hand was a complete fuck-up and scam artist his entire life. If you built a time machine and went back to the heady days after the Great Fire and had to put your money on who would be the most influential commoner from that period of history, the last person you’d pick would be Titus Oates.
Born in 1649 (thus aged 17 during the fire), he was kicked out of two different schools before somehow being accepted into Cambridge University, where he was again kicked out and then transferred to two different universities. One of his fellow students called Titus “an illiterate dunce, incapable of improvement”. He also apparently ran up significant debts during his student days.
Without graduating any of these universities, somehow Titus was accepted into the Anglican Church and began to work at two different churches, being “removed” (kicked out) from both of them until his last and final option was to work at his father’s church, which he did. Titus and his father then decided to make up a story about a local schoolmaster (with the idea that the schoolmaster would be fired and Titus could take his job). The story that the Oates told about the schoolmaster isn’t listed in any document I could find but it seems to be an allegation of sexual misconduct.
Whatever the allegation was, it backfired badly. Samuel Oates (the father) was fired from his job and Titus was charged and convicted of perjury and thrown in jail in the city of Dover. Somehow or another, Titus escaped from jail and made his way to London.
Apparently nobody in London figured out he was an escaped convict from Dover and so Titus Oates managed to get a job as a chaplain on a Royal Navy ship, which set off to Tangier (now part of Morocco). This job didn’t last too long however as he was kicked off the ship for “buggery”, meaning anal sex with another man, something that was deeply illegal at the time.
Somehow this drunken, lecherous, convicted perjurer then made his way to another city in England where he befriended some Catholics. He officially converted to Catholicism in 1677 but failed twice to pass what the Jesuits call a “trial” or an exam of his knowledge of the catechisms and dogma of the Catholic faith. Despite all this, somehow he was still admitted to a Catholic university in Saint Omer in France until he was kicked out of there as well in 1678.
And it was in 1678 that this prurient fool met up with Israel Tonge, who had known his (Titus’s) father and who was obsessed about Catholics, seeing them under his bed at night and behind every crime in England. For whatever reason, Titus Oates and Israel Tonge became great friends and the opportunistic Titus realized that he had an opportunity to run yet another scam, this one “succeeding” far beyond his wildest dreams.
Titus Oates’ scam became known as the Popish Plot, one of the most patently false and ridiculous claims that were even taken seriously in the history of the world (the Donation of Constantine probably coming in number two on that list).
Titus Oates, who was barely literate, got the feverish Israel Tonge to write up 43 accusations (officially entitled The True and Exact Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party against the Life of His Sacred Majesty, the Government and the Protestant Religion, etc. and later expanded to 83 accusations) against the Catholics, alleging that they had a master plan to assassinate King Charles II (who was Protestant) and replace him with his brother James, then the Duke of York (incidentally after whom the city of New York was named), who was Catholic.
How these traitorous Catholics were supposed to accomplish this, as alleged by Titus Oates, beggars belief, even remembering that the royal court of the 17th century wasn’t well versed in crime dramas like Law and Order or even the novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes). Oates said that the 1) two Jesuits were going to use rifles with silver bullets (supposedly because wounds inflicted by silver bullets can’t be treated) to shoot the king, and if that failed 2) the Queen’s personal physician was going to poison the king, and if that failed 3) two Catholic monks were going to stab the king, and if that failed, 4) four Irish “ruffians” were going to murder the king.
All of this “master plan”, along with sundry other conspiracies to murder other members of the royal family and some Anglican bishops, was written up in a document. Titus Oates then slipped into a mansion owned by a man named Richard Barker and hid a copy of the document behind a wall panel there.
Tonge was a friend of Barker’s and then later pretended to “find” the document behind the wall panel. Barker told his friend Christopher Kirby, who was able to approach King Charles one day and warn him about this “Popish Plot”. The king, to his credit, thought it was nonsense (which we now know after extensive historical research that it really was complete nonsense) and essentially forgot about it.
But the king, being prudent, told Kirby to tell William Chaffinch, a man who worked for the king, to do some investigation into the matter. The Duke of York (James I, the man who was supposedly going to benefit from this whole thing) found out about it and it was he who insisted that a more comprehensive investigation be conducted, probably to clear his name. Eventually it was discovered that Titus Oates was the author of the document.
Oates gave what would today be called a deposition or legal, sworn testimony in front of a (Protestant) magistrate named Berry Godfrey, attesting to the “authenticity” of the Popish Plot. While Titus wasn’t very literate or studious, he apparently was a skilled liar and therefore answered Godfrey’s questions quickly and convincingly. Nonetheless, Godfrey could find no corroborating evidence of Titus Oates’ accusations (because there was none) and the matter was basically over with.
Unfortunately however, somebody murdered Godfrey a short while later. Nobody knows who did it but immediate the suspicion fell on Catholics. With the belief that Catholics had “silenced” Godfrey after Oates’s testimony, suddenly Oates’s accusations were taken seriously and the entire country went insane, believing (like many Americans today, concerning Muslim terrorists) that the Catholics were “everywhere” and behind every crime in town, all conspiring together to murder the king and install their religion in the country.
From one contemporary source, talking about London after the murder of Berry Godfrey:
The capital and the whole nation went mad with hatred and fear. The penal laws, which had begun to lose something of their edge, were sharpened anew. Everywhere justices were busied in searching houses and seizing papers.
All the jails were filled with Papists. London had the aspect of a city in a state of siege. The train bands were under arms all night. Preparations were made for barricading the great thoroughfares. Patrols marched up and down the streets. Cannon were planted round Whitehall. No citizen thought himself safe unless he carried under his coat a small flail loaded with lead to brain the Popish assassins.
Sadly, at least 16 men were executed based on the direct (and false) testimony of Titus Oates, including eight priests and one (Catholic) member of the House of Lords.
The king, to his credit, never believed in the Popish Plot and in fact ordered Oates be arrested. But certain key members of Parliament certainly did believe in Oates, especially Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Earl of Shaftesbury, who blocked the arrest order. The Earl of Shaftesbury then used the anti-Catholic hysteria to try to pass a bill in the Parliament called the Exclusion Bill, which sought to bar James from succeeding to the throne upon the death of Charles II.
Charles II, feeling that Parliament was infringing upon royal authority, dissolved the Parliament, thus negating (at least legally) the Exclusion Bill. The people of England became very divided on this issue, with some feeling that the king should re-instate parliament and some people feeling that the king had done the right thing.
Eventually the faction opposed to the king’s dissolution of parliament began to be known as “Whigs” (now called “Labour”) and those who supported the king’s act began to be known as Tories.
Long after the issue of a Catholic conspiracy was forgotten (and James I eventually became the king of England without anyone being murdered and without provoking a civil war), the political parties remained. A hundred years later, the founders of the American government aligned themselves as either being for a strong central government (Federalists) or for a more decentralized authority (the anti-federalists, later called Democratic Republicans and then later just Republican).
Titus Oates got his just desserts just three years after unleashing this wave of paranoia and hatred. In 1682 he was convicted of perjury and thrown in jail. A few months later he was fined 100,000 pounds (an astronomical sum) for “scandalum magnatum” and condemned to being whipped, degraded and pilloried five days every year for the rest of his life. The judge in his perjury trial stated that Oates “deserved more punishment than the laws of the land can inflict”.
And thus the concept of a permanent political party was born as the result of a ridiculous scheme by a two-bit con artist in 1678, connecting the dots between Titus Oates and the PNL party in Romania, itself founded on an earlier platform established in 1875, modeled after other political parties in France, England and the United States, and now the proud supporter of a patently criminal thug named Renu Fenechiu, whom I urgently pray will be going to jail soon although sadly he won’t be pilloried.