This tile, which you can see in the Allen Gallery, was made to publicise one of the more shameful episodes of English history at a time when it was still being played out and still viewed by most with a sort of righteous approval.
In the late 1670s there was a general distrust of the Catholic minority. Added to this was the fact that the wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, as well as his brother, the Duke of York were Catholics, leading some to believe that Rome was trying to infiltrate the state and undermine Protestantism.
Then, in 1678, supposedly by accident a document came to light implicating the Catholic community in a plot to kill the King. Unsigned, it was in fact a forgery concocted mainly by Titus Oates, a failed Anglican priest who had recently been thrown out of a Jesuit college in France. Against the background of prejudice, belief in the allegations grew rapidly, and when Oates stepped forward, naming dozens of alleged conspirators in the so-called ‘Popish Plot’, three years of anti-Catholic paranoia began. 16 men were executed in direct connection with the ‘plot’ and many more were imprisoned.
Amongst those who died was Thomas Pickering, a Benedictine lay brother, whose role, Oates claimed, was to lie in wait for the King in St James’ Park and shoot him with a silver bullet. He was hanged, drawn and quartered 331 years ago, in May 1679. This and other events to do with the Popish Plot were depicted on playing cards for general sale, and then the same designs appeared on delftware wall tiles like this – incidentally, some of the earliest such tiles made in England.
Oates prospered hugely whilst his allegations were believed, and even when at last he was discredited he retained a certain amount of popular and political support. He spent a few years in prison in the late 1680s, but ended his days in 1705 with an honorary pension of £300 a year.