How Have Conspiracy Theories Changed the Course of History?

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Joseph Hone, author of The Paper Chase: The Printer, the Spymaster, and the Hunt for the Rebel Pamphleteers (Chatto & Windus, 2020)

The 17th century was an age of conspiracies. It was also an era in which discerning real conspiracies from imagined ones was extremely difficult. There were no fact-checking agencies. Many plots did occur, but some of them did not. And, to make matters even more complicated, some of them sort of did and didn’t at the same time.

The most infamous of 17th-century conspiracy theories, the ‘Popish Plot’ of 1678, was a hoax fabricated by a pair of down-and-out grifters. Yet it was also the result of deeply ingrained fears that Catholic fifth columnists were secretly plotting to bind England once more to the yoke of Rome. And, in a sense, those fears were well founded: when Charles II signed the secret Treaty of Dover with Louis XIV in 1670, it included a clause requiring his conversion to the Catholic Church.

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