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Conspiracies | read an extract

The Facts – The Theories – The Evidence
By Andy Thomas

From Chapter 2: Historical Conspiracies

Those who believe that conspiracies are rife today point to the many precedents from history, which categorically demonstrate that certain events have been engineered or manipulated, either to undermine regimes or to boost otherwise unachievable mandates for political or religious forces. Sometimes the mere spreading of a theory has been the conspiracy itself. Both the Roman period and the 1500s-1600s make for good examples which show that human nature appears to have changed little over the centuries.


Plots of Elder Civilisations

In the conspiracy pantheon, there are countless theories about ancient times, especially concerning extra-terrestrial bloodlines being seeded aeons ago by the arrival of the ‘Annunaki’ or all manner of godlike beings. It is believed by some that these visitors gave rise to alien/human hybrid races whose occult knowledge may have been handed down through generations to inform the structures of global power today, but these areas are explored in Chapter 7. What needs to be established here is that conspiracy thinking is nothing new in our world.

Conspiracies, or theories about them, have probably been present in every civilisation since one tribe of early hominids was accused of interfering with the running of another by stealing food and water, or by an elder doing it themselves and blaming it on outsiders, justifying the massacre of local enemies. Tales of scapegoating and sleights of hands from powerful individuals to trigger desired actions that might otherwise be distasteful to the general population seem to run through most great empires, from the Assyrians to the Egyptians.

Greek mythology is famously a rich source of conspiracy theories, with the wooden horse of Troy being perhaps the most famous example of a trick being used to launch an act of aggression. Even the gods were said to regularly indulge in plots and schemes with or against mankind (or amongst themselves) to contrive opinion and mould the fortunes of war, as classic works such as the Illiad or Aeneid reveal. The Old Testament, meanwhile, provides more tales of subterfuge and deception on a grand scale, albeit with divine retribution never far behind.

However, of all the innumerable examples, it is the Roman Empire that gives perhaps the most resonant comparison to the claimed conspiracies of today. As popular culture is fond of likening our times to the fall of the Roman Empire, with its ‘bread and circuses’ policies, distractive military campaigns in foreign lands and society falling into debauchery and drunkenness, it seems apt to use the Romans as the prime exhibit of conspiracies in antiquity.

Dangerous Times in Rome

Although Roman history was more often than not recorded by talented propagandists, keen to elevate or denigrate the objects of their bias, one thing is clear from the ancient texts; holding a powerful position was a dangerous game. From the start, Roman history was marred with the violent despatch of its co-founder, Romulus, in 717
BCE by a conspiracy of senators, his sudden absence covered-up with a conveniently spun legend of an overnight ascension to heaven, with the great leader apparently taken up in a whirlwind. From thereon it seemed that, for all its claims of civilised democracy (of a kind), first the Republic and eventually the Empire of Rome fell prey to an almost endless succession of plots, coups, family wrangles, machinations, poisonings and assassinations. Details of the conspiracies would often not be revealed until the deeds were done (or, if they were, it was revengeful slaves or badly treated lovers who blew the whistle), but everyone suspected the likely origin of certain events.

By the time Julius Caesar was openly stabbed to death in public by, almost ludicrously, a gang of around 60 plotters in 44
BCE, even the cover stories of divine intervention had been abandoned. The wide presumption of background unrest (given that Caesar himself had unseated his predecessor, Pompey, by rebellion) must have become so ingrained in those times that conspiracy was not merely theory, but an integral, if unfortunate, component of Roman politics. Food and wine tasters, and personal bodyguards, were a must for anyone in a position of influence.

By the time the Roman Empire had run its course, around 35 of its emperors had been assassinated or murdered by internal cabals or rebellious factions. Despite this, the appeal of attempting to become emperor never seemed to fade, but the perils of the job were high. However, although such conspiracies were rife and widely recognised, these were largely assaults against its leaders by other would-be tyrants. Given that much of modern conspiracy theory is centred around the concept of the state assaulting or deceiving the people themselves, what precedents for this can be found from Roman times?

In 64
CE, a notable portion of Rome was destroyed in the ‘Great Fire’. Although modern scholars tend to absolve him, at the time it was widely believed that the incumbent emperor, Nero, had himself given the order to torch the area in question, hence the many, probably apocryphal, legends of his calmly playing a lyre (not a fiddle) while his own city burned. Some recorded that he sent out men feigning drunkenness to start the fire, while others claimed that soldiers or hired thugs openly went on the attack.

The central allegation ran that Nero wanted to reclaim land near the Palatine Hill so that he could create his ‘Domus Aurea’ palace, which was subsequently built there, and needed to rid himself of the aristocratic villas in the way, along with their obstructive occupants. Nero, in turn, blamed the early Christian community for the atrocity and, in a classic scapegoating, had confessions tortured out of its followers before ordering a spate of horrific executions. (Seen in today’s light, the plight of potentially innocent Muslim ‘suspects’ held captive for years without evidence in the wake of 9/11 seem not so very different to this situation.)

The Nero event was not the only fire to trouble Roman times. Later, in 303
CE, part of Emperor Diocletian’s Imperial Palace was razed to the ground, generating yet another round of persecutions against the now burgeoning Christian population, which was inevitably held to be responsible. Yet, once again, even at the time many saw Diocletian as being more likely to have ordered the fire, seeking grounds on which to wipe out this alarmingly persistent band of religious fanatics. (Almost unimaginably, within their own lifetimes, the Christian survivors of these persecutions would see their beliefs embraced as the new official religion of Rome under Emperor Constantine who decided to stop resisting the tide and instead use it to his own advantage.)

The preparedness of Roman citizens to so widely believe that their own emperors might be capable of such acts against them suggests that lack of faith in our leaders was not so very different back then. Given the many other outrages, political murders and massacres (sometimes involving thousands of deaths) that usually followed each change of emperor, as claimed ‘sympathisers’ towards the previous regime were systematically eliminated, it is unsurprising that trust in authority was shaky.

What has changed since then, modern conspiracy theorists would contend, is that such actions against the population are still carried out, but by more subtle means. ‘False flag’ terror attacks (so named after the historical tactic of ships attacking their own fleets under the colours of the enemy to incite further hatred), social conditioning, sidelining of ‘fringe’ opinions and chemical suppression take the place of overt physical assaults on the population for the most part, while it is claimed that assassination continues to be used as a tool in specific cases, albeit covered up. ‘Accidental’ deaths such as Princess Diana’s, or numerous less well-known examples amongst people with potentially embarrassing details to reveal on prominent politicians, continue to raise enormous suspicions, and mysterious ‘suicides’ are rife amongst whistleblowers or witnesses. Dr David Kelly’s contentious demise is perhaps the most famous recent example of the latter, as explored in Chapter 5.

So the ancient world provides a clear picture that conspiracies, whilst less shamelessly explicit today, are nothing new, nor are the many theories surrounding them. But, lest the impression be given that a leap of two thousand years or so might be allowed to mitigate the notion that such behaviour is still alive and (un)well in our society today, there are plenty of other historical precedents from more recent centuries. There are many that could be chosen, from numerous eras, but one period in particular provides a rich seam of illustration, albeit one that still involves Rome.


Religious Unrest in Tudor Times

When dissatisfaction with his wife Catherine of Aragon’s failure to produce a male heir coincided with his lust for the much younger Anne Boleyn in 1525, Henry VIII’s attempts to be free from both the domestic and political restrictions of the Roman Catholic church set in motion a chain of events that ensured a steady flow of wars, intrigues and conspiracies, some real, some merely alleged, that would last for centuries. Henry’s jostling against Papal authority over later controversial relationships, intensified by a desire for greater political influence, led to a wider struggle in which he effectively set himself up as God’s new envoy on earth through the development of what would become the Church of England, with himself at its head. Catholic monasteries were ‘dissolved’, often destroyed, their occupants scattered or executed, and subsequent popes were for generations characterised as tyrannical oppressors, scheming to destroy English sovereignty (as indeed soon enough they were, enlisting the likes of staunchly Catholic Spain to mount a number of famously failed invasions and attempted subterfuges).

The fuller story behind this crucial moment in history, which saw one of the most influential countries break with a force that had effectively governed the western world for nearly a millennium, can be easily explored elsewhere. What is of concern here is the resulting chessboard set for all manner of conspiratorial tangles that would follow.

The angst felt by those who fiercely held Rome to be the unquestioned seat of God’s power were aghast at Henry’s ‘Reformation’ but, at the same time, by the 1500s there was a growing discomfort at the political sway held over the country by a distant pontificator. This allowed resistance to the Church of England to fall away just enough for it to fast become the official religion of the nation, while around the same time a general ‘Protestant’ movement, begun by Martin Luther in Germany, was beginning to take hold in a number of European countries.

Given the strong conviction that had been forged in many hearts towards the new faith, coupled with an effective outlawing of the open practice of Catholicism, it was perhaps particularly unfortunate that Henry’s eldest daughter Mary I decided to revert the nation to Roman rule after acceding to the throne in 1553. This might have been avoided had Henry’s firmly Protestant son King Edward VI not died aged just 15. But after a disastrously failed attempt to put Edward’s favoured cousin Lady Jane Grey on the throne, resulting in her teenage execution, aggrieved Catholic influences returned with a vengeance to support Mary, and it was decreed that any heretics refusing to recant their Protestantism would be dealt with by public burning.

This unexpected reversal created a deep dilemma for those who genuinely felt that divine forces had spoken through Henry’s actions. Rather than face potential damnation, between 1555-57 a recorded 284 men and women went to the flame, while many others were tortured or died in prison. The deep resentment felt across the nation towards ‘Bloody Mary’ in turn resulted in a centuries-long persecution against Catholics when Mary died suddenly in 1558 and the country was converted back to the English Church by her half-sister Elizabeth I. In truth, Elizabeth probably had more Catholics executed during her reign than Mary did Protestants, but fairly or unfairly it is the ‘Marian persecutions’ that carved the most heartfelt memories of religious strife into the English collective memory, igniting a string of underhand conflicts that would ensure conspiracy theories became an indelible part of English life over the next two centuries.

Elizabethan Scheming

With much of Europe standing against Elizabeth’s England, now firmly set on Protestantism, several covert schemes were mounted to undermine it. Many of these centred around attempts to place Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin, Mary Stuart (‘Queen of Scots’), on the throne instead. Consequently, numerous conspiratorial plots and counter-plots erupted around her, both with and without her knowledge, although she herself spent much of her life under English house arrest or imprisonment.

In 1570, Roberto di Ridolfi, an international banker (of the kind widely held to be behind much of the alleged global conspiracy today) who had already been involved in the ‘northern rebellion’, an earlier failed attempt to foment a Catholic uprising amongst Earls in the north of England, mounted an assassination/invasion plot against Elizabeth. Despite strong Dutch and Spanish backing, loyalists made party to the conspiracy managed to expose it before it could come to full fruition. In 1584, a similar attempted coup by Sir Francis Throckmorton, this time with French support, was also foiled.

Things came to a major head with the ‘Babington Plot’ of 1586. Double-agents had already managed to set up an ongoing entrapment scheme with the confined Mary Stuart, by which incitements to Catholic insurrection were directly encouraged. Coded messages from Mary were ‘smuggled’ out to her supporters – neither party realising that every supposedly secret communication was in fact being read by Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham, who bided his time, waiting for enough undeniable evidence to implicate the plotters and ensure a full justification for the execution of this dangerous would-be queen of England.

The ploy of setting up one’s enemies, pushing them to enact the very things feared of them by active stimulation, with a view to then exposing the plots for political gain or to encourage hatred against them, is a recurring feature in the conspiracy world. Theorists believe this technique is still used today, particularly concerning activities supposedly planned by the likes of Al Qaeda, but which, on closer inspection, reveal suspicious links to western intelligences.

When a leading member of the Catholic gentry, Anthony Babington, became heavily involved in the plot to overthrow Elizabeth, it was his damning correspondence with Mary, detailing planned events and overseas invasions (this time from Spain, France and Italy), backed up by Mary’s written consent, that finally gave Walsingham his chance. With a few more incriminating references falsely added into copies of the letters for good measure (presumably to ensure the absence of any mitigating loopholes), there was no longer any question of the plotters’ guilt, and typically horrific executions, torture and prosecutions followed, culminating in the final demise of Mary, convicted of treason and beheaded in 1587. With no obvious replacement to take on a rallying role for Catholicism, the rumble of threatened rebellion quietened for a while.

A conspiracy of a less overarching kind occurred in 1601, when Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, who had fallen out of favour with the now aged Elizabeth, led an insurrection that did actually lead to military action on the streets of London. Aimed more at restoring his own prestige at court, rather than an attempt at all-out regime change, enough support was rallied to lead 300 armed men into the city, but the general population failed to respond to the cause and its few followers were easily quelled, leading to Devereux’s inevitable execution. Although his intentions were largely self-centred, some supporters had seen an opportunity to use the rebellion as a spark for a wider Catholic uprising - including one Robert Catesby, who, having been wounded in the skirmishes, managed to escape with a brief imprisonment and hefty fine. Four years later, as we shall see, Catesby would be at the core of one of the most famous conspiracies of all time.

The Shakespeare Conspiracy

One of the more curious tactics used by the Essex rebels was the mounting of a production of William Shakespeare’s play Richard II at London’s Globe Theatre the night before the failed coup (not Richard III, as Hollywood’s 2011 take on proceedings had it, courtesy of Roland Emmerich’s controversial Shakespeare conspiracy film Anonymous). The play’s theme of a dithering monarch, prey to dubious advisors and falling into paranoia before being deposed by rebellion and ultimately murder, was apparently intended to help stir the mob to civil unrest, in the hope that the Essex revolt would gain the people’s support next day. Although its intentions failed on this occasion, it is a strong early example of propaganda and public conditioning being spread through the guise of popular entertainment.

Shakespeare himself has, in recent years, come under the gaze of many conspiratorial claims, with many considering a common playwright incapable of expressing so many rich insights into human affairs and displaying such broad knowledge of courtly etiquette without at least some kind of outside input. It has been widely speculated that more venerable figures such as Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, may well have contributed to the plays, or authored them entirely, aliased to protect their names from what was then seen as a somewhat disreputable profession.

Speculation has been bolstered by the absence of any substantial recorded information about Shakespeare himself. Inevitably, most academics round heavily against this view, but there has been a steady increase in the number of leading classical actors and scholars prepared to openly consider that the figure we know as William Shakespeare may have been a composite front for either another author or a committee of contributors, which may or may not have included the bard himself.

The often volatile reaction against this theory produces in itself another telling example of how ingrained establishment resistance is to anything that threatens the status quo. This was keenly illustrated with the release of the aforementioned Anonymous movie in 2011, which opts for the de Vere hypothesis, mixing in the Essex rebellion for dramatic purposes. What was plainly intended as entertaining distraction rather than historical depiction (which, as we have seen, is hardly to be relied upon) was nonetheless met with some of the most vitriolic attacks seen towards mainstream cinema for some time, rooted largely in sheer outrage that anyone might so publically challenge the authority of such a great British institution. However, the movie’s shrewd inclusion of famous Shakespearian actors (including Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance), obviously happy to put their names to something fronting the controversial idea, led to one of the most overt media discussions of a conspiracy theory, albeit a light one, yet seen. This at least stimulated a little more awareness that there are other views to the narrow selection usually voiced in the mainstream, even if they were met by a barrage of condemnation.

The Gunpowder Plot

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, her failure to marry and produce children, nor to name an heir, resulted in Mary Stuart’s eldest son being imported from Scotland and crowned the new English monarch as James I. Although one might have expected James to bear some resentment for the execution of his mother, he dutifully maintained the Church of England. A few acknowledged Catholic sympathisers had somehow managed to retain a quiet presence at court throughout Elizabeth’s reign, tolerated all the while there was no open practice of their faith, which remained a punishable offence. Some had hoped the arrival of James might free this shackle, but he showed little sign of initiating a full emancipation.

One Catholic unable to contain his disappointment was one Robert Catesby, the resentful survivor of the 1601 Essex rebellion. Together with the aid of several other conspirators - most famously Guido (Guy) Fawkes - Catesby formulated a plan to assassinate James, together with his court and government, by igniting barrels of gunpowder stored in a convenient undercroft that ran beneath the old House of Lords. Had it succeeded, the blast would have constituted the largest peace-time explosion then witnessed, probably wiping out anyone within an eighth of a mile (as a television experiment in 2005 demonstrated). Planned for detonation during the state opening of Parliament on 5th November 1605, the hope was that a national Catholic uprising would follow, led by forces in the English Midlands, after which James’ nine-year old daughter, another Elizabeth, would be installed as a puppet queen, loyal once again to Rome.

These machinations have been recorded by history as the ‘Gunpowder Plot’, perhaps one of the most famous conspiracies of all time, still commemorated in Britain in its famous ‘Bonfire Night’ celebrations. Although awareness of its source inspiration seems to fade with each generation, some towns still uphold its fuller traditions, such as Ottery St Mary in Devon and, most spectacularly, Lewes in East Sussex (this author’s birth town). Even today, the Lewesian streets see effigies of Pope Paul V and Guy Fawkes (along with more contemporary political ogres of the moment) blown up to annual controversy, as the events of 1605, together with the Marian persecutions, are remembered with large-scale pageantry, illustrating the profound effect religious strife of old has had on the country.

The full details of the Gunpowder Plot are less important here, but it is highlighted to demonstrate an example of a conspiracy theory (one descended from several previous intrigues) that has become a marked fixture in the nation’s calendar. England’s history, in particular, is therefore indelibly defined by the recognition that conspiracies do most certainly occur. But if then, why not still now? The misplaced assertion that only in days of yore did such things happen, and that too many lessons have been learned to ever allow it today, is a weak one, given the evidence.

Harder-nosed truthseekers might point out that the Gunpowder Plot was merely yet another assassination attempt, a failed terrorist rabble-rousing on behalf of a persecuted minority, rather than a full contrivance to defraud the people, as ‘conspiracy’ is often defined today. However, a twist to the events of 1605 may throw another light on it.

Catesby, together with his band of co-conspirators and informants, was ultimately undone when an anonymous informant sent a letter to William Parker, 4th Baron Monteagle, warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament if he valued his life. Inevitably, Monteagle raised the alarm and Fawkes was consequently apprehended guarding the powder barrels in the early hours before the opening of Parliament. As ever, interrogations, torture, retreats, shoot-outs and appalling executions followed, and the day of the Gunpowder Plot was done. But perhaps not quite dusted.

Who sent the crucial letter to the baron? This question has never been satisfactorily answered. It was widely assumed that the anonymous hand was most likely that of Francis Tresham, one of the plotters. As brother-in-law to Monteagle, he might reasonably have been concerned about his welfare. But Tresham, even when dying of a mysterious illness while imprisoned in the Tower of London, continued to deny sending the letter, and his involvement was never proven. This is where claims of a ‘false flag’ operation have arisen.

Even at the time, voices were raised that, just as Mary Stuart’s communications with co-conspirators had been openly set up and monitored to implicate her, so also might the Gunpowder Plot have been actively encouraged or even arranged by James’ advisors, with or without his direct knowledge. There were many who desired to stir firmer legislation against Catholics, and, sure enough, the revelation of the potentially devastating scheme provided justification for the stiffest sanctions seen against the Roman Church in many years. Although the subsequent public reaction perhaps fell short of the all-out pogroms that hardliners might have hoped for, nonetheless much of the population enthusiastically embraced the bell-ringing and firing of cannons (eventually to become the more familiar bonfire and firework frenzies) that were officially decreed must take place each 5th November as an annual reminder of the baleful dangers of Catholicism.

If the Gunpowder Plot was a set-up, its result was a success and the upshot was the same (just as the West made useful capital of 9/11 by gratefully making it the launch pad of a new crusade into the Middle East), even without the false-flag connotations. But continuing suspicion has fallen on Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, Secretary of State and ‘spymaster’ for the King, a protégé of the Mary Stuart-baiting Sir Francis Walsingham. In addition to seeking greater legislation against Catholics, he was also eager to stoke new pretexts for war against Spain and Portugal, through which England could rise to new power and influence (which, several conflicts and a century later, it did, as the British Empire rose). It is said by some that Thomas Percy, one of Catesby’s conspirators, was a double agent, actively working for Cecil, and that Tresham was in fact poisoned in the Tower to remove his awkward protestations of innocence - for if he hadn’t written the damning letter to Monteagle, other hands would inconveniently have to be investigated.

John Gerard, a Jesuit priest who had been implicated as being involved in the plot despite his denials (although he was certainly connected to Catesby’s circle), plainly believed it was a case of officially-sponsored terrorism. In the 1606 tract A Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, published after his flight into exile, Gerard wrote:  

"For purposes of State, the government of the day either found means to instigate the conspirators to undertake their enterprise, or, at least, being, from an early stage of the undertaking, fully aware of what was going on, sedulously nursed the insane scheme till the time came to make capital out of it. That the conspirators, or the greater number of them, really meant to strike a great blow is not to be denied, though it may be less easy to assure ourselves of its precise character; and their guilt will not be palliated should it appear that, in projecting an atrocious crime, they were unwittingly playing the game of plotters more astute than themselves."

Jesuits are in themselves held in heavy suspicion by some conspiracy theorists today, but a number of odd things do present themselves around the official story of the 1605 plot. How, after all, were 36 huge barrels of gunpowder transported so easily by known Catholics into the vicinity of the House of Lords without raising suspicions? It may be that - almost certainly unwittingly – most of the plotters were indeed patsies, believing they were working under their own volition, while their movements were in truth being monitored and unrestricted until the final moment of apprehension. (Things do not always work like this – in a similar situation in 1993, Emad Salem, an FBI double agent, claims he was hired to provide dummy explosives to a group of Muslim extremists so that they could be implicated in a plot to bomb the World Trade Centre using a truck. However, in that case, Salem asserts that the group was given real explosives, and a bomb did go off, killing six people and injuring over a thousand.)

It has also been noted that John Streete, the soldier who shot and killed Catesby and Thomas Percy (reputedly with the same musket ball) in the final siege at Holbeche House following Fawkes’ apprehension, was, unusually, granted a special pension for his services, when taking them alive for interrogation had supposedly been the desired course of action. Was this a reward for removing the two men who might have had some potentially embarrassing revelations to make under trial? (Not one of the captured plotters, with nothing to lose by then, spoke of any official sponsorship at their trials, however. If a double agent, was the more knowing Percy betrayed by Cecil to prevent any inadvertent confessions, or was his death just an unfortunate accident?)

There are undoubtedly some unresolved issues around the false flag claims. If secretly working for the authorities, why did Percy not just desert the scene once the plot was uncovered, instead of risking himself by staying on to fight the siege (unless he had already sensed Cecil’s betrayal, and was now genuinely on the run himself)? And would it have been such a strange thing in those times for a real plot to have arisen anyway? The false-flag claims around the events of 1605, although increasingly popularised by modern theorists, remain unproven, and academics, unsurprisingly, generally discount them, although the accusations made at the time are grudgingly acknowledged.

As with the Great Fire of Rome, it is less the ultimate truth of the events that matters here, but rather the willingness of so many people to believe in the most convenient or self-reassuring versions. Inevitably, the Catholic sympathisers of the day were quick to support Gerard’s view of state responsibility, while the Protestant majority took the plot at face value and used it to full effect, setting in stone legislation that would ensure Catholics remained a pariah in some parts of the country until well into the early 20th century.

In a curious distortion of all this, it is interesting to note that in recent years (thanks largely to the 2005 movie version of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel V For Vendetta) Guy Fawkes has evolved into a figurehead for positive rebellion; a symbol of freedom rather than the dark traitorous figure hated in previous centuries. The movie’s plastic Fawkes masks are now, for good or ill, the de rigueur uniform of social dissenters, from anti-capitalists to human rights activists. The mask-wearers argue that just as Fawkes and his allies represented a persecuted minority seeking justice and the freedom to believe in what was right for them, so too do they. However, it is also the case that Fawkes unquestionably represented a terrorist mindset prepared to indiscriminately murder for its convictions, which makes for a less savoury modern icon, while the character of ‘V’ kills as much for vengeance as for ideology. This is an uncomfortable paradox that has not been satisfactorily resolved in the ascent of the revised Fawkes symbolism.

It is certainly the case that had the Gunpowder Plot succeeded (if it was ever intended to), it is unlikely the conspirators would have gained much real sympathy amidst the wide revulsion that would certainly have been felt against such an underhand and morally questionable mass killing. Without the full backing of a poised invasion force from another country (absent, this time around), it might well have been the Catholics of England who would have ended up massacred, rather than the Protestants, having the reverse effect to that seemingly intended.

Whichever way it is looked at, the undeniable aspect of this case in point is that it was very definitely a conspiracy, one which would resonate for a great length of time and give rise to numerous other conspiracies – or at least theories about them.

‘Strawman’ Theories

One of the acknowledged problems with conspiracy thinking is an occasional tendency towards hysteria which goes beyond the available evidence. Clear patterns that give reasonable grounds for suspicion in one area can be seen to give the green light for belief in another for which proof may be in much shorter supply.

For example, a credible UFO sighting from a reliable witness will often give rise to a number of ‘back-up’ claims in the days after by excitable but less discriminating individuals keen to support the veracity of the original sighting. Some researchers then happily add the later, more questionable, accounts into the general picture to bolster the overall effect. However, if these are then exposed as cash-in hoaxes or mistaken reports of otherwise mundane phenomena, public doubt is suddenly cast on the original sighting too, bringing the whole story into disrepute. Ultimately, blending good information with bad for the sake of sensationalism is a self-defeating strategy.

With this in mind, there is a good likelihood that certain wilder conspiracy theories may be contrived ‘straw man’ theories (i.e. easily blown away), deliberately spread by both media and authorities to encourage wider-eyed speculators into the more bizarre cul-de-sacs of truthseeking - before very publicly demolishing the arguments for them, bringing down the reputation of all conspiracy thinking by simple association.

There is reason to suggest, for instance, that this strategy was employed when certain UK tabloid newspapers insisted on running endless conspiracy-flavoured ‘leaks’ about the official inquest into the death of Princess Diana in the run-up to the verdict in 2008. It was implied that all sorts of dark deeds were about to be revealed when, in truth, the final report dryly rejected any such notions and plumped firmly for the mundane. Suddenly the promised scandalous discoveries were made to seem ridiculous, sending out a clear message to the population of the perils of such deranged thinking. Had it all just been a ploy to sell more papers (which it certainly did), or was something more fundamental at work?

Many other areas of conspiracy speculation, from 9/11 theories to Moon landing doubts, have almost certainly fallen victim to related tactics, with the more outlandish elements seemingly encouraged into wide prominence, allowing awareness of the more convincing areas to be eclipsed. Hence conspiracy theories can arise over the contrivance of conspiracy theories themselves, and once again there are clear historical precedents for this occurring.


Conspiracy theories of one kind or another have long been with us, and there is clear evidence, even at this historical distance, to give substance to a significant number of them. Some examples are not even so far back in time as to allow that they might have taken place in an environment of notably lesser conscience.

Whilst not automatically supporting the reality of every conspiracy speculation, these episodes, along with the hundreds of others that could have been included, provide plentiful evidence that today’s mainstream implication that such things couldn’t possibly happen today is almost certainly mistaken.

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