The Colchester Panic of 1640
On 26 May 1640, there were scenes of mass panic in Colchester, and wild claims of a Papist plot to burn the town down.
The country had been very prone to attribute terrorist action to the papists since the gunpowder plot. Five days beforehand, a broadsheet originating in London had mentioned 'heare is a great deale of feares and tumults, fears of papis[ts] risinge'.
The panic itself was triggered by two girls who had been playing in the street at night. They related the next day that they had seen two men, strangers to the town, pushing rags into a house through whose window they had been peering. The mayor, upon being informed about the two men, 'of whom it was suspected that they had some designe upon the Towne to fire it', sounded the alarm and put the town in a state of defence.
This suddayn alarm att yt time of night raysed (almost) the whole Towne, men, woemen, and children, and putt them into a verie great amazement, and fright ... The next morning, the people still remayning in much feare and perplexity, many Rumors were soon spread about ye Towne, some saying that a great number of Papists were assembled at Beerechurch (the house of ye Lady Audley, a Recusant) neer Colchester, to bring the Queene's Mother thither: Others sayd That ye Lord Archb[isho]p of Canterbury was come thither; others that it was ye Bishop of Ely. But some added, that they were not att Beerechurch, butt att Mr Barker's at Monkquick [Monkwick], neare ye said Towne of Colchester.
The next afternoon a drum was beaten through the streets by some of the young men of the town to call the apprentices to go to Berechurch and Monkwick 'to see what company was there'.
Several of the crowd were heard to say, 'that they heard yt Byshippe Wren & many other horsemen & footmen were come to Mrs Audi eyes & Mr Barkers & they would goe & see whether it were so or noe'.
Later on, in August, Norwich was put in turmoil by rumours that twelve thousand catholics were coming to fire the city. The heady mix of Popery and terrorism was enough to cause the authorities to over-react. Such was the detachment of the comntemporary press from reality at the time that the civil war was rendered inevitable. The fear and the fury directed against the papists was soon to swing against the monarchy itself. It is a very dangerous strategy to play on peoples fears of terrorism for political ends.