Museum Treasure: The suit of spades

It is the year 1678 in London and an uneasy religious calm and simmering tensions prevails in the city. Indeed, this is the prevalent mood across England and Wales. Though it has been 150 years since the English Church split from the Roman Catholic Church bitter differences remain between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority. The reigning monarch, Charles II, is a worried man as his successor and brother, James II is a Roman Catholic.

On the morning of 12 October, the magistrate of Westminster and strong supporter of Protestantism, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey receives a report of an alleged Catholic plot to assassinate the King. On October 17, Godfrey’s body is found on Primrose Hill; it is automatically assumed that he has been killed by the Catholic plotters. This discovery sets off a wave of anti-Catholic sentiments and a chain of arrests and executions follow.

This event, which becomes part of the larger Popish Plot, is widely documented and recorded. One of the more unusual ways it has been documented is in a pack of cards now displayed at the British Museum, London !

The suit of spades from a pack of Popish Plot playing cards

One lazy afternoon in early 2009, I was at the British Museum in London idly looking at pen, ink, charcoal and chalk sketches, when this pack of cards drew my attention. This suit of cards, an etching, dates back to 1679 and its creator remains unknown even today.

The full suit of spades tells the story of the Godfrey murder from the time the plot is hatched, to how Godfrey is lured to meet his would-be murderers at Somerset House in London, to his actual murder there, to the discovery of his body at Primrose Hill, to his funeral, to the execution of his murderers. The etching is amazingly clear and detailed it was like watching a B&W film. The cards also connected at another level with me as Somerset House and Primrose Hill were places that I had visited.

Detail: IX of Spades shows Godfrey being strangled, while VIII of Spades shows his body being carried into a room

And yet, in this case I do realise that these cards may very cleverly have served the purpose of anti-Catholic propaganda at a time when blaming Catholics for everything from fire to murder to disease was the fashion. It was never proven that Godfrey was indeed killed by Catholics. In fact, it was later discovered that the Popish Plot was a fictitious conspiracy theory floated by an Anglican priest, Titus Oates !

The many ways in which history is recorded never ceases to surprise me. Each time I visit a museum, I always come away amazed at yet another creative attempt to narrate an event, a story…

Have you come across any such creative way of recording history as propaganda, and not necessarily at a museum? If yes, do share it here. 🙂

The Museum Treasure Series is all about artifacts found in museums with an interesting history and story attached to them. You can read more from this series here.

28 thoughts on “Museum Treasure: The suit of spades

  1. Where, oh where was this exhibit? I guess it takes a Sudha to dig out such gems and share them. Come to think of it, I enjoy it more this way. Even the things I had seen became interesting when I remembered your posts about them. 🙂

    Recording history creatively? Aren’t our political parties doing it all the time? And far from being museum exhibits, they are finding their place in text books for the kids to learn!

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    1. *Blush* Thank you, Zephyr. This was displayed in a portrait gallery on the first floor of the British Museum. This diaplay is different and stands out in a sea of pen, ink, chalk and charcoal sketches. Plus the fact that it was about a murder, and my morbid imagination was hooked. This was also the time that we were reading and discussing about propaganda in my class at the university and I was able to use this example in one of my presentations. 😀

      Politicians are the masters of propaganda, but I feel that all of us do it it small and big ways some time or the other. 😉

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  2. wow! what a gem!! and as zephyr says, it takes a sudha to dig them out! for all you know, we might have visited the same museum and missed them!! i dont know about propaganda, but apparently, stories used to be engraved on ganjifa cards too… but as usual, i guess those would be either krishna stories, or ramayana, or something like that…

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    1. Thanks, Anu. So glad you liked it. This could have been missed if one were just looking at the exhibits cursorily. And as Puru says in the next comment, it did look like Tart Cards. But I was in a mood to read about every exhibit in that gallery that day. I’m glad I did that as I learnt something new. 😀

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  3. Wow ! At first I thought they were like Tarots but then read on. What an enchanting read. I have heard of Godfrey and the conspiracy.
    BTW what can be the best and most unique propaganda item than the History books? If you read the kind of History written for us, you will see the point.

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    1. Never thought about it from the Tarot Cards angle, but you’re quite right. 🙂

      Regarding your point on propaganda and history books, I quote from The Story of Writing by Andrew Robinson:

      The Battle of Kadesh, c.1285 BC, was fought between the Egyptians and the Hittites. According to the scribes of Ramesses II, the Egyptian Pharaoh, there was a great Egyptian victory; but according to a Hittite inscription, the Hittites were the victors.

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    1. Thank you, PNS. I think people see what they want to see, even I do that sometimes. But sometimes the “seeker” and the “searcher” in us takes over and that is when such treasures unfold before us.

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  4. What an amazing collection. And yes, I agree with Zephyr and Anu, only you could have noticed these cards.
    Out of curiosity – did people actually play with these cards? Just the thought of it sends a chill down my spine…..
    Very well written out story.

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    1. I don’t know if people actually played with them, but historical literature says that many suits of cards were made. So obviously they were very popular and as propaganda material it may even have been distributed free.

      And thanks for your comments, Neena. 🙂

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    1. 😀 And here I thought, I was enticing people to go out and travel and see the places themselves. Sigh ! And Suresh, of course, you would see them but with a perspective that will be uniquely yours.

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  5. You transcended me to the 17th century England with a full cast of a King, a treacherous brother, murderous courtiers, scheming Pope and and a master of charcoal sketches. Then the king is murdered and avenged and the whole thing is captured like a time-lapse video on postcards that still hang in British Museum at London. Back to current times, you twist the tale and question the intentions of the artist! Intriguing, indeed!

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  6. The Museums world over never fail to enthrall! The best places to know, the history, geography and the culture of the place. Thanks Sudha, for this delightful read!

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    1. Art, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. And it need not be only paintings and sculptures. Even a well-designed shop front is a work of art, as is a well laid out and illustrated book or even a beautifully composed photograph. An arrangement of flowers that elevate a table decoration to another level altogether, as does a good piece of writing is also art. My philosophy is art is what you relate to and what you find beauty and joy in.

      I try to share my idea of art and its history through this series. Maybe if you look at museums as a source of history rather than a collection of art, you might enjoy visiting museums. 🙂

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    1. unlike you, I had not even heard of the Popish plot or this incident till I saw the cards at the museum. As for playing cards being used for propaganda, that was a new one for me. It adds a completely new dimension to the understanding of communication and history, doesn’t it?

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  7. Love museums, love history and having read a lot of Jean Plaidy, love the history of London. It is so interesting that one can still find newer facts. Never been to London. Thanks a lot for sharing this.

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    1. A warm welcome to this blog, Juggler. Delighted to see you here and thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. It is so rare to meet a fellow museum lover; a lot of my friends love hist.ory but they draw the line at visiting museums 😦 I spent a year in London, ostensibly to study, but even 3 years later I haven’t run out of things to write. Please feel free to explore London and England here and i hope that you get to visit that great city soon.

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  8. very interesting piece of info ,when i the first look at the blog ,thought it was about some ancient playing cards..but when started reading the post realized the historical imp of them..

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    1. I don’t blame you, because I almost did not read the details myself. And when I did… I ended up spending about half-an-hour reading about it and going through each card.

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