The Dangerous Popess: Pope Joan, the Exclusion Crisis, and Restoration Theater

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As a tale of subversive female power and disguise, the myth of Pope Joan has captured the attention of many throughout the ages. The early modern period saw much debate about the reality of Pope Joan as Protestants realized her existence could undermine the credibility of the Catholic Church. However, in 1680, Elkanah Settle, a prolific English playwright, wrote and produced his play The Female Prelate which completely ignored the question of Pope Joan’s reality. Instead, this play focused on Pope Joan’s story and a new plot line about a Duke of Saxony’s futile search for justice for the murder of his father. This play coincided with the height of the Exclusion Crisis, a moment of profound political unease surrounding the succession to the throne due to the Popish plot, a fictitious Catholic plot to murder King Charles II. This crisis also marked the emergence of the first Whig party, a party dedicated to excluding James the Catholic heir presumptive from the succession. The Whigs used political rhetoric to mobilize the public in support of the exclusion agenda. Connections between Settle and the Whig party indicate that The Female Prelate may have served as a piece of political rhetoric in favor of the Whigs. Additionally, the Restoration stage provided an influential audience if the play could make it past court censors. This thesis analyzes how The Female Prelate interacted with the theatrical, political, and gender context of 1680 London in order to make pointed commentary on the Exclusion Crisis.





McDonald, Gabriela (2021). The Dangerous Popess: Pope Joan, the Exclusion Crisis, and Restoration Theater. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

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