Irish Fright of 1688
From the start of his reign, resentment simmered against Britain’s Catholic King James II, as his mostly Protestant subjects decried and feared his perceived machinations to restore Catholicism to the realm. The resentment was kept under control, however, as the concerned populace reasoned that the elderly monarch had no son, and when he died, would be succeeded by his staunchly Protestant daughter Mary, and her even more staunchly Protestant husband, William of Orange.
In 1688, however, king James unexpectedly had a son, removing at a stroke the option of running out the clock and waiting for the king’s eventual death and replacement by a Protestant successor. The simmering resentments came to a boil, setting in motion the Glorious Revolution that ended with the flight of King James II and his replacement on the British throne by his daughter Mary II and her husband William III.
In the interregnum between James’ flight and his replacement by William and Mary, there was no government and fears of anarchy and lawless violence gripped the country. The greatest manifestation of those fears came to be known as the Irish Fright, which centered around an Irish army that James II had brought to England towards the end of his reign in an attempt to prop up his tottering throne. That army was greatly resented and feared by the English, many of whom recalled and most of whom believed the (sometimes exaggerated) stories of widespread Irish massacres and depravities against Protestants during the Civil War a few decades earlier.
Many English people were thus primed to believe that the Irish were predisposed to savagery and capable of any atrocity. Against that backdrop, rumors began circulating in December of 1688 that the Catholic Irish forces quartered in England were readying themselves to fall upon the English to massacre, rape, and loot, to avenge the ouster of the Catholic king James. The Irish Fright began in earnest on the night of December 13th, 1688, when news arrived at Westminster that the ravening Irish were marching on London.
Fake news of preparations for atrocities were quickly followed by fake news of actual atrocities, as false reports that the Irish were putting English towns to the torch and massacring the inhabitants spread. The panicked English in London and surrounding shires rushed to arm themselves and form militias, erect fortifications, and patrol the countryside to guard against the imminent arrival of imaginary hordes of bloodthirsty Irish.
The Irish Fright subsided after a few days, and in hindsight, it seems that the rumors were begun, or at least spread, as part of an organized propaganda campaign by opponents of James II to further discredit his cause and to buttress that of William of Orange. When the latter landed in England at the head of a mostly foreign army, he was greeted not as an invader, but with raptures as a savior not only of the Protestant faith, but of the Protestants themselves from the feared depredations of the Irish.