Titus Oates and the Popish Plot

Titus Oates is depicted standing in the pillory after being convicted of perjury. Photo Credit -ARCHIVE PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES

Titus Oates was a giant liar, and had been a giant liar all his life.  He was born at Oakham in Rutland on September 15, 1649.  His father was a minister who started out in the Church of England and became a Baptist briefly during the Puritan Revolution and fought with the New Model Army.  He came back to the Church of England during the Restoration, and became the rector of All Saint’s Church at Hastings.  A bit radical beginnings, but the family seemed to have righted itself.

Titus was sent to school at Cambridge and was described as a “great dunce” and gained a reputation for homosexuality, which was illegal at the time.  He transferred to St. John’s College in 1669, but could not manage to get a degree from either institution.  That did not keep him from claiming he had one from either and/or both schools.  This lie got him a licence to preach in London and he was ordained as a priest of the Church of England in May 1670.  He was appointed as the vicar of the parish of Bobbing in Kent then went on to as curate to his father at All Saints’, Hastings.  He was dismissed from this post for “drunken blasphemy”.  What did he do?  He wanted a post as a schoolmaster, so he falsely accused the man who had the job he wanted of sexual misconduct with one of his students.  When this was found to be false, Titus was accused of perjury and made a run for it instead of going to jail.  What to do then?  He joined the Royal Navy as a chaplain and was promptly accused of “buggery”.  Again, this was illegal and a capital offence at the time.  Titus was only spared because of his clerical status although he was forced out of the Royal Navy in 1676.

Titus returned home from his adventures at sea to an England bubbling with anti-Catholic hysteria.  Many people blamed the Catholics for setting the Great Fire of London ten years before.  The Puritan faction, the Whigs, led by Lord Shaftesbury had been egging the public on in their hatred of Catholics although the king favored toleration.  London was in the grips of an economic depression, and Catholics seemed like a great scapegoat.  Titus needed some way to propel himself back into the good graces of society.  So his mind came up with a lie.  On Ash Wednesday 1677, Titus was baptized into the Catholic Church.  Then he traveled to the Jesuit houses of St. Omer in France and the Royal English College at Valladolid, Spain.  He was expelled from Spain for “misdemeanour, seditious language and treasonable words too horrible to be repeated”.  However, he had what he needed for his ruse.

Returning to England in 1678, he wrote a scathing anti-Catholic manuscript with Israel Tonge.  Tone was a fanatically anti-Catholic clergyman, who was widely believed to be insane.  This manuscript outlined the Jesuit plan to assassinate King Charles II of England and plop his Catholic brother James, Duke of York, on the throne.  They claimed that during Titus’ time in France and Spain, he found out there were 100 Jesuits and their supporters who were waiting for the high sign to take out the king.  The manuscript stated the names of the assassins who were to shoot the king, and failing that the queen’s own doctor was to poison him.  The two put the manuscript in a place where an acquaintance who was an assistant in Charles’ scientific experiments would find it.  As expected, this man took it directly to the king who was skeptical but asked the authors to go to see his chief minister, Thomas Osborne, Lord Danby, Lord High Treasurer.  And they were off.

Titus swore his testimony to a magistrate, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, before the meeting with Lord Danby.  Strangely, Sir Edmund was murdered, which Titus claimed was by the Catholics and lent credence to his story.  Titus was brought before the Privy Council where he made breathtaking accusations.  Along with Sr George Wakeman, the Queen’s physician, he accused the Archbishop of Dublin and senior servants of Queen Catherine and the Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York.  Both of these ladies were allowed by international treaty to keep Catholic households.  Titus also accused notables of the day such as Dr. William Fogarty and Samuel Pepys.  He claimed they were in correspondence with the 541 Jesuits and numerous Catholic nobles, which later historians believe Titus probably forged.  The Council was “amazed” and took him seriously.  The gave Titus a squad of soldiers and sent him to work finding the traitorous Jesuits.

The first to be arrested were the Jesuits who Titus met at St. Omer and had expelled him.  Funny that.  This led to other arrests.  Titus was making up charges and facts left and right.  One group of Jesuit novices from St. Omer braved the terror of London to testify Titus could not have been in London listening to plotters as he testified as he was in St. Omer with them.  However, their testimony was counted as unreliable because they were Catholic and could receive a Papal dispensation to lie under oath.  Five men were hanged at Tyburn.  They all protested their innocence to a silent crowd before their death.  In the end after three years, fifteen innocent men were executed and 57 Jesuits died in jail.  

Spurred on by his triumphs, Titus accused the five most powerful Catholic lords- William Herbert, st Marquess of Powis, William Howard, 1st Viscount Stafford, Henry Arundell, 3rd Baron Arundell of Wardour, William Petre, 4th Baron Petre and John Belasyse, 1st Baron Belasyse.  Even the king dismissed these accusations as absurd, but they were still arrested and sent to the tower by Lord Shaftesbury.  Shaftesbury also demanded that James, Duke of York, be stricken from the line of succession.  People began burning effigies of the Pope.  The second Test Act was passed, keeping Catholics from membership of both Houses of Parliament.  

The king managed to defend his brother and his queen from the accusations, but he was unable to save many others from the ridiculous frenzy of the plot.  The “five popish lords” were tried for high treason and kept in the Tower.  Lord Stafford was beheaded on December 29, 1678, Lord Petre died in the Tower, and the other two remained there until February 1684.  By this time, the furor was dying down.  Titus had denounced the Duke of York, but was arrested for sedition.  When Charles died and James took the throne in 1685, Titus was in a world of hurt.  He was arrested, retried and convicted of perjury.  His sentence was to be imprisoned for life and be “whipped through the streets of London five days a year for the remainder of his life.”  Titus was taken from his cell and forced to wear a hat with the words “Titus Oates, convicted upon full evidence of two horrid perjuries” written on it.  He was put in the pillory at the gate of Westminster Hall and passers by threw eggs at him.  Then he was tied to a cart naked and whipped from Aldgate to Newgate.  This became a daily occurrence.  As the death penalty was not available for perjury, they were trying to kill him through ill treatment.  

Titus remained imprison until the Glorious Revolution and the ascension of William and Mary.  Then he was pardoned and granted a pension.  He died relatively forgotten in 1705.  However, the Catholic hysteria he kicked off remained around for many years and flared up again in cycles.

ER