A 'Popish Plot' which, during the reign of Charles II of England, Titus Oates pretended to have discovered
Oates’s Plot, a term conventionally used to designate a “Popish Plot” which, during the reign of Charles II of England, Titus Oates pretended to have discovered. Oates was b. at Oakham, Rutlandshire, in 1649. His father, Samuel Oates, is said to have been a ribbon-weaver in Norfolk who, having taken a degree at Cambridge, afterwards became a minister of the Established Church.
Titus Oates began his career at Merchant Taylors’ School in 1665, when he was sixteen. He was expelled two years later and went to a school at Sedlescombe, near Hastings, whence he passed to Cambridge in 1667, being entered as a sizar in Gonville and Caius College, whence he afterwards migrated to St. John’s. His reputation at Caius, according to a fellow student, was that of “the most illiterate dunce, incapable of improvement”; at St. John’s, Dr. Watson wrote of him: “He was a great dunce, ran into debt, and, being sent away for want of money, never took a degree”. “Removing from there”, says Echard, “he slipped into Orders”, and was preferred to the vicarage of Bobbing in Kent, on March 7, 1673. At this time or earlier, according to the evidence of Sir Denis Ashburnham at Father Ireland‘s trial, “he did swear the Peace against a man” and was forsworn, but they did not proceed upon the indictment. Next year he left Bobbing, with a license for non-residence and a reputation for dishonesty, to act as curate to his father at Hastings. There father and son conspired to bring against Wm. Parker, the schoolmaster, an abominable charge so manifestly trumped up that Samuel was ejected from his living, while Titus, charged with perjury, was sent to prison at Dover to await trial. Having broken jail and escaped to London, unpursued, he next procured an appointment as chaplain on board a king’s ship sailing for Tangier, but within twelve months was expelled from the Navy.
In August, 1676, he was frequenting a club which met at the Pheasant Inn, in Fuller’s Rents, and there, for the first time, he met Catholics. His admittance into the Duke of Norfolk’s household, as Protestant chaplain, followed almost immediately. On Ash Wednesday, 1677, he was received into the Catholic Church. The Jesuit Father Hutchinson (alias Berry) was persuaded to welcome him as a repentant prodigal and Father Strange the provincial, to give him a trial in the English College at Valladolid. Five months later, Oates was expelled from the Spanish college and, on October 30, 1677, was sent back to London. In spite of his disgrace, the Jesuit provincial was persuaded to give him a second trial, and on December 10 he was admitted into the seminary at St. Omers. He remained there as “a younger student” till June 23, 1678. After being expelled from St. Omer’s also, he met Tonge, probably an old acquaintance, and conceived and concocted the story of the “Popish Plot”.
Israel Tonge was, as Echard describes him, “a city divine, a man of letters, and of a prolifick head, fill’d with all the Romish plots and conspiracies since the Reformation“. There is some evidence and considerable likelihood that he not only suggested the idea of the plot to Oates by his talk, but actually cooperated in its invention. At Stafford’s trial Oates declared that he never was but a sham Catholic. If this be true, we may accept Echard’s assertion as probable: that Tonge “persuaded him [Oates] to insinuate himself among the Papists and get particular acquaintance with them”. Moreover, it is credibly reported that, at a great supper given in the city by Alderman Wilcox in honor of Oates, when Tonge was present, the latter’s jealousy led to a verbal quarrel between the two informers, and Tonge plainly told Oates that “he knew nothing of the plot, but what he learned from him”. Tonge may or may not have helped Oates in the manufacture of his wares; but he undoubtedly enabled him to bring them to market and dispose of them to advantage. With the help of Kirkby, a man associated with the royal laboratory, he succeeded in bringing the plot before the careless and sceptical notice of King Charles.
Oates’ depositions, as they may be read in his “True and Exact Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party against the Life of His Sacred Majesty, the Government and the Protestant Religion, etc., published by the Order of the Right Honorable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in Parliament assembled”, are in themselves clumsy, puerile, ill-written, disjointed libels, hardly worth notice but for the frenzied anger they aroused. The chief items tell of a design to assassinate the king, or rather a complication of plots to do away with “48” or “the Black Bastard “—His Majesty’s supposed designations among the Catholic conspirators. Pickering, a Benedictine lay brother, and Grove (Honest William), a Jesuit servant, are told off to shoot him with “jointed carabines” and silver bullets, in consideration of £1,500 to be paid to Grove and 30,000 Masses to be said for Pickering’s soul. To make more certain of the business, the king is to be poisoned by Sir George Wakeman, the queen’s physician, at a cost of £15,000. Furthermore he is to be stabbed by Anderton and Coniers, Benedictine monks. All these methods failing, there are in the background four Irish ruffians, hired by Dr. Fogarthy, who “were to mind the King’s Postures at Winsdor” and have one pound down and £80 afterwards in full discharge of their expenses. There is some frivolous talk of other assassinations—of the removal of the Prince of Orange, the Duke of Ormonde, Herbert, Lord Bishop of Hereford and some lesser fry. And Oates himself is offered and actually accepts £50 to do away with the terrible Dr. Tonge, “who had basely put out the Jesuits’ morals in English”.
Summing up the plot with the help of someone more scholarly than himself, Oates makes the following declaration: “The General Design of the Pope, Society of Jesus, and their Confederates in this Plot, is, the Reformation, that is, (in their sense) the Reduction of Great Britain and Ireland, and all His Majesties Dominions by the Sword (all other wayes and means being judged by them ineffectual) to the Romish Religion and Obedience. To effect this design; 1. The Pope hath entitled himself to the Kingdomes of England and Ireland. 2. Sent his Legate, the Bishop of Cassal in Italy into Ireland to declare his Title, and take possession of that Kingdom. 3. He hath appointed Cardinal Howard his Legat for England to the same purpose. 4. He hath given Commission to the General of the Jesuites, and by him to White, their Provincial in England, to issue, and they have issued out, and given Commissions to Captain Generals, Lieutenant Generals, etc., namely, the General of the Jesuites hath sent Commissions from Rome to Langhorn their Advocate General for the Superior Officers: And White hath given Commissions here in England to Colonels, and inferior Officers. 5. He hath by a Consult of the Jesuits of this Province Assembled at London, condemned His Majesty, and ordered Him to be assassinated, etc. 6. He hath Ordered, That in case the Duke of York will not accept these Crowns as forfeited by his Brother unto the Pope, as of his Gift, and settle such Prelates and Dignitaries in the Church, and such Officers in Commands and places Civil, Naval and Military, as he hath commissioned as above, extirpate the Protestant Religion, and in order thereunto ex post facto, consent to the assassination of the King his Brother, Massacre of His Protestant Subjects, firing of his Towns, etc., by pardoning the Assassins, Murderers and Incendiaries, that then he be also poysoned or destroyed, after they have for some time abused His Name and Title to strengthen their Plot, weakened and divided the Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland thereby in Civil Wars and Rebellions as in His Father’s Time, to make way for the French to seize these Kingdoms, and totally ruine their Infantry and Naval Force.”
Besides this Papal, there appears also another French plot, or correspondence (an afterthought, suggested to Oates by the discovery of Coleman’s letters), carried on by Sir Ellis Layton, Mr. Coleman and others. Under ordinary circumstances so flimsy a fabric would have been brought to the ground by the first breath of criticism. But it was taken up by the Whig Party and made into what Echard calls “a political contrivance”. Shaftesbury, their leader, used it for all its worth. It was quite commonly called “the Shaftesbury Plot”. Whether, as some believe, he had a hand in constructing the plot or not, very much of the blame of its consequences must rest upon the use he made of it. Chiefly by the influence and machinations of Shaftesbury and his party, Parliament was incited to declare that “there hath been and still is a damnable and hellish Plot, contrived and carry’d on by popish recusants, for the assassinating and murdering the King and for subverting the government and rooting out and destroying the Protestant Religion.” Many who, with Elliot, thought Oates’s stories of the “40,000 Black-bills, the Army of Spanish Pilgrims and Military commissions from General D’Oliva (S.J.) so monstrously ridiculous that they offer an intolerable affront to the understanding of any man who has but a very indifferent account of the affairs of Europe“, nevertheless thought also that, “because His majesty and council have declar’d there is a Popish-Plot, therefore they have reason to believe one.”
Oates had now become the most popular man in the country and acclaimed himself as “the Savior of the Nation”. He assumed the title of “Doctor“, professing to have received the degree at Salamanca, a city it is certain he never visited; put on episcopal attire; was lodged at Whitehall; went about with a bodyguard; was received by the primate; sat at table with peers; and, though snubbed by the King, was solemnly thanked by Parliament, which granted him a salary of £12 a week for diet and maintenance, occasional gifts of £50 or so, and drafts on the Treasury to meet his bills. Yet, Oates would have forsworn himself to little purpose but for the mysterious death of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, the magistrate before whom Oates’s depositions had been sworn. The Whig Party put the blame of this crime—if murder it was—upon the Catholics. Godfrey had been a friend to Catholics rather than an enemy, and had made use of the information received from Oates to do them a service: no good could come to them, and no harm to their enemies, by robbing the magistrate of the copy of Oates’s deposition which he retained. Moreover, both his pockets and his house were undisturbed by the supposed assassins. Nevertheless the unanimous verdict was murder, the murder of a good Protestant and a magistrate who had to do with the plot. “The capital and the whole nation”, says Macaulay, “went mad with hatred and fear. The penal laws, which had begun to lose something of their edge, were sharpened anew. Everywhere justices were busied in searching houses and seizing papers. All the gaols were filled with Papists. London had the aspect of a city in a state of siege. The train bands were under arms all night. Preparations were made for barricading the great thoroughfares. Patrols marched up and down the streets. Cannon were planted round Whitehall. No citizen thought himself safe unless he carried under his coat a small flail loaded with lead to brain the Popish assassins.” For awhile, every word that Oates said was believed. The courts of law, before which the arrested Catholics were brought, were blind and deaf to his shuffiings and contradictions and lies. Other disreputable witnesses were picked up in the gutter or prisons and encouraged to come forward, and were paid handsomely for bringing additional perjuries to corroborate those of their chief. The lord chief justice on the Bench would listen to nothing which discredited the king’s witnesses; and although, in trials where the prisoners were denied counsel, he himself should, by ancient custom, have looked to their interests, he exerted the full authority of the Court to bring about their condemnation. Sixteen innocent men were executed in direct connection with the Plot, and eight others were brought to the scaffold as priests in the persecution of Catholics which followed from it. The names of those executed for the plot are: in 1678 Edward Coleman (December 3); in 1679, John Grove, William Ireland, S.J. (January 24), Robert Green, Lawrence Hill (February 21), Henry Berry (February 28), Thomas Pickering O.S.B. (May 14), Richard Langhorn (June 14), John Gavan, S.J., William Harcourt, S.J., Anthony Turner, S.J., Thomas White-bread, S.J., John Fenwick, S.J. (June 20); in 1680, Thomas Thwing (October 23), William Howard, Viscount Stafford (December 29); in 1681, Oliver Plunket, Archbishop of Armagh (July 1). Those executed as priests were: in 1679, William Plessington (July 19), Philip Evans, John Lloyd (July 22), Nicholas Postgate (August 7), Charles Mahony (August 12), John Wall (Francis Johnson), O.S.F., John Kemble (August 22), Charles Baker (David Lewis), S.J. (August 27).
It remains to be said about “the Popish Plot” that, since the day when its inventor was discredited, no historian of any consequence has professed to believe in it. A few vaguely assert that there must have been a plot of some sort. But no particle of evidence has ever been discovered to corroborate Oates’s pretended revelations. A contemporary Protestant historian says: “After the coolest and strictest examinations, and after a full length of time, the government could find very little foundation to support so vast a fabrick, besides down-right swearing and assurance: not a gun, sword or dagger; not a flask of powder or a dark lanthorn, to effect this villany; and excepting Coleman’s writings, not one scrap of an original letter or commission, among the great numbers alleged, to uphold the reputation of the discoveries.” Since then the public and private archives of Europe have been liberally thrown open to students, and the most of them diligently examined; yet, as Mr. Marks, also a Protestant, wrote a few years ago: “Through all the troublous times when belief in the Popish Plot raged, one searches in vain for one act of violence on the part of Catholics. After the lapse of two hundred years, no single document has come to light establishing in any one particular any single article of the eighty-one.”
In January, 1679, Oates, whose reputation was already declining, together with his partner, Bedloe, laid an indictment before the Privy Council in thirteen articles, against Chief Justice Scroggs, because of the part he took in the acquittal of Wakeman, Mar-shall, Rumley, and Corker; and in the same year, the Rev. Adam Elliot was fined £200 for saying that “Oates was a perjur’d Rogue, and the Jesuits who suffered, justly died Martyrs.” But in August, 1681, Israel Backhouse, master of Wolverhampton Grammar School, when charged with a similar libel was acquitted. In the same year, Oates was thrust out of Whitehall, and next year (January, 1682) Elliot prosecuted him successfully for perjury. In April, 1682, his pension was reduced to £2 a week. In June of that year he was afraid to come forward as a witness against Kearney, one of the four supposed Irish ruffians denounced by him in his depositions. Then, while King Charles was still living, he vainly presented petitions to the king and to Sir Leoline Jenkins against the plain speaking of Sir Roger L’Estrange, and two months later (May 10), he was himself committed to prison for calling the Duke of York a traitor. On June 18, he was fined by Judge Jeffreys £100,000 for scandalum magnatum. Then, in May, 1680, he was tried for perjury, and condemned to be whipped, degraded, and pilloried, and imprisoned for life. Jeffreys said of him: “He has deserved more punishment than the laws of the land can inflict.”
When William of Orange came to the throne, Oates left prison and entered an unsuccessful appeal in the House of Lords against his sentence. Later, he obtained a royal pardon and a pension, which was withdrawn in 1693 at the instance of Queen Mary, whose father, James II, he had scandalously attacked. After Mary’s death, he was granted from the Treasury £500 to pay his debts and £300 per annum during the lifetime of himself and his wife. In 1690 he was taken up by the Baptists, only to be again expelled the ministry, this time for “a discreditable intrigue for wringing a legacy from a devotee”. In 1691 he attempted another fraudulent plot, but it came to nothing. He died in Axe Yard, on July 12, 1705.
Besides the “Narrative of the Horrid Plot and Conspiracy of the Popish Party” (London, 1679), Oates wrote “The Cabinet of Jesuits’ secrets opened” (said to be translated from the Italian), “issued and completed by a gentleman of Quality” (London, 1679), “The Pope‘s Warehouse; or the Merchandise of the Whore of Rome” (London, 1679), dedicated to the Earl of Shaftesbury, “The Witch of Endor; or the witchcrafts of the Roman Jezebel, in which you have an account of the Exorcisms or conjurations of the Papists”, etc. (London, 1679); “Eikon Baoilike, or the Picture of the late King James drawn to the Life” (Part I, London, 1696; Parts II, III, and IV, 1697).