Oates Plot

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The Oates Plot (or Popish Plot), named after Titus Oates (16491705), the principal informer, provoked the last large-scale persecution of Catholics in England. Between 1678 and 1681 more than 25 Catholics were executed in England, many more died in prison, and many hundreds were imprisoned. In what follows an account is given of (1) the political and religious background, (2) the actual outbreak of the plot, (3) its political consequences and management, and (4) some of the outstanding trials and martyrdoms.

Background. At the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, a measure of practical toleration had been accorded to Catholics and Dissenters, though fines for recusancy were still levied. The king was obviously well-disposed toward Catholics. Positive legislation in favor of toleration for Catholics was attempted immediately after the Restoration, but this was bedeviled by the rigidity of the king's adviser, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon (160974). After the fall of Clarendon in 1667, the question of Catholicism played a part in Charles's negotiations with Louis XIV. By the Secret Treaty of Dover (1670) Charles had agreed publicly to declare himself a Catholic at such time as should appear to him most expedient. The moment never came (till his deathbed), but in 1672, as an earnest of his intentions, Charles proclaimed the Declaration of Indulgence, removing the penal laws against all Nonconformists and recusants and permitting public worship to Dissenters and private worship to recusants. The subsequent Parliament, however, introduced the Test Act, which disabled Catholics from holding public office, and Charles was compelled to re-enforce the penal laws.

Royal Succession. The next problem concerned the royal succession of James, Duke of York. Owing to the barrenness of Charles's wife, James was clearly the next in line to the throne, but his refusal in 1673 to take the Sacrament in the Church of England confirmed suspicions of his conversion to Catholicism. Parliament feared a popish successor and an inevitable alliance with France. If Charles could not be induced to divorce his infertile Catholic wife, then means had to be taken to prevent a Catholic successor. On the other hand, Louis XIV wished to stabilize his Continental conquests, to secure English neutrality while he did so, and to prevent an English alliance with the Dutch. In February 1676, therefore, Charles and Louis entered into another secret treaty, whereby, in return for financial aid, Charles promised his neutrality. But to prevent any possible agreement between Charles and Parliament, Louis also intensified his large-scale bribery of members of Parliament through his ambassadors in England. One of the agents for the distribution of parliamentary bribes was a professional newsletter writer, Edward Coleman, secretary to the Duke of York. Coleman was an overenthusiastic convert. He had come into conflict with the authorities because of his infringement of the state monopoly of licensed news, and in 1676 a French apostate, De Luzancy, accused him of dealings with a French Jesuit, Father St. Germain. From December 1676, with the knowledge of Charles II, Coleman's correspondence was being intercepted at the post office by the secretary of state.

In the year prior to the Plot, the king's chief minister, Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby, was pursuing a difficult policy. By economic reform he was attempting to organize the treasury in such a way that Charles would be as little as possible dependent on either Parliament or Louis for his revenues. At the same time Danby was attempting to maintain a court party in Parliament on a basis of a policy of public nonalignment with France and strong Anglican safeguards for the monarchy and the constitution; but if the worst came to the worst, money from Louis was preferable to concessions to Parliament. The marriage alliance between William of Orange and the Princess Mary, daughter of James, Duke of York, in October 1677 was followed by a treaty of neutrality with the States-General. At the Congress of Nijmegen (1678) negotiations for a general European peace settlement were proceeding.

Early in 1678 the parliamentary opposition, led by the recently disgraced Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (162183), was gaining ground. The strength of the movement toward a Dutch alliance against Louis was growing, and an anti-popery scare was started in April. In the early summer Louis seemed to be ready to wreck the negotiations at Nijmegen and to be preparing for a new war. In May 1678 he signed yet another secret treaty of neutrality with Charles, but then on the strength of that Louis signed a separate peace treaty in July with the States-General of Holland. Charles thus got neither the benefit of a French subsidy nor the credit for a Dutch alliance. Danby's policy was in ruins, and he might well expect trouble from Parliament in the autumn of 1678, since he had alienated almost all support there. It is against this background that the emergence of the Popish Plot in the late summer of 1678 must be seen.

Oates and the Outbreak of the Plot. Titus Oates was born in 1649 at Oakham, Rutlandshire, son of Samuel Oates, an Anabaptist weaver. After a highly unsatisfactory career at Merchant Taylors' School, London, and at Cambridge University, he eventually succeeded in 1670 in being ordained in the Church of England. He left two clerical appointments under a cloud and was even unsuccessful as a naval chaplain. By 1676 he had already been found guilty of perjury and was strongly suspected of sodomy. He then made the acquaintance of Matthew Medburne, a Catholic actor, who introduced him into a club at the Pheasant Tavern, Fuller's Rents, London, that served as a meeting place for Catholics and Nonconformists (Richard baxter was a member). In 1677 Oates succeeded in being appointed as a Protestant chaplain in the household of the Catholic Duke of Norfolk at Arundel House in the Strand. About the same time he made the acquaintance of Dr. Israel Tonge (162180), Rector of St. Michael's, Wood Street, London. Tonge was anti-Royalist and anti-Jesuit, and was a crank. Oates found him credulous enough and offered to act as a spy on the Jesuits. On Ash Wednesday, March 3, 1677, therefore, Oates had himself received into the Catholic Church by William Berry, alias Hutchinson, a mentally unbalanced priest. In April of the same year Oates obtained an introduction to Richard Strange, Provincial of the Society of Jesus, who arranged for him to go to the English College, Valladolid. Oates arrived there in June; after four months he was expelled and returned to England. He next petitioned to be sent to the Jesuit College of Saint-Omer and arrived there in December 1677. During his stay at Saint-Omer he heard that the annual meeting of the officials of the Jesuit English province was being held in London on April 24, 1678. Oates returned to England in June and put his information at the disposal of Tonge; at the same time he attempted to blackmail the London Jesuits.

Tonge, armed with "revelations" of a Jesuit plot to assassinate the king, obtained access to Danby and to Charles. The king took little interest, but Danby saw the possibility of an anti-popish "scare" to distract public attention from the failure of his foreign policy. On August 26 Tonge warned Danby that letters concerning the plot had been sent to Rev. Thomas Downes, alias Father Bedingfield, SJ, the Duke of York's confessor at Windsor. Danby hurried to Windsor to intercept them, but Bedingfield had already collected them, had seen them to be forgeries, and had given them to the Duke of York. On September 6 Oates and Tonge approached a London magistrate, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, to make an affidavit concerning a deposition of 43 articles concerning a Jesuit plot, though they would not at first allow Godfrey to see the text of the deposition. Godfrey, to the chagrin of Danby, informed the Duke of York, who demanded an investigation by the Privy Council in order to expose the accusations. Oates and Tonge, therefore, with the aid of others unknown, proceeded to draft further depositions. On September 28 Tonge was summoned to attend the Council, but before the Council meeting Oates and Tonge had a plot narrative of 81 articles attested before Godfrey. Both narratives were of course a farrago of nonsense, but the development of the plot between September 6 and 28 is highly interesting. The first depositions centered on the Jesuit "consult" of April and the efforts to assassinate the king. In the later version, more names of those in Oates's immediate environment and names of those who could be arrested easily were given. The new depositions included information against Edmund Coleman; Medburne, the actor; Dr. Fogarty, Oates's physician; the Benedictines in the Savoy; and Abp. Peter talbot in Ireland. There is every reason for assuming that between September 6 and 28 Oates and Tonge were being guided from another source and that that source was Danby.

The king sat with the Council on the morning of September 28 and made no attempt to disguise his disbelief in Oates, but went off in the afternoon to the races at Newmarket. Nonetheless, Oates's effrontery carried the day, and the Council adjourned in the evening having issued warrants for the arrest of the conspirators. Danby made a special point of having the Council sign a special warrant for the seizure of Coleman's papers, knowing full well the sort of correspondence that Coleman had been maintaining over the past years. Meanwhile, on the same day, Godfrey had warned Coleman of what was afoot; Coleman did not destroy his papers, but surrendered on September 30. Though not by contemporary standards treasonable, Coleman's letters were compromising and indiscreet, and he made it clear in his letters to François de la chaize, SJ, Louis XIV's confessor, that he was trying to obtain money from France to influence Parliament in favor of popery. On top of all this, on October 12, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey disappeared and on October 17 was found strangled, with a sword through his body. Parliament met four days later.

If Danby encouraged the Oates Plot in the hopes of making it an instrument of the Anglican-Royalist wing of the court party against the papist Duke of York, there is no doubt that after the reassembly of Parliament the plot was utilized by Shaftesbury, the leader of the opposition, against the whole court party and the monarchy. Shaftesbury and the Whigs worked up mass hysteria and mob violence as a means of trying to bar the Duke of York from the succession and ultimately to drive Charles from the throne. For three years the cry of "No popery" was used constantly for political ends.

Political Consequences. From October 1678 to March 1681 Charles stood virtually alone against Shaftesbury and the Whig opposition. Danby was impeached in December 1678, and the court party was in ruins. Charles has been blamed for not intervening to save those Catholics condemned to death for crimes of which he knew they were innocent. But to expect Charles to have interposed the royal prerogative against the process of the courts at such a juncture is a sentimental misunderstanding of his constitutional position. On two things he stood firm: his personal honor and the succession of his brother. When Oates began to accuse Queen Catherine of treason, Charles made it clear that he would fight back with all the means in his power. Furthermore, he persuaded the unskillful Duke of York to leave the country and then, by prorogation and dissolution, frustrated successive attempts of Parliament to introduce an Exclusion Bill. For the rest he could do nothing but try to ride out the storm. Ultimately, in March 1681, he succeeded in convincing Louis XIV that the only chance for the survival of the English monarchy and the succession of the Duke of York was for the king to rule without Parliament. With a substantial subsidy from Louis in his pocket, Charles summoned his last Parliament at Oxford. On March 21 they met; on March 28 the Commons were beginning to read the Exclusion Bill when the king suddenly dissolved Parliament and for the rest of his reign ruled alone.

The king gradually reasserted his power. In April 1681 Chief Justice William Scroggs, who had conducted most of the plot trials, was removed from office. In July Shaftesbury was sent to the Tower. In November John Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel, a satire on Shaftesbury and the Whigs, appeared; within a year Shaftesbury fled to Holland and died. In June 1683 the "Rye House" Plot was discovered: this was a Whig plot to assassinate Charles on his way to Newmarket. The great Whig magnates who were implicated were prosecuted with the same vigor as the Catholics had been during the Popish Plot. As for Oates, in June 1684 the Duke of York took action against him for scandalum magnatum, and damages of £ 100,000 were given against him. While still in prison, Oates was indicted for perjury and came up for trial in February 1685, but the trial was deferred on account of the death of Charles. In May he was found guilty of perjury and sentenced to be pilloried and whipped annually. In 1688, on the abdication of James and the accession of William III, Oates was released from prison and became once more a government pensioner. He died in 1705.

The Trials. The first trial was obviously designed to instill terror. On Nov. 15, 1678, William Staley, a Catholic goldsmith, was arrested on the evidence of two obvious rascals and charged with having said that the king was a rogue and that he would stab the king if no one else would. He was brought to trial six days later, condemned, and executed on November 26. It was in this atmosphere that the trial of Coleman began on the following day. Seven of the jurors in Staley's case served at Coleman's trial. The most damning evidence against Coleman lay in letters written to François de la Chaize in 1675, but it is significant that the whole of Coleman's captured correspondence was not published until the end of 1680, and Coleman remained remarkably reticent about his political activities. He was condemned and executed on December3. On Dec. 17, 1678, William Ireland, SJ, procurator of the English province; John Grove, a layman employed by the Jesuits; and Thomas Pickering, OSB, a lay brother; together with Thomas Whitebread, SJ, and John Fenwick, SJ, were tried for treason. There was only one witness against Whitebread and Fenwick, but instead of being freed, they were remanded to prison by Lord Chief Justice Scroggs. Ireland and Grove were executed on Jan. 24, 1679; Pickering was respited, probably at the instance of the queen, but was eventually executed on May 9.

On Feb. 5, 1679, three servants at Somerset House, Robert Green, Henry Berry, and Lawrence Hill, were tried and condemned for the murder of Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey on the perjured testimony of Miles Prance, a Catholic goldsmith, who had originally been arrested as a conspirator but induced to turn king's evidence. Green and Hill were executed on February 21 and Berry, a Protestant, was executed on February 28.

On Feb. 8, 1679, occurred the first acquittal. Samuel Atkins, a Protestant and a clerk of Samuel Pepys, had been arrested in November 1678 for complicity in Godfrey's murder. (The Whigs had hoped that the young man would implicate his master, Pepys, a trusted servant of the Duke of York at the Admiralty.) Fortunately, the efficient Pepys had been able to produce witnesses, all Protestants, to prove an alibi. This was doubtless a setback to the Whig plot managers, and it was not until June 13 that the next batch of major treason trials took place.

First came five Jesuits: Thomas Whitebread, the English Provincial; William Harcourt, Superior of the London district; Anthony Turner; John Fenwick; and John Gavan. Whitebread and Fenwick maintained that they could not be tried twice for the same offense, but this was overruled. Defense witnesses were produced from Saint-Omer who swore that Oates was at Saint-Omer in April 1678 and thus could not possibly have been at the Jesuit "consult" as he had claimed, but to no avail. The following day Richard Langhorne, a Catholic lawyer who had acted for the Jesuits in their business affairs, was also tried and condemned. The five Jesuits were executed on June 20 and Langhorne on July 14.

On July 10 Parliament was dissolved. On July 18 Sir George Wakeman, the queen's physician; William Marshall, OSB; William Rumley, OSB, a lay brother; and James Corker, OSB, were tried for treason and acquitted. Wakeman and Rumley were released, and retired to the Continent, but Corker and Marshall were remanded to prison to be tried for their priesthood.

Meanwhile a number of priests were put to death in the provinces on account of their priesthood. William plessington, secular priest, was executed at Chester on July 19; Philip evans, SJ, and John lloyd, secular priest, were executed at Cardiff on July 22; Nicholas Postgate, secular priest, at York on August 7; Charles mihan (Mahoney), OSF, an Irishman, at Ruthin, North Wales, August 12; John wall, OSF, at Worcester, August 25; John kemble, secular priest, at Hereford, also August 25; and David lewis, SJ, at Usk, August 27. It is noteworthy that at Stafford, Andrew Bromwich, a secular priest, though condemned to death for priesthood, was reprieved after taking the Oath of Allegiance and that Charles Carne, a secular priest, who asserted at his trial at Hereford that he had taken the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy was acquitted also.

On Feb. 11, 1680, Sir Thomas Gascoigne, an elderly Yorkshire baronet, was tried for treason on the evidence of two servants and was acquitted. Nevertheless his daughter Lady Tempest was sent for trial at York, together with Sir Miles Stapleton, Mary Pressicks, and a priest, Thomas Thwing. On March 17, at York assizes, they challenged so many jurors that the trial had to be held over until the summer. Eventually they were tried on July 28. Thwing was condemned and executed on October 23; the others were acquitted.

The "Meal Tub" Plot. The so-called Meal Tub Plot brings an element almost of farce into the tragic story. A Catholic midwife, Mrs. Elizabeth Cellier, a woman of extraordinary energy and fortitude, had been bringing what help she could to the Catholics in prison for the plot, and had provided for some of the defense witnesses at the trials. While visiting the jails, she met Thomas Dangerfield, imprisoned for debt, and fell, it seems, a victim to his plausible manners. She paid off his debts, and on his release he acted for her as a spy on the Whigs. He was, however, playing a double game. He gave Mrs. Cellier some papers that he claimed proved the existence of a Presbyterian plot. These Mrs. Cellier hid in a meal tub in her house. Then he made a confession to the authorities, claiming that the papers were forgeries inspired by the Catholics and that the Earl of Castlemaine, Lady Powis, and Mrs. Cellier had tried to bribe him to kill the king. Lord Castlemaine and Mrs. Cellier were tried for treason in June 1680 and acquitted. Mrs. Cellier then published her own account of her dealings with Dangerfield and of her trial. For this she was fined and condemned to stand in the pillory on September 11.

In November 1680, concurrently with its attempts to push through the Exclusion Bill, the House of Commons resolved to act against the Catholic lords who had been in the Tower since the outbreak of the plot in 1678. They chose as their first victim William Howard, Viscount Stafford. The trial of Stafford by his peers in the House of Lords took place from November 30 to December 7. If Stafford had had a jury trial, he might have been acquitted. As it was, his fate depended on a public declaration by each individual peer. Fifty-five lords found him guilty and thirty-one declared him not guilty; he was condemned to death. On December 18 Stafford, at his own request, came to the bar of the House of Lords to make a statement. He told of his efforts to obtain toleration for the Catholics at the Restoration by payment of a collective fine and went on to tell of his efforts at the time of the Test Act to secure an alliance between Shaftesbury's party and the Duke of York. At the mention of Shaftesbury he was ordered back to the Tower and was executed on December 29.

The last plot trial was that of Oliver plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh. Plunkett had been arrested and brought as prisoner to Dublin Castle on Dec. 6, 1679. The reason why the Viceroy James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, had delayed so long was that, previous to the plot, Plunkett had been willing to cooperate with the authorities in the condemnation and extirpation of violence and brigandage. But by the efforts of Henry Jones, Protestant Bishop of Meath and a strong anti-Royalist, who was in close correspondence with Colonel Mansell, one of the English Whig plot managers, it was arranged that Plunkett should be brought to England to stand trial. On Oct. 30, 1680, he was brought to London and committed for trial; a host of Irish informers, mostly apostate priests, were brought over to testify against him. He was not brought to trial until May 3, 1681. By this time, after the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament in March, the plot was well on the wane. Nevertheless, Plunkett was found guilty of treason and executed on July 1, 1681. What principally told against him at his trial was the fact that the Irish prosecution witnesses were new and had not been discredited as the English informers had been. Though Plunkett was the last to be executed for the plot, many Catholics sentenced or awaiting trial remained in jail until the end of Charles II's reign.

The savagery and long persistence of the Oates Plot was attributable principally to Shaftesbury and the Whigs, it can also be partly attributed to the general cynicism and dissoluteness of the age. But a great share of the blame must be attributed to the bribery and corruption of the English Parliament by Louis XIV, the Most Christian King.

Bibliography: j. pollock, The Popish Plot (London 1903; new ed. Cambridge, England 1944), brilliant pioneer work but unbalanced. j. lane, Titus Oates (London 1949), excellent. f. s. ronalds, The Attempted Whig Revolution of 167481 (Urbana, IL 1937), thorough and detached. j. warner, History of the Presbyterian Plot, ed. t. a. birrell, tr. j. bligh, 2 v. (Publications of the Catholic Record Society 47, 48; 195355), a near contemporary account. d. ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II, 2 v. (2d ed. Oxford 1955; repr. pa. London 1963), excellent on political background. Besides bibliog. in the above volumes, see c. l. grose, A Select Bibliography of British History, 16601760 (Chicago 1939), and suppl. in Journal of Modern History 12 (1940) 515534. r. challoner, Memoirs of Missionary Priests, ed. j. h. pollen (rev. ed. London 1924), invaluable martyrology. j. lingard, The History of England, 10 v. (Copyright ed. London 1883), relevant chapters are still useful. Special topics: on Coleman, Coventry MSS v.11, Longleat House, Wiltshire and Bulstrode Papers v.12, Carl H. Pforzheimer Library, New York. On Atkins, a. bryant, Samuel Pepys, 3 v. (2d ed. London 194849) v.2, The Years of Peril. On Plunkett, a. curtayne, The Trial of Oliver Plunkett (New York 1953) and e. curtis, Blessed Oliver Plunkett (Dublin 1963), popular treatment.

[t. a. birrell]