St. John Plessington was executed in 1679 in England for the crime of being of a Catholic priest. Now, the Diocese of Shrewsbury, England is hoping to raise funds for a DNA test to prove that some bones found in a pub long ago are, in fact, those of the saint.

St. John was killed in a wave of anti-Catholic violence triggered by the Oates Plot: a largely forgotten corner of Catholic history. The incident, also known as the Popish Plot, takes its name from Titus Oates, a bizarre figure who skipped from one strange incident to the next, leaving chaos and death in his wake. He was a prolific liar and fraud, and appeaers to have been motivated not so much by ideology, as by a desire to cause chaos. 

Although he was expelled from two schools for poor performance, he managed to become a minister of the Church of England, possibly due to the influence of his father, a rector. (The apples didn’t fall far from the tree. Oates Pere switched from evangelical during the English Civil War, to Church of England during the Restoration, then back to evangelical, turning his coat to suit his needs.) This idyl didn’t last long for Titus: he falsely accused a teacher in his father’s parish of sodomy, and found himself jailed on perjury charges.

Following his escape from jail, he found a berth on a Royal Navy shop as a chaplain. Once there, turnabout being fair play, Oates was on the receiving end (so to speak) of a sodomy accusation, only this time it was credible one. Although sodomy was a capital offense, he escaped the noose by claiming the rights of clergy.

At some point he took up work as a chaplain in a Catholic household, converting to Catholicism while co-writing anti-Catholic propaganda. He fell in with (and then back out again) Jesuits in France and Spain, which must have given his collaborator, Israel Tonge, and him the bright idea of destroying popery once and for all by concocted a lavish papist plot to assassinate King Charles II. Together with Tonge, he concocted an elaborate conspiracy involving a hundred Jesuits, any priest whose name could recall, and a number of the prominent Catholics in the alnd. Even Samuel Pepys, most famous today for his Diary, was swept up in the hysteria and imprisoned in the tower. The paranoia led to the last of the Test Acts, which prohibited Catholics from office by requiring them to take an oath repudiating the mass, the eucharist and the saints. It was not repealed until 1828.

Charles II found the entire idea absurd, but turned it over to his privy counsel for investigation. They took it more seriously, or at least saw in it an opportunity to get rid of political rivals. The accusations reached some of the highest persons in the land, including the Queen’s physician and five Catholic Lords. Oates was known to be a seedy figure, but he was a remarkably capable liar. He convinced the Counsel to give him armed men and began rounding up Catholics. The hysteria continued for several years and spread throughout the country, resulting in numerous executions of Catholics and priests. The last to be swept up in the madness was St. Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, the ancestor and namesake of the fantasy writer Lord Dunsany.

The king retained his skepticism throughout it all, and it only grew when Oates named the Queen herself as a participant in the plot. Upon personally interviewing Oates, Charles caught him in several lies and ordered his arrest.  After succeeding Charles, the Catholic king James II (who was supposed to have benefitted from the plot) tried Oates for perjury. Since this was not a capital offense, Oates escapes with a whipping and life imprisonment. He was pardoned by William and Mary and ended his days in disgrace.

St. John Plessington found himself in the midst of all this madness upon returning from his training in France and Spain in order to minister, in secret, to English Catholics. He was arrested in 1679, and following two months in prison was hanged, drawn, and quartered. Pope Paul VI canonized Plessington and 39 others as the “Forty Martyrs of England and Wales" in 1970. 

And there the story of Plessington might appear to end, except that when his grave was opened during the canonization process, the bones inside were discovered to belong to a much younger man. 

What had happened to St. John? No one knew, but people have been putting the pieces together, and now the Archbishop of Shrewsbury wants to perform DNA tests on human remains found 140 years ago, wrapped in 17th century clothing in a truck in the Olde Star Inn next to St Winefride’s Well, Holywell, North Wales. The remains include a skull with a hole through the top where it was pierced: a telltale sign that the victim was executed and had his skull mounted on a pike.

The diocese has a known relic of St. John: a lock of his hair. They’re trying to raise money to compare the DNA in the hair to the skull and other bones found in the pub with the hope of finally providing a proper home for St. John’s relics, more than three centuries after the lies of Titus Oates caused the brutal murder of more than twenty innocent men.

Thomas L. McDonald writes about religion and history at Wonderful Things.