The Nefarious Popish Plot of Titus Oates

Titus Oates died in July 1705 a murderer, a fraud, a slanderer, a pathological liar, an enemy of the Church and a failed demagogue.

Unknown Artist, “Portrait of Titus Oates”
Unknown Artist, “Portrait of Titus Oates” (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

This is the remarkable and harrowing story of one of the worst people in the world. Admittedly, there’s a long list of people who’ve chosen the Void rather than the Light, but Titus Oates stands out among the worst of them.

He was an unrepentant, inveterate liar. All his life, he puffed himself up with claims as grandiose as they were false. We never respect those to whom we lie and this is no less true than in Oates’ case. History remembers him as “Titus the Liar.”

I find it distasteful even to write about him, but he and the harm he did the English Catholic Church must be remembered. Just when you think Oates had morally debased himself completely, he only got worse and more defensive, just like any pagan charlatan or fundamentalist atheist.

He was born on Sept. 15, 1649 in Oakham, Rutland, England and is best known for fabricating the Popish Plot―the supposed Catholic conspiracy to kill King Charles II, himself a Catholic. His lies led to the deaths of 15 Catholics martyrs.

Oates got his basic education at a series of elementary schools. There’s no record as to why he was shifted around so many but it doesn’t speak well of him and, considering what we subsequently known about this man, it should have served as a bad omen.

He started his studies at Cambridge University in 1667 but later transferred to St John's College in 1669. He never earned a degree.

Though he was said to have a good memory―as do many accomplished liars―he was a particularly poor student. He left later the same year without graduating. While at Cambridge, he developed a reputation as a homosexual predator and a sanctimonious hypocrite.

He lied to the Anglican Bishop of London, pretending to have earned a degree. The bishop, taking him at his word, gave him a license and was soon ordained a priest in the Anglican Church and assigned to a parish of Bobbing in Kent for a year. During this time, Oates and his father, an Anglican priest, conspired to accuse a local schoolmaster in Hastings of sodomizing one of his own pupils for no other reason than to get the schoolmaster's job.

Mercifully, the accusation was found out to be false and Oates found himself on the wrong side of a charge of perjury and a defamation lawsuit. The coward bribed his way out of prison and escaped to London.

He was appointed chaplain of the Royal Navy’s ship Adventurer in 1675 and was soon accused of buggery while on shore leave in Tangier. At the time, that was a crime punishable by death. He would have died but the Anglican church stepped in. By virtue of being ordained, Oates was spared the gallows.

He was summarily dismissed from the Royal Navy in 1676. Upon getting back to land, Oates was apprehended and brought back to Hastings to face perjury charges but, once again, bribed his way out of prison and made his way back to London.

One of his friends helped procure a position in the household of the Henry Howard, Seventh Duke of Norfolk, a Catholic.  Oates was assigned as Anglican chaplain to those members of Howard's household who were Protestants.

Despite this, Oates once again lost the job.

That’s when he first plotted his schemes which would henceforth be associated with his name. He wanted to ultimately join the Jesuits to expose any “conspiracies” they were planning. It was a common part of the Protestant Black Legend — accusing Jesuits of being a mischievous, “super-secret” boy band, always up to no good and plotting to topple governments. Jack Chick, of recent memory, believed this nonsense even till his death. It’s not odd to think Chick got his inspiration from Oates’ poison.

On Ash Wednesday in 1677, Oates was received into the Catholic Church. While studying in order to convert, he was secretly publishing treatises and pamphlets accusing Catholics and the Catholic Church of horrific things, including sodom,y as was his M.O. His co-author and co-conspirator was Israel Tonge―another anti-Catholic bigot. A great number of anti-Catholic Protestant similarly published lies at the time, including Antonio del Corro, who wrote the Sanctae Inquisitionis Hispanicae Artes (Exposition of the Arts of the Spanish Holy Inquisition) published in Heidelberg in 1567 under the pseudonym Reginaldus Gonsalvius Montanus. This was the book that supplied most of the Black Legend lies of the Spanish Inquisition.

Oates soon become involved with the Jesuit house at the Royal English College at Valladolid in Spain. Despite his abject ignorance of Latin, he was admitted into the Jesuit seminary. Interestingly, this was a lacuna he oddly shared with St. Ignatius Loyola, who also hadn’t studied Latin prior to his decision to become a priest.

It was in the seminary where he lied to the Jesuits, claiming to have earned a Catholic Doctor of Divinity degree. This time, he was dealing with Jesuits and they’ve always been pretty sharp cookies. Oates’ lie was found out and he was expelled. He was sent to the Jesuit house in St. Omer but was quickly expelled once again. Oates made his way back to London and hooked up with his co-author Israel Tonge, telling him the reason he falsely converted to Catholicism.

Oates explained that while sojourning with the Jesuits, he had uncovered their plot to assassinate King Charles. Together, they wrote yet another pamphlet in which they laid out their delusions blaming everything upon the Jesuits, writing:

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 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.

In August 1678, King Charles was alerted to the plot but refused to believe it. He would, in fact, subsequently convert to Catholicism on his deathbed and therefore always harbored a good opinion of the Church. However, Charles was pressed to address the issue and so instructed Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby, one of his anti-Catholic ministers, to investigate the accusations. Perhaps not the best choice the king could have made.

On Sept. 28 of the same year, Oates made 43 allegations against Catholic religious orders, including 541 Jesuits and practically every Catholic nobleman left in Britain, claiming that they were attempting to assassinate Charles. With Osborne’s help, the accusations grew to 81. Oates was assigned a squad of soldiers, which helped him round up Jesuits, including those who had called him friend when Oates was in need years earlier.

The following year, in September 1678, Oates and Tonge attempted at securing the assistance of Anglican magistrate, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey. However, a month later, the magistrate disappeared. His body was found five days later in a ditch at Primrose Hill. He had been strangled and stabbed with his own sword.

Oates used Godfrey’s murder to call for the extermination of the “Papists” and, in particular, the Jesuits. One month later, he even went so far as to accuse Queen Catherine of Braganza, Charles’ Catholic Portuguese wife, of being in cahoots with Sir George Wakeman, the King's physician, to poison Charles.

Oates bribed “Captain” William Bedloe to falsely swear that Oates was telling the truth.

In other words, one lied and the other swore to it.

At that point, King Charles had had just about enough of Oates and personally interrogated him, catching him on dozens of lies and inconsistencies. Oates was arrested and throw in prison. However, when faced with what amounted to a constitutional crisis, Parliament forced the king to release Oates. The liar was subsequently given a state apartment in Whitehall and an annual allowance of £1,200. (US$250,000 in current value.)

Oates won popular support and had the temerity to ask the College of Arms to check his decidedly ignoble family lineage and produce a coat of arms for him. He was subsequently given the arms of a family that had died out. A liar living yet another lie.

However, the tide was to turn against Oates yet again. After the deaths of 15 innocent Catholics — including the beloved Oliver Plunkett, Catholic Archbishop of Armagh — everyone started eyeing Oates suspiciously. William Scroggs, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, summarily exonerated the falsely accused Catholics. Oates and his Whig supporters were found out as liars and scaremongers.

After only three years, Oates was forced to leave his apartments in Whitehall. He doubled down and had the audacity to accuse the King and his Catholic brother, the Duke of York, of sedition. However, it was Oates who was arrested for the crime, thrown in prison and fined £100,000 ($20 million in current value).

In 1685, when King Charles died, his brother, the Duke of Yor,k ascended to the throne as James II. James, still bearing a well-deserved grudge, had Oates retried. The criminal was re-convicted of perjury and re-sentenced. He was laicized and imprisoned for life. And for the sake of cosmic justice, and probably for comic effect, Oates was sentenced to being whipped through the streets of London five times a year for the rest of his natural life.

Oates was taken from his prison cell wearing a hat that read: “Titus Oates, convicted upon full evidence of two horrid perjuries” and placed in a pillory at the gate of Westminster Hall where the common folk took out their aggressions by pummeling him with eggs. On the next day, Oates was pilloried in London and the third day was stripped, tied to a cart and whipped continually from the town of Aldgate to Newgate―a little more than a mile’s distance. The whipping continued the next day.

Judge Jeffreys, who presided at Oates’ trial, said that he was a “shame to mankind” and that Oates “deserved more punishment than the laws of the land can inflict.” Jeffreys openly lamented that it was unfortunate that he couldn’t impose the death penalty in a case of perjury.

Oates spent the next three years in prison, but James II would be the last Catholic king of Britain. When Protestant William of Orange and Mary came to the throne, Oates was pardoned and granted a pension of £260 a year ($75,000 in current value).

In 1690 the Baptists invited him to be a minister in their sect. However, he attempted at extorting a great deal of money from a member of that church and was expelled from the ministry. He attempted yet another fraudulent plot in 1691 but nothing came of it.

The pension was later suspended, but in 1698 was restored and increased to £300 a year ($51,000).

Oates died in July 1705 a murderer, a fraud, a slanderer, a pathological liar, an enemy of the Church and a failed demagogue, forgotten by most and ignored by the rest.

And with 2.5 million members in Britain now, the Catholic Church remains.