What a piece of work was Titus Oates. Born in 1649, he was sent to Merchant Taylor’s School in 1655 but was expelled in his first year. He entered Cambridge University as a poor scholar in 1667, where according to his tutor, Dr Thomas Watson,
“He was a great dunce, ran into debt; and, being sent away for want of money, never took a degree.”
Nevertheless, he managed to ‘slip into orders’ of the established church and became his father’s curate at All Saints, Hastings. Oates père et fils brought false charges of sodomy against a local schoolmaster, William Parker, but the case was quashed, with Oates Sr losing his living and Oates Jr charged with perjury, fined £1,000 and thrown into prison at Dover.
He escaped from gaol, hid out in London for a while and then inveigled his way into the chaplain’s post on HMS Adventurer. Within months, he was charged with sodomy but escaped the death penalty because of his clergyman’s status. He then moved on to become Anglican minister to the Duke of Norfolk (who just happened to be a Catholic), and on Ash Wednesday 1677, Titus Oates converted to Catholicism.
|Colegio de los Ingleses - Valladolid|
He travelled to Spain, to the Colegio de los Ingleses at Valladolid, where he was to study with the Jesuits but within five months he had managed to get himself expelled and returned to England, claiming to have taken the degree of Doctor of Divinity, an impossibility as only Catholic priests took this degree in Spain and Oates was never ordained. The English Jesuits pleaded his case to their continental counterparts and on December 10th 1677, he entered the seminary at St Omer’s, France (which later relocated to Stonyhurst, Lancashire), but by June 1678, with predictable inevitability, his outrageous and obnoxious behaviour caused his expulsion.
Oates was, by all accounts, repellent within and without. He was short, with bowed legs and broad shoulders, topped by a bull-neck and a large, moon-faced head. His eyes were small and deep-set beneath a low, heavy brow, his mouth was more of a slit that bisected his purple face, and his chin long and monstrous. He spoke not with so much as a voice but with a rasping whine or an insolent bark.
|A Plot hatched by the Pope in Rome|
Back in London, Oates renewed his association with Israel Tonge, a rabid anti-Catholic paranoiac who blamed the Jesuits for the ills suffered by himself and his country, and who was in all likelihood insane. Oates convinced the excitable Tonge that his conversion was a clever front and he had used his time abroad to infiltrate the Jesuit ranks, learning of their plans to kill the King and take control of England. This nonsense was just what Tonge would have wanted to hear, and he and Oates spent July and August producing a manuscript outlining the Popish Plot, the
‘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’.
|Titus Oates - An Exact Discovery|
Oates and Tonge detailed how the Pope had declared himself Lord of the kingdoms of England and Ireland, that Jesuit agents were at work fomenting rebellions in Ireland and Scotland, that plans were afoot for a second Great Fire in London, that French Jesuits were ready to invade England, and that Charles II was a bastard and an excommunicated heretic who was to be killed. One Titus Oates had been sent by the Jesuits to assassinate one Israel Tonge because of his sterling work in uncovering their sinister machinations.
|King Charles II|
Oates and Tonge named ninety-nine prominent Catholics who were involved in the Plot, together with 541 Jesuits in England, and told tales of a meeting at the White Horse Tavern in The Strand, where Jesuits had laid plans to shoot the King with silver bullets, to have him stabbed, to have him attacked by four Irish ruffians, and to have him poisoned by the Queen’s own physician. Oates hid a manuscript in the wainscot at Sir Richard Barker’s house, and Tonge ‘found’ it on the following day. It was shown to Christopher Kirkby, a chemist who had assisted Charles II in his scientific experiments. Kirkby went to the King and informed him of the manuscript’s existence, but Charles was sceptical and asked Kirkby for proof of the Plot.
|Earl of Danby|
Kirkby offered to bring Tonge to the King, who then appointed the Earl of Danby to look into the matter, but Tonge lied to Danby saying that he had only found the manuscript and knew nothing of its author, and urged him to keep it all secret, lest the plotters find they were discovered and flee. The King remained sceptical and urged restraint, adding that word of assassinations might put ideas into people’s heads. But word of the claims spread to the King’s brother, the Duke of York, who urged Charles to take the threats seriously; there were, after all, so many and just some of them might be genuine. Against his better judgement, Charles brought the matter to the Privy Council, which requested that Oates be brought before it to give testimony. And so it was that first on September 6th 1678 and again on September 28th, Titus Oates and Israel Tonge went before a magistrate to swear oaths that the testimony they would give to the Privy Council would be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
|Titus Oates swears his oath|
That magistrate was Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey.
And what happened to him next changed everything.