The Popish Plot 1678
There were two separate forces behind the Popish Plot (known to some Catholics as the Presbyterian Plot). One was political. For many years the old Cromwellian Lord Shaftesbury and the puritan (Whig) faction had been stoking the fires of religious hatred against Catholics and France, in a long game to end absolute monarchy and once again to depose a king. Charles II openly favoured religious toleration of Catholics. This meant a significant minority in parliament always voted with the king. The Whigs therefore wanted to eliminate the Catholics in parliament. The Plot was constructed against the Catholics at court – the Queen, the Duke and Duchess of York, and their clergy, many of whom were Jesuits. The ultimate target, the King, exerted his energy to defend his Queen and his brother. He could not defend all the accused despite the clearly absurd nature of the accusations.
Non Jesuit Catholics were seeking an oath of allegiance to the King which could be accepted by Rome and allow them constitutional rights. Jesuits always blocked this, being unable to compromise their obedience to the pope. In this way they made an enemy of Dr Sergeant, a secular Catholic priest – the secondary force which caught so many Jesuits in the plot. Early in the onset of hysteria Dr Sergeant made false denunciations of Jesuits to the Privy Council which lent credence to the plotters.
It was from the start a clumsy plot and only worked because of the anti-Catholic and anti-French tensions among the court and public which had been whipped up to fever pitch.
During the hot summer of 1678 Charles II was persuaded to look into accusations of a plot against his life (there had been many such scares during his reign). Titus Oates, a renegade priest of disreputable character, purported to be a Protestant champion and gave false evidence to the Council of enquiry. Oates had deceived his way around Europe, presenting himself in December 1677 as a candidate at the Jesuit College in St Omer (having been dismissed as unsuitable from the College in Valladolid). From here he was dismissed in June 1678 for “misdemeanour, seditious language and treasonable words too horrible to be repeated”.
Oates presented some extraordinary accusations. Among those implicated were the Archbishop of Dublin, and senior servants of Queen Catherine and the Duchess of York. These two Catholic ladies were allowed by international treaty to retain Catholic households, chaplains, and worship. But this foreign Catholic influence caused friction at court and with the House of Commons (as it had for their mother-in-law, the French consort of Charles I). Unwise correspondence between the Duchess of York’s secretary Coleman and French contacts was discovered – sufficient “proof” to give credence to Oates’ wilder tales. Then the magistrate examining Coleman was found murdered and an anti-Catholic frenzy developed. Oates and other perjurers were able in this atmosphere to impose a reign of terror on English Catholics.
To be a Jesuit was to be a plotter against the King’s life. Many went into hiding. In total 57 Jesuits died in gaol or on the scaffold. There were 126 English Jesuits at the beginning of the plot and 92 by the end – recruitment to the novitiate doubled during this period. As a Protestant witness said: “The Jesuits fear neither death nor danger, hang as many as you will, others are ready to take their places”.
Some of the first to be arrested were the Jesuits who had spurned Oates at St Omer – William Ireland and Bl Thomas Whitbread who was English provincial. Fr Whitbread was tried in June 1679 alongside fellow Jesuits John Fenwick, John Gavan, William Harcourt and Anthony Turner. Fr Gavan, who was the spokesman, presented an eloquent defence. A brave group of Jesuit novices travelled from St Omer to give evidence that Oates had been at St Omer's on crucial dates when he claimed to be in London witnessing Jesuit plotting. But the judges argued that as Catholic witnesses could receive a papal dispensation to lie on oath, they were not credible.
The five were hanged at Tyburn where the crowd stood in silence for an hour while each made a speech maintaining his innocence. On the scaffold they were offered the King’s pardon on condition they admit their guilt, but all refused.
Other Jesuit martyrs of the Plot included David Lewis and John Evans (both captured and killed in Wales), William Barlow, Philip Evans, and Richard Gerard.