Titus Oates is one of those men for whom any re-evaluation of their life only serves to reinforce previously held prejudices. He was a liar, a schemer, and morally repugnant in almost every way. A man willing to see the innocent go to the gallows to achieve his ends, and he remains one of the most disreputable figures in all English history.
He was born in the village of Oakham in Rutland on 15 September 1649, and raised in an unorthodox household dominated by his father, an Anabaptist preacher who was strict and eccentric in equal measure. Religion flowed in his veins even if it was always more about social advancement than piety and devotion.
A short man, physically lame, who was reported by those who knew him as being ugly in the extreme he was also boisterous, loud, and often foul-mouthed. His active homosexuality was to find him in constant trouble with authority and he was to be ejected from both the Cambridge Colleges he attended for importuning.
Always ready to charge others with unlawful behaviour before they could charge him he perjured himself in a Court of Law when he accused a schoolmaster of sodomy and only escaped a term of imprisonment by fleeing to London and using his father’s connections to secure an appointment as a Chaplain on the Royal Navy vessel Adventurer. His shipboard assignment did not last long as he was very quickly accused of sodomy himself and was only spared punishment because of his status as a clergyman.
Struggling for money and desperate to be taken seriously he contacted an old friend of his father’s, Israel Tonge, an educated man with a doctorate whose great passion was his library; but well-read though he was this did not make him always rational and he was paranoid about Catholics and obsessed with the notion of a Popish Plot.
Together he and Oates co-authored a series of anti-Catholic pamphlets when in 1677 Oates suddenly converted to Catholicism and fled to the Continent where he joined the Jesuit Seminary at Valladolid in Spain and then later the Seminary at St Omer in France. But his active homosexuality was to see him ejected from both.
Returning to London he renewed his friendship with Israel Tonge telling him that he had joined the Seminaries only to uncover their secrets, and one of these secrets, he said, was a plot to assassinate King Charles II and replace him on the throne with his Catholic brother James, Duke of York.
Summoning up the old demon of heretical Jesuits and homicidal Catholic conspirators in deeply paranoid Protestant England was no difficult task and Oates and Tonge now produced a pamphlet suggesting that there were Jesuits at every level of government and that they were planning a coup d’etat.
A copy of the pamphlet was brought to the attention of the King who despite being initially dismissive handed it over to his Chief Minister Lord Danby to investigate.
The rumours of Jesuit spies on the streets of London began to spread and fearing anti-Catholic riots it was decided on 26 September 1678, to summon Oates for questioning by the King’s Council. His testimony was less than convincing and the entire thing seemed so implausible and the many discrepancies in his story so glaring that some members of the Council shook with laughter more than trepidation but Oates remained adamant and even named names.
He openly accused the Queen’s physician Sir George Wakeman, the Duke of York’s Private Secretary Sir Edward Coleman, the Archbishop of Dublin Lord Belayse, and the diarist and civil servant Samuel Pepys of being secret Catholics in the pay of the Vatican.
Nonetheless, the Council remained incredulous but events now intervened.
Earlier on 6 September, Oates and Tonge had approached the Magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey to take their official deposition. Five weeks later on 12 October, Sir Edmund was found murdered on Primrose Hill, strangled and run-through with a sword.
Now the Popish Plot acquired a momentum all of its own, and Oates and Tonge milked it for all it was worth.
The Jesuits were responsible, they claimed, and this was just the first murder to be committed by these Catholic assassins and rest assured there would be more to follow.
The murder of Sir Edmund gave credence to what was a malicious and paranoid tissue of lies and those who had previously been sceptical now began to believe there may be some truth to them.
Suspects were arrested, tried, and numerous innocent men executed, including Sir Edward Coleman.
On 24 November, Oates accused the Queen, Catherine of Braganza and her physician of trying to poison the King. Charles was furious and ordered that Oates be bought before him.
The King’s careful questioning caught Oates out in a series of inaccuracies and fabrications and finding his testimony both duplicitous and unreliable he ordered his immediate arrest.
England was by now gripped with a frenzied anti-Catholicism and any number of cutthroats and fraudsters came forward to make accusations about murderous Catholic conspirators in their midst, and no doubt make a little money in the process; with so many people now willing to support Oates in his most outlandish claims the King’s anger and scepticism counted for little and the House of Commons now declared it a “Hellish and Damnable Plot.”
Believing Oates to be a loyal subject of the Crown and the man who had saved sturdy Protestant England from the evil machinations of the Jesuitical Papacy Parliament released him from his incarceration awarding him an apartment in Whitehall and an annual allowance of £1,200.
Oates and his increasingly hysterical claims were being used by those in Parliament who wanted to exclude the Catholic James, Duke of York, from the line of succession in favour of the King’s eldest, but illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. The Exclusionists however, and their leader in Parliament Lord Shaftesbury, were to be brilliantly outmanoeuvred by the King.
With the reasserting his authority and the possibility of exclusion at an end support for Oates among those of influence began to dissipate.
On 1 July 1681, Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh, went to the scaffold on evidence that had been provided by Oates. This was to prove the high-water mark of the Popish Plot which had seen 30 innocent men executed as a result of Oates’s accusations.
It was following the exoneration of the Queen’s physician, Sir George Wakeham of any involvement in a Popish Plot that Lord Justice Scroggs became the first person to speak out publicly against Oates and his outlandish claims casting doubt both upon their validity and the moral rectitude of the man who had made them. I t was becoming increasingly clear that for all the smoke and thunder no actual evidence of a Popish Plot had ever been discovered or produced.
In August 1681, Oates was forced to relinquish his apartment in Whitehall and his allowance was withdrawn.
His response was to make even more hysterical accusations denouncing just about everyone who was anyone in Stuart England but few were any longer listening. Already under arrest for propositioning a young man he was tried for sedition, found guilty, and fined £1,000.
On 6 February 1685, Charles II died and was succeeded by his brother James who still had a score to settle with Oates. He had him arrested and re-tried by the notorious Judge Jeffries who declared him a – Shame to Mankind.
Oates was sentenced to be pilloried, stripped, tied to a cart, dragged through the streets of London and publicly whipped. He was then imprisoned for life.
He was in fact to serve only three years in prison when in 1688 James was deposed as King of England by the Protestant William of Orange who taking sympathy on Oates had him released and awarded a £5 weekly pension.
Oates readily took the money but he still could not keep his mouth shut and continued to make accusations claiming that only he knew the truth, but by now he was yesterday’s man.
In 1693, Titus Oates married but this did not deflect from his desire for sex with young men for which he was arrested many times.
He died on 13 July 1705, an ordained Baptist Minister.