originally published June 12, 2012
Titus Oates knew how to get ahead in life. He became famous for riling up the public with fear and paranoia, feeding oxygen into a fire of public distrust of a certain religion’s followers, and displaying a stunning acuity for spewing false bullshit into the realm of public truthiness. Titus Oates would have been right at home in the George W. Bush administration had he not been British and from the 1600s.
Oates was a great kid, the kind you’d love to have living in your neighborhood, if only so you’d know who to blame when local pets started turning up inside out. Oates was thrown out of two colleges, and charged with perjury for having falsely accused a Hastings schoolmaster of sodomy (this was the 1600s – England wasn’t the sodomy haven it is today). He slipped out of jail and fled to London where he knew he could really stir things up.
He became a chaplain, then got kicked off a Navy ship for buggery (a.k.a. sodomy, a.k.a. irony). Oates met fellow chaplain and all-around malcontent Israel Tonge, who blamed the Jesuits and the Catholic Church for the Great Fire of London, which had burned down his own holy digs. The two of them decided to make the Catholics suffer.
I’m just going to interject with a personal observation on Titus Oates. To look at his portrait, I’m not surprised he’s one of history’s less noble characters; he looks like a smarmy little stump. But slap a mustache on him and I’m suddenly aware of the day-glo hues of early 80’s pop music, possibly made by one of his distant relatives.
Oates and Tonge published a number of anti-Catholic leaflets, right around the time Oates was received into the Catholic church. He later claimed he was infiltrating the enemy, scuttling about for dirt on those Jesuit fiends and looking for a weakness. Whatever – he was kicked out a year later, in 1678.
Here’s where things get wonky. Oates and Tonge wrote a manuscript detailing an elaborate plot by the Catholic church to assassinate King Charles II. It became known as the Popish Plot, probably because ‘Papal Plot’ might have implied that it wasn’t complete fiction.
But this was a fiction that would sell. Much like the concept of Muslims subverting American security by opening a not-really-a-mosque across the street (but not really) from Ground Zero, it was easy to convince the dullard masses that that Catholics – Jesuits in particular – were looking to off the king and replace him with a Catholic during a very tenuous level of religious tolerance. Jolly Olde England wasn’t so Jolly in the 1670s.
Oates and Tonge planted their manuscript in Sir Richard Barker’s house, then Tonge pretended to find it and bring it forward. Charles II didn’t buy it, but his advisors were gearing up for a panic. The details of the plot were fantastic, including the fall-back plan that, if the Catholics couldn’t get the job done through stabbing or shooting the guy, then the Queen’s physician, Sir George Wakeman, would poison him.
Charles II, to his credit, dismissed the plot and told his advisors to shut up about it, lest thoughts of regicide enter the public discourse. It found its way to the Duke of York though, and he demanded a formal inquiry. That’s when Titus Oates was brought into the picture. Oates was brought before Charles, and he gargled every lie he could cram into his throat and spat them out at the king’s feet. He swore he’d been at a Jesuit meeting and heard the whole fiendish scheme. He accused Doc Wakeman and Edward Colman, the Duchess of York’s secretary, of planning the whole affair.
Colman was found to have corresponded with a French Jesuit. Maybe they were pen pals, maybe they met during a Big Puffy Wig Speed-Dating night – it didn’t matter. He knew a Jesuit, so Colman was guilty. Doc Wakeman was later acquitted.
Titus Oates was assigned a goon squad and told to round up Jesuits. He had parlayed his fairy tale into a career.
When Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a Protestant member of Parliament, turned up murdered mysteriously, the blame fell on the Catholics. Oates publically declared that this murder was evidence that the plot was true, and London went nuts.
King Charles ordered all Catholics banished from London. All eyes turned to Oates as the one-time infiltrator who had all the dirt on the Catholic evil-doings. Oates was now a celebrity in addition to being gainfully employed, so in honor of his balls-out, new-found persona, he next accused five Catholic members of the House of Lords as being in on the plot. They were imprisoned, and rather than burn the traditional Guy Fawkes effigies on November 5, people were burning likenesses of the Pope.
The Viscount Stafford was found guilty of high treason and beheaded in December of 1680. The Lord Petre died in prison. The other three remained incarcerated until 1685, long after Oates’ hubbub had died down.
In November of 1680, Titus Oates approached the king and told him the queen was in on the plot to poison him. Charles had just about had enough of this crap, and he interrogated Oates at length, finding a number of inaccuracies and lies in his testimony, and finally ordered him arrested.
Great idea, but it didn’t stick. Parliament was pro-Oates with a vengeance, and they forced his release. He was set up with a state apartment in the Palace of Whitehall, a £1200 salary, and way too much power.
Then things started to fall apart. At least 15 executed men were discovered to have been innocent. Oates was seeing to it that anyone even suspected of being Catholic was being run out of the city, and the Chief Justice was starting to let more and more people go. Finally, after the public had finally clued in that the people Oates was accusing were innocent, the king was allowed to slap a sedition charge on him. Oates was locked up.
To say Titus Oates did hard time would be an understatement. He was locked up in the pillory twice a year, bolted in stocks so that the public could pelt him with tomatoes, garbage and feces. He was stripped, tied to a cart, and driven around town while being whipped. As that was not known to be his fetish, this was a severe punishment.
Israel Tonge was never found to be guilty of anything, despite his early involvement with Oates’ scheme. Titus Oates was pardoned and released in 1689. Charles II died in 1685 and was succeeded by his brother, James.
Oates’ legacy wasn’t one of total putrescence. Sure, the Catholics suffered reduced rights for years, and it wasn’t until 1829 that they were once again legally allowed to sit in the House of Lords, and okay, a lot of people died unnecessarily because of Oates’ lies. But his excessive punishment set the bar for ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, as seen in the 1689 English Bill of Rights and the eighth amendment to the US Constitution.
My uneducated opinion is that Titus Oates was a cruel and unusual asshole, so it’s hard for me to find a lot of sympathy for the guy.