1902 Encyclopedia > Titus Oates

Titus Oates
English perjurer who fabricated the Popish Plot of 1678
(c. 1650 - 1705)




OATES, TITUS (c. 1650 to 1705), was, according to one account, the son of an Anabaptist preacher, chaplain to Pride, and, according to another, of Samuel, the rector of All Saints' Church, Hastings. He was admitted on 11th June 1665 to Merchant Taylors', having, according to one authority, been previously at Oakham. There he remained a year, more or less, "and seems afterwards to have gone to Sedlescombe school in Sussex, from whence he passed to Caius College, Cambridge, on 29th June 1667, and was admitted a sizar of St John's, 2d February 1668/9, aged 18." Upon very doubtful authority he is stated to have been also at Westminster School before going to the university. On leaving the university he apparently took Anglican orders, and officiated in several parishes, Hastings among them. Having brought malicious charges in which his evidence was rejected, he narrowly escaped prosecution for perjury. He next obtained a chaplaincy in the navy, from which he appears to have been speedily dismissed for bad conduct and with the reputation of worse. He now, it is said, applied for help to Dr Tonge, rector of St Michael's in Wood Street, an honest half-crazy man, who even then was exciting people's minds by giving out quarterly " treatises in print to alarm and awake his majesty's subjects." Oates offered his help, and it was arranged that he should pretend to be a Roman Catholic so as the better to unearth the Jesuit plots which possessed Tonge's brain (Lingard). Accordingly he was received into the church by one Berry, himself an apostate, and entered the Jesuit College of Valladolid as Brother Ambrose. Hence he was soon expelled. In October 1677 he made a second application, and was admitted to St Omer on 10th December. So scandalous, however, was his conduct that he was finally dismissed in 1678. Returning in June 1678 to Tonge, he set himself to forge a plot by piecing together things true and false, or true facts falsely interpreted, and by inventing treasonable letters and accounts of preparations for military action. The whole story was written by Oates in Greek characters, copied into English by Tonge, and finally told to one of Charles II.'s confidential servants named Kirkby (Lingard). Kirkby having given the king his information, Oates was sent for (13th August), and in a private interview gave details, in forty-three articles, of the plot and the persons who had engaged to assassinate Charles. The general improbability of the story was so manifest, and the discrepancies were so glaring, that neither then nor at any subsequent time did Charles express anything but amused incredulity. To bolster up the case a fresh packet of five forged letters was concocted (31st August); but the forgery was transparent, and even Sir William Jones, the attorney-general, though a violent upholder of the plot, dared not psAuce them as evidence.

Oates now (6th September) made an affidavit before Sir Edmondbury Godfrey to an improved edition of his story, in eighty-one articles. Among the persons named was Coleman, secretary to the duchess of York, whom Godfrey knew, and to whom he sent word of the charges. Coleman in turn informed the duke, and he, since the immediate exposure of the plot was of the utmost consequence to him, induced Charles to compel Oates to appear (28th September) before the privy council. Here Oates delivered himself of a story the falsehood of which was so obvious that the king was able to expose him by a few simple questions. At this moment an accident most fortunate for Oates took place. Amongst the papers seized at his request were Coleman's, and in them were found copies of letters written by the latter to Pere la Chaise, suggesting that Louis should furnish him with money, which he would use in the French and Catholic interest among members of parliament. Among them, too, were these passages : "Success will give the greatest blow to the Protestant religion that it has re ceived since its birth"; "we have here a mighty work upon our hands, no less than the conversion of three kingdoms, and by that perhaps the utter subduing of a pestilent heresy, which has so long domineered over great part of the northern world." The credit of Oates was thus, in the eyes of the people, re-established, and Coleman and others named were imprisoned. Charles was anxious for his brother's sake to bring the matter to a conclusion, but he dared not appear to stifle the plot ; so, when starting for Newmarket, he left orders with Danby that he should finish the investigation at once. But Danby purposely delayed ; an impeachment was hanging over his head, and anything which took men's minds off that was welcome. Possibly, too, he was sincerely desirous of frustrating Charles's Catholic sympathies and secret dealings with France. Shaftesbury, with very different views, was eager in his patronage of the plot and its founder.





On 12th October occurred the murder of Godfrey, and the excitement was at its highest pitch. That Oates could ever have induced any one to believe in his tales is incredible to one who does not recollect the victories of Catholic France, the relaxing of the penal laws, the activity of the Jesuits, the fear of a standing army and of James, the agitation of the opposition led by Shaftesbury, and the ignorance and apprehension of the designs of the court. On 21st October parliament met, and, though Charles in his speech had barely alluded to the plot, all other business was put aside and Oates was called before the House. Here he gave details of a pretended apportioning by Oliva, the general of the Jesuit order, of all the chief posts to leading Roman Catholics in the country. The proceedings which followed are best read in the parliamentary history. A new witness was wanted to support Oates's story, and in November Bedloe came forward. At first he remembered little ; by degrees he remembered everything that was wanted. Not even so, however, did their witness agree together, so, as a bold stroke, Oates, with great circumstantiality, accused the queen before Charles of high treason. Charles both disbelieved and exposed him, whereupon Oates carried his tale before the House of Commons. The Commons voted for the queen's removal from court, but, the Lords refusing to concur, the matter dropped. It was not, however, until 18th July 1679 that the slaughter of Jesuits and other Roman Catholics upon Oates's testimony and that of his accomplices was to some extent checked. Sir George Wakeman, the queen's physician, was accused of purposing to poison the king, and the queen was named as being concerned in the plot. The refusals of Charles to credit or to countenance the attacks on his wife are the most creditable episodes in his life. Scroggs had intimation that he was to be lenient. Sir Philip Lloyd proved Oates to have perjured himself in open court, and Wakeman was acquitted. On 26th June 1680, upon Oates's testimony, the duke of York was presented as a recusant at Westminster, and in November the informer gave evidence in the trial of Strafford. But the panic had now worn itself out, and the importance .of Oates rapidly declined ; so much so that after the dissolution in 1682 he was no more heard of during Charles's reign, but enjoyed his pension of £600 or £900, it is uncertain which, in quiet. Shortly before the death of Charles, James brought, and won, a civil action against Oates, with damages of £100,000; in default of payment Oates was taken to prison; while there he was indicted for perjury, and was tried in May 1685, soon after the accession of James II. He was convicted, and received an awful sentence, the execution of which was expected to kill him, and which was rigorously carried out ; but to the astonishment of all he survived.

Oates was in prison for three and a half years. Upon the flight of James, and during the excitement against the Catholics, he partially gained his liberty, and brought an appeal against his sentence before the Lords, who, while admitting the sentence to be unjust, confirmed it by a majority of thirty-five to twenty-three. The Commons, however, passed a bill annulling the sentence; and a conference was held in which the Lords, while again acknowledging that legally they were wrong, adhered to their former determination. The matter was finally settled by Oates receiving a royal pardon, with a salary of £300 a year. In November 1689 he was again seen in Westminster Hall, when Peterborough, Salisbury, and others were impeached. In 1690, finding that there was no hope of preferment in the English Church, he became a Baptist, but in less than a year was ejected from their body. In 1691 he became acquainted with William Fuller, whom he induced to forge another plot, though not with the success he had himself attained. He appears to have lived after this chiefly in retirement, though we read in Evelyn that in 1696 he dedicated to William a book against James. He died 13th July 1705.

Authorities. - Oates's, Dangerfield's, and Bedloe's Narratives ; State Trials; Journals of Houses of Parliament; North's Examen ; the various memoirs and diaries of the period ; Fuller's Narrative ; Dryden's Absalom and Aehitophel ; Burnet's History ; Narcissus Luttrell's Relation. Lingard gives an exhaustive and trustworthy, account of the Popish terror and its victims ; and the chief incidents in Oates's career are graphically described by Macaulay. On the question of the place of his education see Notes and Queries, 22d December 1883. (0. A.)







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