Titus Oates

The English political and religious demagogue Titus Oates (1649-1705) was the chief fabricator of the Popish Plot, a spurious plan of 1678 supposedly hatched by the Jesuits to assassinate King Charles II and to enthrone his Roman Catholic brother, James.

Titus Oates was born at Oakham. Though he was expelled from the Merchant Tailors' School at the age of 16, he attended Cambridge University, leaving, as his tutor noted, because "he was a great dunce, ran into debt; and, being sent away for want of money, never took a degree." Nevertheless, by 1673 Oates had somehow managed to enter the Anglican clergy. He used his office to defame a local schoolmaster, but he was denounced as a perjurer and jailed; later he escaped. After being expelled from a brief naval chaplaincy, Oates went to London, again posing as a cleric, though it is questionable whether he was ever ordained. In 1676 he joined forces with a vehement anti-Catholic clergyman, Israel Tonge. Together they projected an elaborate plan to discredit Roman Catholicism as a treasonous international conspiracy. The two, taking advantage of the not altogether unfounded rumor that King Charles II planned to sponsor the legalization of the Roman Catholic faith, magnified it into a specific plot to destroy the Protestant Church-state constitution. Oates, feigning conversion to Roman Catholicism for the purpose of gathering evidence, attended two Jesuit missionary schools on the Continent, being quickly expelled from both. He returned to England in 1678 with fictitious evidence that convinced gullible government officials of a plot to kill the king. For 3 years, Oates, through the apparently Catholic-inspired murder of an associate, the inadvertent discovery of seditious letters, confessions wrung from intimidated witnesses, and the timidity of the king himself, was given plenary power by Parliament and had merely to accuse to convict. He caused the execution of 35 persons, including the Roman Catholic archbishop of Ireland.

Oates's testimony was not discredited until the end of 1681, when it was finally realized that his evidence was hearsay and contradictory. His power and large salary were gradually withdrawn, and when James II came to the throne in 1685, Oates was convicted of perjury, whipped, pilloried, and jailed. Though he was released after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the rest of Oates's life was marked by lawsuits, debt, and fruitless intrigue and his entrance into, and expulsion from, the Baptist Church. He died in London in July 1705.

Oates exploited the traditional English fear of Roman Catholicism between 1678 and 1681, terrifying the government into giving him complete judicial power. His emotional appeal to large audiences is an early instance of the political manipulation of public opinion.

Further Reading on Titus Oates

The only biography of Oates is Elaine Dakers, Titus Oates (1949), and a short study of Oates is in Thomas Seccombe, ed., Lives of Twelve Bad Men (1894). These inadequate works should be supplemented by Sir John Pollock, Popish Plot (1903); David Ogg, England in the Reign of Charles II (2 vols., 1934; rev. ed. 1962); and Francis S. Ronald, The Attempted Whig Revolution of 1678-1681 (1937).

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