Perhaps the most important hoax of the period was the Popish Plot of 1678 which had far-reaching consequences, including the reason Queen Elizabeth II sits on the throne of the UK and not Prince Franz von Wittelsbach, Hereditary Duke of Bavaria.
The Popish Plot was the brainchild of Titus Oates (1649-1705) who spent his entire life telling lies. Even though he was educated at the best schools Titus was not good academically and got thrown out of all of them. It was remarked, however, that he had a good memory, something which is an apocryphal requirement for anyone who habitually lies.
Portrait of Titus Oates by an unknown artist (Wikimedia Commons)
There Titus began fabricating stories about other people. He accused a school master of having sex with his boy pupils in order to get him fired (and executed under the Buggery Act of 1534). Titus hoped he would be given the job of master. The accusations was proved false and Titus was charged with perjury. The irony of this is that Titus himself had earned a reputation for homosexuality while he was at Cambridge.
Realising his plan had backfired Titus fled to escape trial and in 1675 was appointed chaplain on the ship “Adventurer”. He didn’t serve on the ship long before he was accused of homosexuality. As an ordained priest he had the “benefit of the clergy” and escaped execution. This is probably the only time when one of his lies, that of having a degree enabling him to be ordained, actually saved his life.
Titus was discharged from the navy and was soon re-arrested to face the perjury charges in Hastings. Again, he escaped. For a few months he conned his way into the employ of the Duke of Norfolk, the senior Catholic peer in England. This job didn’t last long either and he returned to London.
In London Titus met Rev. Israel Tonge, a critic of the Jesuits, the powerful order of Catholic priests, and he persuaded Titus to write propaganda pamphlets against them. To help him find reasons to fabricate accusations against them Titus feigned conversion to Catholicism and joined a Jesuit college in Spain. Five months later, in November 1677, the Jesuits threw him out for “scandalous behaviour”. Titus then found a placement in a Jesuit seminary in France, who also threw him out after a few months. It was on his return to England that he concocted the Popish Plot.
It began with persuading an acquaintance to intercept King Charles II in St. James’s Park one morning in August 1678 and warn him of a plot by the Jesuits to assassinate him. This plot was backed up by a lengthy manuscript, written by Titus Oates, which outlined the plot in detail and named almost a hundred conspirators.
The king was highly sceptical but the government believed it and began an investigation. Before the Privy Council Titus repeated his accusations with many additional elaborations. The king noticed glaring discrepancies in his statements but the Privy Council, like the government, believed him and had several alleged conspirators arrested.
As anti-Catholic hysteria grew Titus Oates came up with new accusations against five Catholic lords. Again, the king was sceptical but parliament believed him and sent the lords of the Tower of London. One was executed, one died naturally and the others were freed on a technicality. It was at this time that some MPs started to demand that the king’s Catholic brother, James, Duke of York, be excluded from succession to the throne. They also managed to ban Catholics from being members of both Houses of Parliament. By the end of 1678 Catholics had been forced out of London.
As arrests of the innocent increased the public began to be aware that something wasn’t quite right. People they knew were innocent were being arrested. Even the courts began to side with caution. Eventually the Chief Justice of England started to throw out all new accusations. The king himself was horrified at the number of people who were executed over something he didn’t believe existed, and pardoned everyone who were convicted or awaiting trial.
By now the end was in sight for Titus Oates’ scheme. Having realised that the Popish Plot was a hoax the authorities arrested him for perjury. His trial was presided over by the infamous Judge Jeffreys who sentenced him to life imprisonment. To ensure his total humiliation he also ordered that Titus be whipped and pilloried in public five days a years.
Engraving of Titus Oates in the pillory, taken from “Chambers’ Book of Days” 1864.
Thanks to Tory support in the House of Commons the Duke of York succeeded his brother as King James II of England. The Whigs, however, kept pushing for total Catholic exclusion and eventually forced James to flee the country. The Protestant Prince of Orange was invited to take the throne with his wife, King James’s Protestant daughter, in 1688 and they reigned jointly as King William III and Queen Mary II. To ensure Protestant succession parliament passed the Act of Settlement 1701 by which the current rules of succession to the British throne are governed. The Catholic family of ex-King James led several rebellions in attempts to regain the throne. These were the Jacobite rebellions (more of which later this week).
Even today there are Jacobite supporters who consider that Prince Franz of Bavaria is the rightful king of the UK, being the most senior Catholic descendant of the family.
As for Titus Oates, after being hailed as a national hero for uncovering the Popish Plot, and then hated once it was revealed to be a hoax, he ended his life in obscurity. He had been pardoned by William and Mary, but was largely forgotten by the British public when he died in 1705.
Despite his ignominious final years Titus may actually have the last laugh. He wanted Catholics off the throne of England and that is what happened.