Titus Oates was in a short time the most feted and hated man of his time. Few would understand him today, apart from Tom Watson.
In Good King Charles’s Golden Days there was an infamous scandal brought about by the abiding fear of the age, and promoted by one man into a frenzy alleging a sickening conspiracy suffusing the corridors of power.
He was a man whose manner made men listen, as he told them what they wanted to hear, what they wanted to believe, and he gave a justification for their darkest desires for blood. In the end he fell from his lofty perch and met a form of justice, but only after many innocent men had suffered the destruction of their reputations and death.
It is impossible to put a character on Titus Oates as he was above all an actor and dissembler. We know he was born in Rutland and after the Restoration was educated in Cambridge for a while. He followed the wind: when the Puritans were in the ascendant he became a Puritan, but when they fell he reconciled to the Church of England. Like some in our time he rose to public office despite his obvious unsuitability; in the manner of his time it was within the Church. He had no reputation for intelligence, which has never been a bar to public office, but could speak.
Oates was a survivor on the edge; on one occasion as his career stalled he sought advancement by accusing a fellow cleric of abusing young men in his care, which was a gross slander and he fled London to avoid charges. Soon he was himself accused of a capital offence, and survived the noose only by the privilege attaching to his position. He joined up with a popular actor in a new enterprise, and failed at that also.
In 1667 came the turning point for Oates: this former Puritan Baptist and Protestant preacher embraced the enemy and was received into the Roman church. He left for France to enter a Jesuit College, and was in Spain also. The next year he was back in London, renouncing Rome and with a list of names. These were men from the cream of society whom he accused of a foul and widespread conspiracy of which he had learned amongst the Jesuits.
This was an unsettled time – the Restoration was only eight years in an those who led the Civil War and Cromwell’s dictatorship were still there, but in the reaction to the Puritans was another danger, of emboldened papists drawing strength from Louis XIV revitalising France and the Roman clergy across the Channel. In 1666, London burned and some were quick to blame a papist plot (which was even inscribed on the Monument). The fate of the nation was in the balance as three factions circled the seat of power looking for advantage. There were plots of some sort, but no excuse as yet to strike with deadly force against the rival.
In stepped Oates with his revelation of a Popish Plot he learned of in France and a list of names.
Oates spoke well before the Privy Council, which was always on the look-out for conspiracies against the realm. They wanted to believe him. By chance, one of the names he first put forward, Edward Coleman, was found to have corresponded with King Louis’s personal priest, which gave credibility to the tale. Colman was hanged. Oates knew that the more he accused, the longer his fortune would last. More names followed and more elaborate plots were ‘revealed’.
Oates suffered an early check when he had an education from King Charles – the King was no fool and when he examined Oates he saw through him at once and locked him up – but Parliament wanted to believe in the Popish Plot and forced his release.
There were well-publicised raids on the homes of accused men and anyone in the public eye could be accused, and no doubt some stood by Oates to avoid accusation. The gallows began to fill. In the meantime, Oates was given an apartment in Whitehall, a noble coat of arms, and rumours of a marriage into nobility.
After three years of blood and destroyed reputations, the acquittals began and it became clear that Titus Oates was spinning fantasies. His fall was rapid and brutal, and his final wild accusations against the King himself let to prison and poverty, and this as the reign of King Charles II was drawing to a close and the heir was known to be a papist himself, and the new King James II had Titus Oates dragged back before a judge, to be stripped, pilloried, whipped through the streets and thrown in prison (where he remained until the papist King was himself chased off the throne in 1688).
It could happen today. We have seen it, when a politician without principle of discernment makes wild, unfounded allegations about the frenzy of the age. The question for us is how we deal with it, to resist or be driven along with the popular mood of hatred and accusation.
One thing for the immediate moment – such a man as Oates, and we know who stands in his shoes today, must never be feted or honoured. Now one such has been put forward for elevation to the House of Lords, where he would have honours, titles, arms and lifelong privilege to accuse whomever he wishes without consequence. It does not matter what his party leader promised him in return for resignation: no such man should be considered for that place.
- Modern Parallels:
- The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies by Ryszard Legutko
- The church in the revolutions:
- Symon Patrick (1626-1707) and His Contribution to the Post-1660 Restored Church of England by the Rev Dr Nicholas Fisher
- The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
- By John Milton:
- By Thomas Hobbes in the Civil War and Restoration era:
- Samuel Pepys: