On This Day 28 September 1678 – The ‘Popish plot’





Irish history has always been dogged with fictitious intrigues designed to keep the Croppies down. Daniel O’Connell spent a restful few weeks in jail after a spurious 1844 conspiracy trial. In 1887 a group of dastardly Fenians were supposed to be plotting the murder of Queen Victoria. Trouble was they were all working for the British government.  The leadership of Sinn Fein was rounded up in 1918 based on another made-up plot, worthy of John Le Carré. If you wanted to bung an Irish nationalist in jail, but felt the need to go through the ritual of a trial (which wasn’t always the case), you just devised a vaguely plausible conspiracy and the law would, most likely, do the rest.

The infamous 17thcentury ‘Popish plot’ was a case in point, though it only roped in a few Irish martyrs along the way. Its main target was English Catholics and the Jesuit order. Once again the plot was supposed to have been aimed at the reigning monarch, in this case Charles II. The man who fabricated the whole thing was Titus Oates, aka Titus the Liar, one of the most egregious perjurers in British history—even worse than Jeremy Thorpe. The first thing Titus lied about was that he had a degree from Cambridge. The Bishop of London believed him and he was given an licence to preach. That was not accompanied, however, by a licence to kill, though before he was finished he was directly responsible for the horrific deaths of more than twenty men.



In order to secure a teaching position in 1674, Titus had alleged that the man in possession of the job at the time, had sodomised one of his students. When he was caught out in that particular lie he fled the country and joined the navy. There he himself was accused of the same crime and was dismissed in 1876. He only avoided execution because he was an ordained minister. The following year he converted to Catholicism. He later claimed that he had only pretended to become a Catholic so that he could go undercover and expose the shocking secrets of the Jesuits.

In 1678 Oates made up charges against hundreds of Catholic clerics and laymen. He made for an unsavoury witness, given his record of perjury and all-round depravity, but he did have one thing going for him, a prodigious memory. This enabled him to lie with the gift of total recall of everything he was making up. One of the men he accused, later acquitted, was the famous diarist Samuel Pepys.

The two most prominent Irish victims of the increasingly convoluted ‘Popish plot’—supposedly designed to put a Catholic on the throne of England—were Peter Talbot, the Archbishop of Dublin, and Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh. Involved in the persecution of both was the Irish Lord Lieutenant of the day, the magisterial James Butler, 1stDuke of Ormonde. Butler was, personally, skeptical of the existence of a widespread conspiracy. When he was informed of the identity of Plunkett’s accusers he described them as ‘drunken vagabonds’ and commented that ‘no schoolboy would trust them to rob an orchard’. Butler was sympathetic to Plunkett but had him arrested anyway. Talbot he loathed, so he took some pleasure in tossing the Archbishop of Dublin in jail, where he languished for two years before he died. The last rites were administered by his fellow prisoner, Archbishop Oliver Plunkett

Plunkett’s own fate was more hideous and more melodramatic. He was to be tried in Dundalk, charged with plotting to bring an army of 20,000 soldiers from France. When it became clear that there was insufficient evidence to convict, he was moved to London and tried there instead. In 1681 he was found guilty of high treason and of ‘promoting the Roman faith’ which, you would have to accept, is probably an integral part of the job description of a Catholic archbishop. On 1 July 1681 he was hanged drawn and quartered. What exactly that involves … you do not want to know. Let’s just say that the hanging isn’t supposed to kill you, and we’ll leave the rest to your imaginations. Oliver Plunkett became the last Roman Catholic martyr executed in Britain.

Plunkett’s show trial was one of the events that prompted public opinion to turn against Oates, and his equally repulsive fellow accusers. Oates was tried for perjury in the court of the same judge, the infamous Judge Jeffreys, who had, with great delight, passed the death sentence on many of those fingered by the perjurer. Oates was imprisoned for life. He was pilloried and pelted with eggs at Westminster Hall, which sounds like a waste of good food. He was also sentenced to be whipped through the streets of London for five days each year for the rest of his natural life. They did dream up interesting and utterly sadistic punishments in those days. When William of Orange came to the throne, however, Oates was released, and given a pension. He is unlikely to have spent any of his take home pay on omelettes.

The first spurious accusations were laid against innocent men in the diabolical Popish plot three hundred and forty years ago, on this day.