Titus Oates was one of the most odious figures from history – a self-serving liar, bully, coward and fantasist whose vindictive conspiracy theories brought death and vilification to countless Catholics.
Oates was born in 1649, the son of a Church of England clergyman and even as a child he was hard to like. He was sickly with a permanently runny nose and dribbling mouth and as he grew he developed an annoying manner of speech, somewhere between a bark and a whine.
He was also remarkably ugly with his bright red face and no chin to speak of so that it seemed that his head grew out of his corpulent neck.
His real problem though was that Oates had a character to match his appearance. He was slow-witted, dull and a habitual liar – even his own father didn’t care for him much.
Oates was expelled from school for cheating his tutor out of his tuition fees and then went to Cambridge University where he was thrown out of one college for stupidity and sent down from another for laziness. But lack of qualification was no obstacle for Oates – he simply pretended that he’d got his degree anyway.
This pretence enabled Oates to get a licence to preach from the Bishop of London and in 1673 he was installed as the vicar of Bobbing in Kent where he honed his talent for unpopularity.
Oates was a heavy drinker and in his cups, he was foul-mouthed and rude to his congregation. Unsurprisingly they arranged to get rid of him and he had to return home to Hastings as curate to his father.
But he rather fancied the local schoolmaster’s job and hatched a plot to oust the incumbent. He accused him of sodomy, but the lie was so flimsy that Oates found himself charged with perjury and only escaped court by fleeing to London and a job as a naval chaplain.
It was while he was on board the Adventure, bound for Tangier, that Oates later claimed he heard the first whispers of the ‘Popish Plot’ to assassinate Charles II, although his maritime career was cut short when he was discovered performing homosexual acts. Sodomy was a hanging offence and only the fact that he was a clergyman saved his skin.
Returning to dry land, Oates bluffed his way into becoming chaplain to the Earl of Norwich, a post he only held for a few months before he was sacked for being constantly drunk.
Running out of options as far as the Church of England was concerned, he decided to chance his arm as a Catholic. Having duped an eccentric priest called Father Berry, Oates was received into the Church of Rome in 1677 and soon after met Father Richard Strange, head of the English Jesuits.
Strange arranged for Oates to study with the Jesuits at Valladolid in Spain under the pseudonym Titus Ambrosius, but this ended in much the same way as his earlier studies. He was thrown out when it became clear that he had absolutely no grasp of Latin whatsoever.
Undaunted, Oates returned to England claiming that he had a divinity degree from the University of Salamanca, a place he had never visited of course. He enrolled in yet another Jesuit seminary, this time in France adopting the name Samson Lucy.
His awful personal habits – drinking, smoking, swearing and lying – had their usual effect and he became so unpopular that a fellow seminarian attacked him with a frying pan. Once again he was expelled and returned to London, his brief flirtation with Catholicism and the Jesuits having turned to hatred.
His opportunity for revenge came in the shape of Dr Israel Tongue, a rabid anti-Catholic, who proposed using Oates’ first-hand ‘knowledge’ to produce pamphlets that would expose the ‘Jesuit menace’. Together they drew up a report on the Church of Rome’s secret plans to assassinate Charles II and install his Catholic brother James in his stead.
It was the usual concoction of lies, myth and prejudice that you’d recognise in any modern-day, half-baked conspiracy theory – secret cabals, private armies being amassed, a Europe-wide conspiracy financed by treacherous Catholic families. It even had its own ‘weapon of mass destruction’ in a special gun that fired silver bullets which would be used to kill the king.
A copy of the pamphlet was put into the hands of Charles II while he was out walking and he thought it was complete tosh, but his brother James was outraged that he had been implicated and demanded an investigation.
With the ‘plot’ now in the open, Oates swore that his allegations were true before Sir Edmund Godfrey and made 43 separate charges, naming members of prominent Catholic families at random. Godfrey was doubtful of the confused and contradictory testimony, but even so, Oates was called to appear before the Privy Council.
Cross-examined by the king himself, the number of people accused by Oates leapt to 81, including Samuel Pepys and the archbishop of Dublin and he also produced his ‘smoking gun’ – a letter from Edward Coleman, the fanatical Catholic secretary to James’ wife, written to Father La Chaise, personal confessor to Louis XIV of France.
A few days later the body of Edmund Godfrey was found on Primrose Hill, strangled and impaled on his own sword. This was all that was needed to convince the Privy Council that there truly was treachery afoot and they turned to Oates, giving him carte blanche to crush the papist plot.
Oates couldn’t believe his luck. As one contemporary observed: ‘His greatest pleasure was to speed hither and thither accompanied by soldiers, enjoying the complete power to imprison those he chose.’
Oates took revenge on those who had ever crossed him, including the headmaster who had expelled him from school. Samuel Pepys was arrested and taken to the Tower of London, while a jury took just fifteen minutes to find Edward Coleman guilty of treason.
Coleman was hanged, drawn and quartered and 34 other people – including several Catholic priests and the Archbishop of Armagh – were also executed for treason. Meanwhile, anyone remotely suspected of being Catholic was driven out of London and the House of Commons was searched for gunpowder amid rumours of a French invasion of Dorset.
Oates was also directly responsible for a change in English law. By the end of 1678 Parliament had passed the Test Act which ruled that only Protestants could sit in the Houses of Parliament.
Even though many people, including the king, doubted his allegations, Oates was rewarded with an apartment in Whitehall, an allowance of £1,200 a year and his own coat of arms.
The problem for Oates was that the ‘great plot’ never materialised and as panic subsided common sense prevailed. People began to question the contradictions in the ‘evidence’ given by Oates and in 1681 he was thrown out of his grace and favour apartment. Then in 1684 he was arrested and tried for defamation, fined £100,000 (£13 million in today’s money) and imprisoned for calling the king’s brother a traitor.
Worse was to follow when James came to the throne intent on avenging his fellow Catholics who had been condemned to death. Oates was now reviled, one pamphlet describing him as a ‘Buggering, Brazen-faced, Lanthorn-jawed, Tallow-chapt Leviathon’.
Oates was re-tried for perjury and sentenced to life imprisonment, stripped of his clerical standing and given 1,000 lashes while he was dragged behind a cart for the three miles from Aldgate to Tyburn. And just in case he should forget his crimes, he had to spend a day in the stocks five times a year in different parts of London to be pelted with eggs and kitchen slops.
But Oates survived and was eventually set free following the accession of William of Orange in 1688, getting a job as a royal spy as the new king paid him to keep an eye on possible French Jacobite plotters.
And despite his dubious sexuality and his repulsive looks that matched his repulsive nature, Oates married a wealthy young widow and they were to have a daughter.
He even took up his religious duties again, this time as a Baptist minister, but this ended pretty much like his earlier attempts.
One of his parishioners detested Oates so much that on her deathbed she expressly forbade him from attending her funeral. In typical fashion, Oates went anyway and held up proceedings with an interminable and irrelevant sermon until the congregation rebelled and threw him out.
Oates cut an even sadder figure late in life which he spent writing obscure religious tracts which no-one read and haunting the Westminster law courts as a spectator.
How Oates managed to escape the death penalty is a mystery since his lies had brought about the deaths of thirty-five innocent men, ruined the lives of thousands more, had slandered a future king, panicked a nation and brought about a needless change in the law and generally been an odious character. Instead, he was to die a natural death in 1705.
With acknowledgement to the QI Book of the Dead