A Scoundrel Ahead of His Time
September 15, 1649: The birthday of the “Worst Englishman of the 17th Century”
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Titus Oates as a ‘professional perjurer’. Today the scandal-mongering clergyman would be a political consultant. In a poll of historians, Oates (1649-1705) was named the worst Englishman of the 17th century. He certainly was an enthusiastic liar, one whose allegations terrified the public, fanned religious bigotry and sent innocent men to prison or their death.
Yet, for a man who gulled Parliment and cowed King Charles II himself, Oates should not have withstood a moment of scrutiny. His life was the personification of scandal. His intelligence scarely better than his morals, he had been expelled from two colleges at Cambridge. Yet, somehow he managed to become an Anglican clergyman. Seeking a position as a schoolmaster, he was undeterred by the fact that the position was filled. To create a job vacancy, he accused the incumbent of sodomy. Either the accused was demonstrably innocent or a gay English teacher was not that interesting a scandal; the disgraced Oates found himself the subject of prosecution. He was forced to flee the country, and did so by joining the Royal Navy in 1675.
His naval career lasted little more than a year. Winston Churchill said that the traditions of the British Navy were “rum, sodomy and the lash.” Rev. Oates was not courtmartialed for rum or the lash; being a clergyman, however, he was simply expelled from navy. That–and all his other expulsions and scandals–was probably not mentioned on his resume. Somehow he managed to secure a position in the household of the Duke of Norfolk. The Duke was Catholic, and with his unique proximity Oakes would be able to discover any number of Papist conspiracies–even if he had to invent them himself.
To ingratiate himself with the Duke, Oates converted himself to Catholicism and cadged Norfolk’s financing to study in Europe. Oates enrolled in a Jesuit college in Spain in 1677–and within five months was expelled. He would later claim that in those five months he received his doctorate in divinity. He then enrolled in a seminary in France; within six months he was expelled. While he did not claim a second doctorate degree, he evidently learned every detail of the vast Catholic conspiracy that threatened England.
Such hysterical claims had an eager audience in England. The monarchy had been restored in 1660, but the Puritan disdain for the Stuarts and loathing of Catholicism had not died with Oliver Cromwell. This political faction–avoiding the Calvinist stigma by renaming itself the Whigs–constituted a formidable force in Parliament. If they had to reconcile to a monarchy, they insisted it be a Protestant one. Charles II was nominally Anglican but suspiciously tolerant of Catholics; worse, his brother and heir James was openly and abrasively Catholic. The Calvinists’ (oops Whigs’) apprehension and bias were easy to cultivate into hysteria; and Titus Oates did exactly that.
On September 28, 1678 Oates revealed a Jesuit conspiracy to assassinate Charles II and place his Catholic brother on the throne. It was exactly what the Whigs wanted to hear, and few seemed to willing to dispute the accusations. Anyone who did was obviously in league with the Jesuits and the Catholic Church. Oates’ word was as good as an indictment, and an indictment was tantamount to a conviction. Thirty-five men would be executed. Being Catholic had become a crime in itself. The Catholic members of the Royal Family could not be dragged away, but those without blue blood were in danger. Parliament enacted a series of Anti-Catholics laws. Catholics now were forbidden to be in Parliament–a law that would not be repealed until 1829. The King was coerced into ordering an investigation of this Catholic conspiracy. When he discovered it to be groundless and a malicious fraud, he ordered Oates to be arrested. But a defiant Parliament had their hero released, proclaiming him the savior of his country and granting him a generous yearly pension of 1200 pounds. (That would be about $ 300,000 today.)
But even Oates’ increasingly broad accusations could not sustain the hysteria. His word still merited an indictment, but by 1679 the indicted were being acquitted. In 1680, Oxford University declined his demand for an honorary doctorate. (Of course, the university then was condemned as part of the Catholic conspiracy.) Even his fan club in Parliament had become less devoted. His pension was reduced in 1681, and ended in 1682. If his friends had forgotten him, the still very Catholic Duke of York had not. The Duke sued Oates in 1684, and guess who won? Oates was fined 100,000 pounds and imprisoned until he could pay the damages. The following year, the Duke had become the King; and Oates was retried for perjury. Same verdict but a worse punishment: Oates was publicly flogged–nearly to death–and condemned to life imprisonment.
However, the Whigs in Parliament still hated the idea of a Catholic king, and James II was the type of person who could offend you discussing the weather. After three years of James, Parliament decided to fire him–supplanting him with a nice Protestant couple: William and Mary. The Whig-approved royalty released Oates from prison and Parliament provided him with a new pension. However his reputation was reflected by the amount: five pounds. Apparently, he did not starve. He died in deserved obscurity in 1705.
Today would be his birthday, and let’s hope that he is in a place where each of the candles is a blast furnace.
But his legacy and standards certainly live on.