Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Making it Big Through Lies and Perfidy

by Anna Belfrage

Many of us walk around hoping that eventually the bad guys will pay. Some, of course, expect things to be set aright after death, in the golden halls of heaven, where, as the song says, “you’ll get pie in the sky when you die” – assuming you’re good.

Sadly, being good has very little to do with material success in life. In fact, history is rife with examples of people who were anything but good and still ended up surfing through life on a silver platter. The subject of this post proves this case many times over, and I am hard put not to shudder in revulsion as I give you Titus Oates, perjurer and sodomiser, liar extraordinaire and renegade.

Titus - and I bet it's a wig
Let us start at the beginning: Titus was born around the time when Charles I was executed, and grew up in relatively affluent circumstances – affluent enough to accord him schooling. Not that Titus seemed to have excelled at school, but he managed to make it into the Anglican church after his studies at Cambridge and landed a living in Kent. Here Titus showed the first indications of his future notoriety, as he accused a schoolmaster for sodomy – a lie, and Titus was jailed for perjury but managed to escape.

Next time we hear of him, dear Titus had decided to make his fortune on the seas, and landed a position as a chaplain aboard a ship in the English navy - until he was accused of buggery (most apt, given the hapless schoolteacher), at the time a capital offense. Only Titus’ clergyman’s status saved him from a very early encounter with the noose. Unfortunately.

Anyway; the boat incident forced Titus to reinvent himself, and so he joined the household of a Catholic peer and converted to the Catholic Church. Not, one would think, a spur of the moment thing for an Anglican priest. Afterwards, Titus would insist he did this only to be able to infiltrate into the darker bowels of the Catholic Church. Or maybe he was just being his normal, self-seeking self. Whatever the case, Titus had no more success as a Catholic than as an Anglican, and ended up thrown out of the Jesuit college (you have to give him plus points for going all the way) he had enrolled in. Oh dear; now what was Titus to do?

Titus looking his best
In 1678, Titus was close to thirty and so far had not achieved anything noteworthy with his life. That was about to change, as Titus was soon to befoul the very air of London with a sinister pack of lies that would lead to harsh persecution of Catholics and spring him to immediate fame – plus permanently blacken his soul – well, whatever part of it that wasn’t already tarnished. Not only was he seriously unappealing on the inside, but his exterior left a lot to be wished for. As per Lady Antonia Fraser, contemporary descriptions make him sound more like a pig than a man (!). Add to this a grating voice and one wonders what the charismatic qualities were that had Titus duping his fellow country-men so completely.

Duke of York, Catholic & not so loved
It’s actually very easy. Titus’ contemporaries wanted to believe him. They salivated at his preposterous stories, they roared in anger as they set off on their papist-hunting sprees. That Titus was feeding them lies was irrelevant, and the more astute among the politicians, chief among them Shaftesbury, took the opportunity to advance anti-Catholic legislation, ultimately forcing the king to advise his brother, the openly Catholic Duke of York, to leave the country.

So what was it Titus said? Well, together with the fanatic but dense Tonge – an Anglican priest who seems to have believed everything Oates told him and saw potential Jesuit assassins behind every bush– and aided and abetted by a most unsavoury character called Bedloe, who gladly perjured himself right, left and centre by insisting he had “witnessed” what Titus quoted as being gospel truth, Titus presented a complicated “Popish Plot” which had as its intent to murder the king. The queen’s physician was accused as being party to it, as was the Duchess of York’s secretary, one Edward Coleman, and rather unfortunately Coleman’s correspondence did include some rather fanatic writings about the need to restore England to the “true faith”.  But from there to murder is a very long step, and the king was not convinced.

London at large, however, was more than happy to believe this convoluted pack of lies, and when Edmund Godfrey, a Protestant magistrate, was found dead, the anti-papists went wild. London seethed with anger, Catholics were beaten and hounded, their homes were subjected to searches for illegal weapons (few were found) and people were warned to be on their guard; there were evil Jesuits everywhere, lurking in the shadows, and there were nasty recusants hiding throughout the country, horrible Catholic people that wanted to overthrow the Anglican Church and reinstate the hegemony of the Pope in England. What can I say? A crowd gone wild is a hotbed of fevered imaginations – even more so when people in authority foment the flames of lunacy.

Catherine of Braganza - Catholic but loved
Whatever his other faults, Titus had an impeccable sense of timing. With the rabble baying for Papist blood, Titus now presented evidence – collected while he was working undercover in the Jesuit colleges (Duh!) – showing that five elderly Catholic peers were involved in the plot. And the Irish Archbishop. And the queen. Stop! What? The rabble was fond of their long-suffering queen, Catherine of Braganza – as was her husband. The king was incensed, hastening to his wife’s defence.  He interrogated Titus, caught him out on a number of lies and had him arrested. Parliament growled, threatened the king with a constitutional crisis, and forced Titus’ release.

One would have thought the more intelligent among the men in the Protestant faction would have steered well clear of a man as despicable as Titus. After all, surely some voice of reason would prevail, right? Nope. As the Earl of Shaftesbury is supposed to have said, “I will not say who started the game, but I am sure I had the full hunting of it.” (Yet another quite unlikeable man.)

Like Shaftesbury, the more ambitious among Charles II’s Protestant subjects simply used Titus for their own purposes, and so several innocent but prominent men were accused, tried and condemned to death based on the unsubstantiated ravings of Mr Titus Oates. Last to die was Oliver Plunkett, Archbishop of Armagh, who was executed on July 1 in 1681.

While all this was going on, Titus was lapping up the good life. He’d been given an apartment at Whitehall and an annual allowance of well over one thousand pounds per year – more than sufficient to live the life of a gentleman. He was presented with a coat of arms and there were whispers of an impending marriage with Shaftesbury’s daughter. Luckily for her, innocent creature that she was, that was never to be.

Plunkett’s trial and execution had sickened many people – the Archbishop was known to be a good and virtuous man, no matter his Catholic faith – and the popular sentiment began to turn. At last the voice of reason could be heard over the din of the excited rabble, and in a somewhat more sane state of mind, the powers that were took stock and decided to dismiss Titus Oates famous plot as misguided fabrications.

Titus getting his comeuppance
So in August of 1681, the wheel of fate did a squeaky turn-about, and Oates was thrown into prison and fined a hefty 100 000 pound fine for sedition. Things went from bad to worse for Oates in 1685, when the new king, James II, had him re-tried for perjury. Oates was sentenced to life imprisonment and to be whipped five days a year for the remainder of his life. After being pilloried for two days, he was brutally whipped through London for the following five. I suspect James had hoped Oates would die of this harsh treatment, but Oates was nothing if not resilient, clinging on to life with the stubbornness of a barnacle.

A couple of years later, James II was out on his ear – betrayed by his Protestant peers – and replaced by his eldest daughter and her Dutch husband. For some very strange reason, William of Orange and Mary decided to pardon Titus and grant him a pension for the rest of his life. How Mary could agree to reward a man who had consistently hounded her father, her uncle and her aunt is something of a mystery, but then Mary seems to have been a person torn asunder between her faith and loyalty to her husband, and her (one hopes) love for her deposed but devoted father. Whatever the case, Titus Oates was allowed to live out the remainder of his sorry life in comfort – most undeserved, if you ask me.

Titus' companions in the hereafter (one hopes)
Sadly, Titus Oates cannot be held up as warning example. If anything, the man’s life just proves that if you lie and fabricate, perjure yourself repeatedly and send innocent man to die with your fanciful accounts, chances are you’ll be rewarded – even richly rewarded. Personally, I hold out hope that things are set right in the afterlife, and so I don't think Titus is presently relaxing in the everlasting peace of heaven, munching contentedly on pie. No, Titus, I believe, is hanging in chains over one of hell’s pits of brimstone and fire, condemned to forever roast and scream. Am I sorry for him? Not much...

Anna Belfrage is the author The Graham Saga, so far consisting of A Rip in the Veil , Like Chaff in the Wind, The Prodigal Son and  A Newfound Land.  The next instalment in the acclaimed series, Serpents in the Garden is due for release March 1 and to some extent takes place in Titus Oates’ London.

Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland, The Graham Saga tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him.

1 comment:

  1. Nothing much has changed, Anna. Politicians who perjure themselves, promulgate outright fantasies and send men to their deaths still prosper.


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