Saturday, June 28, 2014

Archbishop Oliver Plunkett - Last Martyr of the Reformation

by Arthur Russell

Oliver Plunkett (Born 1625 – died July 1st 1681) is remembered as the last Catholic cleric to suffer martyrdom in England. At the time of his death by hanging in Tyburn, London, Oliver was Archbishop of Armagh and as such was a primary target for the notorious Titus Oates and his “Popish Plot” which had already led to many executions of innocents, as well as causing the “Mother of Parliaments” to pass the Test Act which required Catholics to deny fundamental tenets of their religion before they could sit in Parliament. (This Act was not repealed until 1829 when Daniel O’Connell was finally allowed to take the seat he had won in the Co Clare by-election. It was strenuously argued against by Plunkett at the time of its introduction).

 Oliver Plunkett was charged with  conspiring to facilitate a French invasion of England to effect regime change and the restoration of Catholicism as the realm’s state religion. Driven by the mischievous Titus Oates, the totally fabricated Popish Plot caused panic in the English Establishment of the day, as well as among the common people, who dreaded a repetition of the infamous Gunpowder Plot at the beginning of the century. After much blood letting and violence, the Oates story eventually lost its traction with King Charles II and many in the London Parliament; but not before it claimed the life of the Irish Archbishop who was completely innocent of the charges that were made against him.

In relation to Archbishop Plunkett’s execution; King Charles himself is reported to have said to Sir Arthur Capell, the Earl of Essex and former Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who was one of the moving forces behind the Archbishop’s arrest on foot of the alleged conspiracy, “His blood be upon your head – you could have saved him but would not. I would save him, and dare not”.

 From this it is clear the Earl had not intended that the accusations and doubtful evidence he himself had caused to be presented to the Privy Council in London should lead to Oliver Plunkett’s death. The Earl’s real target was James Butler, the Marquis of Ormonde, a staunch supporter of Charles who had replaced him as Lord Lieutenant in Ireland after the Restoration and who had accorded a modicum of religious freedom to Ireland’s predominantly Catholic population. Oliver Plunkett was therefore an unwitting pawn and eventual victim in the larger game the Earl was playing, a game that took advantage of current religious discord to further his own agenda.

It proved to be an uncontrollable force, as due to fear of the hysteria which the Oates Popish Plot had generated among the general populace of London and England generally, neither earl or monarch were prepared to intervene to save the Archbishop who had been arrested in 1679 at the height of anti-Catholic hysteria, and who was sentenced to be executed by hanging, drawing and quartering in Tyburn on July 1st 1681 after a highly dubious trial.

It was a “Pontius Pilate moment” for the largely well-meaning but nervous Charles who, in the aftermath of his Restoration in 1660, was trying to create and promote a broader climate of religious tolerance throughout his kingdom which had been scarred by the upheavals of Civil War and the subsequent period of Puritanical intolerance that characterized the regime of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Who was Oliver Plunkett?

The Plunkett castle and church in Oldcastle, Co Meath, Ireland
Oliver Plunkett was a scion of the long established Plunkett family in Loughcrew, near Oldcastle in Co Meath, Ireland, and was related to many of the Norman-Irish families who were collectively known as Lords of the Pale. In common with many of these families, the Plunketts had remained loyal to Rome during the Reformation of the 16th century and supported the Confederation of Kilkenny which sought to defend the religious rights of both native Gaelic and Anglo Irish.

Their allegiance to the Royalist cause ultimately led to wholesale confiscation of many of their estates during the Cromwellian settlement of the 1650’s, many of which were not overturned as promised when Charles II assumed the throne in 1660.

By that time, Oliver was a student in Rome and was a highly regarded academic in the Irish College where he was ordained in 1654 and appointed Professor of Theology in 1657. From Rome, he successfully pleaded the case for the Irish Catholic Church with the newly established court of King Charles II after the Stuart monarch was invited back to London and was instrumental in winning a degree of freedom for Catholic religious practice in Ireland.

 He was appointed Archbishop of Armagh in 1669 and set foot on Irish soil, after more than 20 years of exile, in March 1670. The homeland to which he returned contrasted sharply with the Ireland he had left twenty three years earlier in 1647. He had been advised on travelling to Ireland from Belgium not to travel as a cleric, which explained why a martial looking Captain William Browne (an assumed name) disembarked in the port of Dublin to take up his clerical mission. The Plunkett family home at Loughcrew was now occupied by the Naper family. Many of their neighbours were also gone, banished “to Hell or to Connaught” by the victorious Cromwellians as they went about “cleansing” huge swathes of lands in the East, Midlands and South of the island of Royalists and (hopefully) the Catholic religion.

In the aftermath of revolution and civil war, the population of Ireland was estimated to have fallen to well under 1 million. As part of the Cromwellian settlement, thousands of “disaffected” persons were killed. Thousands died of starvation and disease due to the disruption caused by the long war. Thousands more were deported to the West Indies as slave labourers to work the colonies’ sugar cane plantations. The so-called “curse of Cromwell” was a harsh reality of life for many during those difficult years.

  Plunkett’s Irish Mission

In the relatively benign religious climate that existed during the early years of Restoration arising from the Declaration of Breda in 1660, Archbishop Plunkett was able to travel widely to service the needs of his Irish congregation and to put some badly needed church reforms in place for the church arising from three decades of war and disruption. Some of his reforms of local clergy resulted in his making some enemies among those he sought to reform, a fact that worked against him later.

One of his first actions as Archbishop was to establish a Jesuit college in Drogheda in 1670 which lasted just five years before it was closed due to a new rising tide of religious intolerance. The school was remarkable in that in 1671, out of one hundred fifty students, forty were Protestant which meant that it was the first integrated school in Ireland.

As the tide of religious intolerance increased during the 1670’s, the Earl of Essex directed the Council of Ireland to pass a series of anti-Catholic laws including one ordering all priests and bishops to leave the country or risk arrest and possible execution for the crime of treason.

Plunkett refused to abandon his congregation. He went on the run and continued servicing them under the most difficult circumstances during the following years. He travelled everywhere as a layman and had to rely for food as well as shelter from cold and rain wherever he could find it. He had a price on his head, so life was precarious.

Arrest and Trial:

He was finally arrested in December 1679 and spent 6 weeks in Dublin Castle.

At his first trial in Dundalk he was charged with conspiring to bring a huge French invasion force to Ireland as well as raising a levy on his congregation to finance a local anti-Government militia, but it proved impossible for the prosecution to find credible evidence or witnesses. (The Marquis of Ormonde said of them “silly drunken vagabonds... whom no schoolboy would trust to rob an orchard").

Arising from this, the powers that be found it necessary to send the Archbishop to England where he was lodged in Newgate prison to await trial. He languished here for six long months before he was brought in front of a grand jury in Westminster Hall.

The first trial on English soil found no case against him, but he was not released.

The second trial has generally been regarded as a gross miscarriage of justice. Plunkett was denied defending counsel, though one Hugh O’Reilly from Cavan, at some risk to himself, travelled to England to provide him with legal advice. The prisoner was not allowed enough time to assemble defense witnesses and was frustrated in his attempts to obtain evidence to rebut witness being given against him. A servant, James McKenna, and a relative, John Plunkett, travelled back to Ireland but were not allowed time to assemble witnesses or evidence for the defence.

During the trial, the Archbishop strenuously disputed the right of the court to try him in England and drew attention to the criminal past of some of the prosecution witnesses.

It was all to no avail.

How History views the Trial

The following quotes attributed to Chief Justice Sir Francis Pemberton in course of the trial give indication of the determination of the court to find the prisoner guilty of treason:

"Look you, Mr. Plunkett, it is in vain for you to talk and make this discourse here now..." 

“Look you Mr Plunkett, don't mis-spend your own time; for the more you trifle in these things, the less time you will have for your defence". 

“You have done as much as you could to dishonour God in this case; for the bottom of your treason was your setting up your false religion, than which there is not any thing more displeasing to God, or more pernicious to mankind in the world.” 

At the end of the trial, the jury took all of fifteen minutes to return a guilty verdict, to which Plunkett is reported to have responded resignedly, “Deo Gratias”.

The French ambassador to England, Paul Barillon, conveyed a plea for mercy from King Louis XIV to King Charles, who decided not to intervene despite his reservations.

The Scottish clergyman and future Bishop of Salisbury, Gilbert Burnet, who was at the trial, had no doubt of the Archbishop’s innocence of the charges brought against the Archbishop, considering him to be a “wise and sober man who had no aim but to live peacefully and tend to his congregation”.

Writing two centuries after the event; the commentator Lord Campbell stated that Chief Justice Pemberton’s handling of Oliver Plunkett’s trial was a “disgrace to himself and his country”.

Quite simply, there was never the slightest evidence that the Archbishop had ever conspired against the King, yet he was found guilty and was condemned to the cruelest death that could be prescribed under the law.

Execution at Tyburn

The following account of Oliver Plunkett’s trial and execution is taken from Bishop Burnet's, “History of his own Time, 1724”:

Execution Day at Tyburn July 1st 1681
Dr. Oliver Plunket was arraigned at the King's Bench, May 3, 1681, for "high treason, in endeavoring and compassing the king's" death, and to levy war in Ireland, and to alter the true religion there, and to introduce a foreign 'power.' 

The particulars of his trial, as well as his speech at the place of execution, may be found in the third volume of the State Trials, p. 294, Margrave's edit. Dr. Burnet gives us no very favorable idea of the equity of the proceedings against him.

'Some lewd Irish priests and others of that nation, hearing that England was at that time disposed to hearken to good swearers, thought themselves well qualified for the employment; so they came over to swear, that there was a great plot in Ireland, to bring over a French army, and to massacre all the English. The witnesses were brutal and profligate men, yet the earl of Shaftsbury cherished them much: they were examined by the parliament at Westminster and what they said was believed. Upon that encouragement it was reckoned, that we should have witnesses come over in whole companies. 

Lord Essex told me, that this Plunket was a wise and sober man, who was always in a different interest from the two Talbots; the one of these being the titular primate of Dublin, and the other came to be raised afterwards to be Duke of Tirconnell. These were meddling and factious men, whereas Plunket was for their living quietly, and in due submission to the government, without engaging into intrigues of state. Some of these priests had been censured by him for their lewdness: and they drew others to swear as they directed them. They had appeared the winter before, upon a bill offered to the grand jury: but as the foreman of the jury, who was a zealous Protestant, told me, they contradicted one another so evidently, that they would not find the bill. But now they laid their story better together and swore against Plunket, that he had got a great bank of money to be prepared, and that he had an army listed, and was in a correspondence with France, to bring over a fleet from thence. He had nothing to say in his own defense, but to deny all: so he was condemned; and suffered very decently, expressing himself in many particulars as became a bishop. He died denying every thing that had been sworn against him.

What Happened Oliver Plunkett’s Body and Head

The shrine containing Oliver's head in
St Peter's Church, Drogheda
After the execution, the Archbishop’s dismembered body was taken away by friends to a house near St Giles Church. His head and arms were placed in one box while the rest of the body was buried in the Churchyard beside the remains of five other Jesuit priests who had been recently executed arising from the Oates allegations.

“A copper plate placed on his breast, whereon was engraven these following words, set here down for the satisfaction of the curious: "In this tomb resteth the body of the right reverend Oliver Plunket, archbishop of Armagh, and primate of Ireland, who in hatred of religion was accused of false witnesses, and for the same condemned, and executed at Tyburn; his heart and bowels being taken out and cast into the fire: he suffered martyrdom with constancy, the 1st of July, 1681, in the reign of king, Charles II."

The remains of the Archbishop were exhumed in 1683 and moved to the Benedictine monastery at Lamspringe in Germany before being returned to Downside Abbey in England. His head was first brought to Rome, and from there to Armagh and eventually to Drogheda where, since 29 June 1921, it has been enshrined on an ornate altar in the parish Church of St Peter.

Saint Oliver Plunkett

Oliver Plunkett was beatified by the Catholic Church in June 1921 and was declared Saint in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in May 1975. In 1997, he was made the patron Saint for Peace and Reconciliation in Ireland. Based on the evidence of his life’s work, this last is something he would truly appreciate.

 Related reading : 
“Making it Big Through Lies and Perfidy” by Anna Belfrage (EHFA Blog on Titus Oates and his Popish Plot for Feb 2014). 


Arthur Russell is the Author of ‘Morgallion’, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland (1314), by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. ‘Morgallion’ has been recently awarded the indieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form. More information available on website -

1 comment:

  1. The English authorities of the 16th and 17th centuries were never deterred by concepts of jurisdiction or justice.


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