What We Can Learn About Surviving Frauds Like Trump from Titus Oates

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tags: British history, Trump, Titus Oates, frauds

David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington; among his recent books is Through a Glass Brightly: using science to see our species as it really is (2018, Oxford University Press). 


Before there was Donald Trump there was Titus Oates. Known as Titus the Liar after he was finally revealed and reviled, Mr. Oates succeeded in roiling England for three painful years, 1678-1681. Almost single-handedly, he fabricated the now-infamous “Popish Plot” that resulted in the execution of at least 15 innocent men (mostly peers of the realm along with priests and even archbishops), the death of another 7 in prison, a genuine constitutional crisis, widespread riots, panic, dislocation, heightened distrust among neighbors, and religious hatred. In short although history doesn’t literally repeat itself, sometimes it rhymes. 


Born in 1649, by his mid-twenties Titus Oates had accumulated a long history of failure, fabrication, and expulsions, along with a narrow escape from the gallows. As a youth, he was expelled from several schools - mostly for financial misbehavior - before entering Cambridge University, where he was also expelled after he reneged on paying a tailor whom he had engaged to make him a coat. He then faked a ministerial degree, masqueraded as an Anglican priest and was ejected from that position for drunkenness, lewd behavior, and misusing congregation funds. He went back to his father’s residence where he manufactured false charges against a local schoolmaster, hoping to accede to his position, but when the perjury was discovered, he was jailed, but escaped to London, and eventually shipped as an Anglican chaplain aboard a naval vessel. Within a few months, he was caught at “buggery,” then a capital offense, but avoided execution because of his supposed religious vocation, although he was soon drummed out of the Royal Navy. 


Having returned to London, Oates was re-arrested on his earlier perjury charge, but managed to escape once more, and briefly served as Anglican chaplain once again, this time to an aristocratic family, but was soon sacked for “unsatisfactory behaviour.” Oates’s religious beliefs, if he had any, are unclear. He converted to Catholicism briefly, later claiming that he did so in order to go under cover and reveal the plot that he was soon to cook up, out of thin air. As a putative Catholic, he wheedled his way into several schools in Europe, only to be kicked out of at least two, after which he pretended to have obtained a Doctorate in Catholic Theology – which was soon revealed to be bogus because he did not know any Latin. 


He returned to England, having devised details of a sensational plot – allegedly hatched in Rome and to be carried out by English Jesuits – to murder the Protestant English king, Charles II. In conjunction with one Israel Tonge, a fanatic anti-Catholic crusader, Oates managed to impress many officials with precise details as to the assassination plans. One killing was said to have been foiled when a musket jammed, after which a crack team of Jesuit assassins, armed with foot-long daggers, had allegedly been dispatched to murder the king while he was on his daily walk in St. James Park, not to mention a group of Irish “ruffians” waiting to accost the king; plus, the queen’s doctor was said to be planning to poison him if all else failed. Charles himself was dubious, in part because Oates claimed to have met Don John of Austria, describing him as tall and fair, whereas Charles had actually met the Austrian nobleman and knew him to be short and dark. Nonetheless, Titus Oates proved remarkably persuasive to many in the king’s court and to the public at large. Things came to a head when he testified about this “plot” before an Anglican magistrate, Edmund Berry Godfrey, who was found murdered a month later. Oates immediately announced that the Catholics were responsible, generating a panic of anti-Catholic frenzy in which Berry Godfrey virtually became a Protestant martyr. (The actual murderers were never identified.)


Mobs rampaged, burning effigies of the Pope, and breaking into Catholic-owned stores. Oates was given leadership of a contingent of the King’s Militia, which entered Catholic homes, terrorizing the occupants and arresting suspects. Before the tumult was over, he had fingered hundreds of peers and prelates, Parliament had mandated that Catholics be forcibly relocated to at least 16 kilometers from London, and a constitutional crisis arose because King Charles had no legitimate heirs, and his brother, the Duke of York, being a Catholic, was considered an unacceptable successor. 


By the first year of his colossal hoax, Oates had become the most popular man in the country, basking in the adulation of large crowds, and proclaiming himself "The Saviour of the Nation." He also assumed the title of "Doctor," professing that he had earned the degree at Salamanca, undeterred by the fact that he had never been there. He was lodged at public expense at Whitehall, given a handsome stipend, dressed himself in fine episcopal attire, and was accorded an official bodyguard. 


Eventually, the fraud crumbled. Acumulated evidence of Oates’s lies plus revulsion at the execution of many highly regarded persons led to his unmasking. He was convicted of multiple perjuries and was whipped through the streets of London and imprisoned for the duration of Charles’s reign.


How did this gratuitous grifter, this frequent failure, this persistent perjurer and master of mendacity succeed in hoodwinking so many, and in turning England upside down? There were three main contributors: Titus Oates’s personal appeal, an inchoate fear of England’s Catholic minority, and the acquiescence of public officials, many of whom knew better but failed nonetheless to hold him to account. Thus, Oates was a gifted and charismatic orator, demagogically adroit at playing to the emotions of his followers. He had no source of income other than his personal brand, which he burnished at every opportunity. 


At the time, Catholics constituted only about one percent of the English population; overwhelmingly, they just wanted to practice their pre-reformation religion, often in secret because of pre-existing prejudice against them. But nonetheless, there was widespread fear of Catholicism, even as people were often friends and neighbors of individual Catholics. By the latter half of the 17th century, history was casting a long shadow over England, notably a scalding memory of the nearly successful Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which had in fact been orchestrated by a small terrorist coterie of Catholics, and which, had it not been uncovered, would have blown up the Protestant English king James I and much of Parliament as part of a conspiracy to forcibly turn England back to Catholicism. There was also the terrifying Irish rising of 1641, which slaughtered nearly all Irish Protestants; a slogan promoted by Oates and his followers was “41 is come again.” Moreover, the Great Plague of London (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666) had lent themselves to an earlier spate of anti-Catholic rumor-mongering.


On top of this loomed recollection of the Spanish Armada, as well as the fact that Protestantism, although successful, was geographically limited to northern Europe, while the great powers – France and Spain – were Catholic, as was Charles’s mistress, his wife, and his brother. Furthermore, Charles had attempted to ameliorate some of the more severe anti-Catholic laws of the time, while seeking accommodation with the rulers of France and Spain. Although he was definitely an Anglican, the Jesuits very much disliked him, reputedly calling him, among other things, the “Back Bastard.” 


And finally, there were members of Parliament, the clergy, judiciary, and the nobility who were reluctant to criticize Oates for fear of angry public reaction, and others, notably many in the newly formed Whig Party, who embraced his lies because they fed into their own agenda of suppressing Catholicism. It was not until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 that most of the discriminatory legislation passed because of Titus Oates’s malign influence was finally suspended. Oates himself didn’t go quietly; in 1699 he loudly disrupted the funeral of a woman who had forbidden him to preach at her demise and then in 1702 he was arrested for assaulting a woman with a cane. He died in 1705, largely forgotten and certainly not mourned. 


Before there was Donald Trump, there was Titus Oates – but England survived, thrived, and even became great. There have been frauds, con men (con women, too), and truly dangerous, deranged characters who have sown chaos, pain, and despair. However, the true story of Titus Oates, although horrifying and downright infuriating, should give us hope that the US, too, can recover from You Know Who, just as England did from Titus Oates. 


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