A shame to mankind!

By all accounts, the seventeenth century Titus Oates was a baddy. The son of the Rector of All Saints church in Hastings Old Town, he went from bad to worse. No blue plaque for him! So, what did he do that was so dreadful?

By Gill Metcalfe  

When you mention the name, ‘Titus Oates’, most people think of the explorer who went with Captain Scott to the Antarctic in 1911-12.  His name was Lawrence Oates, nicknamed ‘Titus’ and he became the hero who said he was going outside and might be some time, dying in a blizzard rather than becoming a burden to his fellow explorers. But here we are considering a very different ‘Titus Oates’ who lived in Hastings 250 years earlier.

He was born at Oakham in Rutland in 1649. His father was Samuel Oates, a ribbon-weaver who became a Baptist Minister and later Rector of All Saints, Hastings, from 1660 until 1674. His mother was Lucy, a midwife from Hastings. Samuel appears to have been no better than his son, putting money and ambition before his religion. He became a Baptist minister and later an Anabaptist (a believer in re-baptism by total immersion). It was said that he enticed young girls to be baptised naked and raped them, fathering several children. John Evans, in an article on his blog ‘Blues is My Middle Name’ suggests that Samuel showed no affection for his son, Titus, finding him stupid and ugly.

Titus attended school at Merchant Taylors in Hertfordshire but was expelled. Then for a short time he attended a school at Sedlescombe near Hastings until he was expelled again. From then on, his career appears to have been downhill all the way. He attended the University of Cambridge, Caius College, in 1667, where his tutor described him as a “great dunce” and he gained a reputation for “his canting fanatical way” and as a homosexual. He left the same year, owing fees and without a degree, but this didn’t hold him back as he persuaded the Bishop of London that he had a degree and was licensed to preach. In 1670 he was ordained in the Church of England and became vicar of Bobbing in Kent but again was dismissed after one year. He then moved to Hastings to join his father as Curate of All Saints. At this time, he is said to have lived at Torfield House, in Old London Road, Hastings. 

Dismissed, yet again

Titus accused a local schoolmaster of sodomy with one of his pupils, hoping to obtain his post, but it was later discovered he had lied. He was summoned for perjury but escaped to London. He must have had a persuasive and charismatic personality because he was able to talk his way into becoming chaplain aboard the ship HMS Adventure, where, in 1676, he was accused of buggery. This crime, worthy of capital punishment, was overlooked because of his clerical status, but he was soon expelled from the Navy, returning to Hastings to face the original charge of perjury. He escaped to London again, and this time was given the post of Anglican chaplain to the Protestant household of Catholic Henry Howard, Duke of Norfolk. He soon found himself dismissed yet again.

Judge Jeffreys, well-known for his cruelly savage sentences, said that he would have hanged him if the law had allowed, and he passed a sentence so brutal that Oates was expected to die

In 1677 he converted to Roman Catholicism, joining the Jesuits at St. Omar in France; then on to the Royal English College of Valledolid, Spain, where he claimed to have become a Doctor of Divinity in spite of his lack of knowledge of Latin. His blasphemous speech and attacks on the monarchy did not go down well and they soon got rid of him. He may have felt that this was once too often and so decided to try another tack.

A hero, a liar, a broken man

Returning to London he claimed that he had become a Catholic convert in order to infiltrate their secret meetings, and while attending them he had discovered that the Catholics, together with the Queen and the King’s Physician, were plotting to murder King Charles II, together with many Protestant nobles. Titus even blamed the Catholics for starting the Great Fire of London in 1666. The King had doubts (he had been brought up as a Catholic by his French mother, but now ruled a Protestant kingdom) however, Titus was believed. In the ensuing uproar and panic many innocent Catholic suspects were hanged. Titus was considered a hero and was given a mansion and generous pension.

When the King’s Catholic brother, the Duke of York, came to the throne in 1685 as James II, Titus was re-tried for perjury and he finally admitted that he had invented the whole thing. Although he was found guilty, as a cleric he could not be put to death. Judge Jeffreys, well-known for his cruelly savage sentences, said that he would have hanged him if the law had allowed, and he passed a sentence so brutal that Oates was expected to die. He was pilloried, as the public pelted him with rotten eggs and worse, and then “tied to a cart and flogged from Aldgate to Newgate” and back, and this punishment was to be repeated every year for the rest of his life. Three years later, when Protestant William of Orange succeeded to the throne, Oates was released from prison and given a pension, but he was a broken man. In 1705 he died at the age of 55, almost forgotten.

Beyond the grave

Reputations linger beyond the grave. Writing in 1740, Roger North quoted current opinion: “he was a most consummate cheat, a blasphemer, vicious, perjured, impudent and saucy, foul-mouthed wretch”. Those were the days when physical ugliness was equated with moral ugliness: “Cave quos ipse Deus notavit” meaning “Watch out for those who God has marked out.” But was he really so ugly? His several portraits deny this. Where was his mother, Lucy? When he was a child, did she try to defend him against his nasty bullying father? Were his parents to blame for his disastrous life or could it have been “Divine judgement” as many thought? Whatever drove this sad and lonely man to a life of manipulating others and total immorality, we may never know.

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