Blessed Thomas Whitbread

Blessed Thomas Whitbread

Thomas Whitbread


  • Death: 06/30/1679
  • Nationality (place of birth): England

Five Jesuits, including Thomas Whitbread (1618-1679), the provincial superior, were falsely accused of plotting to assassinate King Charles III and overthrow the government. They were themselves the victims of a plot hatched by the infamous Titus Oates, a man whom the provincial had refused to accept into the Society. No plot against the king was ever planned, but the plot against the Jesuits was all too successful.

Whitbread was a native of Essex but he attended the Jesuit college at Saint-Omer in Flanders. He entered the Jesuits in 1635 and was ordained in 1645. Two years later he returned to England and enjoyed a fruitful apostolate of more than 30 years. In 1678, during the first year of his term as provincial superior of the Jesuits in England, Father Thomas Whitbread visited the communities on the continent that trained Catholics from England. At Saint-Omer he encountered Titus Oates, a student at that school who asked the provincial to be admitted into the Society of Jesus. Oates had been an Anglican minister but had been dismissed because of poor behavior. Then he converted to Catholicism and studied at the English College in Valladolid, Spain, but was thrown out of that school. Whitbread did not trust Oates' character or motivation, declined to accept such a candidate, and ordered him to be expelled from Saint-Omer because of unsatisfactory behavior there.

Oates returned to London where he joined forces with Israel Tonge, who harbored suspicions of the Jesuits' plotting against the king. Tonge and Oates invented the story of a plot by the Jesuits to assassinate the king, overthrow the government and re-establish the Catholic religion. They were able to present this accusation to the king in mid-August, 1678, but he did not find it credible. So Oates fabricated more details and presented the revised accusation to the king's privy council on September 27, setting into motion a deadly chain of events.

The first step was the arrest on September 28 of two Jesuits-John Fenwick and William Ireland; Oates led an armed force of parliamentary soldiers to seize the two men in the middle of the night. Then before dawn the next morning, Oates and his men arrested Whitbread and Edward Mico. These two Jesuits had contracted the plague on their recent trip to Antwerp and were too ill to move; they were also under the protection of the Spanish ambassador in whose residence they lived. By December Whitbread's health had improved enough that he could be moved to Newgate Prison where Fenwick and Ireland were; Father Mico had by this time died of maltreatment.

Meanwhile, the wild accusations Oates made fanned a flame of fear that made people hysterical with tales of Irish and French Catholic conspirators crouching in cellars ready to jump out and slip the throats of good Protestant subjects of the king. The general outcry was enormous; before it ran its course, some 35 innocent people had been executed; hundreds more perished in prison, some of them victims of the plague. The three Jesuits were brought to trial on Dec. 17, 1678, at Old Bailey. Oates testified that he had seen the three priests at a tavern planning to kill the king, overthrow the government and re-establish the Catholic religion. The three men had indeed met from April 24-26, at the palace of St. James, where the Jesuit Claude La Colombière was chaplain to the Duchess of York. Their topic was picking a Jesuit to travel to Rome and present the regular triennial report on the province to the superior general.

Oates had probably heard of the meeting when he was at Saint-Omer, but he was certainly not present at St. James palace. When the only other witness, failed to corroborate completely Oates' testimony, there was insufficient evidence to find the Jesuits guilty. The court then took the extraordinary step of suspending their trial to a later date, despite the fact that witnesses had already been heard. The Jesuits went back to prison.

In 1679 three more Jesuits were arrested on the basis of more false evidence provided by Stephen Dugdale, a convicted embezzler. Fathers William Harcourt, John Gavan and Anthony Turner were included in the original charge of plotting against the king. Oates again claimed that he had witnessed the meeting at the White Horse Tavern. Father John Gavan served as the spokesmen for the Jesuits, and answered the deceitful claims of the prosecution. The defense produced 16 witnesses from Saint-Omer testifying that Oates had been at the college on that day and not even in England. Despite the clear weight of the evidence on the side of the defense, the court instructed the jury to believe the prosecution witnesses rather than those of the defense. The jury returned a verdict of guilty, condemning the five Jesuits to die for treason.

The execution took place on Friday, June 20 at Tyburn. Father Whitbread affirmed their innocence and forgave the men whose false testimony led them to their deaths. He was followed by the other Jesuits who made their final statements, then they all stood quietly in prayer on the gallows, nooses around their necks, waiting for the cart to pull away from them. Suddenly a rider burst onto the scene crying, ""A pardon, a pardon."" He gave the sheriff a document announcing the king would pardon them provided they admit their guilt and tell all they knew about it. The martyrs thanked the king for his merciful intentions, but firmly noted that they could not acknowledge any guilt for a plot that never existed. They would not accept pardon if it meant they had to lie. They paused for private prayer again, and then the cart pulled away. The bodies were pulled down and quartered, but friends were able to claim them and give them burial in the churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-fields.

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Originally Collected and edited by: Tom Rochford, SJ