Archive for July 1st, 2018

1681: Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, the last Catholic martyr in Great Britain

Add comment July 1st, 2018 Headsman

Archbishop Oliver Plunkett earned the last Catholic martyr’s crown in Britain on this date in 1681.*

Product of County Meath blood and Italian seminary, Plunkett had been back floating around Ireland as its chief prelate since 1670. In this decade, the English-imposed laws burdening Catholics had been relaxed; Plunkett was able to minister his flock, openly at first and after 1673 as a fugitive whom Irish authorities did not much wish to pursue.

Plunkett’s safety speedily expired with the emergence in England of the Popish Plot, a security panic catalyzed like its modern-day analogues by equal parts bad faith and malice.

The concoctions of an opportunistic fabulist caused the English populace to become convinced in 1678 that a vast and treasonable Catholic conspiracy menaced the land; in its day, it was a delusion held so widely and deeply as to cow into silence and compliance all skeptics, even King Charles himself. Charles’s Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, the Earl of Essex, cynically leaned into the hysteria by whipping fears of a Plunkett-hatched invasion of Ireland by the French, although he well knew that Plunkett was “of a … peaceable temper & … comforable to ye Government.”

Plunkett spent months in hiding, refusing to flee Ireland, until he was finally arrested in December 1679. After proceedings in Ireland collapsed, the prelate was moved to London for a more manageable show trial, the entire transcript of which can be perused here.

In it, the Lord Chief Justice Sir Francis Pemberton chastises Plunkett for soliciting time to collect his witnesses, and concludes with a denunciation of the enemy religion that would not look far out fo place in many a present-day comments section.

truly yours is Treason of the highest Nature, ’tis a Treason in truth against God and your King, and the Country where you lived. 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. A Religion that is ten Times worse than all the Heathenish Superstitions; the most dishonourable and derogatory to God and his Glory, of all Religions or pretended Religions whatsoever, for it undertakes to dispense with God’s Laws, and to pardon the Breach of them. So that certainly a greater Crime there cannot be committed against God, than for a Man to endeavour the Propagation of that Religion; but you to effect this, have designed the Death of our lawful Prince and King: And then your design of Blood in the Kingdom where you lived, to set all together by the Ears, to destroy poor innocent People, to prostitute their Lives and Liberties, and all that is dear to them, to the Tyranny of Rome and France.

Now tormented that his opportunistic fear-mongering was actually going to lay the archbishop in his grave, Essex implored the Catholic-sympathetic King Charles to spare Plunkett. “Then, my lord, be his blood on your own conscience,” snapped Charles, politically constrained from a beneficence he would have dearly loved to grant. “You could have saved him but would not, I would save him and dare not.”

On the first of July, he was drawn to Tyburn (a stained glass depiction of it can be found in this post), where he was hanged and quartered. (The strange Anglo-Irish plotter Edward Fitzharris preceded Plunkett on the scaffold, as an undercard attraction.) “He won more credit and repute, as well for himself as for his country, by one hour of suffering, than he could have acquired perhaps by hundreds of years of life,” one observer wrote.

This might very well be so. Aside from being the last Catholic martyr in the Isles, Plunkett is among the most warmly remembered, as evidenced by his recent remit as the patron saint of peace and reconciliation in post-Troubles Ireland — not to mention the loving preservation of his relics at St. Peter’s cathedral in Drogheda.

Readers might enjoy this 68-minute lecture on Plunkett’s life and times.


St. Oliver Plunkett’s head preserved in a shrine at Drogheda, Ireland. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

* July 1 by the Julian calendar still then employed in England; by the Gregorian calendar adopted in most Catholic countries at this point, the date was July 11 — and some Catholic primary sources use the latter date.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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