Thursday 30 June 2022

Venerating the Head of Saint Oliver Plunkett in 1874

Yesterday we looked at the translation on June 29, 1921 of the relic of the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett from the Dominican convent where it had been preserved since the early eighteenth century, to a new shrine in Saint Peter's Church. Today we can look at an earlier account from Dominican priest Father Austin Rooke, who in a letter at the end of 1874 detailed his visit to the reliquary at the Siena convent in Drogheda. He begins with a good summary of Saint Oliver's life and death, but in the third paragraph from the end gives an interesting description of both the reliquary and the head it enshrined:


S. Mary's Priory, Cork.

MY DEAR FATHER, -Having had the opportunity recently of visiting our good Sisters of the Second Order in their Convent of S. Catherine of Siena at Drogheda, I had the great privilege of seeing there and venerating the sacred head of the Most Rev. Oliver Plunket, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, who suffered death for the faith at Tyburn, on July 1st, 1681.

I need not tell you that they guard this holy treasure with great reverence; and by their kind permission many persons are enabled to satisfy their private devotion by kneeling before that precious relic. As the preliminary inquiry has recently taken place in London, with a view of obtaining the canonization of this holy servant of God, which happy issue all are so ardently desiring, it will, I am sure, give satisfaction to the readers of the Rosary Magazine, and more especially to those who live in Ireland, to hear something about the life and death of this saintly Archbishop, and to have a description of his sacred relics.

Oliver Plunket was born at Loughcrew, in the county of Meath, in 1629; and having been educated up to the sixteen by his kinsman, Dr. Patrick Plunket, who successively ruled the dioceses of Ardagh and Meath, he formed one of a small band of youths who accompanied the Rev. father Scarampo, the oratorian, back to Rome after having fulfilled his mission in Ireland, whither he had been sent by Pope Innocent X. There he pursued and completed his studies; and afterwards he became the agent of the Irish Clergy at the Roman Court. Having been appointed to the See of Armagh, he was consecrated Archbishop at Ghent on the 30th, of November 1669, and he arrived in Ireland about the middle of the following March. He at once commenced his pastoral labours, which were rendered much more arduous on account of the evil days in which his lot was cast, and he devoted himself to provide for the necessities, not only of his own diocese and province, but for the spiritual welfare of Ireland generally. During the eleven years of his episcopate, his zeal was conspicuous in reforming abuses, in establishing seminaries and schools, and in administering the Sacraments; and in illustration of the unselfishness of his devotion to the flock committed to his care, tradition still points out the spot that witnessed the following scene. As he was being conducted across the country by a guard of soldiers on his way to prison, he met on the road a company of light-hearted young men and girls, in holiday attire, on their way to a pattern, or village feast; and obtaining leave from his guard to stop and speak to them, he exhorted them so earnestly that they resolved to abandon their intended dangerous pleasure, and at once returned to their homes.

Having been brought to London in the depth of a most rigid winter, and having suffered much on the journey, being of a very delicate constitution, he was cast into Newgate prison, where for six months he had to share the treatment endured by those who were accused of the worst crimes. And yet we read that, in addition to the sufferings of his prison, he added many voluntary penances, and especially a rigorous fast on bread and water three times each week.

At his trial he was refused a few days' respite to enable him to bring over witnesses and documents from Ireland, which would have proved that the accusations brought against him were false; and the same impious judge - Lord Chief Justice Pemberton - after passing the sentence of death upon his victim, refused his request to be allowed to have the spiritual aid of a Catholic priest. "You will have,” he replied, “a minister of the Church of England ;” but the Archbishop answered, “I am obliged for your good intentions, but such a favour would be wholly useless to me.”

A Protestant chronicle of that time says that the Earl of Essex, being convinced of his innocence, applied to Charles II. for a pardon, as he had clearly been condemned upon false evidence; but when the king in a great passion refused to grant it, he concluded by saying to the King, "His blood be upon your head, and not upon mine."

The sentence of death did not affright him; on the contrary, he marvelled that he felt no fear of death; and in a letter he wrote from his prison cell to a relative, he says: “But how am I, a poor creature, so stout, seeing that my Redeemer began to fear, to be weary and sad, and that drops of His blood ran down to the ground? I have considered that Christ, by His fears and passions, merited for me to be without fear."

Nay, so resigned was be to die the death of a Christian martyr, that not only did he exclaim, “Deo gratias," as soon as the judge delivered the sentence, but, on the testimony of a Protestant historian, the keeper of Newgate said that, when he told his prisoner that he was to prepare for his execution, he received the message with all quietness of mind, and went to the sledge as unconcerned as if he had been going to a wedding." And a Catholic eyewitness of his death records, that “on the scaffold, by the singular composure of soul and actions, he seemed like an angel descended from paradise, who was joyously arrived at the moment of once more returning thither.” He was the last of those glorious Confessors of the Faith who, bound down to a hurdle, were thus dragged to Tyburn to undergo their iniquitous sentence of being "hung, drawn, and quartered".

That he might have escaped death, even after his condemnation, he himself asserts in the document he drew up just before his execution, a copy of which is still in the archives of the Propaganda at Rome. Therein he says: “I assure you that a great peer sent me notice that he would save my life, if I would accuse others. This treacherous offer he disdained—indeed, there was no one to be accused. Father Corker, a Benedictine priest, who had been the faithful friend of the holy primate, and his fellow-prisoner for the faith in Newgate, has written a beautiful narrative of the "glorious Archbishop and Martyr,” as he calls him, from which I cannot refrain from quoting the following passages:

“The trial being ended, and he condemned, his man had leave to wait on him alone in his chamber, by whose means we had free intercourse by letters to each other. And now it was I clearly perceived the spirit of God in him, and those lovely fruits of the Holy Ghost, charity, joy, peace, &c., transparent in his soul. None saw or came near him, but received new comfort, now fervour, new desires to please, serve, and suffer for Christ Jesus by his very presence. After he certainly knew that God Almighty bad chosen him to the crown and dignity of martyrdom, he continually studied how to divest himself of himself, and become more and more an entire and perfect holocaust, to which end, as he gave up his soul with all its faculties, to the conduct of God, so for God's sake he resigned the care and disposal of his body to unworthy me. But I neither can nor dare undertake to describe unto you the signal virtues of this blessed martyr. There appeared in him something beyond expression-something more than human; the most savage and hard-hearted people were mollified, and attendered at his sight. Many Protestants, in my hearing, wished their souls in the same state with his. All believed him innocent, and he made Catholics, even the most timorous, in love with death.

When he was carried out of the press-yard to execution, he turned him about to our chamber window, and, with a pleasant aspect and elevated hands, gave us his benediction."

On the scaffold, with an heroic courage, he addressed the crowd of spectators for nearly an hour, disproving the false charges of conspiracy which the three apostate priests and some wicked laymen had sworn against him, confessing the faith, and pardoning his murderers, and then kneeling down prayed fervently, and recommended himself to God through the merits of Christ, and the intercession of the Blessed Virgin and all the Angels and Saints; and as he was repeating the words, "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit," the cart was drawn away, and he hung suspended between heaven and earth, "a spectacle to angels and to men.” Before he was dead, he was cut down, and the inhuman process of dismemberment took place, the bowels being taken out and thrown into a fire which was kindled for that purpose, and the head severed from the body, and the body cut up into four parts. A medical man who was allowed to examine the head not long since, says that it must have been cut off before he was actually dead, for the skin at the back of the neck has shrunk away from the cut, which would not have been the case had life been extinct.

After the butchery was over, permission was obtained to collect the scattered remains, and they were with due solemnity buried in the churchyard of S. Giles-in-the-fields, “under the north wall,” Dodd says in his Church History; and near to the Jesuit Fathers who had suffered in 1679, and for whom the saintly prelate had a great veneration. To the coffin was attached a copper-plate, which I saw at the Convent, and which hears a Latin inscription, of which the following is a translation: “In this tomb rests the body of the most Rev. Lord Oliver Plunket, formerly Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of all Ireland; who, out of hatred of the Faith, having been accused of high treason by false witnesses and on that account condemned to death, underwent martyrdom with all constancy, being hung at Tyburn and his bowels being taken out and cast into a fire. During the reign of Charles II., King of Great Britain, &c., July 1st, 1681."

The English Catholics defrayed the expenses of his funeral, as they had done for his keep during the seven months of his imprisonment in London, and for the bringing over witnesses in his behalf from Ireland. In a letter the Archbishop wrote to his relative, Michael Plunket, after sentence had been passed on him, he says: “The English Catholics were here most charitable to me; they spared neither money nor gold to relieve me, and in my trial did all for me that even my brother would do. They are rare Catholics and most constant sufferers.”

At the time of the interment of the holy body, a surgeon, named John Ridley, cut off the arms at the elbows and placed them in a tin box, and he placed the head in another tin box, as the original written parchment, which is also in the possession of the Nuns at Drogheda, declares. The following is a copy of it:

“The under-written John Ridley, Chirogeon, and Elizabeth Sheldon, doe hereby testifye and declare; That in this Chist are included two tione boxes, whereof the one being round containeth the Head, and the other being long containeth the two Hands armes from the Finger's end to the Elbow, of the Blessed Martyr Oliver Plunkett, Arch-Bishop of Armach, who was hanged, drawne, and quartered at Tyburne on the first Day of July, An: Doi: 1681, for the holy Catholick Religion; under pretence of a Plott wrongfully imposed upon him and others of the same Religion. The said Head was cutt off from the Body at the tyme and Place of execution: and on the same Day the two hands armes aforesaid were disjointed and separated from the rest of the said Body by mee Jobn Ridley in the presence of Elizabeth Sheldon imediatly before the quarters of the said Blessed Body were putt into the Coffin, in order to their Interment which Head, Hands and Armes were reserved by us out of the Coffin and placed in the said two boxes of tinne included in this as above specyfyed.

“In Witnesse whereof wee have hereunto sett our hands seales this 29th day of May, An: Dni: 1682.
“ John RIDLEY.

 On the back of the Parchment is written:

"Signed and sealed in the presence of

Dr. Challoner tells us that in 1684, when the body was disinterred, it was found entire; and Hugh McMahon, Archbishop of Armagh, in a work of his entitled “Jus Primatiale," attests that many miracles were performed by these sacred remains.

Father Corker, after his own release from prison, had the holy relics transferred to a monastery of English Benedictines at Lambspring, in the Duke of Brunswick's territories in Germany, where they were received with great pomp and reverence, and a handsome monument to his memory was afterwards erected in the Church there, bearing a Latin inscription, of which the following is a translation: -“The remains of Oliver Plunkett, of holy memory, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland, who being hanged through hatred of the Catholic Faith, and his bowels being taken out and cast into the fire, a glorious martyr, laid down his life in London, the 11th of July, 1681.” The date is according to the old style, which accords with July 1st of present style. The right band he caused to be placed in a rich case, which is still preserved there. The head he placed in a silver reliquary, and petitioned the Holy See to allow a lamp to be always kept burning before it. Subsequently Father Corker gave the head to Cardinal Howard (a member of the Norfolk family), who was residing in Rome; and after the Cardinal's death, it was preserved in a convent of the Dominican Order in that city.

Dr. Hugh McMahon, when a student at the Irish College in Rome, had many opportunities of venerating the sacred head of that prelate, whose virtues, we are told, he had striven to imitate from a child; and later on, after he had been translated to the primatial See from that of Clogher in 1714, he obtained possession of this precious relic; and in 1722 he deposited it in the Dominican Convent at Drogheda, which he had founded there in the previous year by permission of the General of the Order. And most appropriately was that Convent chosen for its resting place: not only because when alive he had been much attached to the friars of that Order, but more especially because the first prioress, who was then presiding over that community, was the venerable mother, Catherine Plunket, the grand niece of the holy martyr.

At present it is enshrined in an ebony reliquary, with silver ornaments. The sisters have a tradition that this shrine passed through the Custom House as a clock-case, and the silver ornaments were placed on it in Ireland. There are two doors, one in front, and one behind, and inside of each there is a glass plate, through which the head is seen. On a silver plate affixed to the front door are the primate's armorial bearings, surmounted by a silver mitre. The head, which still retains some white hairs, is quite perfect with flesh and skin, and is of a brown colour. The nose has evidently been injured by fire, and the tradition is that when the head was cut off and cast aside, it came in contact with the fire in which his entrails were burnt. There is nothing repulsive about it; the eyelids are closed, and there is a calm repose upon the features, proving how placid must have been his death, notwithstanding its terrible violence.

Such is the history of the holy relic I have described. And to-day Ireland awaits with anxious expectancy the fulfilment of her long-cherished hopes--that this glorious prelate, the first and foremost of those heroic souls that she has so lavishly sent to join "the noble army of martyrs” in heaven, may be inscribed in the Calendar of the Church, by the authority of God's Vicar upon earth. And at this very moment England, through her Catholic hierarchy is petitioning for this boon in the same breath that she asks for a like favour for some of her own heroic martyred children; thereby trying to atone for the crime that has stained her annals in the unjust condemnation and barbarous execution of the noble-souled and gentle-hearted prelate, the worthy son and saintly successor of S. Patrick in his own See of Armagh.

When that solemn act shall have taken place, and the devotion of the Irish nation shall have raised a special sanctuary to his memory, attached to the Conventual Church of the Siena Convent at Drogheda, we may hope that a great pilgrimage will be organised in England to cross the channel and assist at the solemn translation of this Sacred Relic. And a touching sight will it be, and consoling to the faithful Catholics of Ireland, to see that English pilgrim band, with Cross and banner and holy chant, winding its way up that steep street in Drogheda, down which ran streams of the blood of its massacred citizens after the fatal battle of the Boyne, on its way to venerate that head which uttered such loving words of forgiveness for his murderers from the scaffold at Tyburn; and in return, humbly to ask his forgiveness on behalf of their nation, which so unjustly deprived him of his life; and at an earlier period so ruthlessly slew the innocent inhabitants of that town, who had taken refuge in their parish church. May you and I live to see, and, if it please God, to share in it!

Your affectionate Brother, December 1st, 1874.

F. AUSTIN M. Rooke, O.P.

The Monthly Magazine of the Holy Rosary, Volume 3, (February 1875), 185-193.

Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2022. All rights reserved

Wednesday 29 June 2022

The Oliver Plunket Relic


On June 29, 1921, the head of Saint Oliver Plunkett was translated from the Dominican Convent at Drogheda to its new home in Saint Peter's Church in the town. The report below from the Irish Rosary magazine gives a brief history of this famous relic and witnesses to the miracles attributed to other relics of Saint Oliver in England and France. The final paragraph reflects what is a very modern understanding of Saint Oliver as a peacemaker who testifies to 'the futility of un-Christian violence'. The head of Saint Oliver rested in this shrine until a new one was dedicated by Cardinal Daly on May 7, 1995. Professional examination of the relic in 1990 had shown that it was beginning to be negatively affected by high levels of humidity.  The head now sits within the 1921 brass and glass reliquary in a new inner capsule which allows better environmental control. Both are encased in a pedestal shrine made of steel and stone from which a gothic-style spire ascends to the ceiling of the Saint Oliver Plunkett chapel:  



THE greatest Catholic event of the year in Ireland was the translation of the relic of Blessed Oliver Plunket from the Dominican Convent at Drogheda to the Plunket Church. The relic itself is one of the most remarkable in existence. Torturers and executioners did what was in their power to destroy the intellectual organiser of the Catholic revival that began in Ireland at a moment when the nation's Faith seemed on the point of being overthrown. Today the torturers and executioners are scattered in dust, but the head of the martyr beholds the triumph of the cause which his wisdom rescued.

After the martyrdom, Oliver Plunket' s body was cut down and disembowelled. The heart and other organs - such is the ferocity of persecutors in every age - were cast into the fire. The head was cut off. The arms were broken. The trunk was cut in quarters which four horses dragged asunder.

The history of the head is complete and incontestable. It was obtained by John Ridley, a surgeon, and a lady named Elizabeth Sheldon. When less violent years arrived Father Corker, who was imprisoned for the Faith, was granted freedom. And to him the head was given by those who had so reverently kept it. He had it enshrined in an ebony case with silver mountings, and took it with him to Rome.

In the year 1714 the head was brought to Ireland. Dr. Hugh McMahon, the martyr's second successor in the Primacy, carried it hither from Rome and commended it to the care of the nuns at the Sienna Convent, Drogheda, of which Mother Catherine Plunket, grandniece of Oliver, was then in charge. There it remained, covered by the simple ebony in which Father Corker first enclosed it. On the 29th of June last it was borne with ceremonial pomp to the Church which bears the great Archbishop's name and enshrined in a reliquary of noble workmanship, studded with precious stones.


Well-attested miracles were wrought by the remains of Blessed Oliver. Authentic portions of his remains were objects of veneration at different places. An arm bone was preserved at the Franciscan Convent at Taunton, where sickly children were made strong by its touch. Cases of goitre were also cured miraculously. In Paris the martyr's left arm attracted Catholic devotion, and fifteen years after his death it was observed that "the flesh, skin, hand, fingers, and nails were all as perfect and fresh as though still living."

Archbishop McMahon, writing in 1728, bore witness to other supernatural evidences. "The memory is quite fresh" he said "of those things which the most illustrious Oliver performed after his glorious martyrdom, resplendent with such wonders and miracles that his head and members, having been carried into different lands, remain whole and incorrupt, and breathe forth a fragrant odour."


Oliver Plunket, coming to Ireland to be its Primate, beheld a stricken country. The Irish Hierarchy was all but extinct. Anti-Catholic persecution was in the high tide of its rigour. He himself passed through the country under assumed names ordaining priests, confirming thousands of laity, organising schools, and consecrating chapels. The Government had its vast machinery of oppression. This man steadily, patiently founded a network of Catholic activity secret but virile that was to wear that machinery out. The persecutors caught him in the end. They dragged him to Tyburn and they killed him there. But he had lighted a torch which can never be extinguished.

Very opportunely the mind of Ireland is being directed towards the patriot martyr at this juncture. His Beatification and the honours paid to his holy head are symbols that prove the futility of un-Christian violence. Reflecting on them, the Irish people realise that oppression cannot thrive. They see in his spiritual victory an earnest that injustice shall not prevail against them. And they will hasten the coming peace by the invocation of his potent aid.

The Irish Rosary, Vol XXV. No 8. (August, 1921), 561-562.

Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2022. All rights reserved

Tuesday 28 June 2022

The Body of Oliver Plunket

Yesterday we looked at The Trial of Oliver Plunket by Sir Shane Leslie, the first of two papers published in the Dublin Review in the summer of 1920. Today we can turn to the second paper, The Body of Oliver Plunket,  by English Benedictine Ethelbert Horne, O.S.B. (1858-1952). Dom Ethelbert, like Sir Shane, was also a convert to Catholicism and prolific author. His paper below explains how the English Benedictines came to be in possession of the earthly remains of the Irish martyr, their sojourn at the German foundation of Lambspring and the process by which the head of Saint Oliver came to be in Drogheda. There is reference to other, now lost, relics and testimony to the care taken with the documentation of those which survive. I found myself particularly interested in the role played by English laywoman, Mrs Elizabeth Sheldon, and would like to know more of this lady who appears to have been of a practical nature and undaunted by the bloodier aspects of her task:

II—THE BODY OF OLIVER PLUNKET In a letter of about June 20th, 1681, Blessed Oliver Plunket writes to Dom Maurus Corker: 
“I see your great charity that you are desireous to be carefull of my unworthy carcas after my death wch being opus misericordiae in high degree I ought not to deprive you of it it’s reward being most precious Vidz everlasting glory.” 

On the morning of the martyrdom, just before he was led out to die, he wrote, in his usual firm, bold hand: “My body and clothes etc. is at Mr. Korkers will and pleasure to be disposed of the first July 8i      Oliver Plunkett.”

The quartered body of the martyr was given to his friends for burial and it was spared the further ignominy of being nailed up at four of the city gates. The same favour had been extended to the five Jesuit fathers who had suffered for the pretended plot, two years previously, and it was at Blessed Oliver’s own request that he was buried beside them in the old churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-Fields. We can gather some details of this burial from the following document which is kept in the reliquary containing the head of the martyr:

“The under written John Ridley Chirurgeon and Elisabeth Sheldon, doe heareby testifye and declare; That in this chest are included two tinne Boxes wherof the one being Round containeth the Head, And the other being long containeth the two Hands armes * from the Fingers End to the Elbow of the Blessed Martyr Oliver Plunkett Arch-Bishop of Armach who was hanged drawne and Quartered at Tyburne on the first Day of July An. Dni 1681 for the holy Catholick Religion under pretence of a Plott wrongfully imposed upon him and others of the same Religion. The said Head was cutt off from the Body at the tyme and Place of execution: And on the same Day the two hands armes aforesaid were disjointed and seperated from the rest of the said Body by mee John Ridley in the presence of Elizabeth Sheldon imediately before the Quarters of the said Blessed Body were putt into the Coffin in order to their Intermerment which Head, Hands, and armes were reserved by us out of the Coffin and Placed in the said two Boxes of Tinne included in this, as is above specifyed in wittness whereof wee have heareunto sett our hands and seales this 29 Day of May Ann: D™ 1682 John Ridley Elizabeth Sheldon.

[Endorsed on the back] Signed and sealed in the presence of 

Edward Sheldon. Ralphe Sheldon. 

[* Hands armes. The hand arm is the forearm. The expression is still used in Somerset.]

Although this document is not dated until eleven months after the event it records, the care with which it is drawn up is evident. It is engrossed on parchment and  folded along its lower edge to receive the inserted slips bearing the seals referred to, and it appears to be the work of a professional lawyer. ‘There is no hesitation, at this early date, about anticipating the judgment of the Church, and speaking plainly of “the Blessed Martyr Oliver Plunkett.” We can gather that Mrs. Elizabeth Sheldon, who had done so much for the Archbishop all through his imprisonment, saw his quartered body into its coffin, and was probably present at its interment. It was she who employed the surgeon Ridley to preserve the martyr’s head and arms out of the coffin, perhaps thinking that there would never be any chance of securing the rest of the body. In a postscript to a letter written the day before the martyrdom to Father Corker, the Archbishop writes, “Mr. Marshall [Dom Cuthbert Marshall or Wall] sent me a shift wh[ich] now, and alsoe tomorrow I weare. I pray you to restore it to him for the gentlewoman who gave it did desire it should accompany me to the place of execution.” This, too, was another of Mrs. Sheldon’s preparations for that final scene.

The exact length of time that Blessed Oliver’s body lay in its first grave is difficult to determine. An account is thus given by Weldon in his Collections, a manuscript work, of which there is a copy at Downside: “.. . This martyr’s body, by the means of ours was taken up out of the grave, in the heat of the day, about two years after its burial, . . . Fr. Bernard Lowick, . . . chief actor in so dangerous an adventure, after which Fr. Corker found means to get it conveyed to Lambspring. . . .” On the other hand Challoner says: “Four years after, his body was taken up and found entire,” and Wood (Athen. Oxon.) has it that the body remained here, until the Crop-eared Plot broke out. This was in 1683, which would make the two years mentioned above, and hence Challoner is probably wrong. Fr. Maurus Corker, having taken the body to his monastery at Lambspring, in Hildesheim, built over it in the crypt, a tomb where it rested for the next 190 years. In 1684 he petitioned the Holy See for permission to keep a lamp perpetually burning before the shrine, but he does not seem to have succeeded in his endeavour, but the relics of the martyr were ever held in the greatest veneration by the community and the people of the place.

In 1883, the then Prior of Downside, now Cardinal Gasquet, accompanied by the late Dom Gilbert Dolan, went to Lambspring with a view of once more resuming possession of the martyr’s body. ‘The monks had been expelled from Lambspring Abbey by the Prussian Government in 1803, and so for eighty years the guardianship of the body by Benedictines had ceased, and hence they were anxious to take it up again. On January 10th, 1883, the permission of the Bishop of Hildesheim and of the Prussian Government having first been obtained, the grave in the crypt was opened in the presence of the two Benedictines and the parish priest, the Rev. Ferdinand Stammel. The tomb was on the south side of the crypt, in a recess formed in the thickness of the wall by the arch of a window, which had been filled in. In this opening, on the old window-ledge, had been placed a coffer made of one piece of red sandstone, and covered with a slab of the same, merely lying on it and not cemented down. The whole window recess had been walled in, and a huge stone, with the inscription and date, occupied the greater part of the opening. When the stone coffer was taken out, it was reverently carried to the sacristy and the lid removed. The four quarters of the martyr, each wrapped separately in linen clothes, were then exposed, and some relics being removed for keeping in the church, as directed by the Bishop of Hildesheim, the coffer was closed down again, and sealed by the parish priest.

It was then packed in a wooden case and forwarded to London. Through the kind influence of the late Sir Stuart Knill the box was passed through the Custom House unopened, and it reached Downside on January 31st, with the seals unbroken. A small relic* was given to Sir Stuart Knill, a part of which was exposed with lights in St. Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham, at the hour of the Martyr’s Beatification. On the feast of St. Gregory the Great, March 12th, 1883, the late Bishop Clifford opened the box in the presence of the community. At his direction a medical examination of the relics was made by Dr. Francis Lee, and a list was drawn up of all that the coffer contained. The relics were then placed in a specially made chest, which was afterwards enclosed in another and soldered down. ‘This chest was sealed by the bishop, and full acta were drawn up of all that had taken place during the translation, which he signed.

[* “I hereby certify that on the 12th of March, 1883, a small portion of the remains of Archbishop Oliver Plunkett, consisting of a piece of one of the left ribs slightly marked with blood, was enclosed in a glass bottle and sealed with my episcopal seal. William Clifford Bishop of Clifton.”]

At the end of the north aisle of the Abbey church, a plain stone tomb was prepared, and within it for the next thirty-five years the body of Blessed Oliver Plunket rested. On March 11th, 1919, this tomb was opened, and the body taken out. The Bishop of Clifton examined the seals placed by his predecessor and found them intact. He then resealed the case, which was at once enclosed in lead and soldered down so that it may last indefinitely. On Whit-Sunday last, the day of the Beatification of the Martyr, the leaden chest having been enclosed in a massive one made of oak, the body was raised on a temporary shrine, and adorned with lights and hangings. It will remain in this position until the solemn translation to its place above, and at the back of the high altar, takes place in the autumn.

Chief of the other relics of Blessed Oliver is his head. We have seen above that it was not buried with the body, but enclosed by Mrs. Elizabeth Sheldon in a round box of tin. Dom Maurus Corker is said to have taken it to Rome in 1685, and to have presented it to Cardinal Howard. On the Cardinal’s death in 1694 it was kept in the English Dominican Convent of SS. John and Paul, and later again, in the Irish College. In 1721, it was given by Dr. Hugh McMahon, Archbishop of Armagh, into the care of Mother Catherine Plunkett, the first Prioress of the Dominican nuns at Drogheda, and it is still in the possession of this venerable community. The following is an extract from a letter, dated July 27th, 1874: “Probably you have learned from persons who have seen the relic, what appearance it presents. The flesh and skin are still upon the face,—the skin a dark brown colour. Part of the left cheek and a little of the upper lip are burnt quite black. . . . There is a little hair on the back of the head, and there is the mark of a deep cut across the top as if an attempt had been made to split the skull.”

The other relics of the martyr were the two forearms, which, as we have seen, were not buried with the body. In Weldon’s Collections, a MS. before referred to, occurs the following: “The English Benedictine nuns in Lark Fields [Champ de l’Alouette] at Paris have one of his arms, which I saw here on the day of his martyrdom, which then made up exactly eleven years since it had happened. It was all whole and entire, with all the flesh on, and even the nails, without the least offensive smell. . . The arm was given to the nuns by Fr. Corker.”

This relic is now lost, having disappeared during the French Revolution. There is, at present, no trace of the other forearm and hand. At the Franciscan Convent at Taunton, is kept the left humerus—the bone from the shoulder to the elbow. ‘This was given to the community in 1857 by Mrs. Monnington, of Sarnesfield, Herefordshire, and it appears to have a fairly continuous authentication.

Perhaps of few relics does so large an amount of documentary history exist, as that concerning the body of Blessed Oliver Plunket. From first to last, everyone who had to deal with the relics of the martyr seems to have been anxious to make their authenticity sure against the time of his Beatification, which has been expected from the day of his martyrdom.


'The Blessed Oliver Plunkett: II. The Body of Oliver Plunkett', The Dublin Review, Vol 167, (July, 1920), pp.19-25.

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Monday 27 June 2022

The Trial of Oliver Plunket


As we draw near to the feast of Saint Oliver Plunkett (Plunket), below is an article by Sir Shane Leslie (1885-1971) looking at the controversial trial which condemned Ireland's only canonized martyr. This paper was the first of two published in the July 1920 edition of The Dublin Review, marking Archbishop Plunkett's beatification a couple of months earlier.  The writer is an extremely interesting man in his own right, born into the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, he converted to both Catholicism and the cause of Irish nationalism in 1908. Although initially active in politics it was as a literary figure that he established his reputation. He published a number of historical studies including a volume on Saint Patrick's Purgatory at Lough Derg and was responsible for returning this historic island pilgrimage site to the jurisdiction of the Catholic Bishop of Clogher. In his paper on the trial of Oliver Plunket, Leslie lays out the sorry saga of the 'Popish Plot', the perjured testimony, and the less than stellar characters of the witnesses. It is an unedifying scene from which few, apart from Saint Oliver himself, emerge with any credit:



THE Popish Plot was not a lapse into fanaticism or hysteria on the part of the English people, but a sanely deliberate and in the end successful means of excluding the Stuarts from the throne. Ireland was only brought in as an afterthought, for it stood to reason that if there was a plot in England there must be a greater one in Ireland; to pervert a text, if these things were done in the dry, how much worse it must be in the green. As the English Catholics had been accused of the Fire of London, so one Murphy accused a Lady Neale and others of a design to burn Dublin. “Haec est potestas tenebrarum ac falsorum testium,” wrote Oliver Plunket reporting this to Rome (May 15th, 1679). This month one Hetherington escaped from prison and informed Shaftesbury of the plot in Ireland, who procured the transit of MacMoyer the Franciscan and Edmond Murphy, “titular chanter of Armagh,” who were the first to mention Plunket. The latter wrote a tract on “the first occasion of discovering the Plot carried on by Dr. Oliver Plunket.” ‘Tories and criminals in Irish prisons found they could obtain pardon and lucrative occupation by discovering the plot. As Ormonde wrote to Arran: “Those that went out of Ireland with bad English and worse clothes are returned well bred gentlemen. Brogues and leather straps are converted to fashionable shoes and glittering buckles, which next to the zeal Tories, Thieves and Friars have for the Protestant religion is a main inducement to bring in a shoal of informers. They find it more safe to be the King’s evidence than a cowstealer.” The connection between Jones, Bishop of Meath, and Shaftesbury was responsible for starting the idea of an Irish plot and procuring pardons for the informers who as often as they got out of prison were being rearrested. The first trace of damaging evidence against Plunket appears in a document in the British Museum, that a Colonel Fitzpatrick delivered to the Pope’s Internuncio at Brussels a letter signed by Plunket and three other bishops, recommending him as the only fit person to command an army for establishing the Roman religion under the French. The paper was seen by several clergy and laymen, reported the spy, apparently from Louvain, for according to the Franciscan and Dominican Superiors there FitzPatrick had carried a similar letter into France. The paper is endorsed as shown by the Duke of York (James II) to Charles II on October 20th, 1679.  (British Museum 32095 f. 196.] 

“That in or about May or June last Coll. FitzPatrick delivered to the Pope’s Internuncio at Brussels a ct or paper subscribed by four R.C. Bps two of wch were Plunket Archbp of Armagh and Tyrrel Bp of Clogher recommending the sd FitzPatrick for the only person fit to be entrusted General of an Army for establishing the R.C. Religion in Ireland under the French Sovereignty wch paper after its coming to the Internuncios hands was seen by several Clergy and laymen known to Father Daly procurator, F. O’Neill Commissary, F. MacShone Guardian of the Irish Franciscans and F. Macmahon alias Mathews Prior of the Dominicans in Lovain among whom tis also said the sd FitzPatrick carried such another instrument into France where he first arrived from Ireland and whence he went into Flanders with resolution to settle at Bruxells. But he was forced to remove from thence by his R.H. commands wch he obeyd not without much regret and murmuring.”

Eight days later Ormonde desired Plunket’s arrest, writing to Sir Hans Hamilton (October 28th, 1679): “It would be an extraordinary service to the King and of great advantage to me that Oliver Plunket might be apprehended.” Accordingly Hetherington arrested Plunket in Dublin (December 6th, 1679) while Murphy was drawing up evidence, “when one Hugh MacKenna made a proclamation throughout the City that the Informant was the cause of Plunket’s imprisonment.” MacKenna and then Murphy were arrested, the latter regretting that his “being imprisoned gave occasion to all the Primate’s friends to fill the town with all manner of scandalous evidences against the deponent.” (Ormonde Papers.)

As Murphy’s tract contains no evidence against Plunket, we must consider in view of the dates the unknown spy as the cause of his arrest. His conjunction with the Irish Friars at Louvain was not startling, for Plunket had aroused their enmity and unworthy Franciscans were to swear away his life. ‘The clan of MacKenna appear well in the tragic story. James, perhaps a brother of Hugh, was Plunket’s servant and was examined by the Lords’ Committee as a material witness in May and November, 1680, but he was faithful enough to be of no value to the prosecution.

The fate of Oliver Plunket can be accurately studied from the Ormonde Papers, of which only such as Carte printed were available to Cardinal Moran. The key to Ormonde’s policy was his knowledge that the informers were being used by his enemies to remove him from office and perhaps from life. ‘To save himself, though he would not instigate action against the bishops, he felt bound to help the informers. He could not afford to discourage the visionary plot with a prospect of far from visionary consequences to himself. He showed all the suave qualities. of Pilate. As English Governor in Ireland he knew Plunket was innocent, but he feared the Puritan mob lest they should say he was not Ceasar’s friend.

There was no evidence, for Mr. Secretary sent him word from London “ to tell your Grace that he learns of no other evidence against him than what has already been sent to your Grace.” The value of this had appeared in a letter written after his arrest (December 23rd, 1679):

“Unless his papers discover some further grounds I doubt little will be got from him. But if your Grace thinks fitting to try him with any questions it is left to your discretion and may possibly have the effect of making him believe we know more than we do.” Ormonde answered the next year (April 10th, 1680) that Plunket “has lain in the castle for no other reason known to him or to any other but myself here than his presuming to stay here in contempt of the proclamation. I have foreborne to have him examined ... and then we shall want anything wherewith to convince him or draw any acknowledgement from him that may lead towards a discovery of the truth.” The truth to Ormonde was false evidence of an imaginary plot. Yet he was troubled, for the English Government were urging him to arrest all the bishops, whereat he wrote that to tell him priests were perfidious was “to preach to him that there is pain in the gout and he protests that he would be sooner rid of them than of that disease,” possibly the only martyrdom he could qualify for. At the same time he wrote to his son Ossory (May 16th, 1680): “The titular Primate accused by them is not no more above them in gifts of nature than he ought by his place to be.” Ossory replied that Plunket’s servant and a friar had been examined in vain, for they “deny anything which can show the truth of Murphy or Moyer’s depositions, that crew being sent back unto you! ”* 

[* Evidence was gathering. Secretary Jenkins wrote (May 7th, 1680), “The material point in their depositions is that Moyer’s being at Marseilles in '73 saw a letter of Plunketts to the Secretary of the Propaganda in Rome purporting that 60,000 men were ready in Ireland but that they wanted arms and that therefore the Principe Colonna and Cardinal Grimaldi should be solicited to contribute. The rest was all wrangling between the Primate and these priests about jurisdiction.” And to Ormonde (May 14th, 1680), ‘‘It is his Majesty’s pleasure declared in Council that the said Plunkett be forthwith prosecuted and brought to trial for the crimes laid to his charge.’’ (State Papers.) ]

Ormonde decided to try him in July at Dundalk within his own diocese, against a petition of MacMoyer, who would not appear to face Plunket’s thirty-two witnesses. “Murphy fled because he knew well that the jury of Dundalk would have hanged him,” wrote Plunket to the Internuncio, and a month later: “MacMoyer is anxious that the trial should be deferred. Murphy fled from the kingdom and they await his return.” The situation was that there had been no trial, a process had been read and the Protestant jury had dismissed it. The accusers petitioned for a trial in London, and summoned to answer for what he called (borrowing a word from Sir Thomas More) “this utopian conspiracy,” Plunket reached London (October 29th, 1680) under the care of six attendants. He was brought before the House of Lords immediately and Longford wrote to Ormonde: “Plunket hath deceived all men living for he told his tale with modesty and confidence enough and without any manner of hesitation or consternation.” From a letter of Arran we learn that “Murphy was the first examined. One part was that the titular Primate told him he received money from you, which question being asked Plunket, he utterly denied and he had less encouragement from you than the two former chief Governors Lord Berkeley and Essex, which I observed Lord Essex did not like.” Essex and Shaftesbury had introduced Murphy to the Lords in May, upon which Ormonde had been ordered to bring on the trial. But the Grand Jury of Westminster returned an Ignoramus, and Murphy returned to Ireland with an order to hunt for witnesses, of whom Arran wrote, “Eight swear home against Plunket,” and Ormonde answered, “I suppose the Grand Jury had not before them the examinations taken against Plunket. If they had, sure they would not have returned Ignoramus upon his bill.”

The MSS. of the House of Lords contain his petition (November 8th, 1680). “Petitioner being very ancient and subject to divers infirmities has great want of his servant to attend him. Petitioner for the most part still lived in Ireland upon the benevolence of others and being brought to Dundalk last July when his trial was put off for want of sufficient proof and having spent there his small stock providing several witnesses for the defence of his innocence and for his own relief he was ever since maintained and also brought hither upon His Majesty’s charges, prays to be allowed his servant and to be maintained during his imprisonment.” At the same time the Earl Essex acquaints the Committee that having several original papers in his hands very material against Plunket, sent them into Ireland for his trial and now desired their return. His examination was on November 10th. “ Plunket on being brought and asked what he had to discover said he had never written to any French Messieurs. He had had no transaction with Mr. Mohun (Moyer?) except letters of civility. Earl Essex asked him if he were not with Mr. Mohun; he confessed; it was to make Plunket and the other Bishops of Ireland friends. Being asked if he knew not of any conspiracies he said he knew something of it; that about a hundred times he was threatened to be killed if he did not prosecute the Tories.* That his life being aimed at, he mistrusted that there was a plot against the English. Being asked if he could name any persons that had entered into recognizances to kill the Irish he made no answer.” 

[*“The Tories are in a great part reduced by Mr Oliver Plunketts apostleship.” (Sir Ellis Leighton, Sept. 24th, 1669.)]

With the New Year Ormonde had received a warning line from Sir John Davys: "Murphy the priest took occasion at the Committee to affirm that when he appeared before your Grace against the Tories he was well used, but when he discovered the plot he was ill treated.” Ormonde thought it wise to give Murphy fifty pounds, though “he has taken some from Carrick that profess here that they are able to say nothing of the Plot or Plotters.” Murphy’s net went far and wide though “neither the order of the House of Lords or ours did give so large authority to Murphy as Sir Hans apprehended.” In fact, Hamilton protested lest “ under pretence of discovering the Plot such bloody murderers shall be pardoned.” But Ormonde dared not raise a finger, for some of the informers were swearing “ that the said Duke of Ormonde was as guilty as Primate Plunket.”

It is impossible to discuss the legality of Plunket’s Trial in London for treason committed in Ireland. There were precedents as in the Trials of Brian O’Rourke and Connor Lord Maguire. Even so, the law of evidence was little understood and the prisoner was given no loop-hole for escape. He was given no notice of witnesses against him, or allowed to cross-examine them. The originals of documents brought against him needed not to be produced. Witnesses for the defence hardly dared come without an order and could not be put on their oath. Witnesses for defence are recorded as giving evidence on the wrong side. The opposite of this occurred in Plunket’s Trial, when evidence in his favour was ruled out as showing Catholic tampering!

A government in panic prefers its necessity to its own law. It is more damning to the Justice of England to consider the character of the evidence on which Plunket could be condemned. ‘The witnesses could not appear in Ireland owing to their criminal records and Plunket’s knowledge of their characters. Their evidence stands discounted by the fact that before the trial in London they fell out, and Edmond (to be distinguished from Owen) Murphy actually gave evidence in Plunket’s favour.

Luttrell has some significant passages in his Relations of State Affairs

 “March 15th, 1681.—John Macnamara one of the discoverers of the Irish Plot met in the streets one Bagot, who searched had in his pockets papers relating to the Earl of Tyrone and to Oliver Plunket.”

Macnamara’s information to the Commons (January 6th, 1680) had charged a French Commission against Tyrone, which was now the charge laid to Plunket. 

“April 14th.—One Lawrence Wier, John Macklin etc are lately come: from Ireland and have made a further discovery of the popish plot more especially in relation to Plunket.”

By May, Macnamara was served with a warrant for trying to suborn witnesses against the Queen and Ormonde. Also “‘There is a great feud between the Irish witnesses about the Plot. Some of them... (Edmond Murphy) have recanted their former evidence and do endeavour to invalidate the testimony of others.”

Meantime, as Father James Callaghan wrote to Ireland, “the Primate is upon the Newgate of London to his great woe.” On May 3rd, 1681, he was arraigned at the Bar of the King’s Bench for endeavouring the King’s death, and to levy war in Ireland and to alter the religion established and to introduce a foreign Power. He pleaded that he had already been arraigned in Ireland, but that witnesses had not appeared against him. He was given five weeks to produce witnesses for himself and on June 8th was brought to trial. Legally he had not been tried at Dundalk. He was not condemned there because the witnesses for the Crown did not appear. He was to be condemned in London for lack of the witnesses for the defence. The situation had appeared in a letter of Arran to Ormonde (April 16th, 1681): “I hear all the witnesses except Oates and Dugdale are out of pension so that you are like to have them in Ireland as soon as they have hanged the titular Primate for without doubt the jury will find him guilty there being so many witnesses point blank against him and their testimonies will be looked upon as valid.” The trial is recorded among the State Trials of England. For the Catholics it was a cause célébre, for no Primate had been tried since Thomas à Becket was posthumously arraigned by Henry VIII.

A full account was printed in folio at the time by Francis Tyton and Thomas Basset. He was tried before the new Chief Justice Pemberton, who had succeeded to the seat of Scroggs, in order to throw a little decorum on the trial of Edward FitzHarris, who was to be Plunket’s fellow sufferer. At best he was “indifferent honest.” The other Judges were Thomas Jones, who “being of Welsh extraction was apt to be warm,” and William Dolben, brother. of the Archbishop of York, “an arrant peevish old snarler.” (D.N.B.)

Plunket pleaded not guilty and based defence on his belief that he could not be tried in England. He believed that English Statutes were not received in Ireland unless there was express mention of Ireland. “The case is rare and scarce happens in five hundred years,” he pleaded. He offered to place himself before any Protestant jury in Ireland. Once he had his records against his accusers and his own witnesses, “I will defy all that is upon the earth and under the earth to say anything against me.” His witnesses dared not come without a pass. "We can’t furnish you with witnesses,” remarked Pemberton drily. The Attorney-General Sawyer, according to Burnet, “a dull hot man and forward to serve all the designs of the Crown,” accused him of registering men and collecting money (two diocesan requirements) with a view to introducing a foreign Power, for whose landing he was said to have personally selected Carlingford.

The witnesses against Plunket may be divided into those who gave fatal perjury and those who told rather in his favour. Florence Wyer said that he had obtained the Primacy on a promise to arrange things so as to surprise the kingdom. This he had only from schoolfellows, and when Pemberton asked for his own information he said he had heard the Primate say, referring to another candidate for the Primacy, “ Tis better as it is, for Duffy had not the wit to manage the things that I have under- taken for the general good of our religion.” What had he undertaken? asked Pemberton, and Wyer answered cautiously, “No further than those words. But I did conceive this was his meaning, because I knew partly of it myself knowing of the former plot.” Pemberton asked him how he knew Plunket had collected money to supply the French forces. “I have seen the money collected and I have seen his warrant sub poena suspensionis to bring it in to redeem their religion from the power of the English Government.” The Attorney-General asked, “How often were you in the Doctor’s company?” “Not very often,” replied Wyer, and Plunket broke in, “I never saw him with my eyes before in all my life.” The deeper the Justices went into the evidence the thinner it proved. The next witness, Henry O’Neal, “would not swear for all the world more than I know,” and confessed he never saw Plunket in his life. Owen Murphy could only give second-hand talk, but Hugh Duffy gave some fatal evidence. Plunket had raised money “to give to his agent at Rome.” Plunket wrote to Cardinal Bouillon to urge a French war against England rather than Spain. “Did Cardinal Bouillon show you my letter ?” asked Plunket. Yes! The gentry had collected to a Confirmation to plot a (visionary) rebellion in a well-named place called “Clouds” (the mis- pronunciation of Clones). He reported Plunket’s conversation about Carlingford and sending money to procure ammunition. Plunket remembered seeing him, but not present in a house, “‘ If you were, you were invisible.” As Duffy withdrew the Primate asked, "Mr. Duffy, one word with you. Is not this out of malice to me for correcting some of the clergy?” Duffy answered, “You had nothing to do with me for I was a Friar.” 

The priest Edmond Murphy appeared and proved as unmanageable as Sam Weller in the witness box. He pretended to forget former evidence and would only own to discourse with the Vicar-General. Pemberton interfered. “Sir, don’t trifle. Have you had any with him ?” “Yes,” said Murphy, “I think it was about this. If the Duke of York and the Duke of Monmouth fell out together that he had some men to raise about that matter and if the Duke of Monmouth would raise the Protestant religion...” But he was not allowed to finish his perfectly true prophecy of event. "You see he hath been in Spanish hands!” shouted the Attorney-General. “It makes me forget myself to see so many evidences come in that never knew Plunket,” replied Murphy, and denied former evidence, “I did not impeach Primate Plunket,” whereat Mr. Sergeant Jeffreys, who was one day to quench Monmouth’s rebellion in the Bloody Circuit, had him searched and so frightened that he “would scarce be persuaded to come back” into court where he insisted once more, “I know not how these people come to swear this business whether they had not malice against him.” “I reckon this man hath given the best evidence that can be,” said Dolben, anxious to get him out. “Yes,” said Pemberton, “it is evidence that the Catholics have been tampering with him.” Jeffreys then had him committed “ because he hath fenced from the beginning,” but doubtless pour encourager les autres. Maclegh or Maclane, a Clogher priest, said he was made Primate by the French King on condition of joining the French. Then MacMoyer produced the English copy he had made of a letter Plunket had written to Propaganda in Latin. Asked for the original he said the soldiers and Tories took it. However, he produced the Clones statutes in Plunket’s handwriting, though he changed the fifty pounds to be sent to Plunket’s agent in Rome to 500, as a more likely figure, “wherein Ireland was bound to send so much money to Rome upon such a design.” He said Plunket gave him the secret of the plot which the Primate pointed out was not likely since “I had denounced him throughout my whole Diocese.” Plunket was proceeding to prove MacMoyer a convicted criminal, when Jeffreys broke in, “Look you Dr. Plunket, if you ask him any questions that may tend to accuse himself he is not bound to answer them.” “He hath been convicted and found guilty,” cried Plunket, whereat Pemberton chimed in, “He is not bound to answer such a question,” and MacMoyer retorted, “It was a Tory swore against me that you did absolve.” Dolben, who seemed to take a fairer view than the other Judges, said, “Don’t tell us a story of your Tories!” But Pemberton would not let Plunket make his point. “Look you Mr. Plunket, don’t mispend your own time, for the more you trifle in these things the less time you will have for your defence.” In his defence the Primate would only say, “ Were I in Ireland, there both I and they should be known, but when I was to be tried there they would not appear and it is all false and only malice. These men used to call me Oliver Cromwell out of spite.” Sergeant Maynard added, “ You are very like him a destroyer of the government.”

MacMoyer then brought evidence that the letter which was opened in Italy was carried by Plunket’s page O’ Neale, whom Plunket replied came to Rome begging as a straggler. The Solicitor-General summed up. Duffy saw a letter which is confirmed by another letter seen by Moyer carried to Rome by O’Neale. In the substance of the unshown letters was the plot, “and this is fully proved.” At the last moment one of Plunket’s witnesses, Paul Gorman, arrived and said, “As I have a soul to save I never heard of any misdemeanor of him.” But the Lord Chief Justice summed up so dead against him that the jury returned a verdict of guilty. “Deo Gratias,” said the Martyr-elect. On June 15th, he was brought to the bar and condemned in spite of an eloquent speech pointing out how impossible it was that he should have planned a French landing in such a very bad harbour as Carlingford. He asked for delay, as his witnesses had reached Coventry. However, the Chief Justice was quite willing to leave them in Coventry, and proceeded to pass the savage sentence for High Treason. "God bless your worship,” cried Plunket.  "And now as I am a dead man to this world and as I hope for mercy in the other world I was never guilty of any of the Treasons laid to my charge as you will hear in time and my character you may receive from my Lord Chancellor of Ireland, Lord Berkeley, Lord Essex and the Duke of Ormonde.” A broadside was issued the same day on “ the condemnation of the two notorious traitors,” and an adventurous Mr. FitzHarris, condemned to suffer with Plunket, received some of that reflected fame which once befell two thieves.

Ormonde did not heed Plunket’s appeal, but he wrote to Arran (June 15th, 1681): “I wish for the honour of the justice of England that the evidence against Plunket had been as convincing as that against the other was, for we must expect that Papists at home and abroad will take his trial to pieces and make malicious remarks upon every part of it and some circumstances are liable to disadvantageous observation.”

Ormonde did not stir, though his opinion of the plot had been that “It was necessary to amuse the people as with new plots so with new actors in them, and we were not forgotten but reserved to the last. The discoveries now on foot in the N. and W. of this Kingdom can come to nothing by reason of the extravagant villainy and folly of the discoverers who are such creatures that no schoolboy would trust them with a design for the robbing of an orchard. Murphy is all out as debauched but a degree wiser than the others.” ‘To Jenkins he now wrote on the return of the witnesses desirous (May 23rd, 1681) “they slip not away or be not tampered with to suppress or mollify their evidence in favour of Plunket who is reasonably well allied and friended in these parts. This caution is chiefly applicable to Murphy....” But Ormonde believed the plot was directed against himself and realized that to save Plunket was to endanger himself. According to one of his papers, three persons were tempted about September, 1680, by Wyer, McClane and Moyer to join with them in charging Ormonde. Ormonde had to persuade himself that there had been a plot, though his guilty and hypocritical conscience appears in a letter written a few days after Plunket’s execution (July 14th, 1681) of a sea captain’s report “concerning a number of ships of war discovered by him upon the coast betwixt Carlingford and Strangeford. It may please God we are safe from an invasion especially now that Oliver Plunket is disposed of, but the good captain being as he says troubled with melancholy vapours, all this may prove but a visionary fleet!”

Plunket’s case had attracted considerable attention, and pamphlets survive in the absence of newspapers showing that the pen was as ever more potent than poison. The Character of a Tory served to inflame public opinion by alluding to his “English face, French heart and Irish conscience.” A lapsed Franciscan, John FitzGerald, published a narrative containing “several things relating to the Irish Plot managed by Plunket and now committed to the Gaol of Newgate.” Pamphlets were published describing his last days and execution, of which an entire collection may be found in the British Museum, for instance, The Last Speech and Confession of Oliver Plunket with an account of his behaviour in Newgate gives details not otherwise found. "He said his soul was now so well prepared for another world that he did not desire to continue any longer in this since he doubted whether ever he should attain to the same temper of mind again and contrary to the usual Roman uncharitableness desired all good Christians to pray for him.” At five the evening before his execution he retired to his devotions, Father Corker, his Benedictine fellow in prison, says, "Being now as it were at hearts-ease he went to bed at eleven of the clock and slept quietly and soundly till four in the morning.” Bulstrode’s Memoirs here add on the authority of his gaoler “that he was newly awake having slept all night without any disturbance and when I told him he was to prepare for his execution he received the message with all quietness of mind and went to the sledge as unconcerned as if he had been going to a wedding.” ‘The sledge was the hurdle on which a prisoner was “drawn,” lying face uppermost. One is reminded of the Martyr Bishop Fisher. The sense of justice of the Man in the Street was comforted by A Brief Relation of the Trial of Oliver Plunket, which said, ‘‘There were five or six witnesses against him who proved the treason positively upon him, and though he had all the liberty he could desire to make his defence yet he had very little to say for himself, only he pretended that those witnesses which should appear on his behalf were in Ireland.”

While in prison he bequeathed his living body to Father Corker, and when the barber asked whether he should leave the upper lip untrimmed, the Martyr, perhaps remembering the play Sir Thomas More made with his beard before execution, referred him to Father Corker, who gave leave for the moustache to be shaved. ‘We hear that some of his friends told him they had begged the body,” said the Broadside like a special extra of the time. At about ten in the morning Plunket left Newgate, having refused to drink a glass of sack without permission from Corker’s cell. Luttrell’s account reads: “About nine in the morning the sheriffs went and received the body of Edward FitzHarris from the Lieutenant, of the Tower, which was brought on a sledge through the City to Newgate, where Oliver Plunket being put in a sledge they were both drawn to Tyburn with a great guard and many spectators attending them. Being come to Tyburn Plunket got into the cart and there began a long harangue excusing himself and protesting as he hoped for salvation he was altogether innocent of anything was laid to his charge. Then he commended his soul to God, owning himself to be a Romish Prelate.” The Broadside gives further details. Mr. Plunket came first to Tyburn. He crossed himself thrice upon the breast and then delivered a paper to the Sheriff which he desired might be published. With the rope on his neck he made his last speech of innocency. “Because the old protestation that he was as innocent as the child unborn is now grown threadbare, he said that as he hoped for salvation he was altogether innocent of anything whatsoever which was charged against him.” He then pulled his cap over his eyes and continued praying half an hour. This detail fits in with Father Corker’s previous letter to Plunket ending, “I send you now a cap, an hankerchief and two guineas to give the Executioner at Tyburn. ”Though the sentence was to be cut down alive, the Broadside says, “Mr. Plunket was dead in a short time. After they had hanged a considerable time they were both beheaded and quartered and their quarters delivered to their friends.” Word was sent to Ormonde, “ Plunket and FitzHarris suffered yesterday, the former as a man prepared and the latter as a man surprised.”

The Broadsides continued. Plunket’s last speech was printed as “written by his own hand,” and caused so considerable a stir that Florence Wyer replied with a pamphlet called The Honesty and True Zeal of the King’s Witnesses, justified and vindicated against those unchristian-like equivocal protestations of Dr. Oliver Plunket. The witnesses were excused for absenting themselves at the Dundalk Trial, “where inevitably he must be tried by his own confederates who would sooner hang the judges than him!” They happened to be Protestants! “Incomprehensible was the Simony of this worthy Patriarch,” nor can the non-existent be comprehended ever. As for the Plot Money, “I have seen the money in the town of Castle Blayney,” asserted Wyer, and by a coincidence Lord Blayney was arrested that August “as being in Plunket’s Plot.” As for the Carlingford episode, it appeared that “walking to take the prospect of sea and land they chanced to pass by an old ruinated Church, where Plunket said although they be at present possessed by the heretick clergy we expect a sudden restoration of them.” This was hardly planning a landing, though “the very Irish Etimology of the word Carlingford verifies the Haven to be doubtless as good, unless somewhat narrow, as any in England or Ireland.” Wyer made Carlingford to mean Cath-ar-ling or Fight-on-stream, and presumably deep enough for a fleet. Unfortunately it means Cairlinn’s Fiord, being Danish and not Irish at all, for the Irish name of the locality means “swimming ford of horses!” Perhaps the King of France’s 70,000 men included horse marines!

Wyer concluded with a sneer at “the devotedly religious at Tyburn the first of this instant (who) had not their minds generally satisfied as wanting blood enough of Martyr Plunket to colour their handkerchiefs. I hope if their devotion will still continue they may attain to the full of their desires by dipping the rest of their handkerchiefs in the blood of many more.” This incredible pamphlet concludes with a threat presumably against Father Edmond Murphy for invalidating their evidence and a hope “that within short time he shall receive his quietus est by the hands of Katch at the foot of Mount Tyburn, but let Charon have a care of sinking his boat,” Wyer sympathetically adds, “by ferrying over the Stygian streams to Prince Beelzebub that masterpiece of all European knaves.”

Such is the only literary remains of the King’s witness against the Blessed Oliver Plunket! A letter from Sir Leoline Jenkins (September 20th, 1681) asks protection for Wyer, Moyer and Duffy, “the first charged my Lord Blayney with treason, but my Lords have thought fit to dismiss him.” Wyer is an anglicization of Moyer and Florence was the hereditary steward or Maor of the Canon of Patrick in virtue of which his family held Ballymaire in the Parochia Patricii. Maor is the Gaelic for the Stuart family, so that the King’s witness was similarly named. When McQuiggin, Plunket’s witness, arrived too late he was offered one hundred pounds “by the three O’Neills and a Friar with a hard name” to accuse Ormonde, whom we find writing to Arran (December 6th, 1681): “ Friar John Moyer is fallen in some degree under the danger of the law for advising some whom he himself has accused of high treason to depart the kingdom. God be praised they have neither sober heads nor stout hearts or hands to command! The McMoyers saith tradition changed their name to Maguire that no priest might bear the accursed name.”

A rare tract was published by William Hetherington in 1682 entitled The Irish Evidence convicted by their own oaths or their swearing and counterswearing plainly demonstrated. Hetherington attacked those Irish witnesses who, through remorse or fear, retracted their evidence, especially David FitzGerald, who, though he came to discover the Popish Plot, “abused the said four witnesses or some of them and asked them if they came to hang poor Plunket,” with the result that “they began to hearken to the voice of this man-catching Syren and forget the Popish Plot and set up the Irish Ha-loo-loo against Protestants”! Information showed that FitzGerald was manfully fighting and frightening the Irish witnesses, applying “Treats, Threats and Money” to turn them from compassing Plunket’s death. This information was sworn May 4th, one day after Plunket’s Trial. What is interesting is that FitzGerald was using the King’s name to save Plunket, “and further the said David FitzGerald told them that he would make His Majesty not to give any of the evidence that was in the City of London any money at all and that as soon as the Parliament sate at Oxford that those evidences would be all hanged . . . that His Majesty had told him the said FitzGerald that within one week after the Parliament were met at Oxford, they would be dissolved and that then everyone of the evidence might go home about their business.” This is the only clue to possible action to the credit of King Charles. FitzGerald was successful in breaking up the unanimity of the witnesses, and helping Murphy’s recantation, which should have sufficed to acquit Plunket. Mary Cox swore on July 8th, that “the night before Mr. Plunket was tried ” she heard Bernard Dennis describe “a crowd of people and enquiring what was the reason of it they told him it was a Subpoena served upon Murphy and he said Murphy had absconded for some time and he said Murphy did say he would appear the next day according to the Subpoena,” with what result the trial showed. In fact it was a running fight between Plunket’s friends and enemies to bribe and counter-bribe, frighten or subpoena the witnesses. It is noticeable that whereas Plunket’s servant was faithful, FitzGerald bought up Hetherington’s man George. Finally, Hetherington appealed to “some of the Papers of that Popish Traitor Bishop Plunket which were delivered to the King and Council.” What papers were these? Either they were valueless to the prosecution or, if they were of value, did the King suppress them (for they are not mentioned at the trial) and encourage FitzGerald to threaten Hetherington? What was going on behind the scenes during Plunket’s imprisonment the historian will probably never discover.

The guilt for Plunket’s execution must among statesmen be shared between Ormonde, Essex and Shaftesbury, whose “agent and stage-manager” Hetherington was (Bagwell). Ormonde acted out of fear and self-protection, but Shaftesbury’s influence in London largely brought about the crime. “The judicial murder of Plunket must be laid at his door” (D.N.B.). Dryden, the Catholic Laureate, was to attack him bitterly in the same year in the lines:

Of these the false Achitophel was first 
A name to all succeeding ages curst.
In lines as perennial as bronze he described how: 
The wished occasion of the plot he takes, 
Some circumstances finds but more he makes, 
By buzzing emissaries fills the ears
 Of listening crowds with jealousies and fears.

When Essex asked the King for a pardon too late the King cried, “ His blood be upon your head and not upon mine!” The royal curse was not unfulfilled, for Essex cut his throat in the Tower two years later. The King’s own deathbed was not unaffected by the Martyr’s prayer at Tyburn for his everlasting felicity. What an amazing irony that the King, who signed unwillingly the sentence of the Martyr, died giving the homage of his last breath to the Faith of Oliver Plunket.


The Dublin Review (July, 1920), pp. 1-19.

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Monday 20 June 2022

A Thought for the Feast of the Irish Martyrs

In the centuries which immediately succeeded the conversion of our island, heaven seemed to pour out upon our people all the treasures of grace, and, at the same time, all the blessings of peace: for later ages was reserved the ordeal of our faith. But her triumphs in the arena were not less glorious than her crowns in time of peace; and, as the virtues of her children merited for her the glorious name of "Island of Saints," so the noble heroism displayed by her champions of faith in the days of persecution have won the no less peerless title of "Martyr-Island of the Church."

Rev. P.F. Moran, The Life of the Most Rev. Oliver Plunket. Archbishop of Armagh, and Primate of all Ireland, who Suffered Death for the Catholic Faith in the Year 1681, (New York 1871), p. 395.


Content Copyright © De Processu Martyriali 2020-2022. All rights reserved.