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Saint of the week

The martyr whom King Charles II did nothing to help

St John Plessington (July 19), a Catholic priest, was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1679

By on Friday, 16 July 2010

St John Plessington was born in Garstang, near Preston

St John Plessington was born in Garstang, near Preston

As the son of Queen Henrietta Maria, King Charles II was naturally imbued with Catholic sympathies; and the story of his deathbed, when Fr Huddleston brought the Blessed Sacrament to him from Queen Catherine of Braganza’s chapel, is well known.

Yet during the collective mania whipped up by Titus Oates under the pretence of a “Popish Plot” (1678-79), King Charles did little or nothing to save Catholics who found themselves in mortal peril. The only potential victims on whose behalf he intervened were the Queen and Louis XIV’s emissary Claude de la Colombière.

Some 35 Catholics were executed, nearly all of them entirely innocent of treason. Of course, Charles was under intense pressure from skilful and unscrupulous politicians such as Lord Shaftesbury, who knew how to manipulate the mob. 

The essential point, though, was that the Merry Monarch had no intention of going on his travels again. It is not easy to warm to the complacency with which he appeared to regard the deaths of so many falsely accused men.

One of these was John Plessington. The youngest of three children, he was born in 1636 into a Catholic family at Dimples Hall, Garstang, near Preston in Lancashire. His father fought for the King in the Civil War and was taken prisoner.

John’s vocation may have been inspired by a family chaplain called Thomas Whitaker, who was captured and executed in 1646. At all events, Plessington, having attended the Jesuit school at Scarisbrick Hall, near Ormskirk, followed Whitaker in being educated at Saint-Omer and Valladolid. While abroad, he went under the name of William Scarisbrick. In 1662 he was ordained in Segovia. The next year, however, ill health brought him back to England.

For a while he served at the shrine of St Winifred in Holywell, North Wales. Then in 1670 he moved to Puddington Hall in the Wirral, as tutor to the Massey family.

For a while Plessington was able to minister openly to the local Catholic population. But when the scare of the Popish Plot extended to the north, a timeserver called Thomas Dutton collected a reward for arresting him.

There was no charge against Plessington, beyond his occupation as a Catholic priest, which sufficed for a death sentence. When the executioner came to measure him, Plessington joked that he was ordering his last suit.

He was hanged, drawn and quartered in Chester on July 19 1679. The previous day Chief Justice Scroggs, having established his Protestant credentials by roundly abusing Catholics, had plucked up the courage to acquit Sir George Wakeman, the Queen’s doctor, of attempting to poison the King.

There were still judicial atrocities to come, which the King did not resist. For the Popish Plot, however, Wakeman’s release was the beginning of the end.