Oates was born in Oakham in 1649. His father was an Anabaptist who fought in the New Model Army during the English Civil War. After attending Cambridge University, Oates went into the church but was ordered to leave after he was accused of blasphemy while under the influence of alcohol. Oates became a chaplain on a Royal Naval ship, the ‘Adventurer’, but was also dismissed from this post when he was accused of engaging in a homosexual act.
By the standards of his time, Oates was a renegade. Having fallen from grace twice, Oates needed something to propel himself back into society. In 1678, he came up with the ‘Popish Plot’ – a Catholic plan to murder Charles II and put his Catholic brother James on the throne. This would, according to Oates, be followed by a period when thousands of Protestants would be killed purely as a result of their beliefs.
The conditions in the country, especially London, were right for people to fall for such nonsense. London was in the grip of an economic depression and many were unemployed. Having Catholics, once again, as a scapegoat for their problems gave them some comfort and an easy target for their anger.
It was only in 1685 that Oates was arrested and found guilty of perjury. In 1678 he had made a statement about the plot under oath to a magistrate called Sir Edmund Godfrey, who was later found murdered in London – something that was also blamed on Catholics. Oates was imprisoned for life and his punishment also included that he should be regularly whipped.
He was released from prison in 1688 by William III and given a sum of £10 a week. He married in 1693, became a Baptist and died in relative obscurity on July 12, 1705.