Friday, October 11, 2013

Blessed William Howard, First Viscount Stafford

Today is the commemoration for an interesting saint, Blessed William Howard, Viscount Stafford. William Howard was born into a nominally Anglican family in the seventeenth century, and participated in the Anglican Church for a considerable portion of his youth, but there were Catholic connections in the family (his grandfather was St. Philip Howard, one of the Forty Martyrs of Wales and England, and had died in the Tower of London under Elizabeth), and when he married Mary Stafford, the bride and groom insisted on a Catholic wedding, even though it angered William's father. When Mary's brother, Baron Stafford, died the Stafford line came to an end, and through political connections William's family had it reformed with William as Baron Stafford; and William was eventually raised to Viscount.

He went abroad with his family shortly afterward, for reasons unknown; he claimed later that he was performing tasks for King Charles I. When Charles I was executed, Lord Stafford's estates were seized because of his recusancy and royalism. While abroad he was imprisoned in Heidelberg for a year; the reasons are not quite known, but his enemies later claimed it was for immorality. (He seems to have been arrested twice in Heidelberg, the imprisonment coming from the first arrest; on the second arrest he seems to have been able to prove his innocence.) He was restored to his estates at the Restoration. During this time he was in constant legal disputes with his family, with whom he did not get along well.

William came to misfortune due to a man named Titus Oates, who fabricated a story about a Catholic plot to assassinate King Charles II. He was questioned by the King's Council, naming dozens of Catholics as involved in the matter. Some of the accused were easily acquitted, and Oates was not exactly a reputable witness, but he had an extraordinarily good memory, and thus was never caught out in a contradiction. The list of Catholics is quite impressive; it would have been the most astounding political conspiracy of all time, and included many of the notable names of the day (e.g., Samuel Pepys, a Member of Parliament known today for his famous diary). Oates misstepped when he accused the Queen herself; King Charles subjected him to a personal interrogation, and despite Oates's extraordinary consistency, he was able to catch him claiming things that could only be lies. Furious, the King had him arrested -- but Oates was let out several days later by Parliament, who gave him an apartment in Whitehall and a pension, and pressed forward. At least fifteen people were executed on Oates's testimony, including Viscount Stafford: his estates were seized and he was sent to the Tower of London in 1678. He was impeached by the House of Commons for treason in 1680. He was not allowed counsel, and was apparently not a good speaker. He was then executed on 29 December 1681. He was sixty-eight years old.

Vandyck - willianhoward01[Anthony van Dyck's painting of William Howard]

The Popish Plot was eventually discredited, of course. Even while all this was going on with Lord Stafford and others, Oates was ordered to vacate his apartment, and, when he refused, he was fined and imprisoned for sedition. When James II came to the throne, he had Oates tried for perjury; Oates was convicted, of course, and was sentenced to life imprisonment plus being whipped in public five days a year for the rest of his life. Not a fan of perjurers, James II. When William and Mary took the throne in 1689, however, he was pardoned and given a pension again.


  1. Enbrethiliel6:24 AM


    The story was almost too painful to read. =( The early martyrs knew what they were facing, and I have no problem reading about the atrocities against them; but then I easily project my own sense of safety on Catholics in the 1600s, a century closer to our own. We, as a generation, tend to say things like, "I'm shocked that this is still happening in 2013!" Do you think Bl. William and the other Catholics executed in the plot ever thought that events associated with some "dark age" in the past would also happen to them?

    I have a friend who doesn't have any illusions. He says quite openly that he imagines his teenage children will risk martyrdom after he himself has died of natural causes.

  2. branemrys7:15 AM

    I do wonder. Persecution would have been closer in time to him, given his grandfather, and the execution of Charles I and the Protectorate can't have been a comfortable thing to deal with -- particularly since Howard, a known Catholic, went to England once and twice on business, when he must have known full well the danger of it (he got permission from the government first, but, obviously that's not necessarily a guarantee). But with the Restoration, I do wonder if he thought he could relax then -- a king on the throne who was at least tolerant of Catholics, and a Parliament that was at least somewhat chastened. It's hard to imagine they didn't breathe a sigh of relief and think that the worst times were finally over.


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