Heritage: Grim ending to the ‘Popish Plot’ in Wingletye Lane
PUBLISHED: 10:00 14 July 2018
Local historian Prof Ged Martin tells how an unstable fantasist took advantage of religious paranoia in the 17th century
Seventeenth-century English Protestants distrusted the Catholic Church.
Bloody Mary, the country’s Catholic Queen, had burned Protestants to death in the 1550s, including young Brentwood man William Hunter.
On November 5, 1605, Catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes tried to blow up James I and his Parliament – a terrorist plot still remembered on Bonfire Night.
But, by the 1670s, there was no evidence England’s peaceable Catholic minority were disloyal. In 1678, an unstable fantasist decided to invent that missing evidence.
Titus Oates was a failed Anglican clergyman who’d joined the Catholic Church, and studied for the priesthood at colleges in Spain and France. Both institutions had thrown him out.
Keen for revenge, and with enough background knowledge to spin plausible lies, he fooled King Charles II into believing in a “Popish Plot”.
Oates claimed the Jesuits, the Church’s spiritual commandos, had created a huge property empire, which they used to finance a Murder Fund. This nonsense soon grew into reports of a secret Catholic army, which would seize control of England.
Ludicrous hysteria was rampant. One Londoner warned: “the next morning they might all rise with their throats cut”.
The Jesuits owned some property (not much – it wasn’t even clear if their presence in England was lawful). It was managed by a Catholic lawyer, Richard Langhorne.
Langhorne’s grandfather, Thomas Leggatt, came from a prominent Hornchurch family. He’d owned Lee Gardens, a Wingletye Lane farm that stretched (roughly) from Havering Sixth Form College to Emerson Park Academy.
A family share-out in 1666 made Langhorne the eventual heir to Lee Gardens.
Richard Langhorne was tried for treason. The judge, Sir William Scroggs, was a bigoted bully. A successful lawyer, he owned a country estate at South Weald, now Weald Country Park.
The evidence against Langhorne was mainly paranoid rumour.
The witnesses he produced to disprove the charges were jostled and jeered. Scroggs assured the jury their evidence must be lies.
Not surprisingly, Langhorne was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Despite pleas for mercy from his wife, who was a Protestant, he was executed at Tyburn – now Hyde Park Corner – on July 14, 1679.
His courage and dignity facing death by public hanging helped discredit the persecution – eventually.
On the scaffold, he declared his loyalty to Charles II, and denied that the Pope had any right to interfere in English politics.
At least 22 people were executed during the “Popish Plot”, only one of whom was guilty of treasonable intrigues. Nine Jesuit priests were put to death. Fifteen more died from ill treatment.
The last victim, Oliver Plunkett, an Irish Catholic archbishop, was executed in 1681. He was canonised in 1975.
Eventually, Titus Oates was discredited as a liar, publicly whipped, imprisoned – and finally granted a pension!
Scroggs was sacked. He died in 1683 and was buried at South Weald. There’s no memorial to him.
Lee Gardens went into legal limbo for fifty years.
Officially, the property of traitors was forfeit to the Crown. But, although Richard Langhorne had been in line to inherit the Wingletye Lane farm, he’d never actually owned it.
It took until 1732 for his nephew, another Richard, to establish his legal claim to the property (which he soon sold).
Badly dilapidated, Lee Gardens farmhouse was demolished about 1869. Another building was erected on the site around 1890, but it too disappeared under suburban growth.
The farmhouse stood on the east side of Wingletye Lane, near the junction with Poole Road.
Nearby, Lee Gardens Avenue preserves the name.
Recognised as a martyr for his faith, Langhorne was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929. It seems there are no plans to declare the Blessed Richard Langhorne a saint.
In 1962, the Catholic Church opened the Campion School, further north in Wingletye Lane. It was started by the Jesuits, but they transferred it to the Diocese of Brentwood three years later.