‘Can you undergo a hard persecution? Are you content to be falsely betrayed and injured and hurried away to prison? Can you suffer the hardships of gaol? Can you lie in chains and fetters? Can you endure the rack? Can you be brought to the bar and hear yourself falsely sworn against? Can you patiently receive the sentence of an unjust judge condemning you to a painful and ignominious death, to be hanged, drawn and quartered? We can. Blessed be God.’
In July 1678 Thomas Whitbread, who was in charge of the English Jesuits at that time, addressed the young men studying for the priesthood at the Jesuit seminary of Liege. The prophetic words we have just heard were fulfilled for Thomas Whitbread less than twelve months later.
But at the time, in July 1678, his message must have sounded strangely anachronistic. It had been 32 years since a Jesuit priest was last executed, and the English king, Charles II was well disposed towards toleration for Catholics. Moreover, his younger brother and apparent successor, James Duke of York, had recently converted to Catholicism. All seemed well.
And in this seemingly peaceful summer Thomas Whitbread also revisited his old school at St Omers.
Playing card showing John Fenwick SJ sending a student from England to St Omers
Thomas Whitbread had first arrived at the college of St Omers in 1630 as a boy of twelve years old, from Essex. On leaving the school he entered the Jesuit order, and after completing his studies returned to England as a missionary in the turbulent years of the Civil War and the ensuing Cromwellian Commonwealth. In 1678 he was appointed as Provincial, or Superior, of the English Jesuits while based in London. That fateful summer, as we have heard, he travelled to the Low Countries to familiarise himself with the situation at the Jesuit college of St Omers and the nearby seminaries of Watten and Liege.
During this visit he was approached by one Titus Oates, who was seeking admission to the Jesuit Order. Oates was a troubled and malicious individual who had manipulated his way into the school at St Omers as a pupil despite being over 20 years old. His inappropriate behaviour led to his expulsion from the school after six months. Thomas Whitbread had no option other than to refuse him admittance to the Jesuit Order on the grounds of his demonstrably unstable character.
Titus Oates returned to London bent on revenge. He fabricated a plot claiming that English Jesuits planned to kill King Charles and place his Catholic brother James on the throne, triggering a Catholic takeover of Parliament and the country. Oates used his detailed inside knowledge of Jesuit practices and language to convince Parliament of this unlikely scenario. The Plot fell on credulous ears; in England and Wales anti-Catholic and anti-Jesuit hysteria reigned.
Thomas Whitbread SJ; his undercover name was Thomas Harcourt
Knowing nothing of this, Thomas Whitbread returned to London and walked into a furious storm. He was quickly arrested and imprisoned in Newgate gaol awaiting trial for treason.
Throughout his life Whitbread had a particular love of music. During the months spent in prison he brought peace and comfort to many other prisoners through his musical skills. Singing was an excellent way to reach out, as the sound could travel far beyond the walls of the cell providing comfort and spiritual inspiration to all who could hear it.
His trial, like so many others, was a foregone conclusion. In some poignant exchanges a series of pupils and staff from St Omers were granted safe passage to testify to the truth of Whibread’s testimony, but the end result was inevitable. On June 20th 1679 Whitbread and four other priests were dragged to Tyburn for execution. Thomas Whitbread protested his innocence in the face of impending death and forgave his accusers.
Thomas Whitbread's tooth relic
The bodies of the priests were granted the grace of a decent burial, in the graveyard of St Giles in the Fields. Thomas Whitbread’s jawbone was rescued and eventually made its way to the Convent at Taunton, whose Mother Abbess gave this tooth to John Morris on Sept 15th 1871.