St Oliver Plunkett
Canonised in 1975
Pastel drawing of the faces of 9 white men in a circle around sun, bursting through cloud, with the initials I H S at the centre

Martyrs of the Oates Plot

In 1975 there was a further canonisation, this time of the Irish Archbishop of Armagh, Oliver Plunkett, who was executed in 1681. This drawing, dated the same year as the execution, by the Stuart-era pastel portraitist, Edward Luttrell, places Oliver Plunkett amid the eight Oates Plot Jesuit martyrs in a circle around the Jesuit IHS monogram, which is an abbreviation of the Greek word for the name of Jesus.

Oliver Plunkett was the last victim of the Oates Plot. He was born in County Meath in Ireland in 1625 of Irish Norman ancestry, related to many members of the ancient nobility of Ireland. He was educated at the Abbey of St Marys in Dublin, which was overseen by his elder cousin Patrick and when he was twenty-two years old he travelled to the Irish College in Rome to study for the priesthood. Because of the turbulence of the Civil War and the Cromwellian Commonwealth period Plunkett was not able to return to Ireland until 1670, when he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh. Under Charles II a degree of toleration returned to Ireland and Plunkett was able to set up the first integrated Catholic-Protestant school in Ireland, in Drogheda, under the supervision of the Jesuits.

Small piece of linen, with a label underneath it illustrated to look like a scroll and an inscription in Latin, on a red circle of cloth

Linen relic of Oliver Plunkett

In 1678 the repercussions of the Popish Plot were felt in Ireland, and Plunkett was obliged to go into hiding to avoid anti-Catholic violence. The situation was made considerably worse when Titus Oates declared to the Privy Council that Archbishop Plunkett was raising money for an invasion of French Catholic troops into Ireland. With a substantial price on his head, Plunkett was hunted down, arrested and put on trial for treason. The trial was a shambles with even the prosecuting Duke of Ormonde describing his own witnesses as ‘silly drunken vagabonds whom no schoolboy would trust to rob an orchard.’

The English Privy Council was determined to find a guilty verdict and Plunkett was shipped across to London to stand a new trial. There were so many irregularities in the prosecution case that the Judge, Justice Pembroke, advised Plunkett not to waste his time pointing them out but to save his breath for his defence. To no avail. Plunkett was condemned to death for promoting the Roman faith, the judge commenting ‘the bottom of your treason was your setting up your false religion.’

Many in London pleaded for his life but Charles II knew he could not afford to show leniency amid the anti-Catholic hysteria of the times, saying ‘I would save him but dare not’. Plunket was hanged, drawn and quartered on July 1st 1681 at the age of 55. He was to be the last Catholic martyr to die in England and was buried alongside Thomas Whitbread and his companions in the church of St Giles in the Fields.

This piece of linen is described as a part of Plunkett’s shirt worn at his execution. It was gathered either at the scaffold or retrieved from his grave.

A vestment on a stand viewed from the back. The majority is made of a faded floral fabric and running down the length of the centre is a cross with an embroidered crucifixion scene

Vestment of Oliver Plunkett

In 1953 this vestment was presented to Stonyhurst College. It had been in the Plunkett of Portmarnock family for many centuries and was donated to the Jesuit Fr Martin d’Arcy by Miss Plunkett. It is made from an early 16thc century embroidered cross laid on to a 17thc Venetian fabric. Such patchwork vestments were common in the 17th century as families rescued pre-Reformation embroideries from destruction and remounted them onto new fabric. The embroidery shows the crucifixion with angels catching Christ’s blood in chalices -  a reference to the eucharist.

In 1975 Oliver Plunkett was canonised, the first Irish saint in nearly 700 years. In 1997 he was declared patron saint for peace and reconciliation in Ireland.