St Oliver Plunkett, Bishop and Martyr

Memorial of St Oliver Plunkett

Oliver Plunkett was the last priest to be judicially executed at Tyburn, London, in 1681. After his consecration at Ghent as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland he made his progress off to Ireland, via London, where he was received by Queen Catherine of Braganza, a great patron of the English Benedictines, at Somerset House. Somerset House had a small English Benedictine community of Gregorian monks who assisted the queen’s English secular chaplains, educated at the English College at Lisbon.

Plunkett arrived in his native Ireland on St Patrick’s Day 1670 (Old Style) entering a heavily divided country. In England (1678), the so-called ‘Popish Plot’, a fabricated story made up by a failed seminarian, Titus Oates, popularly proclaimed that Jesuits and disaffected Catholics were plotting to kill Charles II to put his Catholic brother, James, Duke of York, on the English throne. Oates had studied at the Royal English College at Valladolid, Spain. Plunkett found himself arrested and incarcerated in Dublin Castle; in 1679 he was removed to Newgate prison in London to stand trial, accused of arranging a French invasion and planning the massacre of the Protestant population of Ireland. Though these claims were widely considered fanciful by the crown and the courts the hysterical anti-popery of London at the time meant a fair trial was not possible. Plunkett was martyred on 1 July 1681 and canonised in 1975. 

The Archbishop’s body (minus his head and part of his arm) arrived at Downside in 1883, ‘firmly closed and sealed with the episcopal seal of Dr. Clifford, Bishop of Clifton.’ It had been at Lamspringe Abbey, Germany, since 1683, taken there by Dom Maurus Corker, President General of the English Benedictines from 1680. The casket was carefully preserved by the monks in Dunn and Hansom’s original church on the west wall before a permanent reliquary was established. Plunkett’s reliquary remains a centre of pilgrimage today linking the basilica with its historic and Continental past. An Irish prelate, exiled in Ulster, arrested and incarcerated in Dublin and tried in London for his life on account of his faith. His mortal remains lie in the basilica, venerated by pilgrims and preserved as Prior Aidan Gasquet observed in 1883, ‘to do honour to so eminent a prelate and so holy a martyr.’