Plunket, Oliver (DNB00)
|←Plunket, Nicholas||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 45
PLUNKET, OLIVER (1629–1681), Roman catholic archbishop of Armagh and titular primate of Ireland, was born at Loughcrew in Meath. His father's name is nowhere mentioned, but he was nearly related on that side to Christopher Plunket, second earl of Fingall [q. v.], and on his mother's to the Dillons, earls of Roscommon. He was also connected with his namesake, the sixth Lord Louth, and with Richard Talbot [q. v.] and his brother Peter [q. v.] He was educated from infancy to his sixteenth year by Lord Fingall's brother, Patrick Plunket, titular abbot of St. Mary's, Dublin, and afterwards bishop of Ardagh and Meath successively. In 1645 he accompanied Father Scarampi to Rome, narrowly escaping capture by pirates, or perhaps parliamentary cruisers, in the English Channel. In Flanders they fell among thieves, but an unnamed samaritan provided a ransom. On his arrival at Rome Plunket studied rhetoric for about a year under Professor Dandoni, and afterwards entered the Irish or Ludovisian College, then under jesuit control. There he remained eight years, becoming a proficient in mathematics, theology, and philosophy. It was a rule of the foundation that priests on completing their course should return to Ireland, but in July 1654 Plunket begged leave of Nickel, the general of the jesuits, to continue his studies among the oratorians at San Girolamo della Carità. This was granted on the understanding that he was to go to Ireland at any moment when ordered by the general, or others his superiors. From 1657 to 1669 Plunket filled the chair of theology at the Propaganda College, and his learning was utilised by the congregation of the Index. Among his friends were Scarampi, the oratorian, who befriended Plunket until October 1656, when he died of the plague, and Cardinal Pallavicini, the historian of the council of Trent from a point of view opposite to Sarpi's.
At the end of 1668 there were but two Roman catholic bishops resident in Ireland, of whom Patrick Plunket of Ardagh was one, his old pupil Oliver being his agent at Rome. In January 1669 Peter Talbot was appointed to Dublin, the sees of Cashel, Tuam, and Ossory being filled at the same time. All the new prelates agreed that Plunket should represent them at Rome, and he thus became a sort of general solicitor for Irish causes. He showed much zeal against Peter Walsh [q. v.] and his party, and was on friendly terms with his cousin, Archbishop Talbot, but was not one of those whom the latter recommended for the see of Armagh. Wood (Life, ii. 182) tells an unlikely story about an intrigue in Plunket's favour. There were objections to all the candidates named, and Clement IX cut the controversy short by saying, ‘Why discuss the uncertain, when the certain is before us? Here we have a man of approved virtue, consummate doctrine, and long experience, conspicuous for his qualifications in the full light of Rome. I make Oliver Plunket archbishop of Armagh and primate of Ireland, by my apostolic authority.’ The formal nomination was on 9 July 1669, the brief dated 3 Aug., and on 30 Nov. Plunket was consecrated at Ghent by the bishop of that see, one of whose assistants was Nicholas French [q. v.] of Ferns. Plunket reached London in November, and remained there till his departure for Ireland in the early spring of 1670. The pallium, which was granted on 28 July of that year, followed him to his own country. He had been twenty-five years in Rome.
Francis Barberini was at this time cardinal-protector of Ireland, and his letters secured Plunket a good reception from Queen Catherine of Braganza. Her almoner, Philip Thomas Howard [q. v.], lodged him secretly for ten days in his own apartment at Whitehall, and showed him the town. In February 1670 Plunket left London for Holyhead, the roads being almost impassable from snow, and reached Dublin about the middle of March after a ten hours' sail. Lord Fingall and other magnates of Plunket's name offered hospitality, and he accepted that of Lord Louth, whose house was conveniently placed for his work. It appears from a letter of Lord Conway's (Rawdon Papers, letter cvi.) that the king himself gave private information to John Robartes, afterwards first earl of Radnor [q. v.], the viceroy, that Plunket was lurking in Ireland; but this was before his consecration at Ghent, and it is probable that Charles ordered a search only because he knew that it would be fruitless. John, lord Berkeley of Stratton [q. v.], who succeeded Robartes as viceroy, reached Ireland in April, and from him neither Plunket nor Talbot had anything to fear. Plunket was indeed accused of accepting too many invitations to Dublin Castle, but he said that he could not decently refuse, especially as Lady Berkeley and Chief-secretary Lane were ‘secretly catholics’ (Brady). He was even allowed to set up a school in Dublin under jesuit management, and he lost no opportunity of praising Berkeley's tolerance and kindness. Plunket's enemies suggested that he was on too friendly terms with his protestant rival, Primate James Margetson [q. v.], but with him it was not easy to quarrel.
Arthur Capel, earl of Essex [q. v.], succeeded Berkeley in 1672. His protestantism was undoubted, but he had probably no wish to persecute; and Plunket wrote to Oliver, the general of the jesuits, that the viceroy was a ‘wise man, prudent and moderate, and not inferior to his predecessor in good will towards me’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 10th Rep. App. pt. v. p. 361). His plan was to encourage dissensions among the Roman catholic clergy, and in particular the dispute concerning the precedence of their sees between Plunket and Talbot (Spicilegium Ossoriense, ii. 22; RUSSELL and PRENDERGAST, Report on Carte Papers, p. 126).
Plunket's labours in his diocese were unceasing. In the first four years of his mission he confirmed 48,655 persons, some of them sixty years old, and this activity was never relaxed. His energies were not even confined to Ireland, for he visited the Hebrides in 1671, with some help from Lord Antrim, and in spite of the house of Argyll. His account of this mission is unfortunately lost. In ecclesiastical politics Plunket was an ultramontane, favouring the jesuits, scouting Peter Walsh and the opportunists, and carefully nipping Jansenism in the bud. In the interminable disputes between the Franciscan and Dominican orders he was disposed to favour the latter. The unfrocked, or at least disgraced, friars who incurred his censure and subsequently swore away his life were Franciscans. Irregularities of all kinds he sternly repressed, and he did what he could for education in the face of immense difficulties. The revenue from his see was only 62l. in good years, and sometimes it fell to 5l. 10s.; nor did he get much outside help. Charles II allowed him 200l. in 1671. In 1679 he wrote that he had not received quite 40l. altogether from Rome, that is for his own use; but several sums passed through his hands for educational and other purposes, which were always carefully accounted for. He never had a house of his own, and was often glad to eat oatcake and milk.
Plunket was not on very cordial terms with Archbishop Talbot. He presided at the national synod in Dublin in June 1670, which Talbot attended, but the ancient dispute about precedence between the two chief archiepiscopal sees was soon revived. Early in 1671 it was proposed to send the archbishop's brother Richard to England as agent at court for the Irish Roman catholics, and the archbishop subscribed 10l. Plunket offered to give a like sum if the clergy of his diocese would raise it, but this they refused to do. In 1672 Plunket published a treatise in English under the title ‘Jus Primatiale,’ &c., in which he claimed pre-eminence for his own see. Talbot was much aggrieved, and wrote an answer in Latin, entitled ‘Primatus Dublinensis,’ &c., which was published at Lisle in 1674. In the established church of Ireland the supremacy of Armagh had long been fully acknowledged. Baldeschi, secretary of the propaganda, pithily pronounced that he of Armagh kept his saddle—‘L'Armacano sta a cavallo’—but the controversy was not finally settled until long afterwards. Plunket was engaged as late as 1678 on a rejoinder to Talbot's treatise, but it never saw the light.
The agitation in England which led to the passing of the Test Act, and the subsequent agitation against the Duke of York, forced the Irish government into repressive measures. Roman catholics were excluded from the corporations, while their bishops and regular clergy were ordered to leave the kingdom. At the beginning of 1674 Plunket thought it prudent to hide, and to write in the name of Thomas Cox. One Sunday in January, after vespers, he travelled through snow and hail to the house of a country gentleman whose reduced circumstances left him little to fear from the recusancy laws. After some months the persecution slackened, and on 23 Sept. he ventured to write officially in his own name to his archiepiscopal brother of Tuam, but the letter is addressed to ‘Mr. James Lynch.’ Archbishop Lynch was himself driven into exile, but Plunket was well thought of in high official quarters, and was not seriously molested (Memoir, p. 207). When Ormonde succeeded Essex as viceroy in 1677, there was for a while little change in Plunket's position. Titus Oates made his first depositions respecting the ‘Popish Plot’ in September 1678, and in October Archbishop Talbot, who had been allowed to return to Ireland, was in consequence consigned to the prison where he died. In November Plunket went to Dublin to attend the deathbed of his old master and namesake, the bishop of Meath, and on 6 Dec. he was committed to the castle.
Plunket was kept for about six weeks in the castle in solitary confinement, but nothing appeared against him, and the rule was soon relaxed. MacMoyer and his fellow-perjurers, who accused Plunket of sharing in the Irish branch of the ‘Popish Plot,’ went over to England, and carefully rehearsed their part, returning to Ireland with instructions from the politicians who managed the plot. Special orders were sent that the prisoner should be tried by an exclusively protestant jury. Ormonde had the venue laid at Dundalk at the July assizes, 1680. This was in Plunket's own diocese, where he and his accusers were equally well known, and the result was that no witnesses were forthcoming. The trial was necessarily postponed, and in October orders came that it should take place in London. There were precedents for such a course, notably that of Connor, lord Maguire [see Maguire, Connor, 1616–1645]. Plunket had nearly exhausted his slender resources by paying the exorbitant charges of his Dublin gaoler, and was brought to London at the public expense. He arrived between 28 Oct. and 6 Nov., when the committee for examinations allowed him pen, ink, and paper. Two days later he petitioned the king and the House of Lords that he might be maintained in prison, and that his servant might be allowed access to him. Richardson, the governor of Newgate, reported a conversation in which he seemed to acknowledge that there was a plot of some kind in Ireland, but nothing was elicited from him at the bar of the lords. On 7 Jan. 1680–1 he was allowed to send to Ireland for some money of his—less than 100l.—which was in Sir Valentine Browne's hands (Hist. MSS. Comm. 11th Rep. App. ii. 168).
One grand jury refused to find a bill because the witnesses contradicted each other, but a second was more easily convinced, or practice may have made MacMoyer and his associates more plausible. Plunket lay in Newgate until 3 May 1681, when he was arraigned in the king's bench. He demurred to the jurisdiction, on the ground of his previous arraignment in Ireland, but this was overruled, and the trial at his request was fixed for 8 June, to enable him to bring over evidence. This apparently liberal respite was useless, for the Irish courts refused to compromise their independence by forwarding records without direct orders from the crown, and the English judges refused to receive parole evidence as to previous convictions of the witnesses. There were also delays from bad roads and want of money, and Plunket had to meet the charge of high treason without witnesses and without counsel. Chief-justice Pemberton, who had just succeeded Scroggs, and who afterwards defended the seven bishops, behaved with more decency, though scarcely with more fairness, than his predecessor. The puisne judge Thomas Jones (d. 1692) [q. v.] and William Dolben (d. 1694) [q. v.] were also severe on the prisoner. Sir Robert Sawyer [q. v.] conducted the case as attorney-general, with Finch, Jeffreys, and Maynard. The case against him was that he had conspired to bring a large French army to Ireland. For that purpose, it was said, he had collected money, and Carlingford was to be the place of disembarkation. As Plunket pointed out, one had only to look at a map of Ireland to see that no foreign enemy would go to Carlingford. The money collected by him was for the service of his church, and he had never had any communication with the French government. Plunket freely confessed that he had done everything that an archbishop of his church was bound to do, and that there might be matter for a præmunire. As for treason, the evidence, as we now read it, is so absurd that it is hard to understand his conviction by the jury after a quarter of an hour's deliberation.
After conviction Plunket solemnly said, ‘I was never guilty of any of the treasons laid to my charge, as you will hear in time, and my character you may receive from my Lord-chancellor of Ireland [Michael Boyle], my Lord Berkeley, my Lord Essex, and the Duke of Ormonde.’ Essex told the king that Plunket was innocent, and that the evi- dence against him could not be true. Charles retorted that Essex might have saved him by saying this at the trial, but that he himself dared not pardon any one. Plunket was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn on 1 July. On the scaffold he read a dignified speech, denying what had been sworn against him, and pointing out the flaws in the evidence. A postscript was affixed, in which he declared that he had made no mental reservation or evasion, but employed words ‘in their usual sense and meaning, as protestants do when they discourse with all candour and sincerity.’ His dying speech was at once printed and circulated.
‘Lord Essex told me,’ says Burnet, ‘that this Plunket was a wise and sober man … in due submission to the government, without engaging into intrigues of state … the foreman of the grand jury, who was a zealous protestant, told me, they contradicted one another evidently … he was condemned, and suffered very decently, expressing himself in many particulars as became a bishop.’ Charles Fox, in his historical fragment, declared that of his ‘innocence no doubt could be entertained.’ In Dalrymple's ‘Memoirs’ Plunket is called ‘the most innocent of men.’
Extraordinary honour has been paid to Archbishop Plunket's remains. The head was sent to Cardinal Howard at Rome, and by him presented to Archbishop Hugh MacMahon, who brought it to Ireland about 1722. It is still preserved in the Dominican convent at Drogheda, which was founded in that year by the archbishop's grand-niece, Catherine Plunket. Father Corker, the chief of the English Benedictines, who was in Newgate with Plunket, had the body buried first in the churchyard of St. Giles-in-the-fields; two years later it was exhumed and carried to Germany to the Benedictine Abbey of St. Adrian and St. Denis at Lamspringe, near Hildesheim, and there it remained until the Prussian government expelled the English monks in 1803. It was then placed in the churchyard, but brought to England in 1883, when it was placed in St. Gregory's monastery, Downside, near Bath. Father Corker employed a surgeon named Ridley to cut off the arms below the elbows. One of these severed limbs was long preserved at Sarnsfield Court, Herefordshire, and is now at the Franciscan convent, Taunton. When the body was removed from Lamspringe some bones were extracted and left there as relics.
There is a portrait of Plunket in the Drogheda nunnery, said to have been painted in prison, ‘in the dress peculiar to archbishops of that time, with long flowing hair and beard.’ A portrait painted by G. Murphy is in the National Portrait Gallery, London, and has been engraved by Vander Vaart; other engravings by Luttrell, Collins, Dunbar, and Lowndes are mentioned by Bromley. Another portrait is in the Bodleian Library.[Cardinal Moran has collected most of the facts and many of the documents in his Memoir of Archbishop Plunket, and in his Spicilegium Ossoriense. The latter contains originals of which the former gives translations or extracts. Other letters are in De Burgo's Hibernia Dominicana, 1762, and in the 7th and 10th Reports of the Hist. MSS. Comm.; Carte's Ormonde; Stuart's Armagh; D'Alton's Hist. of Drogheda; Archbishop Hugh MacMahon's Jus Primatiale Armachanum, 1728; Peter Walsh's Hist. of the Remonstrance; State Trials, vols. ii. and iii., ed. 1742; Anthony Wood's Life and Times, ed. Clark, vol. ii.; Arthur, Earl of Essex's Letters, 1770; Brady's Episcopal Succession; Macrae's Annals of the Bodleian Library; Tablet newspaper, 10 Feb. 1883; information kindly supplied by the Rev. Robert Murphy, P.P., St. Peter's, Drogheda.]