A dark past remembered
In its long history the parish of St Giles has known days of pride and days of shame, times of growth and times of decay, moments of justice and moments of injustice. This January finds us marking once and for all an unfortunate episode in the nation’s, and in London’s, history, now generally known as the ‘Titus Oates Affair.’ The date is the restoration years of the late 1670’s, when Charles II was on the throne.
Of the ‘affair’ itself little really need be said here. At a time of fevered anti-Catholicism, a disgruntled and malicious Oates sought personal revenge on the Jesuit order by inventing a plot that a number of their priests were planning to murder the king. The charge was taken up by the popular press and London mob and in its wake a number of priests and lay people were convicted of treason and met a brutal death at the hands of the executioner. Like others, I imagine, they made their way west along High Holborn and St Giles High Street to Tyburn, but in the case of seven of them their bodies were brought back again eastwards and laid to rest in St Giles Churchyard. Why they in particular were returned to us I am not sure (perhaps someone will enlighten me) but returned they were, though today, of course, as with everyone else once buried in the churchyard, it is not possible to say where they lay for certain (perhaps in the northern part of the churchyard, often reserved for suicides, undesirables and those of uncertain origin).
Equally mysterious is why so long has passed without some kind of material commemoration of these burials among us at St Giles. Our Protestant identity was more marked in previous generations, to be sure, and this, coupled with today’s climate of greater, mutual toleration (indeed, fraternisation), now allows, in a way that was, perhaps, less possible before, this present project: to install a memorial tablet from Portland stone on the far west wall of the church above the stairs going up to the northern gallery; in other words, the wall which is immediately to the right when entering the churchyard from the main north door. Philip Surey, a respected letter-carver and member of the Art Workers Guild, has been commissioned to make and carve the memorial in his Peckham workshop and to fix it to the wall in time for a special ‘unveiling’ service at 6.30pm on Sunday, 20th January, which falls within the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
From the outset I was keen to avoid one thing and include another. I was keen to avoid any permanent reference to martyrdom, as in the often-used phrase ‘the Jesuit Martyrs.’ The politics of the day was heavy with intolerance of Catholics, it is true, but such politics were also complex: it has never seemed a simple case of religious persecution, though it is not difficult to see why, later, others have interpreted them so. Besides, the innocence of martyrdom implies the guilt of the establishment. We need to recognise the worth of these lives but avoid any sweeping judgements of history.
And I was keen to include reference to all those who have been laid to rest in the churchyard from the centuries before even these priests, for to single out seven from among the thousands buried around the church would seem short-sighted and unbalanced. The churchyard has been, and remains, a resting place for those who have died from disease or poverty or violence or age, and who are we to declare in stone that some are of more worth than others?
All along this has been a shared initiative between ourselves, the Jesuit community at Farm Street, particularly Fr. Dominic Robinson SJ, and Fr. Alexander Sherbrooke at St Patrick’s in Soho Square and the cost of the project is to be shared among the three of us. I am most grateful for their cooperation at each stage of the planning.
So, finally, here is the wording of the memorial:
red elsewhere, 1863)