Thomas Whitbread

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The Blessed

Thomas Whitbread
Thomas Whitbread (1618-1679).JPG
Died30 June 1679
Alma materCollege of St. Omer

Blessed Thomas Whitbread (alias Harcourt) (born in Essex, 1618; executed at Tyburn, 30 June 1679) was an English Jesuit missionary, wrongly convicted of conspiracy to murder Charles II of England. He was beatified in 1929.


He was a native of Essex, but little is known of his family or early life. He was educated at St. Omer's, and entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus on 7 September 1635. Coming upon the English mission in 1647, he worked in England for more than thirty years, mostly in the eastern counties. On 8 December 1652, he was professed of the four vows. Twice he was superior of the Suffolk District, once of the Lincolnshire District, and finally in 1678 he was declared Provincial. In this capacity he refused to admit Titus Oates as a member of the Society, on the grounds of his ignorance, blasphemy and sexual attraction to young boys, and expelled him forthwith from the seminary of St Omer; shortly afterwards Titus, motivated largely by personal spite against Whitbread, fabricated the Popish Plot.[1]

It was said later that Whitbread had a miraculous presentiment of the Plot, and undoubtedly he preached a celebrated sermon at Liege in July 1678, on the text "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?", in which he warned his listeners that the present time of tranquility would not last, and that they must be willing to suffer false accusations, imprisonment, torture and martyrdom.[2] Having completed a tour of his Flanders province, he went to England but at once fell ill with plague.[3]

Arrest, trial and execution[edit]

Whitbread was arrested in London on Michaelmas Day, 1678, but was so ill that he could not be moved to Newgate till three months later. He was first indicted at the Old Bailey, 17 December 1678, but the evidence against him and his companions broke down.[4] Given the state of public opinion, it was unthinkable to the Government that Whitbread, whom Oates and the other informers had identified as one of the originators of the Plot, should be allowed to escape punishment.[5] Accordingly he was remanded and kept in prison till 13 June 1679, when he was again indicted for treason, and with four others was found guilty on the perjured evidence of Oates, William Bedloe and Stephen Dugdale.[6] The importance of the trial is shown by the fact that it was heard by a bench of seven judges, headed by the Lord Chief Justice, Sir William Scroggs, who was a firm believer in the Plot and deeply hostile to Catholic priests.[7] In the circumstances Whitbread could not have hoped to escape, and, although he strongly maintained his innocence, Kenyon suggests that he had resigned himself to death.[8] Certainly the sermon he had preached at Liege the previous year suggests that he expected to suffer the death of a martyr, whether sooner or later.[9]

He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. The King, who knew that he and his fellow victims were innocent, ordered that they be allowed to die before being mutilated. The crowd showed that on this occasion its sympathies were with the victims, and it listened in respectful silence as Whitbread and the others made lengthy speeches protesting their innocence.[10] The others executed with him were John Gavan, John Fenwick, William Harcourt and Anthony Turner. After the execution his remains, and those of his companions, were buried in St. Giles's in the Fields.[11]


Whitbread wrote "Devout Elevation of the Soul to God" and two short poems, "To Death" and "To his Soul", which are printed in "The Remonstrance of Piety and Innocence".


  1. ^ Kenyon, J.P. The Popish Plot Phoenix Press reissue 2000 p.50
  2. ^ Kenyon p.50
  3. ^ Kenyon p.50
  4. ^ Kenyon p.144
  5. ^ Kenyon p.50
  6. ^ Kenyon pp.180-185
  7. ^ Kenyon p.180
  8. ^ Kenyon p.181
  9. ^ Kenyon p.50
  10. ^ Kenyon p.206
  11. ^ Cooper 1890.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainCooper, Thompson (1890). "Harcourt, Thomas". In Stephen, Leslie; Lee, Sidney (eds.). Dictionary of National Biography. 24. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Ven. Thomas Whitbread" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton. The entry cites:
    • The Remonstrance of Piety and Innocence (London, 1683);
    • Matthias Tanner, Brevis relatio felicis agonis (Prague, 1683);
    • Florus Anglo-Bavaricus (Liège, 1685);
    • Tryals and condemnation of Thomas White alias Whitbread (London, 1879);
    • Smith in Corbett, State Trials, VII;
    • Foley, Coll. Eng. Prov. S. J. V, VII (London, 1879–1883), ii, and all works dealing with the Oates Plot;
    • Thompson Cooper in Dictionary of National Biography, s. v. Harcourt, Thomas.
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
Richard Strange
Provincial superior of the English
Province of the Society of Jesus

14 January 1678 – 30 June 1679
Succeeded by
John Warner