Continuing our series on the forty canonised martyrs of England & Wales
20th July: St. John Plessington
It is, as we have said before, so very easy to lump the martyrs of England and Wales together in one solid mass of witness, we seldom think of them in terms of who they were, where they came from, the time in which they lived.
Our martyr today, St. John Plessington, was born about forty years after the death of our last martyr: St. John Jones. He was born into a recusant family at around 1637 (more than that we cannot say with any certainty); we do know, however, that he was born in the delightfully named Dimples, in Lancashire, in what is now the Shrewsbury diocese.
He was educated by Jesuits in Scarisbrick, before going to study for priesthood at the Royal English College of St. Alban, in Valladolid in Spain. He entered the college on 18th November, 1660, under the assumed name of Scarisbrick, and was ordained priest on the feast of the Annunciation, 1662, before returning to exercise his ministry in England.
He returned to Lancashire, and worked in Cheshire and Holywell, being based out of Puddington Hall, where he served as tutor to the Massey family children. He carried on a quiet, harmless existence from 1663-1679.
However, he became one of those accused in Titus Oates’ Popish Plot: a fabricated plot wherein Jesuits and others were working to assassinate Charles II. Oates, a well known perjurer, had been received into the Catholic Faith, and gone off to Valladolid and St. Omer, in France, with the intention of learning more of the methods of Jesuits, and working to bring about the end of their work in England. He may well have known Fr John.
Legend has it that the reason Fr. Plessington was fingered in the Oates Plot because a local Protestant landlord was furious at his blocking a marriage between the landowner’s son and a Catholic heiress. Plessington was tried, and hanged, drawn and quartered on 19th July, 1679, near Chester. On the scaffold, he forgave those who had born false testimony against him. His words on the scaffold were also written ahead of time, and widely circulated:
It perhaps shows how much feeling was turning against such state persecution of Catholics (the last martyr, Oliver Plunkett was martyred only a couple of years later in 1681), ad perhaps a testimony to the esteem in which they held their local Catholic priest, that the local residents refused to allowed his dismembered remains to be exhibited before the rude and scoffing multitudes, but instead he was buried in the churchyard at St. Nicholas, in Burton.