George Wakeman was a Roman Catholic physician of high integrity and stellar reputation during the reign of King Charles II of England. He served as physician to King Charles II’s Portuguese Roman Catholic queen, Catherine of Braganza which brought him into the orbit of the infamous Popish Plot. His prominent standing in his profession may have saved his life.
George was born on October 20, 1627 in Hampshire. He was the son of Edward Wakeman, barrister and Mary Cotton of Sussex. The large Catholic family included six sons and an unknown number of daughters. George was educated at home and in 1642, was sent to Spanish Flanders along with his brother Edward to the English Jesuit school of St. Omer. They studied together for five years and then entered the English College at Rome where they stayed until 1650. He remained undecided about his career. He left Rome, traveled to Padua and then to Paris where he settled on studying medicine.
The Wakeman family were stalwart Royalists and explicitly supported the monarchy. When George returned to England in 1658, he participated in a plot during the Interregnum against the Protector, Oliver Cromwell. He was caught and imprisoned until the eve of the Restoration of King Charles II, who released him and created him a baronet, Wakeman of Beckford (although the patent was never sealed). The first record of his professional activity dates from August 1668 noting he attended to and treated Sir Joseph Williamson, an administrator and secretary of state in the government.
In 1670, due to his good reputation as the best Roman Catholic doctor in England, Wakeman was appointed as physician-in-ordinary to Queen Catherine of Braganza. In 1678, Wakeman was caught up in the web of what came to be known as the Popish Plot. The Plot unfolded in an odd way. A strange man named Titus Oates who was a Protestant chaplain collaborated with a man named Dr. Israel Tonge, an educator and rector. Together, the two men wrote a long manuscript containing accusations that the Catholic Church was plotting to assassinate King Charles with the Jesuits perpetrating the heinous crime.
The proposal called for the killing of all the principal Protestant leaders, for the king to be shot or stabbed or for the Queen’s physician to poison him, and for installing Charles’ heir, his Catholic brother James, Duke of York on the throne under the aegis of the Pope. This document designated one hundred Jesuits and supporters as being involved. Oates slipped a copy of the manuscript into some wainscoting of a gallery in Sir Richard Barker’s house. Tonge was to claim he found the document and showed it to an acquaintance, Christopher Kirkby (or Kirby) who was alarmed enough to warn the king.
On August 28, 1678, Kirkby approached the king on his walk in St. James Park and told him his life was in danger. Charles was unimpressed with the warning about his personal safety and told Kirkby to recount the tale to his personal staff member William Chaffinch. Charles also asked Thomas Danby, Earl of Osborne and Lord Treasurer to look into the story. Tonge went before Danby and said he found the document but didn’t know the identity of the author.
Charles initially denied a request for an investigation but the Duke of York insisted and Titus Oates’ name was revealed. On September 6, Oates gave a deposition to the magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey and testified that he had attended a meeting of Jesuits where regicide was discussed. Shortly after this testimony, Sir Edmund was found dead. To this day his murder has never been solved.
By now the Plot had gained a lot of steam and the government considered it serious and launched into further investigation. On November 28, 1678, Oates was now claiming that in the previous July he had seen a letter in which it was affirmed by Sir George Wakeman that Queen Catherine had given her consent to murder the king. Oates was now accusing the Queen of high treason. Oates maintained she was well aware of the plot by her physician to poison her husband even though everyone knew she adored Charles. Oates said he was in the Queen’s residence of Somerset House and had overheard a discussion with the Queen in her closet where the door had conveniently been left open.
Oates said Wakeman had been offered £10,000 in his presence but the doctor refused, saying it was too much work for so little money. The offer was then raised to £15,000 and Wakeman accepted. The doctor was to prepare the poison and the Queen would administer it to the king. Oates also claimed to have witnessed part of the money being paid to Wakeman at a Jesuit meeting on August 30, 1678. The story was further embellished. Oates stated Wakeman was promised the additional reward of a post as physician-in-general in the army.
Initially, the government was extremely reluctant to take any steps against Sir George Wakeman. He was a devoted servant of the Stuart monarchs and these charges were highly offensive. The diarist John Evelyn knew Wakeman well and said he was “a worthy gentleman” and would have abhorred the deed of assassination. He commented that the act of killing the king would have been breaking his Hippocratic oath and also his oath of loyalty to his monarch.
The Whig leaders in the government had been successful in the trials of the Popish Plot in early 1679 and wanted to pursue more “plotters”, recognizing that if they could put Wakeman on trial and find him guilty, the Queen would be incriminated. After all, she was Catholic and childless with no expectation of having any heir to the throne. Wakeman was indicted for high treason and put on trial at the Old Bailey on July 18, 1679, the Lord Chief Justice William Scroggs presiding.
Along with Wakeman, three Benedictine monks, William Marshal, William Rumley and James Corker were arraigned. The chief witnesses for the prosecution were Titus Oates and his co-conspirator, a man named William Bedloe. Oates testified he had seen a document appointing Wakeman as physician-in-general for the army as well as a receipt for £5000 as the down payment on the £15,000. Oates implied that Queen Catherine knew of Wakeman’s plot to poison her husband and put James, Duke of York on the throne and wanted revenge on the king for his infidelity. Oates exaggerated even further, adding that King Charles’ natural born son the Duke of Monmouth was to be killed. Bedloe swore that he was on intimate terms with Wakeman.
Wakeman actively worked and argued in his own defense. He called witnesses and examined those who gave evidence against him. The preparation of Wakeman’s case had been given the highest priority by someone of authority, possibly on the orders of King Charles himself. The doctor had access to the records of parliamentary evidence, including the House of Lords Journal with paperwork regarding the government’s investigation into the plot. Someone gave permission for the manuscript to be removed from the House. Who was it? The King? The council?
Wakeman managed to totally discredit the prosecution’s evidence by establishing the letter Oates cited as proving him guilty was a prescription written by his assistant and not himself. The prescription had no note at the bottom about killing the king. Also, Oates was forced to admit he did not recognize Wakeman’s handwriting. Wakeman pointed out that it was absurd for a man of his position to be on intimate terms with a man like Bedloe. Wakeman argued that his family was fiercely loyal to the crown. Not only had he himself been imprisoned during the Interregnum for conspiring to restore the monarchy but his brother Richard had raised a troop of cavalry for the king and the king’s father, Charles I.
Lord Chief Justice Scroggs courageously stated his doubts about the truth of Oates’ testimony. He commented harshly on the integrity of the evidence presented by the prosecution. The case went to the jury for deliberation. The jury asked the judge if they were allowed to find the prisoners guilty of misprision of treason. Scroggs told them they could not and the jury found all the defendants not guilty.
It is said that King Charles cried with joy at the verdicts. He knew from the very beginning the plot was a sham. The verdict was wildly unpopular and greeted with violence by the mob. The Portuguese ambassador visited Lord Chief Justice Scroggs shortly after the trial with the unfortunate consequence of the crowd believing he had taken bribes from the Portuguese.
Scroggs was a convenient scapegoat and the rabble threw a half-hanged dog into his coach. There is no evidence Scroggs was bribed or was influenced by the king or anyone else. The doctor’s friends stood by him during the entire ordeal. A few days after the acquittal, Wakeman went to Windsor Castle to greet the king and queen. For his own safety, Wakeman left England and went to Brussels.
The outcome of the trial did not end the Popish Plot but it was a turning point and direct setback in the credibility of the Plot’s sponsors. After this, only two more Catholics were tried, found guilty and executed. Perhaps the most fortunate consequence of the trial was the Queen was finally freed from suspicion. Oates and Bedloe protested loudly at their treatment during the summation of the trial. During subsequent trials, Oates in particular deliberately ignored the acquittal of Wakeman and continued to testify that bribes had been offered to the doctor and that he had accepted.
In 1685, George Wakeman was seen by the diarist John Evelyn at Lady Tuke’s. Titus Oates had been charged with perjury and Wakeman returned to London to give evidence against him during his May 8th trial, probably to his own great satisfaction. Oates was found guilty on two counts and imprisoned. Sir George Wakeman then disappears from the record and nothing further is known of his career.
Further reading: “The Royal Doctors 1485-1714: Medical Personnel at the Tudor and Stuart Courts” by Elizabeth Lane Furdell, “Catherine of Braganza” by Janet MacKay, “Royal Charles: Charles II and the Restoration” by Antonia Fraser, “Charles II: King of England, Scotland and Ireland” by Ronald Hutton, “The Popish Plot” by John Kenyon, Kenyon, J. P. “The Acquittal of Sir George Wakeman: 18 July 1679.” The Historical Journal 14, no. 4 (1971): 693-708. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2638101, entry on Sir George Wakeman in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Thomas Seccombe, revised by Michael Bevan