Thomas Whitbread was born in Essex in 1618. He studied at St Omer in Flanders and on 7th September 1635 he entered the Jesuit Novitiate. Ordained in 1645, Fr Thomas Whitbread (alias Thomas Harcourt) embarked upon the English Mission in 1647. In 1678, Fr Whitbread became the Jesuit Provincial and in this capacity he encountered Titus Oates at St Omer. Oates, after a very chequered and dubious past, had converted to Catholicism and applied to enter the Jesuits. Whitbread, exhibiting great perspicacity, refused him and had him expelled from the college. Titus Oates later declared that his conversion to Catholicism was feigned in order to infiltrate the Jesuits and learn their secrets! Oates returned to London where he met an old acquaintance, Israel Tonge. Tonge had long harboured hatred and suspicion of Catholics and, with his encouragement, Oates let loose the surge of persecution that enveloped the country.
Before dawn on 29th September 1678, Parliamentary soldiers, led by Oates, arrested Fr Whitbread and Fr Edward Mico. Both priests were suffering from plague and were too ill to be moved. By December Fr Mico had died but the Provincial was now well enough to be taken to Newgate Prison. Here he joined two other Jesuits, Frs William Ireland and John Fenwick. Fr Ireland and Fr Fenwick had been arrested by Oates the previous night.
On 17th December 1678, Fr Whitbread, Fr Ireland and Fr Fenwick were brought to trial at the Old Bailey. Fr Ireland was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered but the evidence against Fr Whitbread and Fr Fenwick was insufficient and they were remanded in prison.
Fr Whitbread again appeared at the Old Bailey on 13th June 1679. Lord Chief Justice Scroggs presided and Titus Oates and other criminals, liars and lowlife, were the witnesses for the prosecution. Scroggs ordered the jury to find the defendant guilty, which, needless to say, they did. The punishment for High Treason was to be hanged, drawn and quartered. At Tyburn, the 61 year old Jesuit suffered this barbarous execution on Friday, 20th June 1679. Before he was hanged, Fr Whitbread affirmed his innocence, forgave those whose lies had condemned him and then prayed silently until the cart was pulled away. Although Fr Whitbread’s body was cut down and quartered, some loyal and brave friends claimed his remains and buried them in the churchyard of St Giles in the Fields.
The Martyred Jesuit Provincial, Fr Thomas Whitbread, was beatified by Pope Pius XI on 15th December 1929.