September 1982 Print

Blessed James Fenn

by Malcolm Brennan

Some saints seem to be men and women of clear vision who understand early in life the role they are to play in serving God. Their piety appears while they are still children, their vocations are unmistakable and specific, and no matter what extraordinary circumstances turn up, they seem to know exactly what is to be done and they proceed to do it with dispatch. While our admiration goes out to such holy vessels of grace, perhaps our sympathy goes out more readily to those like Blessed James Fenn who several times had to pick up the shattered pieces of his life and try to start over at something new.

While the former kind of saints display the copious illumination and the clear insight into things spiritual that comes from a steadfast faith, there remains another element of the virtue of faith, which is not so much understanding of God's particular plans as it is a serene confidence in Him. It is an assurance and a child-like trust that, however inscrutable and confounding the situations He puts us in, our duty is always and simply to follow His commands. Perhaps this latter dimension of the first of the theologial virtues is especially suitable during the periods of turmoil and confusion in which James Fenn lived, and in which we live.

Born at Montacute in Somersetshire, Blessed James received most of his university education at Oxford during the reign of Queen Mary, the only legitimate child of Henry VIII and his pious wife, Catherine of Aragon. It must have seemed to James at age fourteen when he began his studies there, following the footsteps of two elder brothers, that the long nightmare of England's rebellion against Rome would finally come to an end. But while Queen Mary was zealous to undo the crimes of her father and to restore the "Dower of Our Lady" to its rightful place in the universal Church, all her efforts had ended in failure before Blessed James completed his course of studies.

Mary was succeeded in 1558 by her illegitimate sister Elizabeth, who very shortly instituted an oath of supremacy, as her father had done, requiring persons in authority to affirm solemnly that she, and not the pope, was the head of the Church in England. When James Fenn discovered, during the Oxford commencement ceremonies in 1559 that he and his fellow students were required to take the oath as a routine part of the proceedings, he removed his bachelor's hood and stepped down from the platform. Why God had allowed Queen Mary to fail to restore Catholic order, and why Queen Elizabeth succeeded in her destruction, and what the consequences would be of James's refusal of the oath, and why his fellow Catholics blithely took it—all these things must have been disturbing and baffling. But he knew with certainty that the Mystical Body of Christ was not at the beck and call of a lay woman, and he refused to say or pretend otherwise. The obscure causes and consequences of his act would just have to take care of themselves in God's good time; for the present his duty was clear.

The authorities tried again to induce him to take the oath but again he refused, and he left Oxford without the degree. However, sympathetic friends found a place for him in his native Somersetshire at Gloucester Hall (now Worcester College) where he tutored students in preparation for university study. During his four years there he married and had two children: a daughter who later watched her father's martyrdom, and a son who was at the English College at Rheims at the time. Little else is known of them.

James's father had moved from Montacute, where James was born, to Wells, and once when James was visiting him the local bishop arrested James and demanded that he make the oath of supremacy. James's refusal, according to the statute, constituted an act of high treason and earned the penalty of death. Fortunately, however, someone persuaded the bishop that the oath could not be demanded of anybody at random but only of certain people at certain times, such as at the conferral of academic degrees and holy orders, or a civil post. The bishop reluctantly released his prisoner. This was Bishop Gilbert Berkeley, formerly an Augustinian Canon, who spent most of his episcopal energy in litigation to cut off diocesan pensions to his predecessor's relatives and otherwise to increase his revenues.

Since people were obviously out to get him, James abandoned his educational career and moved into his father's old house at the little village of Montacute to live a quiet and retired life of farming with his family. But this career was hardly begun when the vicar of Montacute, Thomas Morley, threatened to proceed against him for failure to comply with the Act of Uniformity. This Act, another feather in Queen Elizabeth's cap, required everyone to receive communion on certain days of the year, and James had failed to comply. Confronted with this threat, James was persuaded by a friend to go into hiding, and he wandered from place to place for two months. In this unsettled state he received news that his young wife had died. He arranged for his two children to be taken care of—we are not told how—and went to stay with an old friend from Oxford.

One day near the house where he was staying, a man on horseback rode up, heaped "cartloads of abuse upon him," and began to horsewhip him brutally. This, it turned out, was a relative of several brothers that Blessed James had taught at Gloucester Hall. Under his tutelage the boys had become staunch Catholics, and the family had just recently found this out. For his own safety and out of consideration for his host, he moved again, this time to the home of Sir Nicholas Poyntz. Sir Nicholas was one of those Catholics who somehow managed to avoid confrontation with the government and the new church (perhaps by compromise, alas). He was a generous, open-hearted man, possessed of extensive land holdings, and he appointed James as his steward or business agent—the best there could be, the tenants came to think. Sir Nicholas was a robust man, full of vitality and nervous energy, but he also had a foul tongue and a fierce temper. James Fenn, by contrast, was slight of build, modest and unhurried in his ways. One day Sir Nicholas ordered James to do something or other and, noticing James's slow and deliberate manner of going about it, flew into a rage and shouted at him, "Mend your pace, you gallows-bird, or I will mow your sluggardly ankles with this scythe!" Blessed James replied, "Noble sir, by the eternal God I pray you to wait patiently, for you shall see, if God wills, that with all this slow pace, I will yet finish your business betimes, and wholly according to your desire." As if to illustrate that "a soft answer turneth away wrath," Sir Nicholas was reduced to tears of remorse for his harsh treatment. Sir Nicholas told this story many times in later years and he also declared that all the while that Blessed James lived at his estate, Iron Acton, his whole life and conversation were one continuous, uninterrupted sermon.

One of the occasional visitors to Iron Acton was a wise and virtuous priest, probably John Colleton, who was greatly impressed with James's prudence, judiciousness and piety. He advised James, a widower now in his late thirties, to seek ordination abroad; accordingly James began his fourth career at the seminary at Rheims in 1579. He was ordained the next year and returned immediately to Somersetshire, where the position of the Church was deteriorating badly, partly because of the Queen's intimidations and partly because of a religious indifference that resulted from them, particularly among the lower classes.

For a year he worked unmolested as a missionary where he had grown up, and he reconciled many to the Church; yet while he convinced many others of the truth of the Catholic cause, they declined to put themselves in jeopardy for its sake. In the second year of his ministry Father Edmund Campion was captured in an extensive manhunt, and it was probably because of all the commotion surrounding Campion that Father Fenn was also arrested shortly afterwards, although the authorities did not know that he was a priest. He was imprisoned temporarily at Ilchester. One day he was set in the town square in heavy chains for passers-by to mock at and abuse. They, however, impressed by his tranquil dignity and patient endurance, declined to play their role in the program. In fact, the episode began to stir up the religiously indifferent populace and to make religion once again a lively topic.

From Ilchester the prisoner was sent to London and lodged in the Marshalsea prison, probably in September 1581. James found himself in the company of over a dozen other priests whom the dragnet had hauled in, but he was not as closely confined as they because his priesthood was still not known to the authorities, and indeed would not be for two years. Blessed James gave himself over to his priestly ministry in prison, secretly of course, drawn especially to the wretches guilty of the worst offenses. One such was a pirate who, because of his many and heinous crimes, had given up all hope of saving either his life or his soul. On the night before his execution, Blessed James comforted him with assurances of the inexhaustible mercies of God and, in the words of an early biographer, "bade him take as his example and patron the thief who was lifted up on the cross with Christ our Saviour," and whose very short prayer was answered so sweetly by Our Lord. "Finally he expounded to him a few of the chief heads of Catholic doctrine, so far as the shortness of time and the perils of his position would admit." The pirate was convinced, made his confession, and received the Holy Viaticum early next morning. Later in the day he flatly refused "to communicate in the Calvinistic manner," even in the face of promises of his freedom and of threats of torture upon the rack. When asked to pray with the crowd at the gallows, he refused to unite with the heretics and instead professed his new faith; and he praised the providence of God, who had brought him into prison and thereby into the Church. "With these words the catechumen of one night was turned off the ladder and strangled in the noose, to pass as confessor and martyr to the triumph of one day, but that a day most bright and beautiful, to which no nightfall shall ever put an end."

For about a year before his own martyrdom, as if he had a premonition of it, Blessed James began to live as a hermit, so far as his ministry and the guards permitted, no longer seeking solace in the company of his fellow sufferers, but drawing apart for long sessions of silent prayer. In the latter half of 1583, he was recognized as a priest, perhaps betrayed by someone he had served, and he was lodged more strictly in a cell with three other priests. Even so they managed to say Mass occasionally, although constrained to use a tin cup for a chalice.

Shortly after Father Fenn was discovered to be a priest, it pleased the Queen's Privy Council, for reasons of state, to execute some more priests. Blessed James was accused of having entered a conspiracy in September 1581 at Rheims to murder the Queen. The court and the jury were unimpressed when he pointed out that he had not been in Rheims at that time but in Marshalsea Prison. They found him guilty and condemned him to die, along with half a dozen other priests. The weeks between his sentence and his execution he spent in "the pit," a twenty foot deep hole, unlighted, unventilated, and with such sanitary facilities as may be imagined.

He was executed with two others, Venerable George Haydock and Venerable Thomas Hemerford, secular priests like himself and his "co-conspirators" against the Queen. All protested their innocence to the end and professed their faith steadfastly. "Before the cart was driven away" to leave him suspended by the neck," the early biographer reports, "he was stripped of his apparell saving his shirt only; and presently after the cart was drawn away his shirt was pulled off his back, so that he hung stark naked." His daughter Frances had seen him hauled away from the Tower of London on a hurdle, but whether she witnessed this spectacle is not known.

One of the officials rebuked his fellows: "You play the knaves. These be men; let them be used like men." And he ordered that they at least be allowed to hang until they were dead. But the knaves prevailed. Blessed Father Fenn regained his senses after he was removed from the gallows, and he was quite conscious when they opened his belly to remove his bowels. Parts of his body were displayed on the four main gates of the city and his head was mounted on a long pole on London Bridge.

And so passed into glory Blessed James Fenn. He never quite mastered the worldly forces that shaped his life and his age, but he triumphed over the masters of this world by his generous perseverance in the service of God and His Church.


"Martyrs of the English Reformation", formerly called "English Martyrs" is written each month by Dr. Malcolm Brennan, Professor of English at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina.