Why? Saints, Blesseds & Martyrs

Following the protestant so-called reformation, numerous Christians were persecuted for their faith in one way or another. Many Catholics who remained faithful to the authority of the Catholic Church refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy were eventually martyred in various ways.

The most famous of these are the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales (Ss. Cuthbert Mayne, Edward Campion, Margaret Clitherow number among these), formerly celebrated on 25th October. However, in the latest edition of the Roman Missal this feast has been removed in favour of  the two separate feasts of the English Martyrs (4th May) and the Welsh Martyrs (25th October).

One of the beatified martyrs of this time, and of note especially to the diocese of Clifton is Blessed James Fenn, who was born at Montacute and later arrested at Brympton before his execution in 1584. Owing to his local connections to this parish of the Holy Ghost, Yeovil with St. Michael’s, South Petherton, we propose to share the life of Blessed James with you and help establish him as a model of the Christian life and intercessor for this community in our current age.



An image found in the entry for Blessed James Fenn in Modern British Martyrology: Commencing with the Reformation by Richard Challoner

An account of

The Life and Death of Blessed James

James Fenn  (born circa 1540)  appears to have come from a respectable Catholic family, with his brothers John and Robert becoming priests in their lifetimes. Born in Montacute, James won admittance to study at New College, Oxford, through his impressive singing performance as a chorister.  He was noted for his gentleness and good humour.  Later he was made scholar and fellow of Corpus Christi College. At his graduation to receive his BA, removing  his hood he retorted that he would never be guilty of obtaining any temporal honour at the price of his eternal salvation.  During this turbulent period, the Privy Council had allowed Catholic candidates of Oxford University to receive their degrees without taking the Oath of Supremacy, but this local suspension of the Act of Succession was short lived[1]. Refusing to take the oath, Fenn was removed from office at Oxford University.  Continuing to privately tutor pupils after his dismissal at Gloucester Hall, James Fenn married, his wife given birth to two children (a boy and a girl). Spending some time in his village of birth, he was forced into hiding when the local vicar challenged him regarding his absence at the Anglican services. His wife died suddenly during this time, and after a couple of months he returned to Montacute, living in concealment through the help of a friend.

He was later employed by an "eminent Catholic Gentleman" (Sir Nicholas Poyntz) in Gloucester. It appears that Fenn was influential on the youths he tutored, and there is record of a least one coming to the Catholic Faith upon witnessing his martydom.[2] Sir Nicholas recalled that the manner in which Fenn carried out his daily duties made his whole life a perpetual sermon exhorting virtue and piety to all3.

In 1579, following the earlier death of his wife, and because of James' "excellent qualifications and rare virtues"[3], he was encouraged to consider the priestly ministry. Trained at Rheims, he was ordained relatively quickly as a priest in April 1580 and returned to his home county of Somerset to minister secretly here.

However, this stay was short. He was found a Catholic, and was arrested close to the Manor House of Brympton d'Evercy. Despite this, it is noted that he reconciled several persons of distinction to the Catholic Faith2 before his imprisonment. He was taken to Ilchester Prison. Held in the stocks on the market day, his ''invincible patience, modest countenance and tranquil soul''3 caused many to reflect more deeply into their own faith (rather than shaming Fenn as intended). The onlookers saw something worthy of admiration in James Fenn, and this reaction angered the authorities. By September 1581 he was in Marshalsea Prison in Southwark.

It appears that Fenn's priestly identity was unknown  to his prosecutors, and as such he was enabled to minister to his fellow prisoners for about 3 years. He utilised his time in prison well - spending it in prayer and other spiritual exercises as well as in leading pirates and other serious criminals back to God. Upon his priesthood being exposed, a demonstrably false charge of a plot against the Queen was generated  against Fenn and four other priests, which led to his being taken to the Tower of London.

Much ought to be said of the martyrdom itself. On the morning of the 12th February 1584, when he was already laid on the hurdle at Tower Gate, he looked up, and recognized his little daughter, Frances, standing in the crowd. She was weeping bitterly, but he kept  his habitual calm and peaceful expression, as, lifting his pinioned hands so far as possible, he gave her  both his parental and priestly blessing, and then was drawn away[4].  Fenn prayed at the gallows itself, though refused the consolation of a Protestant minister ("I am not to be taught my duty by you."). Questioned on the accused charge of  treason, he reiterated that he had never wished to harm the Queen by so much as a pin-prick and willingly gave all due obedience to her in worldly matters (but not in spiritual matters)[5]. Immediately  before being hanged, he commended himself and the Queen to God's mercy.

The nature of the hanging was such that Fenn (by now stripped stark naked) was forced by the rope  to stand upright, at which point he cried out to the wonder of all, 'my Lord and my God'. The boldness of Fenn and the other priests suffering the same fate is remarkable. The executioner would  cut open the bellies of the still alive men, drag out their intestines with his bloody hands, and cast them into a fire. Meanwhile, the men continued in their confession of Faith. A brutal and experimental means to extend the anguish was employed whereby the breast was cut open and in stages reached towards to heart[6]. His quarters were displayed above the four main gates of London, and his head was mounted on London Bridge.

Fenn was beatified 15thDecember 1929 by Pope Pius XI


Why do we need a 'parish martyr'?

We offer Bl. James Fenn to you as a model of someone who held fast to the teachings and disciplines of the Church even in times of trial. Perhaps a young person can take heart from his courage in stepping down from his studies at Oxford in favour of fidelity to God. Widowers can see the great calling and mission that Bl. James took up after the death of his wife and come to a deeper appreciation of their vocation in the future, whatever that may be. Those within our community who are married can look at Bl. James and see that he came from a strong family – we know his brother John and Robert were both faithful priests who made  great sacrifices for God too. He was clearly skilled in raising and instructing children, and seemed to devote much of his early life to this purpose. Our serving priests can look to the ministry and witness of Bl. James and seek boldness in their faith, as we are all invited to do. James Fenn mirrored Jesus in so many ways in life, and truly shared 'a death like his'[7].


The Church gives us these great men and women as role models, but also that we may seek their intercession. So, we implore you pray to Bl. James for a renewal of faithfulness to the Church in the lives of this community; pray that we may receive the same courage that he received through his co-operation with God’s grace. More information on Blessed James Fenn will be made available in the Parish Centre.


Blessed James Fenn, Pray for us.

[1] Lives of the English Martyrs (pollen) pg 51

[2] Lives of the English Martrys (Pollen) pg 55

[3] Memoirs of Missionary Priests (Challoner), pg 95

[4] Lives of the English Martyrs (Pollen) pg 68

[5] Memoirs of Missionary Priest (Challoner), pg 97

[6] Catholic Record Society, vol 58 pg 91

[7] Rom 6:5. Cf. Prayer for the dead, Eucharistic Prayer II