Saint of the week

Blessed James Duckett, 19th April

Blessed James Duckett was a layman who was hanged at Tyburn, London, in the penultimate year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I for felony charges in connection with possessing, publishing and distributing Catholic books and literature.

He was a devoted husband who spent nine of the 12 years his married life in various prisons for helping to spread the Catholic faith by the dissemination of books and he was a father: his Acts were recorded principally by his son, John, who became Prior to the English Carthusians at Nieuwpoort, Flanders.

Blessed James grew up in Gilfortriggs in Westmoreland as a Protestant, although his godfather, James Leyburn, Lord of Skelsmergh (after whom he was named), was hanged, drawn and quartered in 1583 for denying Queen Elizabeth’s supremacy over the English Church.

Not long after James was apprenticed to a printer in London, a fellow northerner called Peter Mauson gave him a book called “The Foundation of the Catholic Religion”, shattering his belief in the reformed Church of England. He ceased going to Protestant services at which he had been a regular attendant and was consequently pursued by the vicar of St Edmund’s Church, Lombard Street. When asked why he had stopped going to the services, James told the minister that he would never return the church until he was convinced by Protestantism.

As a result he was imprisoned at Bridewell but later bailed by his employer. He still refused to go to Protestant services and was again jailed, this time in the Compter. His employer paid for his freedom a second time but, fearing further controversy, ended the contract between them.

James responded to his new freedom by entering the Catholic Church at the hands of an aged priest called Mr Weekes, a prisoner in the Gatehouse. He then married a Catholic widow and began to make a living from dealing in books, particularly Catholic books, a risky enterprise for which he was often imprisoned.

The episode that led to his final arrest, trial and execution began when a bookbinder called Peter Bullock tried to obtain a pardon from a capital punishment he had incurred by accusing James Duckett of publishing 25 copies of “Supplications to the Queen” by St Robert Southwell. His house was searched and no copies of the books were found, although the authorities found other Catholic books in his possession.

In early March 1602 he was brought into a court presided over by Lord Chief Justice John Popham, a brutal anti-Catholic who had presided over the trial of St Robert Southwell and who had been also involved in the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. Also in the room was Robert Watkinson, a priest from Yorkshire. Blessed James, seeing the priest was pale, thought he was afraid (he was in fact sick) and he encouraged him in his faith within earshot of Popham who rounded on him angrily, ordering him to “now speak for thyself”.

The trial ensued and Bullock was brought into the room to accuse Blessed James in front of the court. But the jury refused to convict him. Then Popham urged them to reconsider their verdict and sent the jurors out of the room a second time. When they came back they returned a verdict of guilty for an act of felony and the death sentence was passed against Blessed James. Also sentenced to death were Watkinson and two other priests, Francis Page and Thomas Tichburn.

IMG_1557On Monday April 19, the day of Blessed James’s execution, Mrs Duckett was allowed to visit her husband in his cell but was unable to bring herself to speak to him because she was so distraught, weeping profusely. James told her that he did not fear death. “Keep yourself God’s servant and in the unity of God’s Church,” he told her, “and I shall be able to do you more good, being now to go to the King of kings”.

Bullock, his accuser, had failed in his ruse to escape punishment and the pair were taken to Tyburn together in the same cart.

Upon their arrival at Tyburn, Mrs Duckett brought James a pint of wine and he used it to toast Bullock, telling the crowd he had forgiven him (and urging his wife to do the same), and he also kissed him once the ropes were around their necks. Finally, he urged Bullock to become a Catholic with the words: “Thy life and mine are not long. Wilt thou promise me one thing? If thou wilt, speak: wilt thou die, as I die, a Catholic?”

Bullock replied that he would die “as a Christian should do”. Then the cart was pulled from underneath them.

The three priests convicted with Blessed James Duckett were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn the following day for coming into the country in violation of the Elizabethan statutes.

Blessed James was beatified in December 1929 by Pope Pius XI.


(Sources: Memoirs of Missionary Priests by Bishop Richard Challoner and Butler’s Lives of the Saints)