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The Tudor Society

12 February 1584 – The execution of five Catholic priests

On this day in Tudor history, 12th February 1584, five Catholic priests, including James Fenn, were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn. Fenn was beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929.

Richard Challoner, the 18th century bishop, gives details of the life of priest James Fenn in his book Memoirs of Missionary Priests: And Other Catholics of Both Sexes, that have suffered death in England on religious accounts, from the year 1577, to 1684. Fenn was from Montacute in Somerset and was educated at New College, Oxford, and then Corpus Christi College, from which he was expelled after refusing to take the oath of supremacy. He acted as a tutor to students of Gloucester Hall before he took up a tutoring post in his home county of Somerset.

Fenn got married and had two children, but his wife then died. He then worked as a steward for a Catholic gentleman, Nicholas Pointz, in whose household he met a priest who encouraged him to use his gifts by going to the English College at Reims and then Douai to take holy orders. Fenn did that and became a priest in 1580. He was then sent back to Somerset on a mission to bring people back to the Catholic Church, which he did. He was arrested and put in Ilchester Gaol and "exposed, chained, and fettered as he was, in a public place, on a market day, for a show to all the people." The display backfired when his behaviour led to the spectators having a "great veneration for him [...] and many began to look more seriously into their religion."

Fenn was reported to Queen Elizabeth I's council, who ordered him to be sent to London. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's spymaster, interrogated him and he was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for two years. It was not known at this point that he was a priest so he was allowed visitors. Fenn used these visits to minister to people and convert Protestants to what he viewed as the true faith. He also encouraged his fellow visitors to repent of their crimes and embrace their faith.

It was eventually discovered that he was a priest and he was examined concerning the supremacy. Fenn declared that he was willing to lay down his life for his Catholic beliefs. He was tried and accused of conspiring with George Haydock at Rome to return to England and kill the queen. Fenn declared his innocence and stated that he was in England at the time that it was alleged that he was plotting in Rome, that he had actually been imprisoned at the Marshalsea at the time. He affirmed that he would never hurt the queen. His words fell on deaf ears. The judge stated that even though there had been mistakes make with the time and place, that it was still sufficient to convict of treason. He then instructed the jury to find Fenn guilty, which they did, and he was condemned to death.

Fenn was then taken to the Tower of London, where he was kept in irons until the day of his execution. His former school-fellow, a Mr Popham, who was the attorney general, tried to convince him to comply so that he could attempt to save his life, but Fenn was ready to die for his faith. On 12th February 1584, Fenn was drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn. Challoner writes of how it was "a moving spectacle" to see Fenn's little girl, Frances, weeping as she said a final farewell to her father, while he looked "upon her with a calm and serene countenance" and gave her a blessing. At Tyburn, Fenn prayed, declared his innocence and "then recommended himself and the queen, to whom he wished all manner of happiness, to God's mercy." He was then hanged, cut down while he was still alive, disembowelled, and quartered. His head was put on display on London Bridge while the quarters of his body were placed on four of the city's gates.

The other priests executed on that day were George Haydock, Thomas Hemerford, John Nutter and John Mundyn.

You can read more about these men and their executions in J.H.Pollen's Unpublished Documents relating to the English Martyrs, Volume I, at https://archive.org/details/unpublisheddocum01polluoft/page/60, pp. 60-62.

You can find out more about the Rome and Reims plot in my Claire Chats talk on the topic - click here.

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12 February 1584 – The execution of five Catholic priests