Bl. James Duckett

(Martyred April 19, 1602)

When modern totalitarian governments have taken over their countries, one of their earliest measures has been to forbid the publication of books contrary to their ideologies.

The leaders of the English Reformation had adopted the same policy regarding the distribution of Catholic literature. Therefore, religious books for English Catholics had either to be printed abroad and smuggled in, or manufactured at home on secret presses. British law considered the distributors of such writings as felons, subject to capital punishment.

Saint James Duckett, an English Catholic layman, died in defense of the right to spread Catholic doctrine by the printed word.

James was a member of an old North Country family. He was born at Gilfortriggs in Westermoreland, at a date not determined. As a youth he was apprenticed to a London printer.

Duckett had been raised a Protestant. In London, however, a Catholic friend loaned him a book called The Firm Foundation of the Catholic Religion. James found the arguments in this book so convincing that he ceased to attend worship at his Protestant parish church, St. Edmund’s on Lombard Street.

Now, nonattendance at Anglican services was one of the warning signs recognized by the British government in its religious controls. When the rector of St. Edmund’s called James to account for his nonattendance, the young apprentice stated candidly that he would continue to absent himself until better arguments in favor of Protestantism were brought forth than he had heard thus far.

Duckett was therefore sentenced to jail for nonattendance, on not one but two occasions: first at Bridewell Prison and second at “The Compter” prison. On both occasions his employer secured his release. After that, however, the employer, deciding that this apprentice was too controversial for convenience, revoked his contract of apprenticeship.

On his own now, James asked instruction in the Catholic faith from Father Weekes, an aged priest imprisoned at Gatehouse prison in the Westminster section of London. Two months later, Weekes received him into the Catholic Church.

From the time of his conversion, James Duckett led an admirable and dedicated life. He married a Catholic widow and she bore him a son who subsequently became a Carthusian monk in Flanders. Most of the printer’s efforts during his Catholic years were devoted to the publication and circulation of Catholic literature. It was a hazardous apostolate, and for his pains he spent nine of the twelve years of his married life in one jail after another across England.

His last arrest was brought about by the accusation of a bookbinder named Peter Bullock. Bullock, found guilty and sentenced to death for some other felony, apparently thought he might save his own life by turning state’s evidence. He therefore testified at James’s trial that he had bound some Catholic books at Duckett’s request. James candidly admitted to the court that he had manufactured and distributed a number of Catholic publications. The jury at first did not want to convict him on the testimony of a single witness. However, the judge insisted that they change their verdict from “not guilty” to “guilty.”

Mrs. Duckett visited her condemned husband in prison. When he saw her tears, he said, “If I were made the queen’s secretary or treasurer, you would not weep. Do but keep yourself God’s servant and in the unity of God’s Church, and I shall be able to do you more good, being now to go to the King of Kings.”

James Duckett was carted to the gallows at Tyburn in the same cart as Bullock the bookbinder. His witness against Duckett had won him no reprieve. Along the route from prison, Mrs. Duckett presented her husband with a pint of wine. He drank a glass of it and urged her to drink one in honor of Peter Bullock, and to hold no grudge against him. On the scaffold, James assured Peter in so many words of his forgiveness, and urged him to die a Catholic. Then, after the ropes had been placed around their necks, Duckett kissed his betrayer.

Pope Pius XI beatified this “bookseller for Christ” in 1929.

--Father Robert F. McNamara