Lives of the English Martyrs – Venerable James Bell

statue of Blessed James Bell, date and artist unknown; Saint Werburgh's Church, Birkenhead, England; photographed on 12 October 2015 by Kitgehrke; swiped from Wikipedia CommonsArticle

Secular Priest. Lancaster, 20 April 1584.

A special interest attaches to this martyr inasmuch as he is one of the very few Marian priests who were executed for the faith, though many suffered imprisonment.

He was born at Warrington in Lancashire about 1520 and completed his studies at Oxford. If, as is most probable, he was a member of the University no record of his academic career has been preserved. The particulars given by Foster, Alumni Oxonienses, apply to James Bell, a Protestant Prebendary of Wells who died in 1596. He was ordained priest in Queen Mary’s reign, but when the change of religion came under Elizabeth he unhappily had not the courage to become a confessor of the faith, but continued for more than twenty years to act as an Anglican minister in different parts of England. It is a singular fact, having regard to the great dearth of clergymen, that he never obtained a benefice; and one may hope that he still retained some scruples of conscience, which prevented him from accepting even a nominal cure of souls. This is confirmed by the statement in the early account of his conversion, apprehension and martyrdom, where he is described as “being in part a Catholic, and not minded to serve at any parish church or other place of greater charge”. At the age of sixty, having no other means of subsistence and being in failing health he returned to his native county of Lancashire, where he tried to obtain the chaplaincy of a certain chapel without the cure of souls. There for a very small stipend he would only be required to read the English service, and thus would be able to secure a poor living for his old age. To obtain this post he applied to the wife of the gentleman who had the nomination to the readership. She was a Catholic, and knowing him to be a priest, she earnestly exhorted him to abandon his project and return to the Church. “She put him in mind that he was made priest to say Mass and to minister the sacraments after the Catholic use and manner in the unity of the Catholic Church.” At first her exhortations had little effect, but he soon fell ill and had leisure on his sick-bed to reflect on his friend’s advice. She visited him in his sickness and continued the persuasions with such effect that at length he resolved to abandon his schismatical life and to resume his ministry as a Catholic priest. Within a few hours of this resolution the lady brought to him a priest who reconciled him to the Church. On his recovery he proved the truth of his conversion by devoting himself to several months of severe penance. He again set himself to learn the recitation of the Office and the forgotten ceremonies of the Mass, and after some months he was allowed once more to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

During the years 1582 and 1583 he acted as a missionary priest, devoting himself with zeal to labour among the poorer classes of Catholics. At length, as he was travelling on foot from one Catholic house to another, he had occasion to inquire his way to a certain town. Unfortunately the wayfarer whom he asked happened to be a spy, and suspecting the old man to be a priest he asked him whence he came and whither he was going. On the martyr’s refusal to tell him, the spy asked him what he was, and received the straightforward reply that he was a priest. Immediately arresting him the spy carried him before a Justice of the Peace, to whom Mr. Bell repeated his confession, adding that very lately he had received authority to hear confessions and to absolve, and that the same authority came from the Pope. When required to attend the Protestant church he utterly refused, lamenting bitterly that for so many years he had said or heard their schismatical service. Accordingly he was sent to Manchester where he was imprisoned. His arrest took place in January, 1584, and his name occurs in the list of five priests who were brought before the ecclesiastical commissioners in January and February of that year. While in prison he was frequently examined as to his own reconciliation and that of others, the supremacy of the Pope and the spiritual claims of the Queen, the bull of excommunication and similar points. His answers have not been recorded, but he was so resolute that he was sent to the Lancaster General Sessions to be tried at the Lent assizes. He was taken there on horseback, his arms being pinioned and his legs bound under the horse. On arrival at Lancaster he was again examined before two justices named Huddleston and Parker. On Wednesday, 18 April 1584, he was indicted and arraigned with Venerable John Finch, a layman, and two other priests, Thomas Williamson and Richard Hatton.

When the four prisoners were brought to the bar they were charged with affirming the Pope to be head of the Catholic Church and that part of the Church which is in England. As Mr. Bell was deaf he did not hear all that was said to him, so, as he did not always reply, the Judge and others thought that his constancy was failing. Accordingly, on the following day, after examining John Finch, they called him to the bar and tried to terrify him into submission. Standing among thieves and murderers he heard unmoved their description of the manner of death in store for him. Finally they asked him whether he had been reconciled or not. He admitted the fact. “Oh, that is High Treason.” “It is nothing else than the Holy Sacrament of Penance,” he replied. One of the Judges asked: “Hast thou authority to reconcile?” “I have authority,” he answered, “to absolve from sins.” “What, canst thou forgive sins?” “Aye, that I can, to him that will confess his sins and be truly penitent for them.” This provoked the merriment of the Court, whereon the martyr said: “Why, I forgive not sins by mine own power, but because I am a priest and so have authority to absolve from sins”. And then, continues the account of the trial, “they laughed and scorned as though the good old man had answered absurdly, and would not suffer him to declare his authority more at large”.

The Judge then asked him whether the Queen were supreme governor in all causes in England, as well ecclesiastical as temporal. “No,” he replied, “for she hath not to judge in spiritual causes and matters of faith; but the Pope is to deal in those matters, and under him bishops and priests.” Then came the fateful question: “Whose part wouldst thou take, if the Pope or any other by his authority should make wars against the Queen?” “We ought,” said the martyr, “to take part with the Church of God for the Catholic religion.” This was enough and the Judge called the other two priests whose answers were equally staunch, but who seem to have made some reservation as to temporal authority, for the Judge drew a distinction between them and Finch and Bell. “You are rank traitors too, and do deserve to be hanged as well as the rest; for you deny the one half of her Majesty’s right, but these other traitors do deny her all.” The jury brought in a verdict of guilty against all four, but the Judge again distinguished between them in his sentence, for whereas he sentenced James Bell and John Finch to death, he sentenced the others to loss of goods and perpetual imprisonment as in the case of praemunire, for denying for the first time the Queen’s authority in causes spiritual. Owing to his deafness Mr. Bell did not understand which sentence applied to him, but one of the sheriff’s men repeated his doom, whereon the martyr thanked God very cheerfully, and turning to the Judge said: “I beseech you, my Lord, for the love of God, add also to your former sentence that my lips may be pared and my fingers’ ends cut off, wherewith I have heretofore sworn and subscribed to heretical articles and injunctions, both against my conscience and the truth”.

The executions were fixed for the following day and the two martyrs spent the night together in prayer and meditation and endeavours to convert the other condemned prisoners to the Catholic faith. The priest heard his companion’s confession and so they prepared to meet their death. When morning dawned our martyr blessed God and thanked Him, saying: “O blessed day, O the fairest day that ever I saw in my life”. When a minister there present addressed him he asked him not to trouble him, “for I will not believe thee, nor hear thee, but against my will”.

When he was taken off the hurdle at the place of execution, they made him look at Venerable John Finch who was being quartered. As the martyr looked on the sight he exclaimed: “Oh, why do I tarry so long behind my sweet brother; let me make haste after him. This is a most happy day.” And so he began his prayers, interceding both for all Catholics and for the conversion of all others.


  • Dom Bede Camm, O.S.B. “Venerable James Bell”. Lives of the English Martyrs, 1914. CatholicSaints.Info. 31 December 2019. Web. 16 May 2021. <>