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James Atkinson

Catholic confessor tortured to death in Bridewell prison in 1595

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Atkinson, JAMES, Catholic confessor, tortured to death in Bridewell prison in 1595. His pathetic and romantic story tells us nothing of his early life, but he is found in the Bridewell prison, one of the worst in London, and delivered over to Topcliffe, the notorious priest-hunter, who was trying to wring out from him, by torture, evidence on which he might accuse his master, Mr. Robert Barnes, who then held Mapledurham House, of having entertained priests, and in particular the future martyr, Venerable John Jones, O. S. F. Yielding to torment, Atkinson accused his master of having done so, but shortly after repented, and was lost in despair, knowing on the one hand that Topcliffe would torture him again, perhaps unto death, and on the other fearing that no priest could possibly come to confess and absolve him before his conflict. Unknown to him, however, a Jesuit Father happened to be in the same prison. This was Father William Baldwin (or Bawden), a man who afterwards filled important positions in his order. He had been arrested on suspicion while on shipboard, and had assumed the part of an Italian merchant unacquainted with the English language, and with such success that he was on the point of being exchanged for an English officer who had been captured by the Spaniards on board the Dainty. Atkinson’s despair put Father Baldwin into a quandary. It was evident that he was at best a weakling, perhaps a traitor in disguise. To speak to such a one in English, and much more to own to him that he was a priest, would be to endanger his life. So he tried to comfort him, at first through a fellow-prisoner who knew Latin, and finally offered to bring him a priest. The poor sufferer’s joy was so great that the missionary ventured to creep to his splittingup that night and tell him that he was a priest. Then Atkinson held back, either out of suspicion or because, as he said, he was not prepared. Father Baldwin‘s fears were reawakened, but next night the penitent made his confession with evident contrition, was soon again tortured, and died under or shortly after the torment. Atkinson’s cause has been proposed for Beatification, but evidence for his final perseverence, though very necessary, is naturally hard to find.


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