The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was still a vivid memory as word of the fictitious Popish Plot swept the country, and “the whole nation” according to Macaulay, “went mad with hatred and fear”. This enabled the anti-Catholic Parliament to rigorously enforce the brutal laws against Catholics everywhere in the Kingdom. The Government offered a reward of £20 (a goodly sum in those far off days) for information leading to the apprehension of any priest. To this, the fanatical priest hunter, John Arnold, added the huge sum of £200!
Of all the people who played a part in the life and times of the Welsh Jesuit Martyr, St David Lewis, Dorothy James and her husband, William, must surely be among the more sordid. Dorothy and William James had been closely associated with Fr Lewis, working for four years as his servants. To their warped minds, £220 was incentive enough to betray the priest. Thereupon, the treacherous pair laid information against Fr Lewis which led to his arrest at Llantarnam on 17th November 1678. It was early on a Sunday morning and a party of armed dragoons, led by William James, Roger Seys and William Bedloe, arrested the priest as he was preparing to celebrate Mass. Later, in a guarded upper room at the Golden Lion, Abergavenny, Fr Lewis was examined by the Recorder of Abergavenny, William Jones. The rapacious and malicious William James swore that he had seen Fr Lewis say Mass at least twenty times.
At the trial of Fr David Lewis, Dorothy James was the foremost witness. She was also the most hostile! It was common knowledge that she had threatened that she would never cease to prosecute Fr Lewis until she had “washed her hand in his blood” and “made porridge of his head”. She swore that, not only had she seen the accused say Mass, but had also witnessed him administering the Sacraments of Eucharist and Penance. She had also seen him anoint, as well as conduct weddings and christenings. She then accused the priest of extorting money from her to free her father’s soul from Purgatory. Fr Lewis exclaimed that he had never received a single coin from either Dorothy or William James. The Judge, Sir Robert Atkins, declared that he himself did not believe this spurious accusation against the priest. Repudiating the charge, Atkins instructed the jury to do likewise.
A further glimpse into the character of this abhorrent little woman is afforded us. When asked by the Judge if she had anything more to say, Dorothy James tossed her head and laughed at Fr Lewis. Judge Atkins was so disgusted by this behaviour that he rebuked her, “Carry yourself more modest, woman, the gentleman is for his life; tis no jesting matter!” Even her rapacious husband appears to have been embarrassed by her behaviour for he gave his evidence briefly, simply stating that he had seen the accused say Mass and administer the Sacraments.
Despite the unsavoury characters of Dorothy and William James, Fr Lewis was found guilty of the treason of being a Catholic priest and was martyred at Usk on 27th August 1679. In 1970, he was canonised by Pope Paul VI.
Dorothy and William James were well paid for their foul deeds as William received a further £20 for his part in the arrest of St David Lewis. I wonder if this repugnant pair enjoyed their blood money.
(The photograph, taken in the Catholic Church, Abergavenny, is of a representation of St David Lewis dressed as a gentleman of that period.)