Thursday, 22 August 2019

Saint John Kemble, Priest Martyr (1599 – 22 August 1679)

St. John Kemble's Grave at Welsh Newton

"John Kemble was born at Rhydicar Farm, St Weonards, Herefordshire, in 1599, the son of John and Anne Kemble. They were a prominent local recusant Catholic family, which included four other priests. John Kemble was ordained at Douai College, on 23 February 1625. He returned to England on 4 June 1625 as a missionary in Monmouthshire and Herefordshire.

Upon Fr Kemble's returned to Monmouthshire he served more than 50 years as an itinerant priest, winning admirers even among Protestants. Little is known of his work caring for his flock during these fifty three years. The condition of Catholics had eased but priests still needed to perform their ministry discreetly.  Based at Pembridge Castle, the home of his nephew, Captain Richard Kemble, he had seemed immune from prosecution.

The uneasy tolerance within which Fr Kemble had operated was shattered by the Popish Plot of 1678. Titus Oates was a perjurer who concocted a plot in which the Anglican Charles II would be assassinated and his Catholic brother (later, King James II) installed as king in his place.  When Oates' story was examined in detail the whole fraud was exposed, but it gave disgruntled Protestants and ambitious chancers an opportunity. Anti-Catholic politicians made cynical use of this "plot" to implicate English Catholics, particularly priests. A Monmouthshire man, William Bedloe, laid false information against the leading Catholics of the area.

Among the many Catholics caught up in the frenzy was Fr John Kemble. Fr David Lewis was apprehended at St. Michael's Church, Llantarnam.

Fr Kemble was allowed to die on the gallows before being drawn and quartered, thus he was spared the agony suffered by many of other Catholic martyrs of England, Scotland and Wales. He died on 22 August 1679 at Widemarsh Common, Hereford. His death was greeted with dismay in the locality, Protestants no less than Catholics praising him as "a great gentleman".

One of Kemble's hands is still preserved above the epistle-side side altar at St Francis Xavier Church in Hereford city centre. His body rests in the (Church of England) churchyard of St Mary the Virgin at Welsh Newton, and local Catholics make an annual pilgrimage to his grave."

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