John Kemble (martyr)

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John Kemble
Born 1599
St Weonards, Herefordshire
Died 22 August 1679
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Canonized 25 October 1970 by Pope Paul VI
Feast 22 August

Saint John Kemble (born 1599, St Weonards, Herefordshire – d. 22 August 1679, Widemarsh Common, Hereford) was an English Roman Catholic martyr. He was one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales.

Early years and ordination[edit]

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,[1] 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.[2]

Pastoral work[edit]

In normal times, despite harsh anti-Catholic laws, the extent of persecution depended upon the sympathies of local landowners. Around Hereford and Monmouth, where the Catholic Earl of Worcester (from 1642 Marquess) held sway at Raglan Castle, the old religion was for long periods practised with impunity. From 1622 there was even a Jesuit College at Cwm, near Welsh Newton, which survived until 1678, though its existence was widely known, and was twice debated in the House of Commons.[3]

Upon Father 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 the next fifty three years. The condition of Catholics had eased but priests still needed to perform their ministry discreetly.[1] Based at Pembridge Castle, which his brother George had leased in 1630, he had seemed immune from prosecution.[3]

Titus Oates' plot[edit]

The uneasy tolerance within which Father 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 the Second would be assassinated and his Catholic brother (later, King James the Second) 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.[3] Among the many Catholics caught up in the frenzy was Father John Kemble. Father David Lewis was apprehended at St. Michael's Church, Llantarnam.

Arrest and execution[edit]

Father Kemble was staying at his brother's home, Pembridge Castle, near Welsh Newton, when he was arrested. He was warned about the impending arrest but declined to leave his flock, saying, "According to the course of nature, I have but a few years to live. It will be an advantage to suffer for my religion and, therefore, I will not abscond." He was arrested by a Captain John Scudamore of Kentchurch. It is a comment on the tortuous values of the age that Scudamore's own wife and children were parishioners of Father Kemble.

Father Kemble, now 80, was taken on the arduous journey to London to be interviewed about the plot. He was found to have had no connection with the alleged plot but he was found guilty of the treasonous crime of being a Catholic priest. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He was returned to Hereford for the sentence to be carried out. Before he was led out to his execution Father Kemble insisted on saying his prayers and finishing his drink, and the assembled party joined the elderly priest in a final smoke and a cup of sack. The Herefordshire sayings, Kemble pipe and Kemble cup, refer to a parting pipe or cup.[2]

Before his death Father Kemble addressed the assembled crowd, pointing out that no association with the "plot" had been charged to him. The old priest went on to say: "The failure of the authorities in London to connect me to the plot makes it evident that I die only for profession the Catholic religion, which was the religion that first made this Kingdom Christian."

Consoling his distraught hangman, the priest is said to have whispered, "Honest Anthony, my friend Anthony, be not afraid; do thy office. I forgive thee with all my heart. Thou wilt do me a greater kindness than discourtesy."[1]

Grave of John Kemble

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".[4]

One of Kemble's hands is still preserved at St Francis Xavier Church in Hereford city centre. His body rests in the (Church of England) churchyard of St Mary's, Welsh Newton,[2] and local Catholics make an annual pilgrimage to his grave.


Miracles were soon attributed to the saintly priest. Scudamore's daughter was cured of throat cancer, and Scudamore's wife recovered her hearing whilst praying at the Kemble's grave. John Kemble was beatified in 1929 by Pope Pius XI and canonized on 25 October 1970 by Pope Paul VI. His feast day is 22 August.


Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds (The Huntington, San Marino, California)

The famous Kemble family are relatives of John Kemble. The family became almost a 'Royal Family' of the English stage in the nineteenth century. The most famous was Sarah Siddons, née Kemble. It has been said that she was the finest English tragic actress ever. She was John Kemble's great-great grandniece.

Other noteworthy members of the family, though not Catholics, were: Roger Kemble, Stephen Kemble, Charles Kemble, John Mitchell Kemble, Frances Anne Kemble who after spending time in the United States held strong anti slavery opinions, Adelaide Kemble and Henry Kemble. John Philip Kemble was baptized a Catholic and spent some time at Douai, but did not become a priest and appears to have abandoned the faith.



See Welsh Newton for Pembridge Castle and Father Kemble's local links


External links[edit]