John Kemble, alias Holland, was born at Rhydicar Farm, St Weonard’s, Herefordshire in 1599. He was the son of John Kemble and Anne Morgan. He and St David Lewis were cousins. John Kemble’s mother, Anne Morgan, was a relative of David Lewis’s father, Morgan Lewis. John was ordained a priest at Douai on 23rd February 1625 and, on 4th June, was sent upon the English Mission. He spent the next 54 years labouring for the people of Herefordshire and Monmouthshire. He was greatly loved by his own people and respected throughout the area because, it was said, he gave offence to none.
In 1678, Fr John Kemble became another innocent victim of the non-existent Popish Plot. A lapsed Catholic, Captain John Scudamore of Kentchurch, was sent to arrest Fr Kemble at Pembridge Castle, where the aged priest was staying with his relatives. When urged to flee, the 80-year-old priest said, “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.” After three months in Hereford Gaol, he endured an agonizing journey to London where he and Fr David Lewis were lodged in Newgate Prison. They were interrogated by Oates and his fellow plotters but, since no evidence of involvement in any plot could be found, he was sent back to Hereford. In accordance with Statute 27 of Elizabeth I, he was tried for treason, i.e., for being a Catholic priest and saying Mass. He was found guilty and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
On the morning of his execution, Fr Kemble made his devotions as usual. He then drank a cup of sack and smoked a pipe of tobacco with the undersheriff and the prison governor. (This is the origin of the Herefordshire custom of calling a parting drink or smoke a “Kemble Cup” or a “Kemble Pipe”.) Before his execution on Widemarsh Common, the good priest forgave those who had conspired against him and asked forgiveness of any whom he may have offended. He consoled the distraught hangman thus, “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.” He prayed silently for a few minutes then commended himself to God. The cart was drawn away and he was hanged. Such was the affection for Fr Kemble that he was allowed to die upon the gallows before being beheaded. He was also spared the grisly ritual of drawing and quartering. It was said, even by his persecutors, that they never saw one die so like a gentleman and so like a Christian.
The martyr’s nephew, Captain Richard Kemble, who had saved the life of King Charles II at the Battle of Worcester, took the body to the church at Welsh Newton and buried it beside the churchyard cross. The gravestone is inscribed J K Dyed the 22 of August Anno Do 1679. There is a pilgrimage to the Saint’s grave every year on the Sunday nearest to 22nd August.
St John Kemble and St David Lewis shared more than family ties. They shared the same fate as well! Fr John Kemble was martyred on 22nd August 1679 and less than a week later, on 27th August 1679, his kinsman, Fr David Lewis was martyred. On 25th October 1970, the cousins were among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonised by Pope Paul VI.