Today, our blogging trip in the footsteps of St David Lewis takes us to Usk. Usk is a beautiful, peaceful little town but in 1679 it was the site of the Saint's imprisonment, and bloody martyrdom. On 27th August 1679, The Jesuit priest, Fr David Lewis, was dragged on a hurdle to the site of his execution. Earlier that year, at Monmouth Assizes, Fr Lewis had been condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. His crime? He was a Catholic priest! In those sad times of suspicion and fear, the harsh Penal Laws against Catholics deemed it High Treason to be a Catholic priest and to carry out the duties of a priest. Having been found guilty of being a priest, Fr Lewis received the usual sentence handed out to traitors. The photo below is of the river path along which Fr Lewis was taken to meet his death. He was tied to a hurdle, with his head at ground level, and dragged along the river path to a place known as the Island or the Coniger.
On a freezing cold and snowy 13th January 1679, St David Lewis was transferred from Monmouth Gaol to the new Prison at Usk (site pictured below). In March, Fr Lewis was returned to Monmouth to be tried at the Spring Assizes. Inevitably, he was found guilty and sent back to Usk Gaol to await his fate. In May the priest was again on the move. This time Fr Lewis, along with his cousin, the aged Fr John Kemble, was brought to London to be questioned by the infamous Titus Oates and his cronies. They tried to implicate him in the non existant Popish Plot but could not find anything against him. Lord Shaftsbury offered Fr Lewis his life and rich rewards if he would give evidence about the plot or renounce his Catholic Faith. St David Lewis stood firm and at his execution he declared "Discover a Plot I could not, for I knew of none, and conform I would not, because against my conscience it was ." He was again returned to Usk Gaol where he spent his final months.
On that awful day in August 1679, Fr David Lewis was martyred at Usk. The actual spot is believed to be within the grounds of what is now Porth-Y-Carne House, opposite the Catholic Church of St David Lewis and St Francis Xavier. A blue Usk Civic Society plaque marks the site. Such was the love and respect of the people for Fr Lewis, known affectionately in Welsh, as "Tad y Tlodion", "Father of the Poor", that the executioner ran away and no one could be found to carry out the execution. Eventually, a prisoner was bribed to do the the evil deed. Usually, the condemned man would be hanged, cut down alive, his body ripped open and his entrails torn out and burnt before his eyes. His body would then be quartered and sent to be displayed in various prominent positions as a warning to others. Fr Lewis was saved some of the agony because a Protestant man in the crowd held his hand and refused to allow him to be cut down until he was dead. Fr Lewis was then cut down, drawn, and his body dismembered but not quartered. It is recorded that many people in the crowd dipped cloths in the martyr's blood and some of the cloths survive today as precious relics of the holy martyr.
The Martyred Fr David Lewis was permitted a decent burial. He was reverently carried in procession to the Priory Church of St Mary (photo below) and interred in the Churchyard. His grave is the nearest one to the main entrance of the church.
In Penal Days, priests celebrated Holy Mass wherever they could - houses, barns or woods. After the execution of St David Lewis, a house in Usk where he used to say Mass was confiscated. The house today is a popular pub, known as The Cross Keys.
Fr David Lewis S J, was canonised in October 1970 by Pope Paul VI. Every year, on the Sunday nearest to 27th August, there is a pilgrimage to the grave of this holy Welsh priest, martyr and saint.
St David Lewis pray for us.