Three hundred and thirty-three years ago today a Welsh Jesuit priest, Fr David Lewis, was executed at Usk. His crime was to be a Catholic priest in a time when it was deemed High Treason to be a Catholic priest and to celebrate Mass in England.
|Plaque marking site of execution of St David Lewis|
David Henry Lewis was a Monmouthshire man, born in Abergavenny in 1616. He was the youngest of the nine children of Morgan Lewis and Margaret Pritchard. Although David's Catholic mother brought up eight of the children in the Catholic Faith, David's Protestant father had David brought up in the Established Religion.
David attended the local grammar school of which his father was headmaster. Later he went to London to study law. He travelled to Paris as tutor to a young nobleman and while in Paris David converted to Catholicism.
After the deaths of his parents in 1638 David entered the English College in Rome to study for the priesthood. He was ordained there in 1642. Later, following in the footsteps of his Jesuit uncle, David entered the Jesuit Novitiate of Sant Andrea in Rome.
After profession as a Jesuit, Fr Lewis was sent on the English Mission. After only a year he was recalled to Rome to take up a position in his old college. However, he soon returned to Wales and here he laboured among his own people for the remainder of his life.
He was twice Superior of the Jesuit College of St Francis Xavier at the Cwm, on the Monmouthshire-Herefordshire border. According to a pamphlet published in London in 1679, the Cwm consisted of spacious houses with several entrances and secret passages between some of the rooms. Underneath the buildings there were extensive cellars, accessible both from inside and outside the houses - useful strongrooms where valuables could be hidden. From one room a tunnel ran out into the neighbouring woods, in which there were many caves. Remote and secluded, the Cwm was an ideal meeting place for Catholics on both sides of the Anglo-Welsh border.
|The site of the Jesuit College, The Cwm|
The Cwm had been known to the government authorities since as early as 1660 and possibly earlier. However it was not until December 1678 that the Lords ordered an investigation by the Bishop of Hereford, Herbert Croft. Croft had the enthusiastic support and assistance of John Arnold, John Scudamore and Charles Price.
By this time, all the priests had been evacuated from the Cwm. In fact, the Superior, Fr David Lewis, was a prisoner in Monmouth Gaol and had been since his arrest at Llantarnam on 17th November 1678. Some priests found shelter with recusant families, others, including Fr Philip Evans were imprisoned, and others, hunted like wild beasts, sheltered in caves or woods.
While the raid did not turn up any hidden priests, it did yield a store of church plate, vestments and books. Bishop Croft added many of the stolen books to his Cathedral Library.
|Viewing some of the Cwm books in Hereford Cathedral Library|
Recently we had the very great privilege of being permitted to view some of the confiscated books from the Cwm Library. Dr Rosemary Firman, librarian of Hereford Cathedral, showed us several books which are known to have come from the Jesuit Library at the Cwm. One of the books was inscribed with the name of Thomas Gunter. Thomas Gunter had a secret chapel in his mansion on Cross St in Abergavenny where Frs David Lewis and Philip Evans said Mass and administered the Sacraments to the Catholics who crowded into the attic chapel. Dr Firman imparted many interesting facts about the books and, quite honestly, we were more than a little awed to be looking at books which had very likely been held, consulted or read by St David Lewis over three hundred years ago.
For some very interesting information about the Jesuit Library at the Cwm visit Hannah's excellent blog here
Fr David Lewis was executed at Usk on 27 August 1679. He was beatified in 1929 and Canonised as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales in 1970.