St John Wall & St John Kemble

We return once again to the Titus Oates Plot of the 1600s, and two more martyrs called John; one a secular and the other a Franciscan.

St John Wall, OFM

John Wall was born in Lancashire, that great bastion of Catholicism and resistance to the established church, in 1620, to a recusant family near Preston. He was baptised by the Jesuit Edmund Arrowsmith, about whom more later in this series. This is the first connection to several of the English Martyrs which occur through the lives of these two saints.

He went first to the English College at Douai, and then, at the age of 21 John travelled to Rome and there enrolled in the Venerable English College under the first of many assumed names: John Marsh. It is perhaps a sign of the times that even in safe havens like Rome, candidates for the priesthood were often careful to protect their families by not using family names. It was at there that he met and befriended David Lewis, who would be martyred but a few days after him, the last of the Welsh martyrs.

On the 3rd December in 1645 he was ordained to the priesthood, and returned in 1648 to England for a brief period, to minister in England, before going back to Douai to receive the habit of the Franciscan Friars Minor. He was professed in 1652, and quickly made Vicar & Novice Master of the house. He remained there until 1656, when he returned again to the English Mission, where he ministered quietly in the Worcestershire area for 22 years, basing himself mainly out of Harvington Hall in Kidderminster, operating under the name of Webb. He worked hard, and converted many souls. It is reckoned that he had one of the finest minds of his generation of priests.

In December 1678 he was apprehended as part of the Titus Oates plot, at Rushock Court, by a Sheriff’s deputy, who was looking for someone else. It became apparent (though history does not relate how, I suppose his breviary must have fallen out of his pocket, or something) that Fr John was a priest. He was taken before a Justice of the Peace and ordered to make the Oath of Supremacy; this he refused to do. He was committed to the Goal at Worcester, and, in April 1679 tired for High Treason, for which he was found guilty and sentenced to death. On hearing his sentence he bowed low, and said “Thanks be to God; God save the King; and I beseech God to bless your lordship, and all this honourable bench.”

His troubles were not, however, over, and he was moved to Newgate Prison and interrogated about his connection with the Popish Plot, confected by Oates. He also found there Frs John Kemble & David Lewis, and Fr Roger Handslip. He was interrogated for a period of a month, before being found innocent of any connection. He was offered his freedom if he would only embrace the Protestant faith, to which he responded: “I would not buy my life at so dear a rate as to wrong my conscience.” He was therefore taken back to prison in Worcester, and was incarcerated there until August. A visitor remarked “a cheerful sufferer of his present imprisonment, and ravished, as it were, with joy, with the future hopes of dying for so good a cause.”

On the 22nd August 1678, Fr John Wall mounted the gallows with two common criminals (he had been offered to be spared the ignominy of being associated with such persons, but he pointed out that if it was good enough for our Lord, it was good enough for him). He was hanged and his head cut off (which was taken into safe keeping, and was preserved at Douai). He was clearly held in high affection locally, being permitted to be buried, and not displayed to the rude and scoffing multitudes.

St John Kemble

John Kemble is an extraordinary example of the faithfulness of the English secular clergy, and, to my mind, one of their crowning glories.

He was born in Herefordshire in 1599 (the same year as Oliver Cromwell, ironically), a cousin of St. David Lewis (about whom more later). He was formed at Douai, and ordained on the 23rd February 1625, and on the 4th June of that year returned to the English Mission, and for the next 54 years, until his martyrdom, unstintingly, unfailingly, gave his life to that Mission in Herefordshire and Monmouthshire. He received the respect of all, giving offence to none, it was said.

To put his 50 years in context, Charles I had become king in the year Kemble returned to England, and by the time Kemble was executed, the Civil War, the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell had been and gone, and Charles II was firmly established on the throne. Kemble was to be yet another victim of the Titus Oates plot.

His ministry was in many ways quiet and unremarkable; indeed there were times during his life when Catholic clergy were tolerated (provided they were discreet), and were allowed to function largely unmolested. Until 1678, and the Titus Oates plot, when the 80 year old priest was arrested by a lapsed Catholic at Pembridge Castle. He was staying with family who urged him to free, but Fr John Kemble uttered words which could have come out of the old man’s mouth in the book of Maccabees: “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 taken to the Goal in Hereford, and from there conveyed to London (strapped to the back of his horse like a pack) and Newgate Prison, where he found his cousin, David Lewis and John Wall. He was interrogated by Oates, but sent back to Hereford when it became apparent there was no connection to the fictitious plot. He was tired and found guilty of being a priest, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Fr Kemble was held in high esteem in the local area. On the morning of his execution he smoked a pipe with the prison governor and undersheriff, consoled his executioner, who was distraught at having to kill a man he liked so much: “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 was not beheaded until after death by hanging, and was not quartered or disembowelled. All who saw it said they had never seen such a fine and dignified death as Fr Kemble’s.

His body was rescued by his nephew, Captain Richard Kemble (who had saved Charles II’s life at Worcester), and him buried in the churchyard and Welsh Newton, under the name J K Dyed.

A strange twist of fate is that the wife and daughter of the man who arrested St. John Kemble both reported miracles whilst praying at the side of his grave (they both being Catholics); one recovering her hearing and the other being cured of throat cancer.

May they both pray for England & Wales

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