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VISIT | Finding Faith in the Pilgrimage to Saint John Kemble | Herefordshire

Saintly John Kemble
Saintly John Kemble

John Kemble - The Saint of Welsh Newton

Whether your belief is strong or not, make a pilgrimage to the final resting place of one of England's Saints - John Kemble

A victim of the fake Catholic Plot of 1679 when the infamous Titus Oates made free with his accusations on the Catholic Church leading to punishment, trials and executions for many innocent individuals

A Templar Church with historic features and findings to discover here at Welsh Newton

St Mary the Virgin Church, Welsh Newton
St Mary the Virgin Church, Welsh Newton

"...The pilgrimage to a man of faith..."

Description |

There is a saint in the tiny Herefordshire village of Welsh Newton. A saint beatified by the Catholic Church. A saint revered enough by those of the faith to pilgrimage every year to his body’s resting place. Year upon year. Century after century. To pay tribute, to pause, to pray to a man who died for his faith, who died because of his faith. Arguably the last person to die in defence of his faith in Britain.

For others of us who do not perhaps share the faith of Catholicism, a pure slice of history resides at Welsh Newton’s intriguing church. A church which in itself needs to be set into the far, far distant past with not the usual population of peasants and lords, but rather knights. For Welsh Newton was once a Knights Templar Church, like Garway church, seen in some of the architectural features scattered around this place – the tombs set into the floor inside, the iconography up high in the templar crosses.

Imagine in your head, the knights entering this place with bowed head, chainmail scraping the flagstones, the religious fervour of a group vowed to fight for the Catholic church and their faith.

But sat adjacent to the old weather-worn medieval preaching cross is the tomb of John Kemble. Priest. Martyr. Saint.

His tomb incised with a cross and the words that once said:

“J. K. dyed the 22nd of August 1679 Anno Domini”

For to do this tale justice, requires a backflip through time to a mid-point between the knights of old and modern day. When religion and religious identity meant all. The crusade for one or other was central to the political power of the time. But this also is perhaps a story of friendship.

John Kemble was born nearby at Rhydecar Farm in St Weonards in 1600 and for over fifty years served his offices in part from Pembridge Castle, his brother’s home, near this village of Welsh Newton. He was, by all historic accounts, a pious and gentle man but who had studied at Douai in France. But in 1679, after fifty-five years of religious service as a priest and at the age of nearly eighty – John Kemble was arrested and charged with being part of Catholic plot. Not only that but he was arrested by Captain Scudamore – a friend.

Some know of the Titus Oates Plot. But in 1679 panic exploded of a Catholic plot, a popish plot to kill King Charles II and restore Catholicism to England with a French-supported Catholic King in James, Duke of York. It led to mass arrests and executions. The House of Commons swarmed with mistrust. It began with the untrustworthy and despicable character of a man called Titus Oates. Failed clergyman and unconvincing Catholic converter. He wrote a pamphlet accusing the Catholic Church of authorising this plot to kill the King.

Oates also named names. It led to the arrest, punishment and deaths of multiple innocent individuals. One of those names was Father John Kemble. Catholic Priest of rural Herefordshire. Oates even paid another unreliable to back him, a certain William Bedloe.

Father Kemble was taken to London and grilled by Oates. With no clear evidence of guilt, he was sent back for trial at Hereford. He walked some of the way, his age and health meant that he was unable to ride for great distances. Found guilty of being a Catholic Priest, he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered on Widemarsh Common.

He relied on his faith. Interestingly his friend Scudamore’s children visited him; asked why Scudamore allowed his children to visit, he allegedly replied that it was because John Kemble was his best friend.

Then in all good stories of myth and local history, the under-sheriff Mr Digges was about to take him to the scaffold, but Kemble asked for time to finish his prayers, take a sup of something and smoke his tobacco pipe. Digges granted the request but asked to join him and smoke his own pipe. Father Kemble announced his readiness to go but Digges hadn’t quite finished his pipe and asked the Father if he could wait until he was done. From then on, a Herefordshire custom became known ‘a Kemble pipe’ – a parting smoke.

It was said that Father John Kemble died like a Christian and a gentleman. Whether by accident or intent, he was left hanging for some time before being drawn and quartered. The effect was that he was clearly dead when that happened, unlike other poor victims of the time.

His head and body were given to his friends. His hand allegedly being picked up by a woman and kept preserved to this day at St Francis Xavier’s Church in Hereford. His body was buried in this churchyard at Welsh Newton. Sealed in a stone tomb.

Oates would in time be viewed as a liar, arrested and tried. But it was too late for those innocents like Kemble. Oates died in obscurity in 1705 but Father John Kemble was remembered by those who believed in the faith and the friend he had been to them. People came to pray at his grave. In 1929 John Kemble was beatified and then in 1970 was canonised.

So yes, in a small churchyard in Herefordshire where not much happens, the sheep chew cud, the tractor trundles past, lies the body of a saint. Killed for his faith based on a lie. Now for all time, a place for those to pilgrimage and for others to simply take curious interest.

Directions and Map |

Find the small church of St Mary the Virgin Church in Welsh Newton off the A466 near Monmouth

Longitude: -2.728442

Latitude: 51.85851

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