The post-Reformation persecution of English Catholics diminished as the 17th century wore on, but recommenced with a flurry in 1678. That was because a rascal named Titus Oates accused the British Catholics of plotting to assassinate King Charles II, kill off British Protestants, and restore Catholicism in the British Isles. Anti-Catholic politicians made cynical use of this “plot” to implicate English Catholics, particularly priests.
One of the secular priests arrested was John Kemble. As a youth, John had managed to smuggle himself out of England in order to study for the priesthood on the continent. Ordained a priest at Douai in Flanders (1625), he returned to begin his apostolate in his home country, Herefordshire, in the west of England.
Father Kemble was a born Catholic and had four kinsmen who were Catholic priests. His family were prominent members of the Hereford gentry (a great-great grandniece, Sarah Kemble Siddons, would become England’s greatest actress a century later). So he established his headquarters at Pembridge Castle, which belonged to one of his relatives. For the next 53 years he served the Catholics of that district. The details of his quiet missionary work are not known, for it was still necessary for priests to keep the lowest possible profile. It is certain, however, that his people and his fellow-priests held him in the highest esteem.
Then came the Titus Oates agitation in 1678. Oates, who had concocted the rumored plot, gave piecemeal a list of “suspects” across the country. That fall the police began arresting these alleged conspirators in Herefordshire. Father David Lewis was apprehended at the Jesuit missionary center and eventually executed. Friends urged Father Kemble to take flight; the 80-year-old priest refused. “According to the course of nature,” he said, “I have but a few years to live. It will be an advantage to suffer for my religion and, therefore, I will not abscond.”
The local police chief, Captain Scudamore, arrested Kemble and jailed him in Hereford City. It was odd that Scudamore should have been so harsh with the prisoner since his Catholic wife and children were parishioners of Father Kemble.
After months of imprisonment, the priest was condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered (ie, disemboweled alive and cut into four pieces). The charge was that he was a “seminary priest.” However, on April 23, 1679, he and Father David Lewis were ordered to be brought to London for examination by the privy council for complicity in the Titus Oates plot. Because of the old priest’s physical disability, the horseback ride to London was a real torture. His London examiners were unable to associate him in any way with the alleged plot, so he was returned to Hereford and the date for the hanging was set for August 22, 1679.
When the hour for execution arrived, Father John persuaded under-sheriff Digges to delay a bit until he had finished his prayers, smoked a pipe and had a drink. The governor and the under-sheriff consented. Indeed, they joined Kemble in the smoke and the drink. (For years afterward, the last pipe allowed to those condemned to death at Hereford was called a “Kemble pipe”).
Late in the afternoon, Father Kemble was dragged to the scaffold on a hurdle or sled. Addressing the crowd, as he was permitted to do, he made a public confession of the faith for which he was dying. The failure of the privy council to convict him of conspiracy, he said, “makes it evident that I die only for profession the Roman Catholic religion, which was the religion that first made this Kingdom Christian.” Although the drawing and quartering was postponed until after Kemble was fully dead, the hangman so botched the execution that the aged man hung there a half-hour before he died.
Miracles were soon attributed to St. John’s intercession. The daughter of his jailer, Scudamore, was cured of a throat ailment. Later on her mother recovered her hearing while praying at his grave.
Clearly, St. John Kemble bore no grudge against the man who had arrested him. That is what we would expect of this highly revered priest — a gentleman as well as a martyr.
–Father Robert F. McNamara