CONSOLING his distraught hangman, the priest whispered, “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.”
John Kemble was born at St Weonards in 1599, into a prominent recusant Catholic family – dissenters who refused to attend services of the Church of England. Persistent absentees risked being fined, losing their property, imprisonment or even death.
Like four others in the family, Kemble became a priest and was ordained at Douai College in 1625.
Living at Pembridge Castle, home of his brother George, he ministered to Catholics in the Monnow Valley for the next 53 years.
Greatly loved and respected, the chaplain still needed to be discreet with his priestly endeavours.
This uneasy tolerance was shattered in 1678 by Titus Oates: a serial falsifier who fabricated a plot in which the Anglican King Charles II would be assassinated and his Catholic brother (later, King James II) installed as king in his place.
The mere rumour of this “Popish Plot” persuaded the government to order the Bishop of Hereford to collect evidence against Roman Catholics. Though Kemble was warned of impending arrest he declined to leave his flock.
The eighty-year-old was arrested by lapsed Catholic John Scudamore of Kentchurch and imprisoned for three months in Hereford Gaol.
Following a tortuous journey to London and confinement in Newgate Prison, Kemble was interrogated by Oates and his fellow plotters. No evidence of involvement in any sort of conspiracy could be found, but Kemble was returned to Hereford and found guilty of saying mass at Pembridge Castle. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for treason.
Before being led out for his execution on Widemarsh Common, the frail Father insisted on saying his prayers, finishing his drink and enjoying a final smoke.
Before the cart was drawn from underneath him, he addressed the assembled crowd "…the failure of the authorities in London to connect me to the plot makes it evident that I die only for professing the Catholic religion, which was the religion that first made this Kingdom Christian."
Such was the affection for Kemble that he was allowed to die by hanging before being beheaded. He was therefore spared the further agonies suffered by other Catholic martyrs.
After the execution, a follower cut off one of his hands and it is still preserved at St Francis Xavier church in Hereford.
The martyr’s nephew, Captain Richard Kemble, who saved the life of King Charles II at the Battle of Worcester, took the body to Welsh Newton and buried it beside the churchyard cross.
Miracles were soon being attributed to the late priest. Scudamore’s wife recovered her hearing whilst praying at the Kemble graveside and a daughter was cured of throat cancer.
John Kemble was beatified in 1929 by Pope Pius XI, canonized on 25 October 1970 by Pope Paul VI and his feast day is on 22nd August, the anniversary of his execution.
The walk takes in Pembridge Castle, Welsh Newton and the hamlet on Welsh Newton Common.
The castle dates chiefly from the 13th century when Ralph de Pembridge settled there. It was occupied by both sides during the Civil War. When you set out for the start after a “Kemble Pipe”, light out for south Herefordshire.
1. Welsh Newton, St Mary’s church area, not blocking entrance. (Just east of Hereford to Monmouth A466 road). With your back to church gate, TR back down lane to main road. Cross immediately on to grass verge and TL for 40m. TR up road signed to Llanrothal past Wern Farm and Magur to gate opposite lane to Oldshop.
2. Moyle’s Cross. TR through gate and follow footpath along R edge/hedge of field. Go through gate ahead, along R edge, climbing slightly and drop down in R corner over makeshift stile.
Continue ahead along R edge of crop field towards buildings, angling a little L upwards to cross stile 100m up from bottom R corner.
Go ahead in next crop field and cross stile in R corner, (with Parkside buildings down to R).
Follow R edge ahead 100m, TR across stile and T immediately L to maintain same line. After 70m (OS map), re-cross fence to follow R edge, still in same direction, to a stile just beyond gate. TR across stile, slightly L through pasture and TL over stile by gate, before corner, into trees of Sheephouse Brake.
3. Sheephouse Brake. After 65m fork R down wide path, ahead beyond marker post, R of next marker post out of wood. Carry on down glorious pasture, heading for upturned “V” hedge directly ahead, through metal gate along fine R edge and TR on to road through gap by oak tree. TR along road up to view of castle gatehouse from end of private drive.
4. Pembridge Castle. Resume along road to stone cottage of Pleck Farm and TL through gate.
Follow L edge to marker post and, either kink R through crop if practicable, or bend R a little further on around edge to go through gateway on to main road. TL 100m along verge, cross, and TR along the unsigned road.
5. Start of 1½ miles of country lane. Pass Tremahaid Farm, climb slightly L ahead at crossroads for Welsh Newton Common. Pass Gwenherrion Farm, “Shobdon”, and parish council notice board to telephone box island. Keep L down road to the fine view through the front gates of Newton Lodge.
6. Welsh Newton Common.
Newton Lodge. TR in front of stone buildings/wall up narrow path. At Myrtle Cottage go straight ahead over cross track through trees up to surfaced lane. TL past shelter with post box. Go 25m and TR along wide gravel path between St Faith’s church and “PO”. Veer R beyond “Nythfa”, cross stile, ahead along L edge, next stile and ahead L of cream house to cross stile.
7. Field View. Follow top R edge of crop field with fine views, down over boarded stile. Head down towards four-eaved cottage. Cross stile 150m in front of this cottage and go mostly L to cross next boarded stile. Bear R over two more stiles to road. Go straight across, up five steps, next stile, through paddock and gate into churchyard. John Kemble’s grave is at the foot of preaching cross.
Return to lane through gate.