Welsh Martyrs and Pilgrimage in the Year of Mercy


Pope Francis has asked that this Jubilee Year of Mercy should be one big pilgrimage.

He has spoken about the spirituality and devotion of those who go on pilgrimages as an expression of their faith and a form of evangelization which should be promoted and valued more.

On October 25 1970 Pope Paul VI canonized the 40 martyrs of England and Wales, amongst them were St John Kemble (1599 – 22 August 1679) and the last Welsh martyr, St David Lewis (1616 – 27 August 1679).

Monmouthshire remembers these two saist-john-kemble-stained-glass-windwonts every August with two pilgrimages on August 22 for St John Kemble at St Mary’s Monmouth and on August 27 for St David Lewis at the church of SS Francis Xavier and St David Lewis, Usk.

John Kemble was born in St Weonards in Herefordshire to a prominent recusant Catholic family which included four other priests.  He was ordained at Douai College on 23 February 1625 and returned to England in June of the same year as a missionary in Monmouthshire and Herefordshire.

For 53 years he served as an itinerant priest.  Catholic clergy still had to be discreet about their ministry but Fr Kemble won many admirers, even amongst Protestants, and escaped persecution, until Titus Oates and the Popish plot of 1678.

William Bedloe, from Monmouth, gave false information about leading Catholics in the area and Fr John Kemble and Fr David Lewis were implicated.  Fr Lewis was arrested at St Michael’s Church, Llantarnam and Fr Kemble was arrested at Pembridge Castle near Welsh Newton.

He was incarcerated in Hereford Gaol until April the following year when he was taken to London to be interrogated about the plot.  He was 80 years old and being unable to ride a horse, was strapped on its back.

No evidence was found of his involvement in the plot but he was found guilty of treason – by being a Catholic priest – and was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.

He walked most of the way back to Hereford to meet his fate.

Before his execution he insisted on praying, finishing his drink and smoking a last pipe.

The hangman was distraught and Fr John Kemble is said to have consoled him saying “…do thy office.  I forgive thee with all my heart.  Thou wilt do me a greater kindness that discourtesy.”


Execution of St John Kemble

He was allowed to die on the gallows before being drawn and quartered.

One of his hands is still preserved in St Francis Xavier’s church in Hereford and his body rests in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Welsh Newton (Church of England).

The annual pilgrimage to the grave of St John Kemble took place on 22 August with pilgrims from near and far leaving St Mary’s church in Monmouth after Sunday Mass to walk to Welsh Newton for a service at his resting place.

Pilgrims returned to Monmouth for Benediction, celebrated by Fr Nicholas James.  A very generous tea was prepared and served by parishioners and was enjoyed by all.

The following Sunday, 27 August – and only a short distance away – pilgrims gathered to remember the last Welsh martyr, St David Lewis.

David Lewis was born in 1616 and was the youngest of nine children of the Reverend Morgan Lewis, the Protestant headmaster of the grammar school at Abergavenny and a Catholic mother, Margaret Pritchard.


St David Lewis, after an engraving, in Llantarnam Abbey

He converted to Catholicism after visiting Paris.  His parents died when he was only 22 years old and that same year he went to Rome to prepare for the priesthood.  He was ordained on 20 July 1642.

He was immediately sent to Wales.  He returned to Rome as spiritual director of his former college but the Mission in South Wales pleaded for Fr Lewis’ return to his homeland.

The request was granted and he returned to the Jesuit Mission of St Francis Xavier at a place called “The Cwm” on the

Hereford/Monmouth border in 1648 where he remained for the next 30 years.


His kindness earned him the title: “Tay y Flodion” – Father of the Poor.


As he was preparing to say Mass on Sunday 17 November 1678, he was arrested and brought to Monmouth for trial on 16 March 1679.

He pleaded not guilty but was sent to Newgate prison in London with John Kemble and questioned about the “plot.”

He was finally brought back to Usk in Monmouthshire and was hanged on 27 August 1679 and posthumously disemboweled.

The mainly Protestant crowd insisted that he receive a proper burial.

Plaque near place of execution of St David Lewis

Plaque near place of execution of St David Lewis

After the Titus Oates affair, the remaining Welsh-speaking Catholic priests were either executed or exiled.

St David Lewis was the last Welshman to become a Jesuit until 2001, more than 300 years later.

In 2007 a plaque was erected on the spot where David Lewis was arrested near Llantarnam Abbey.

St David Lewis’ last words were: “Sweet Jesus, receive my soul.”

Pilgrims gathered at the beautiful church of SS Francis Xavier and David Lewis in Usk for quiet reflection before setting out on pilgrimage to the place of execution of St David Lewis.


Interior of SS Francis Xavier & David Lewis


We were lead by Fr John Kelly and Fr Bernard Sixtus and the pilgrimage ended at the grave of the martyr in the churchyard of St Mary’s Priory Church and prayers in the shelter of the church.

Banner of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales

Banner of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales






The heavy downpours didn’t dampen the pilgrim spirit and a scrumptious spread and hot tea was served in the parish room.


If your parish would like to organise their own pilgrimage to mark the Year of Mercy, there is an excellent resource to guide you.

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