Two Popish Plot Martyrs on August 22 in 1679

These two martyrs were canonized, with 38 more, by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

Broadside with illustration: "The solemn mock procession of the Pope Cardinalls Jesuits fryers &c: through the citty of London November the 17th. 1679." Printer London: N. Ponder, J. Wilkins and S. Lee, 1680. EB65 A100 680s4, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Broadside with illustration: "The solemn mock procession of the Pope Cardinalls Jesuits fryers &c: through the citty of London November the 17th. 1679." Printer London: N. Ponder, J. Wilkins and S. Lee, 1680. EB65 A100 680s4, Houghton Library, Harvard University. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Far from London, where the Popish Plot was still in the full fury of investigation, accusation, trials, and execution, two Catholic priests, John Wall and John Kemble, suffered and died in Wales. Neither was a Jesuit, the focus of Titus Oates’ fictitious plot: Wall was a Franciscan and Kemble did not belong to any religious order. They had been found not guilty of any involvement in a plot to murder King Charles II and bring his Catholic brother, James the Duke of York, to the throne. They were found guilty of being Catholic priests in England after serving their underground flocks for a long time.


St. John Kemble

Father John Kemble was 80 years old when he was hanged, drawn and quartered. He was born during the last years of Elizabeth I’s reign (1599) into a Catholic family that had remained true to the faith in spite of recusant fines and the loss of regular access to the Sacraments. Kemble went to the English College at Douai and was ordained in 1625. He returned to England and served the people of Monmouthshire—for over 50 years.

Authorities in the area knew he was there and knew that Catholics were attending the Masses he offered. Kemble lived in Pembridge Castle and went through the countryside to serve his flock. Richard Kemble, his nephew, had even saved the life of Charles II as the king hid and fled after defeat at the Battle Worcester on September 3, 1651, the end of the English Civil War. Catholic families sheltered Charles along the way during his six weeks of hiding until he escaped to join his royal family in France.

Charles had been grateful to many of those families, but in the midst of the Popish Plot when he was trying to protect his own brother and to preserve the Stuart dynasty, he did not help old friends and their families. He knew that Titus Oates was a liar, but he did not stop the arrests, trials, and executions. Only the gradual awareness that there was no evidence of any conspiracy ended the injustice of the so-called Popish Plot.

Captain John Scudamore of Kentchurch, who was a lapsed Catholic, went to Pembridge Castle and arrested Father Kemble, who was warned and could have escaped. He told those concerned for him that “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.” For three months he was kept in prison in Hereford until he was taken to London and Newgate Prison for questioning about his knowledge of the Popish Plot. The authorities finally recognized that he had no involvement with any Jesuit Plot but convicted him of being a priest and sent him back to Hereford for execution, walking—about 117 miles. Remember, he was 80 years old.

When Father Kemble was informed that he would be hanged, drawn and quartered on August 22, 1679, he calmly accepted the news. He wanted to finish praying the Office and to smoke his pipe one last time. He and those taking him to the gallows drank a cup of sack, a white fortified wine like sherry. In Herefordshire the terms “a Kemble pipe” and “a Kemble cup” are part of the memory of Father Kemble.

He did not let those leading him to execution forget, however, that "The failure of the authorities in London to connect me to the plot makes it evident that I die only for profession the Catholic religion, which was the religion that first made this Kingdom Christian." The executioner did not want to perform his duty, and Father Kemble had to encourage him, “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." Perhaps because he was so reluctant, Anthony did not do a good job: Kemble strangled to death after 30 minutes of hanging. He was thus dead before Anthony beheaded and quartered him but his head and quartered body were not displayed.

Father Kemble was buried in the churchyard of St. Mary the Virgin in West Newton, a former church of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller. Catholics and Anglicans both visited his grave. Catholics—including the wife and daughter of the man who had arrested him—reported miracles through his intercession. Each year there’s a pilgrimage on the Sunday before the anniversary of his execution.


Friar Joachim of St. Anne, OFM

Father John Wall was born in 1620 near Preston in Lancashire, five years before St. John Kemble was ordained. Wall went to Douai to study for the priesthood, was ordained in 1645, and returned to England briefly as a missionary priest. Then he left England again and joined the Franciscans at Douai and took the name of Joachim of St. Anne in 1651. After serving as Master of Novices for five years he returned to England, using the alias Francis Webb. He served Catholics in the Worcestershire area for 22 years. In 1678, he visited Father Claude de la Colombiere, SJ, chaplain to the Duchess of York at the Court of St. James; they discussed the increased dangers to the Catholic community during the Popish Plot hysteria and concurred in their desire for martyrdom.

When he returned to Worcestershire, Father Wall stayed with a friend at Rushock Court near Bromsgrove (where J.R.R. Tolkien’s mother Mabel is buried) and was arrested. He was imprisoned in Worcester until tried for his priesthood on April 25, 1679. Then he was taken to London, where he endured the farce of Titus Oates and others interrogating him about their fictitious plot. He was cleared of all complicity but then returned to Worcester for execution.

William Leveson, OFM helped Wall prepare for his death and witnessed his execution. He reported that the onlookers were sympathetic to the martyr. The Sheriff proclaimed, "End Popery? This is the way to make us all Papists!" His body was buried in the churchyard of the Church of St. Oswald of Worceste, while his head was taken to Douai. Like Father Kemble, his head and quarters were not displayed as signs of his treason—the local authorities knew Father Wall had committed no treason. Among the Franciscans in England, his feast is celebrated with several other martyrs from the Elizabethan and Stuart periods on July 12.

These two martyrs were canonized, with 38 more, by Pope Paul VI in 1970. St. John Kemble, pray for us! St. John Wall, pray for us!