I had intended for my contributions to this series to be mainly saints of northern Europe, and particularly those of the British Isles who were martyred during the Protestant Reformation. I did not intend for John Kemble to be among them, for the simple reason that I had never heard of him. I only learned of him a few weeks ago when I read about him in Magnificat: he was the saint of the day for April 26, as part of the magazine’s emphasis for the month on “Saints Who Did Their Great Work in Old Age.” John was martyred when he was 80 years old, and his death was less gruesome than many—he was not tortured, he was not burned; he was hanged, but allowed to die before being drawn and quartered. The hanging was, however, incompetently done, so that Kemble was said to have taken half an hour to die. (It is not clear from the accounts I’ve read whether the butchering actually took place or not, although that apparently was the sentence.) So considering that he was already well past his three-score-and-ten, and that his suffering was perhaps not as great as that of others, it might be easy to pass over his martyrdom as a rather ordinary one: a description I hesitate to use, but the truth is that we do become accustomed to these stories.
But he did one very cool thing which makes him stand out, and made me decide immediately upon reading about it that I would write about him: when informed, after an imprisonment of several months, that he was about to be executed, he asked for, and was granted, permission to finish his devotions, to smoke his pipe, and to have a cup of sack.
John Kemble was born in Herefordshire in 1599. At that time of course the victory of Protestantism in England was long since complete, and the practice of Catholicism incurred dangers and penalties ranging from fines to execution (for clergy). But the laws were not always strictly or consistently enforced, and after Kemble was ordained at Doaui and had returned to his home county in 1625, he seems to have pursued his ministry without penalty for over fifty years. He appears to have been well regarded locally, even by those who did not share his religion.
This long toleration came to an end in 1678 when Kemble was drawn into the net of lies cast by Titus Oates, perpetrator of the famous “Popish Plot”, which accused many Catholics of plotting against the king’s life. I did not know, until I started reading about Kemble, just how utterly despicable a character Oates was. I will admit to being shocked at the extent of his villainy, which you can read about in Wikipedia.
Being warned to flee his imminent arrest in December of 1678, Kemble responded “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.” Kemble’s own Wikipedia article provides an account of his death which agrees with others I’ve found online,
In April 1679 Father Kemble, now 80, was ordered to be taken to London to be interviewed about the plot. As the elderly priest had difficulty riding a horse, he was strapped like a pack to his horse on the way there. He was found to have had no connection with the alleged plot but found guilty of the treasonous crime of being a Catholic priest. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. He was returned to Hereford for the sentence to be carried out, and allowed to walk most of the way back.
Before he was led out to his execution on 22 August 1679 Father Kemble insisted on saying his prayers and finishing his drink, and the assembled party joined the elderly priest in a final smoke and a cup of sack. The Herefordshire sayings, Kemble pipe and Kemble cup, refer to a parting pipe or cup. Before his death Father Kemble addressed the assembled crowd, pointing out that no association with the "plot" had been charged to him. The old priest went on to say: "The failure of the authorities in London to connect me to the plot makes it evident that I die only for profession of the Catholic religion, which was the religion that first made this Kingdom Christian."
Consoling his distraught hangman, the priest is said to have 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."
One other account, which I’ve now lost track of, said that the hangman was unable to carry out his duty and was replaced by another, who also couldn’t manage it, and so the deed was finished by a third. If true, this no doubt has some connection to the report that Kemble lived for thirty minutes. Several mention that his hand was severed, and one says that this was a token quartering. Other accounts stress the regret at his execution felt by the Protestants who knew him, and their admiration for the way in which he met death.
The wife and daughter of the officer who arrested Fr. Kemble, Captain John Scudamore, were the priest’s parishioners (if that’s applicable to the arrangements of those confused and perilous times). The two of them professed to have received miracles of healing by the intercession of their late priest. If you look at older sources for the lives of the saints, such as the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia at NewAdvent.org, you’ll see Kemble described as Venerable or Blessed. He was beatified in 1929 and is one of the Forty Catholic Martyrs of England and Wales canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
I doubt I’ll have the opportunity to meet death with the same gallantry as St. John Kemble, but I can try to have his good cheer and equanimity.
Maclin Horton is the proprietor of his own blog Light on Dark Water from which sprang this series. You might want to check out the current series there, 52 Movies or last year's 52 Authors. In this series he has written about St Henrik, and St. John Fisher.
If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.