Portrait of a white man with shaft of light shining on his face. There is a rope around his neck and knife in his chest.

David Lewis SJ

David Lewis was the last Welsh Jesuit to be executed for the crime of being a priest. His nationality as a Welshman was supremely important to him, and his family claimed lineal descent from Owain Glendwr, the famed Welsh freedom fighter who rose up against Henry IV’s control of Wales in the late 14th century.

David was born in Abergavenny in 1616. His education is a classic example of the difficulties faced by so many Catholic families of their day, fractured in facing the bitter choice of conformity to state religion and suppression of conscience, or firm adherence to their faith and the real prospect of ruinous fines, imprisonment or worse. The Lewis family compromised as was common. David attended the local grammar school, run by his father in conformity with state rules on religion, while his younger siblings were given a clandestine, illegal Catholic education at home overseen by his mother.

It is likely that his mother’s example struck a chord with him as David set off for Paris to be educated at the age of 16 in a Catholic college. He later studied law in London, but in 1638, aged 21, following the death of both his parents, he decided to travel to Rome to be ordained as a Catholic priest and a Jesuit. Like Edmund Arrowsmith before him, David needed assistance to cover the costs of his study- in this he was generously funded by another Welsh Jesuit, Charles Gwynn, who was rector of the Welsh mission from 1632 until his death in 1647.

In 1648 David Lewis returned to the mission in South Wales and Monmouthshire where he ministered to a substantial Catholic community for more than thirty years. He was described as ‘zealous, fearless, patient, charitable’ and was often referred to as the Father of the Poor. His success in the region did not go unnoticed by the authorities, but they seemed content to let matters lie until the Oates Plot started to spread its poison from London out into the rest of England and Wales. John Arnold, a Monmouthshire MP, Justice of the Peace and Dep Lt of the county was an acquaintance of Titus Oates and set in train a furious priest hunt throughout his constituency, offering the exorbitant bounty of £200 for anyone bringing a Catholic priest to the authorities.

Dorothy and William James were well placed to take advantage of this life-changing sum of money. William James had been David Lewis’s servant for at least four years and knew enough of his movements to betray his location to the authorities. On November 17th 1678 he led a deposition of justices to arrest Lewis who was arrested and placed in solitary confinement in Monmouth Gaol. The search found Catholic vestments, crucifixes, unconsecrated hosts and Catholic books, all of which were burned. In January 1679 David Lewis was transferred to Usk prison and tried two months later on the charge of his Catholic priesthood. Dorothy James was the chief witness, stating that Lewis had said Mass, preached in both English and Welsh, had baptised infants and conducted Catholic marriages. She finished her statement with the chilling words that she would ‘never give over to prosecute till she had washed her hands in his hearts blood and made pottage of his head as of a sheep’s head’. David Lewis himself recorded her words in his record of the trial. The James’s were given the official £20 priesthunter bounty. It is not known if Arnold made good on his promise of the full £200 reward.

David Lewis was executed in Usk on August 27th 1679. He stated that he died for his conscience and his priesthood, then prayed for King Charles II. The large, sympathetic crowd prevented the traditional mutilation being carried out until he was dead, and his dismembered corpse was buried in the Priory Church graveyard in Usk, by the west door. The spot is marked with a blank stone.

Fragment of rope, frayed at the ends, on an oval of red cloth

Rope relic of David Lewis SJ

This piece of rope was originally held at Lanherne Priory in Cornwall. As we have seen, the Carmelite Sisters had amassed a considerable collection of relics belonging to English and Welsh martyrs. This is doubtless due to the extensive network of family ties among the Catholics of England and Wales who were able to smuggle out relics to their sisters, aunts, daughters and cousins in the numerous English convents established in Louvain, Bruges, Antwerp and Saint-Omer.

The rope seen here is too thick to have served as a cord for binding Lewis to the hurdle, like Campion’s rope. This is clearly a hangman’s rope, rough and hefty. It came to the Jesuits in 1874. Fr John Morris, in the pursuit of his research into the martyrs, which led to the successful beatifications of 1886 and afterwards, wrote to the Prioress of Lanherne requesting the rope which had played a part in the death of a Jesuit martyr. Mother Mary Baptist of Jesus wrote to him on Feb 18th 1874,

‘I really cannot find it in my heart to refuse your request. Therefore, the relic of Fr Lewis is now yours. We give it to you with great pleasure and should be grateful for the Masses you kindly promised us.’