St David Lewis was born in Abergavenny in 1616, the youngest of nine children of a Protestant father and Catholic mother. At 16, while visiting Paris, he converted to Catholicism, and went on to study in Rome, where in 1642 he was ordained priest. Three years later, he joined the Jesuits.
He was arrested on 17 November 1678, at St Michael’s Church, Llantarnam, and condemned at Monmouth in March 1679 on a charge of high treason – for having become a Catholic priest and then remaining in England, celebrating Catholic Masses. Like St John Kemble and other martyrs, he was then sent to London to be examined by Titus Oates (the originator of the so-called Popish Plot). In Newgate Prison he pleaded not guilty to the charge of being an accessory to the plot, and Oates and his fellow informers were unable to prove anything against him, but five or six witnesses claimed they had seen him say Mass and perform other priestly duties. For this Lewis was found guilty and sentenced to death. Lewis said in his dying speech, “discover the plot I could not, as I knew of none; and conform I would not, for it was against my conscience”.
He was brought back to Usk and hanged on 27 August 1679, and then posthumously disembowelled. It was a tribute to the great esteem in which he was held that the crowd, who were mainly Protestants, insisted that he be allowed to hang until he was dead, and that he receive a proper burial. The Sheriff too refused to attend the execution, which he had postponed for as long as he could.
After the Titus Oates affair, the remaining Welsh-speaking Catholic clergy were all either executed or exiled. David Lewis was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. In November 2007, a plaque was erected on the spot where Lewis was arrested near Llantarnam Abbey.
From his last words: “My religion is Roman Catholic; in it I have lived above these forty years; in it now I die, and so fixedly die, that if all the good things in the world were offered to me to renounce it, all should not remove me one hair’s breadth from the Roman Catholic faith. A Roman Catholic I am; a Roman Catholic priest I am; a Roman Catholic priest of that order known as the Society of Jesus, I am.”