St Richard Gwyn
“In the main the authorities have much the same story to relate concerning Richard Gwyn’s life. All agree that he was born at Llanidloes in Montgomeryshire of an influential family and was “descended of honest parentage”.” *Holywell MS.
Extract from “The Welsh Elizabethan Catholic Martyrs.” D. Aneurin Thomas. University of Wales Press 1971.
(c.1537–1584),martyr. Born at Llanidloes (Montgomeryshire, now Powys), he was educated mainly at St John’s College, …
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David Hugh Farmer
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Print Publication Date: 2011
Print ISBN-13: 9780199596607
Published online: 2011
Current Online Version: 2011
Saint Richard Gwyn (ca. 1537 – 15 October 1584), also known by his anglicised name, Richard White, was a Welsh school teacher. He was martyred by being hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason in 1584. He was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970 as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales. His feast day is celebrated on 17 October.
Little is known of Richard Gwyn’s early life. He was born about 1537 in Llanidloes Montgomeryshire, Wales and at the age of 20 he matriculated at Oxford University, but did not complete a degree. He then went to Cambridge University, where he lived on the charity of St John’s College and its master, the Roman Catholic Dr. George Bullock. At the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I in 1558, Bullock was forced to resign the mastership; this marked the end of Gwyn’s university career in England, after just two years. He then moved to the University of Douai.
Gwyn returned to Wales and became a teacher in the Wrexham area, continuing his studies on his own. He married Catherine; they had six children, three of whom survived him. His adherence to the old faith was noted by the Bishop of Chester, who brought pressure on him to conform to the Anglican faith. It is recorded in an early account of his life that:
after some troubles, he yielded to their desires, although greatly against his stomach … and lo, by the Providence of God, he was no sooner come out of the church but a fearful company of crows and kites so persecuted him to his home that they put him in great fear of his life, the conceit whereof made him also sick in body as he was already in soul distressed; in which sickness he resolved himself (if God would spare his life) to return to a Catholic.
In May 1581 Gwyn was taken to church in Wrexham, carried around the font on the shoulders of six men and laid in heavy shackles in front of the pulpit. However, he “so stirred his legs that with the noise of his irons the preacher’s voice could not be heard.” He was placed in the stocks for this incident, and was taunted by a local Anglican priest who claimed that the keys of the Church were given no less to him than to St. Peter. “There is this difference”, Gwyn replied, “namely, that whereas Peter received the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the keys you received were obviously those of the beer cellar.”
Gwyn was fined £280 for refusing to attend Anglican church services, and another £140 for “brawling” when they took him there. When asked what payment he could make toward these huge sums, he answered, “Six-pence”. Gwyn and two other Catholic prisoners, John Hughes and Robert Morris, were ordered into court in the spring of 1582 where, instead of being tried for an offence, they were given a sermon by an Anglican minister. However, they started to heckle him (one in Welsh, one in Latin and one in English) to the extent that the exercise had to be abandoned.
Richard Gwyn, John Hughes and Robert Morris were indicted for high treason in 1583 and were brought to trial before a panel headed by the Chief Justice ofChester, Sir George Bromley. Witnesses gave evidence that they retained their allegiance to the Catholic Church, including that Gwyn composed “certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers” and “[T]hat he had heard him complain of this world; and secondly, that it would not last long, thirdly, that he hoped to see a better world [this was construed as plotting a revolution]; and, fourthly, that he confessed the Pope’s supremacy.” The three were also accused of trying to make converts.
Despite their defences and objections to the dubious practices of the court Gwyn and Hughes were found guilty. At the sentencing Hughes was reprieved and Gwyn condemned to death by hanging, drawning and quartering. This sentence was carried out in the Beast Market in Wrexham on 15 October 1584.
Just before Gwyn was hanged he turned to the crowd and said, “I have been a jesting fellow, and if I have offended any that way, or by my songs, I beseech them for God’s sake to forgive me.” The hangman pulled on his leg irons hoping to put him out of his pain. When he appeared dead they cut him down, but he revived and remained conscious through the disembowelling, until his head was severed. His last words, in Welsh, were reportedly “Iesu, trugarha wrthyf” (“Jesus, have mercy on me”).
Legacy, relics and feast day
Relics of St Richard Gwyn are to be found in the Cathedral Church of Our Lady of Sorrows, seat of the Bishop of Wrexham and also in the Catholic Church of Our Lady and Saint Richard Gwyn, Llanidloes.