Richard Gwyn, executed on 15 October 1584 for his adherence to the Catholic faith and, therefore, his refusal to recognise the Anglican Church, was the first Welsh Catholic to be executed for his beliefs during the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1st.
Canonized by Pope Paul V1 in 1970 as one of 40 martyrs of England and Wales, he was a man of firm, unshakable belief who did not go willingly to his death but knew that sooner or later it was inevitable, given his adherence to the “old faith".
Born in approximately 1537 in the county of Mongomeryshire, Richard Gwyn went to Oxford to study when he was 20 years old. He did not complete his degree but soon moved on to Cambridge where he found solace and support in the shape of the Catholic master of St John's College, Dr George Bullock.
When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558, Bullock was forced to resign his post and Gwyn also decided that Cambridge was not for him. He went to the University of Douai for a number of years before returning to live and work as a teacher in the Wrexham area. Married with six children, only three of them outlived their father.
In his free time Richard Gwyn continued to study and develop his beliefs, becoming increasingly convinced that the only chance of salvation lay in belief in and acceptance of “the old faith". He soon became widely known as a Catholic, publicly avowing his support for the missionary priests who were beginning to flood into Britain.
Because of his outspoken criticism of the Elizabethan Reformation and Church, Gwyn was forced to move house – and his school – many times in order to avoid fines and/or imprisonment. Persecution became a way of life for him and his family.
Despite the regular moves, in 1579 he was arrested by the vicar of Wrexham. He managed to escape and was a fugitive for the next 18 months. Then he was recaptured and held in a number of prisons for the next four years before his eventual execution in 1584.
Shackled and berated
In May 1581, in an effort to break his spirit and make him change his ways, Gwyn was shackled, chained and carried to the font in the church at Wrexham where he was berated and subjected to a sermon by the local vicar. Gwyn would have none of it.
He shook his legs so violently that the noise of the chains rattling completely drowned the preacher's voice. As a result he was put in the town stocks where he was taunted by the Anglican clergyman who claimed to have been given the keys to heaven by St Peter. Gwyn's response was that only St Peter held the keys to Heaven, what the man had been given were the keys to the beer cellar.
A year later Richard Gwyn, along with two other recusants, John Hughes and Robert Morris, were again berated by the Anglican minister. This time the three men heckled so loudly and so effectively - one in Welsh, one in Latin and one in English – that the exercise was abandoned.
When he was fined £280 for recusancy and a further £150 for “brawling,” Gwyn was asked how much he would pay. His reply was simple – sixpence.
Sentenced to death
Eventually – and perhaps inevitably – Richard Gwyn was brought before the chief justice of Chester, accused of High Treason. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, as custom and the laws of the land then demanded.
The sentence was duly carried out at the animal market in Wrexham on 15 October 1584. In the face of his terrible ordeal, Gwyn showed rare courage and the executioner even pulled on his shackled legs in order to kill him more quickly and so ease his suffering. It did not work. Despite seeming to be dead, Gwyn revived just as the disembowelling began – he remained conscious until he was finally beheaded.
Richard Gwyn was not just a protester. He composed five free verse carols in Welsh, all of them supporting and promoting the Catholic faith.
There are many stories or legends about the man, in one of them the judge who pronounced the death sentence being struck dumb in court. In another, the clerk of the court who read out his indictment suddenly went blind. These supposed miracles may have added to his legend but, ultimately, they did not help Gwyn himself.
Religious relics of Richard Gwyn can be found in the Catholic church of Our Lady, the seat of the Bishop of Wrexham. As a renowned teacher, Gwyn would probably be prouder of the fact that two schools, both called the Richard Gwyn High School, now exist in Flintshire and in Barry in south Wales.