Catholic recusancy in Wales

The Elizabethan Religious Settlement had been largely accepted in Wales, despite the country’s strong tradition of Catholicism. However, recusancy was prevalent in Wales and opposition to the Settlement increased as Elizabeth’s reign progressed.

Opposition to Elizabeth’s 'middle way' Settlement

There were several ways in which Welsh Catholics opposed Elizabeth’s ‘middle way’ Settlement.

Many Welsh people accepted the changes of Elizabeth and there is certainly no evidence of a readiness for a Catholic rebellion in Wales. However, there were some prominent Catholic Welsh opponents to Elizabeth.

Opposition to the Elizabethan Settlement in Wales: Catholics left the country, printed literature, recusancy fines, trained priests abroad, executed/became martyrs, Ridolfi and Babington Plots
  • A number of Welsh clergymen who disagreed with the religious changes left Wales for Italy.
  • Two Welshmen, Owen Lewis and Morgan Philips, trained Catholic priests abroad at the seminary in Flanders.
  • Catholic literature was published in secret in Wales using printing presses.
  • Many Welsh Catholics paid the recusancy fine for not attending church services, such as Edward Morgan of Llantarnum who paid £7,760 during Elizabeth’s reign.
  • Some Welsh Catholics were involved in the plots against Elizabeth, eg Hugh Davis of Plas Du was involved in the Ridolfi Plot of 1571, Thomas Salusbury and Edward Jones were involved in the Babington Plot.
  • Richard Gwyn, William Davies and John Jones were executed and became Catholic martyrs.

The most serious opponents were martyred for their actions and beliefs.

Richard Gwyn

The most prominent Welsh Catholic was Richard Gwyn, who rejected the new Protestant religion and acted as a go-between between travelling Catholic priests and local Catholic families. He was pursued by Protestants and arrested several times.

Although the authorities appeared reluctant to condemn him, they were influenced by Puritans to bring him to trial and after eight trials and harsh punishment he finally suffered a traitor’s death, at Wrexham in 1584.

Edward Jones was an example of someone who had been raised a Protestant but who converted to the Catholic faith, becoming a Catholic priest whilst in Reims, France in 1588. He travelled to England in the same year with the mission to convert people to Catholicism, but was arrested by a priest-catcher in London. After torture, confession and trial, he was hanged, drawn and quartered opposite the place he had been captured in Fleet Street.

John Jones had been raised in a Welsh recusant family, travelling to Rome and eventually becoming a Franciscan friar. Despite the dangers to Catholic priests operating in Wales and England, he returned to provide Mass to Catholics. In 1596, he was arrested by the notorious priest-catcher Richard Topcliffe, tortured and then imprisoned for a further two years until his gruesome execution in 1598.

William Davies was another north-Walian who travelled to France, studying at Reims and becoming a missionary priest in 1585. He returned to Wales acting as an agent between priests and Catholic families in north-east Wales, also secretly producing one of the first books printed in Wales, The Christian Mirror / Y Drych Christianogawl. Arrested and imprisoned several times, he was eventually executed in 1593, after refusing to give up the Catholic faith.

During this period more than 100 priests were condemned to death for treason. However, despite the government’s fears, a rebellion did not emerge. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Catholics were no longer a serious threat to the security of the country.

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