Even though Queen Elizabeth I early confirmed Britain’s official rejection of papal authority, Wales was rather remote from London, so many Welshmen continued in their Catholic allegiance and practice. Richard Gwynn of Wales was the first of many Welsh Catholics who felt her heavy hand.
Richard had been raised a Protestant. Having graduated from Cambridge University, he opened a school in Overton, Wales. His wife bore him six children, of whom three survived infancy.
Some time after he started this school, he became a Catholic. The Anglican bishop of Chester, noting that Gwynn was not attending Protestant worship, threatened him with arrest unless he mended his ways. Richard consented for the moment, pressed, no doubt, by practical considerations.
But he would never again show such weakness. As a matter of fact, he now moved his school from Overton to Erbistock. In 1579, while visiting Wrexham, he was recognized by the Anglican Vicar (a lapsed Catholic) and arrested and jailed as a Catholic “recusant” (one who refused to attend Anglican worship). The day after his arrest, Richard managed somehow to escape. However, in June 1580, the Queen’s Council ordered that all Catholic schoolteachers be imprisoned. It was thought, apparently, that schoolteachers were particularly dangerous enemies to Anglicanism. Gwynn was therefore arrested anew in July 1580. He was given the choice of jail or release on the condition that he give up the Catholic Church. He refused. In May 1581, he was taken by force, wearing his chains, to Anglican Sunday worship, but he purposely clanged his chains so loud as to drown out the sermon. In punishment, he was put into the public stocks. A crowd of Anglican clergy came to taunt him and persuade him to embrace Anglicanism.
One of these ministers, who happened to have a very red nose, declared that he possessed the “power of the keys” as much as St. Peter had. Gwynn retaliated, “There is this difference: that St. Peter received the keys of the kingdom of heaven, but you appear to have received those of the beer-cellar.” In the following September, he was brought to court again from prison and condemned to be fined double for not having attended Protestant worship since his imprisonment seven years before! (Fines like this for nonattendance were one of the more grievous, if less bloody, types of pressure brought against Catholics in those days.) The judge now asked the prisoner if he intended to pay the fines now due – amounting to thousands of dollars. “I have somewhat towards it,” he replied. “How much?” “Sixpence,” Richard replied with a twinkle in his eyes. In all, Gwynn was haled into court seven times. He was also tortured to make him reveal the names of other Catholics, but he didn’t.
Finally, in his eighth indictment, he was charged with treason for defending the supremacy of the pope over the Church and for trying to reconcile a Protestant to Catholicism. The jury, sitting to try him, were not willing to convict him until they were pressured by the judge to do so. Richard belittled his condemnation. “What is all this?” he asked. “It is no more than one death.” His long-suffering wife was furious. “If you lack blood,” she told the court, “you may take my life as well as my husband’s.” For this frankness, the court jailed Mrs. Gwynn as well. But they made one last offer of release to the schoolmaster if he would embrace Anglicanism. He remained firm.
Richard Gwynn was taken to the scaffold on October 17, 1584. To a sympathetic audience he said, “Weep not for me. I do but pay the rent before the rent day.” The sentence for treason (hanging, drawing and quartering) was carried out, rigorously. He was cut down before dead and his heart was cut out. “Holy God,” he cried in Welsh, “What is this?” “It is an execution for the Queen’s Majesty,” they answered. “Jesus have mercy on me!” he said. Then his head was struck off.
In 1929, Pope Pius XI beatified Richard Gwynn, schoolmaster, as a martyr. In 1970, Pope Paul VI declared him a saint. He had refused to give up his faith in the oneness of the Catholic Church. For him, as for us, that belief is no minor matter.
No wonder Welsh Catholics hold this witty and heroic Welsh Catholic scholar in such high reverence.
–Father Robert, F. McNamara