St Richard Gwyn
Richard Gwyn was born in Montgomeryshire, Wales, in about 1537, of an old but not wealthy family. At the age of twenty he went up to Oxford, where he remained but a short while, then to Cambridge, where he lived on the charity of St. John's College and its master, Dr. George Bulloch.
At the accession of the child king, Edward VI, Dr. Bulloch had fled to the Continent because of his staunch opposition to the reformers. With Queen Mary's restoration of the Church beginning in 1553, Bulloch returned to Cambridge in royal favor and was unanimously elected master by the fellows of St. John's. But at Queen Elizabeth's accession, almost as soon as her protestant proclivities were manifest, his colleagues almost unanimously asked him to resign the mastership.
Bulloch's refusal of the Oath of Supremacy, which declared Elizabeth to have papal authority in England, insured his removal-and it marked the end of the university career of his protege, Richard Gwyn, after barely two years. (Dr. Bulloch again fled and spent his remaining years at first in great suffering, then in writing Catholic tracts for secret distribution in England, and in composing a major scholarly work on the Bible.)
Gwyn returned to Wales and set up as a schoolmaster, continuing his studies on his own. He married Catherine; they had six children, three of whom survived him. His abstention from Anglican communion was soon noticed, and the Bishop of Chester brought pressure on him to conform to the new religion. "In the end," and early chronicle of his life records,
After some troubles, he yielded to their desires, although greatly against his stomach... and Jo, 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 diseased; in which sickness he resolved himself (if God would spare him life) to become a Catholic.
He was reconciled to the Church at the first coming of the seminary priests to Wales.
Gwyn was pestered often for the Faith and had to change his abode and his school several times to avoid fines and imprisonment. Finally in 1579 he was arrested by the Vicar of Wrexham, a priest who had conformed and married-a type who was a favorite object of Gwyn's satiric verses. He escaped and remained a fugitive for a year and a half, was recaptured, and spent the next four years in one prison after another until his execution.
The incident of the birds is only one of the strange events in Richard Gwyn's life, as is the way of the Welsh. Once when he was arraigned, the clerk who read the indictment suddenly lost his vision and had to be replaced before the proceedings could resume. The judge cautioned those present not to report the incident lest the Papists make a miracle of it. On another occasion, the judge, who later sentenced Richard to death, became inexplicably speechless in court. Once a secret Catholic, disapproving of Gwyn's public resistance to the new religion, called out to Gwyn (which is White in English) as he passed the jail,
"O, White, White, thou art an unprofitable member of the commonwealth."
He immediately became ill and never recovered.
Saint Richard Gwyn suffered greatly in prison but his spirit was never broken. In May 1581 he was taken bodily to the church, carried procession-wise around the baptismal font on the shoulders of six sheriff's men and laid in his heavy shackles before the pulpit. But Saint Richard "so stirred his legs that with the noise of his irons the preacher's voice could not be heard." Whereupon he was put in the stocks for a day, "vexed all the time by a rabble of ministers." One of them with a large red nose, taunting Gwyn about the papacy, claimed that the keys of the church were given no less to him than to St. Peter. "There is this difference," Richard 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 having refused to go to church, 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." This so enraged the judge that he ordered a double set of manacles for the saint. Richard 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 offense, they were treated to a sermon by a Puritan minister, the illegitimate son of a priest. The three prisoners gave better than they got: each began rapidly to harangue the preacher, one in Welsh, one in Latin and one in English. So ended that judge's bright idea.
In November 1583 Gywn and other recusants were "laid in the manacles," a kind of torture described as being little inferior to the rack in the Tower of London. St. Richard
Bestowed all the time of his torments in continual prayer, by craving God for his tormentors mercy and forgiveness, and for himself deliverance from their malice by the merits of Jesus Christ his passion; and this he did in a loud voice.
But the persecutors seemed to be tormented with his words, as if they had been possessed; for they never ceased running in and out all the while, muttering one to another he knew not what. Then he fell to pray in silence, and so continued. . . without any answer to their demands.
Eventually Richard Gwyn and his two fellow sufferers, John Hughes and Robert Morris, were indicted for high treason and were brought to trial before a panel headed by the Chief Justice of Chester, Sir George Bromley. Witnesses at the trial deposed that the prisoners had acknowledged the Bishop of Rome to be the supreme head of the Church, that the Pope then living had the same authority which Christ gave to St. Peter, that Gwyn had recited "certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers." A cousin of John Hughes, who had secured to himself Hughes' property probably by informing against him (a fairly widespread practice against recusants by their avaricious kin), testified about St. Richard "That 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 often construed as plotting a revolution]; and, fourthly, that he confessed the Pope's supremacy." The three were also accused of trying to make converts.
The prisoners defended themselves, objected to irregular procedures, and attacked the credibility of the paid witnesses. Gwyn and Hughes were found guilty, and Morris to his sorrow was acquitted. At the sentencing Hughes was reprieved and Saint Richard Gwyn was condemned to a traitor's death. As the awful sentence enumerated the brutalities to be inflicted on him, Gwyn listened unperturbed. "What is all this?" he asked. "Is it any more than one death?"
Little is known of Richard's wife Catherine except a few fine glimpses of her loyalty and pluck in what must have been a splendid marriage. After the sentencing, she and Mrs. Hughes, both with babies in their arms, were admonished by the judge not to follow the evil ways of their husbands. Catherine Gwyn replied to the lecture: "If it is blood you want, you may take my life as well as my husband's. Fetch the witnesses and give them a little bribe, and they will give evidence against me too." Both women spent a few days in jail for their sass.
On the morning of Gwyn's execution, Catherine shouted at one of the main persecutors, "God be a righteous judge between thee and me." Richard rebuked her, saying "that if they did not forgive now freely, all their labors would be lost."
In the last hours before the execution, the jailer's wife in another part of the prison broke out in loud lamentation, for she and her husband had become fond of Gwyn. Some time before, in fact, the jailer had granted the prisoners an unauthorized parole-which accounts for the Hughes and Gwyn infants-and for this breach of security he was required to be the hangman on this day. When he learned what the wailing was, St. Richard said, "I pray thee, Catherine, go and comfort her."
With his hands tied behind his back on the way to the gallows, Richard said the rosary on the piece of knotted string which held up his chains. The sheriff asked if he repented of his treasons against the queen. "I have never committed any treason against her more than your father or grandfather, unless it be treason to fast and pray." The previous generation, of course, had all been Roman Catholic.
Saint Richard exhorted the large crowd at the place of execution to be reconciled to the true Church. Just before he was turned off the ladder he 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." He hung by his neck for some time striking his breast in a penetential gesture. His friend 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 were in Welsh, "Jesus, have mercy on me."
Saint Richard Gwyn's chronicler records that Justice Bromley soon after became an idiot, another justice perished as did a majority of the jury, a principal prosecutor died a fearful death, and the court crier "became a fool and a momme," that is, a mumbler.
Saint Richard Gwyn died on October 15, 1584, and was among the forty English martyrs canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1970