Richard Gwyn (1537-1584) was a victim of Queen Elizabeth I’s persecution of Catholics, conducted with increasing intensity after 1581.
Born in Llanidloes in central Wales, Gwyn matriculated at Oxford before removing swiftly to Cambridge where, at St John’s, he lived by the charity of Dr Bullock, the college’s Catholic Master.
After the death of Queen Mary in 1558, however, Bullock refused to take the oath of supremacy administered by Elizabeth’s government and was ejected from the Mastership.
Gwyn fled to the continent, spending some time at Douai. Around 1562 he returned to Wales and for the next 16 years worked as a schoolmaster, mainly in Wrexham and Overton. He was much loved, not merely for his excellence and dedication as a teacher, but also for “other good partes known to be in him”.
He wrote fine religious verse, sounding a new note in Welsh poetry with his mixture of plain language and strong metaphor.
At some stage Gwyn married a young girl called Catherine from Overton. They had six children, though only three survived childhood.
His Catholic sympathies did not pass unnoticed and he was often obliged to move home and change schools in order to escape persecution. By the late 1570s the relentless pressure tempted him to conform outwardly to the Elizabethan church, “although greatly against his stomach”.
No sooner had he apostatised than “a fearful company of crows and kites so persecuted him to his home that they put him in great fear of his life”. This inspired a speedy return to the one true Church.
Arrested in 1579 Gwyn managed to escape for 18 months. After being captured, though, he spent his last four years in prison.
When his persecutors laid him in heavy shackles before the pulpit of a Protestant church in Wrexham Gwyn “so stirred his legs that with the noise of his irons the preacher’s voice could not be heard”.
Placed in the stocks as a punishment, he was taunted by an Anglican priest who claimed to possess the keys of the Church as surely as St Peter did. “There is this difference,” Gwyn riposted, “namely that, whereas Peter received the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, the keys you received were obviously those of the beer cellar.”
Indicted for high treason, Gwyn was eventually condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered at the Beast Market in Wrexham in October 1584. “I have been a jesting fellow,” he told the crowd from the scaffold, “and if I have offended any that way, or by my songs, I beseech them for God’s sake to forgive me.”
The execution was hideously bungled, so that Gwyn remained conscious throughout his disembowelment. His last words, in Welsh, were: “Iesu, have mercy on me.”