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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Richard Gywn

September 7, 2021 saints No Comments

By DEB PIROCH

Richard Gwynn (1537-1584), the protomartyr of Wales, was born to a family of average income and attended Oxford and Cambridge. The first he chose not to finish, the second he could not finish, due to the ascent of Queen Elizabeth I to the throne. (Catholics were forbidden to attend.) He returned to Wales where, despite having been unable to finish his formal education, he became a schoolmaster and nonetheless taught young children. He had six children with his own with wife Catherine, and three survived to adulthood.
He who had been a strong Catholic remained so, and his feelings on being required to attend Anglican services and acknowledge the Queen as Supreme Head of the Church in England were well known. An ex-priest now Anglican, who had been made the bishop of Downham, went after Richard and pressured him to attend Anglican services. This was the first and only time he gave in; afterwards he was attacked by crows all the way home and became so sick that he attributed it all to his error. He made a good Confession and determined never again to attend the Anglican church. He left the town of Overton for Erbistock with his family to avoid further persecution by Downham.
In 1579 he had to flee Erbistock and went next to Wrexham to avoid arrest. There another ex-priest who had turned to Anglicanism and married had him arrested but offered freedom, if Richard would only conform. Richard refused and escaped, going on the lam for the next 18 months.
In June 1580 he was arrested again, and imprisoned in Ruthin Castle. He had been recognized, had to defend himself in a struggle, and was horrified afterward at first, waiting to see if the man he struck was dead. The man revived and called others to catch him. Richard spent three months in jail before anything happened. Then, again, he was offered freedom if he would conform and give up the names of the Catholic parents of his students. Naturally, he refused and went back to jail. He preferred to return to his chains. By Christmas he was moved to Wrexham Jail. From his arrest to his execution, he would spend the next four years imprisoned, in a battle of wits with his captors.
In May 1581, at the Assizes, which were periodic courts held, it was ordered that his next punishment was to be forced to attend Anglican services. He was carried there in shackles. So, he protested by clanking and banging his chains the entire time. He would later be punished for this by being indicted for “brawling in church.” In return for his misbehavior, he was again punished, this time by being forced from morning till night to listen to Anglican ministers preach at him while in the stocks. One with a red nose deigned to assert that he, too, had the same keys as St. Peter. In response Richard told him, “Whereas St. Peter received the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, you appear to have received those from the beer cellar!” Richard was clearly a “troublemaker.”
In September 1581, he was brought again before the chief justice of Chester — the fellow who had ordered him brought in irons to an Anglican service — and ordered to pay over £2000 in today’s money for not having attended the Anglican church for so many weeks, and “brawling during divine service.” Richard responded, “I have something to pay toward the debt.” “How much?” asked the chief justice. “Sixpence,” said Richard. The angry judge had him thrown back in his cell and ordered heavier leg irons.
Not having learned their lesson, Richard was assigned with two other recusant prisoners, to hear another Anglican sermon. This time it was preached by the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest. As soon the Anglican preacher began, the three began to jeer and heckle; one in Latin, one in English, and one in Welsh. The Anglican’s name does not survive, but we do know he gave up. But still, by 1582, all three had been convicted of treason. If one attempt did not work against the men, their oppressors persisted and tried another, or used their families against them, or ordered additional and stricter measures. The three would attend three more assizes. They also appeared before the so-called “Council of the Marches,” which had them tortured in several locations, trying to obtain the names of other practicing Catholics.
Torture was actually forbidden by English law, but one would never have known it. In 1583 Richard Gwyn was subjected to torture yet again. This reveals the mindset of those persecuting him and other holy souls of the Church. Why do this? He had already been convicted. The sentence was death. He had been offered freedom so many times and all he had to do was change his mind and they would have released him. But it seems they had an almost diabolical anger against him. He was “laid to the manacles,” a kind of torture where one was hung from the ceiling by the wrists for hours. Richard hung the entire day, and his tormentors wished to know if he believed Elizabeth was the lawful Queen, which of course he did. To get through the pain, in a loud voice, Richard loudly prayed for those hurting him, asking God to forgive them, grant them mercy, and also for deliverance from their cruelty.
The more he prayed, the angrier they became. Rather than touching their hearts, his words merely added fuel to the fire. He had to stop praying aloud but continued praying silently as he hung probably nine or so hours. Luckily, he was not subjected to the manacles again, though he was threatened with them. By 1584, when the spring assizes were held, it was agreed that measures should proceed. Not until October would the men be arraigned and their sentences determined, but all knew what the outcome would be: death. All commoners were hung, drawn and quartered.
October 15, 1584 was wet and rainy. Richard Gwyn was brought to execution and the crowd cried out that they wished him to die before being disemboweled. This was the more merciful way; if lucky, his neck would break during the drop to hang. That would be it. If not, he would strangle to death, unable to breathe. The hangman also tried to be merciful and pulled on his legs before cutting him down, thinking him dead. But Richard awoke. Horrified, he was awake to witness his insides being pulled out until they cut off his head. His last words called out to our Savior: “Iesu, trugarha wrthyf.” “Jesus, have mercy on me.”
His feast days are October 17 and also May 4 (Forty Saints of England and Wales).
Below is a “Carol” written by St. Richard Gwyn during his imprisonment:

In place of an altar there is a miserable table
In place of Christ there is bread. . . .
If it should be asked who sang this,
A teacher of Welsh children
Who endures imprisonment as a small thing
And lives still in hope.

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