Saint Richard Gwyn Protomartyr of Wales: 15 October

Dr. Michael Rhead

Protestant Reformation

The Reformation at the outset was even more unpopular in Wales than it had been generally regarded in England. The revolt against the ancient Church was regarded as a foreign importation forced on the country for the basest purposes—the loot of ecclesiastical property and the enrichment of utterly unscrupulous partisans, who, though notoriously quite irreligious, used religion as a cloak for their evil deeds. The Welsh Bards one and all denounced the “new religion” and its abettors.

But Catholic Wales from the first did more than protest vehemently against the heretical onslaught on the Faith. She gave not a few martyrs to the truths of the ancient Church of St. Dubritius, and St. Teilo. The first of these was Richard Gwyn, the subject of this article. St. Richard Gwyn (c. 1537–1584), alias Richard Wheth, was a Welsh school teacher. He was martyred by being hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason on 15 October 1584.

Early Life

Little is known of Richard Gwyn's early life. He was born in Montgomeryshire, Wales and at the age of 20 he matriculated at Oxford University, but did not complete a degree. He then went to Cambridge University, where he lived on the charity of St John's College and its master, the Roman Catholic Dr. George Bulloch (or Bullock). At the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth I, in 1558, Bulloch was forced to resign the mastership; this marked the end of Gwyn's university career in England, after just two years. He then moved to the University of Douai.

Apostasy & Repentance

Gwyn returned to Wales and became a teacher, continuing his studies on his own. He married Catherine; they had six children, three of whom survived him. His adherence to the old faith was noted by the Bishop of Chester, who brought pressure on him to conform to the Anglican faith. It is recorded in an early account of his life that:

… after some troubles, he yielded to their desires, although greatly against his stomach … and lo, 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 distressed; in which sickness he resolved himself (if God would spare his life) to return to being a Catholic.

On the run, Gwyn often had to change his home and his school to avoid fines and imprisonment. Finally, in 1579, he was arrested by the Vicar of Wrexham, a former Catholic who had conformed to Anglicanism. 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.

Witness with mirth

In May 1581, Gwyn was taken to church in Wrexham, carried around the font on the shoulders of six men and laid in heavy shackles in front of the pulpit. However, he "so stirred his legs that with the noise of his irons the preacher's voice could not be heard." He was placed in the stocks for this incident, and was taunted by a local Anglican minister who claimed that the keys of the Church were given no less to him than to St. Peter. "There is this difference," Gwyn 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 refusing to attend Anglican Church services, and another £140 for "brawling" when they took him there. When asked what payment he could make toward these huge sums, he answered, "Sixpence." Gwyn 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 offence, they were given a sermon by an Anglican minister. However, they started to heckle him (one in Welsh, one in Latin and one in English) to the extent that the exercise had to be abandoned.

Richard Gwyn, John Hughes and Robert Morris were indicted for high treason in 1583 and were brought to trial before a panel headed by the Chief Justice of Chester, Sir George Bromley. Witnesses gave evidence that they retained their allegiance to the Catholic Church, including that Gwyn composed "certain rhymes of his own making against married priests and ministers" and "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 construed as plotting a revolution]; and, fourthly, that he confessed the Pope's supremacy." The three were also accused of trying to make converts.

Despite their defences and objections to the dubious practices of the court Gwyn and Hughes were found guilty. At the sentencing Hughes was reprieved and Gwyn condemned to death by hanging, drawing and quartering. This sentence was carried out in the Beast Market in Wrexham on 15 October 1584.


Just before Gwyn was hanged, he turned to the crowd and said, "I have been a jesting fellow, and if I have offended any in that way, or by my songs, I beseech them for God's sake to forgive me." 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, in Welsh, were reportedly Iesu, trugarha wrthyf—“Jesus, have mercy on me”. His last prayers were believed to have obtained the grace of conversion for a perjured witness, a Lewis Gronow, who had appeared against him at the trial. At the next assizes, the unhappy man courageously made open confession to the Court “that, like Judas, he had given false witness.”


Richard Gwyn was beatified by Pope Pius XI on 15 December 1929 and canonised by Pope Paul VI as one of the Forty Martyrs of England & Wales on 25 October 1970. His relics are to be found in the Cathedral Church of Our Lady of Sorrows, seat of the Bishop of Wrexham and also in the Catholic Church of Our Lady and Saint Richard Gwyn, Llanidloes. His feast day is 15 October.

Some 50 natives of Wales are known to have lost their lives in the cause of Catholicism during the long course of Tudor and subsequent persecutions.

View all the articles from Ite Missa Est