By Denise Trull
Today is the feast of St. Richard Gwyn, the Protomartyr of Wales, who is also honored by the Welsh as the patron saint of large families. Richard joins the ranks of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales canonized by Pope St. Paul VI in 1970.
Richard was born in 1537 in Montgomeryshire, Wales and was said to have descended of honest Protestant parentage, though not of wealth. At the age of twenty, he made up his mind to pursue an education at Oxford. The polished culture of Oxford did not sit well with his passionate Welsh nature, however, and he did not complete a degree there. He later found a home at Cambridge University, where he was given a generous scholarship through the efforts of his Roman Catholic teacher, George Bullock. Richard admired his teacher’s faith and courage and decided to convert to the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth I had in recent years taken the throne and swept the universities clean of Catholic teachers. Bullock was forced to resign his mastership in July of 1559. Richard was also sadly forced to leave the college. He felt deflated and at a loss. His determined nature did not despair, however, even though he had not a cent to his name.
This sudden poverty led him to reach the decision to become a teacher in his beloved Wales. He returned home and opened schools in villages of the Wrexham area, using all the wisdom and knowledge gleaned through his talks with Professor Bullock. While making his rounds through these villages he met a lively, spark plug of a woman named Catherine. They were married and had six lovely and lively children together. They both determined to raise them in the old faith and to share that faith with their neighbors come what may. Richard also determined to continue studying theology and literature, especially poetry.
He openly talked about the Catholic faith, especially with his students and their families. During the persecutions of Elizabeth I, teachers and Welsh bards were most important in getting the word out for priests about upcoming secret Masses and pilgrimages to holy sites as they both traveled through towns either teaching or bringing songs and poems to the people. What a beautiful thing that the Catholic faith was kept alive by brave and clever poets and simple school teachers! Elizabeth discovered this underground network and demanded her bishops do something about it. Dr. William Downham, who himself had abandoned his Catholic faith quite quickly and conformed to Anglicanism under the pressures of the Reformation and the lure of position, was put in charge of Gwyn’s home province of Chester. He began to put considerable pressure on Gwyn and often sent soldiers to his house to scare him. There were undoubtedly threats to his wife and children.
One day, under this constant badgering and bullying, Richard reluctantly agreed to attend and receive communion at Anglican services the next Sunday. Richard was sick at heart and “greatly against his stomach,” but fearful for his children’s safety, he attended the service. On his way out the door, he was suddenly pecked and assaulted by a flock of crows and kites all the way back home. Gwyn was so affected by this apparent sign and his own cowardly decision, that he became gravely ill under the strain and Catherine despaired of his life in tearful vigil. In his delirium, Gwyn managed to promise God that if his life was spared he would return to his Catholic faith and not violate his conscience again. He stayed true to that promise, and became a man on the run from then on.
He and his Catherine and all their family fled Chester on foot and set up a Catholic school in a deserted barn, where he secretly taught the faith to many children. He was forced to flee from there as well. Caught countless times, he escaped just as many. But after eighteen months on the run, Gwyn was finally arrested while carrying a secret message that a priest was urgently needed in an adjoining town.
Gwyn spent the next four years in prison, continuously shackled hand and foot. His captors once brought him by force to an Anglican service and he made such a din shaking his chains that no one could hear the sermon! He barely saw his wife and children, but thought of them often. Once when he was allowed to hold his little son, a soldier kicked him so violently that it sent him crashing to the ground. Richard held the boy so protectively that he was not harmed. In and out of cold, dark jail cells Richard slowly and surprisingly discovered in himself a bard of extraordinary talent. He began to write exquisite Welsh poetry on love and suffering -- poetry his fellow Catholic countrymen would cherish for years to come.
It was not lost on me that Richard lived in the very Wales given over to the rule of another Richard: Richard Rich. Wales was the plum given him by King Henry for his perjury against Thomas More. it was also not lost on me that this Richard Gwyn was a teacher -- the very thing Thomas urged Richard Rich to become. He too was betrayed by lies in court by men who took bribes to say whatever they needed to say to get their twenty pieces of silver.
Gwyn was finally sentenced to be drawn and quartered and hanged -- the worst death imaginable. During his agony he cried out in great and surprised pain, "Oh, Lord what IS this?" Richard was not afraid to tell us it was painful and that he almost couldn't handle it. What humility is that! Catherine was forced to watch the whole thing and she cried courage to him as long as she could. Who knows but that her love and staunch support gave him the last bit of witness he had in him. Catherine was so angry at this injustice that she defiantly cried, “Bring on the liars again. I am sure they will be happy to send me to my death also!” I think they were so surprised that they released her later on.
This Richard is the protomartyr of Wales. Not a king, not a scholar in the best schools, not a bishop or even a priest. A simple school teacher and a father with a feisty wife and six loving children; who overcame his human weakness, who would not let go of his faith in God and who could not be silenced. A poet to his people, a troubadour of God’s faithfulness and love in suffering and torture. It is a beautiful thing to me that a father and a poet had the last word.
This is the stuff of which martyrs are made. Our stuff. Our stuff as parents and teachers and poets. It makes me sad and haunts me a bit to think of Richard Rich, who might have had an altogether different life indeed if he had listened to St. Thomas More and become a teacher.