RHUTHUN LOCAL HISTORY BROADSHEET Issue no. 73, March 2003
RICHARD GWYN: A ROMAN CATHOLIC MARTYR
One of the achievements (from one viewpoint) of Elizabeth I was to establish the Protestant faith in Britain. Ever since her father broke with Rome the country had been racked with religious unrest, culminating in the attempt to stem the tide of reform by Mary Tudor (‘Bloody Mary'). When Elizabeth came to the throne there must have been an appalling sense of insecurity throughout the religious community. However, in the first year of her reign the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity were passed. These established the Queen as head of the Church and a uniform service within it. There were penalties for those who did not conform. "Three strikes and you are out" was not an original concept of Clinton or of the Blair Government. Elizabeth, 500 years earlier, had devised the scheme. For the first offence the seizing of goods of at least £20 or twelve months in prison, increased fines for the second offence and the third it was deemed to be high treason. Throughout her reign, as the population became increasingly Protestant in outlook, the anti-Catholic laws became harsher.
Here in North-east Wales, two Catholics were executed for their faith. One was a priest and the other a school master. This note is concerned with the schoolmaster, Richard Gwyn. He was born in Llanidloes, the exact date is not known, but in about the 1550s he went to Oxford for a short while and then to St. John's College, Cambridge. His mentor there was Dr. George Bullock, who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy and went abroad. Gwyn came under suspicion and left the University to become a schoolmaster in the relatively remote villages of Overton and Erbistock, near Wrexham. He married and had a family of six children. Had he not become an activist, he could have remained there happily married and teaching the children of the neighbourhood.
This was not his nature and he soon became involved in acting as an intermediary between wandering seminary priests and local Catholic families. William Rowlands in giving evidence before Simon Thelwall stated that the priest John Hughes had said mass in the house of Richard Lloyd and Richard White (Gwyn) had been present. Gwyn probably came into contact with the well-known recusant John Edwards of Plas Newydd, Chirk. This farm is close to the entrance to Chirk Castle (not the main gates but the new one-way system). It is indicative of the ambivalent attitude to Catholicism that a recusant was allowed to have such a prosperous farm near the local seat of authority. This also perhaps, endorses the argument that if Gwyn had been more circumspect, he could probably have remained there, quietly teaching the Catholic children of the area.
This was not to be, Overton was in the See of Chester at that time, and Dean at Chester was the Puritan Christopher Goodman. He was an uncompromising enemy of the Catholics in the diocese. Gwyn steadfastly refused to attend Communion Service at the Anglican Church and so exposed himself to persecution. The sad tale of his tribulations started when he had to flee from Erbistock in 1579 only to be captured and arrested in Wrexham. He escaped but was again captured and incarcerated in the dungeons under Shirehall, Wrexham.
He was brought before the Justice of the Peace, Robert Puleston, who was biased against Catholics and Gwyn was sent to Ruthin gaol. This was at the Old Court House, where the NatWest Bank now stands (Is there any evidence for this?). Here he was put in irons. His legs were bolted together as were his wrists and arms. Whilst trussed in this manner, early in 1581, there was a casual encounter with John Salesbury of Rug and Gabriel Goodman, Dean of Westminster. They were both impressed by his devotion to Catholicism and attempted to persuade him to recant but to no avail.
There followed four years of torment for Gwyn. He was taken from assize to assize where punishments and fines were heaped upon him. The judiciary, whilst not being particularly lenient to him gave him every opportunity to swear allegiance to the Queen as head of the Church and take communion in the Anglican Church. However, he steadfastly refused. His gaolers must have eased the rigours of his imprisonment for during the summer of 1584 he was seen by various witnesses in different parts of the county, free and unfettered. Perhaps it was this set of circumstances which brought him and two others before Chief Justice Bromley and Simon Thelwall deputy Justice at Wrexham on 7 October 1584. The other two accused were Robert Morris and John Hughes. The charge was high treason.
Reading through the transcript of the trial, it seems almost foreign by present day standards. After a day of cross examination by Thelwall, the jury were sent to the parish church to consider their verdict overnight. Two of the jury, following pressure from the others, went to confer with the judges, to know who they should find guilty and who should be acquitted. (Note: this short article is based upon a transcript of a contemporary manuscript which is heavily biased towards the luckless Gwyn). Whatever the basis of the verdict, whether it was the decision of twelve men or whether it was pressure by the judges, will never be known for certain. However, next morning at 8 a.m. the jury went into court and found Richard White (Gwyn) and John Hughes guilty of felony and treason, while Morris was discharged. Hughes was fined heavily but Gwyn had to face the ultimate and dreadful penalty of being hanged, drawn and quartered. The passing of this most feared of death penalties was left to Simon Thelwall.
From the 8th October until Thursday 15th Gwyn was in chains with an iron horse collar around his neck. Several times he was promised that if he would acknowledge the Queen as head of the Church his torment could be ended and his sentence waived. On each occasion he refused. Inevitably the events of that gruesome Thursday came to fruition. Although described graphically in the document we will pass over the horrific event, suffice to say the horrendous execution took place at Wrexham.
The Vatican acknowledged his steadfast faith, he was beatified as a martyr by Pope Pius XI on 13 December 1929 and canonised by Pope Paul IV on 25 October 1970 and so became Saint Richard Gwyn.
Source: D. Aneurin Thomas (Ed),The Welsh Elizabethan Catholic Martyrs (University of Wales Press) 1971.
ASPECTS OF A FORMER LIFE IN THE VALE OF CLWYD,
The eminent ecclesiastic and local historian, Rev. John Fisher, Rector of Cefn Meiriadog, gave numerous lectures of which the following is an extract of one delivered in Denbigh in 1905.
"The Parliament of William III made a novel use of the parish registers to replenish the exhausted Exchequer by passing in 1694
'An Act for granting to His Majesty certain rates and duties upon Marriages, Births and Burials, and upon Bachelors and Widowers, for the term off eve [seven?] years, for carrying on the war against France with vigour.'
A graduated scale of duties was imposed—upon the marriage of every person, 2s.6d.; upon the marriage of a Duke, £50; upon the birth of every child, 2s.; upon the birth of the eldest son of a Duke, £30; upon the burial of every person, 4s.; and upon bachelors and widowers, yearly, ls. each. The tax collectors were allowed to have free access to the registers, and the penalty of £100 upon the clergyman for every case of neglect in making the proper entries. This Act caused a great deal of friction and discontent, and every means was adopted to avoid it. Payment of the duties was entered in the registers or the wardens' accounts. The Clocaenog Wardens in 1696 'pd. His mat’ie Collectors for ye burials' of three paupers 12s. Llanfwrog in 1702 and some years later to meet the case of paupers allocated part of the annual rate 'towards ye Buriall (sic) Tax.' In the St. Asaph registers against a marriage entry in 1700 is written 'Kings duties paid, 2s.6d.' but at the end of four entries in 1701 `noe duties paid.' I have not come across any payment after 1705. In 1783, the Stamp Act was passed which imposed a duty of 3d. upon every entry in the parish registers. These sums were received by the clergy who periodically paid them into the hands of the collectors. This obnoxious Act pressed lightly on the rich but heavily on the poor and was repealed in 1794. The registers reveal its unpopularity. Twm O'r Nant, Ellis y Cowper, John Thomas (Pentrefoelas) and Jonathon Hughes satirised it in biting verse. They called it 'Y Dreth Fedydd.' "
It is hoped to publish further extracts from time to time.
FREEMEN OF RUTHIN - II.
Part 1 of this article looked at the origins of this kind of citizenship and some of the earliest known Freemen of the Borough. It then turned to the 'modern' era, beginning in 1921, and showed how Alderman Godfrey Lecomber had contributed to the life and work of the town. The series continues in the same vein.
Lecomber's Freedom-granting ceremony in October 1921 began with a procession from the Town Hall to St. Peter's church for a choral service. The councillors were accompanied by children from the County and Grammar Schools and members of the public. An interesting feature of the service was the participation of members of the Henshaw's institution of Manchester. Their organist, a Dr Davidson, had composed an anthem especially for the occasion and he officiated at the organ. Twelve blind choristers from Henshaw's sang ‘I was glad when they said unto me ... ‘. The service was followed by a special meeting of the Council at the Town Hall for the conduct of the formalities.
Following the ceremony, the councillors and several guests adjourned to Dedwyddfa for lunch. Included among the guests were Lecomber's surviving children, Major Harold Lecomber, OBE, Captain Eric Lecomber, Frieda and Edna. The Lecombers had not been spared the grievous pain of war, having lost their twin sons, Lieutenant Philip Hebdon Lecomber, Manchester Regiment, at Flammerville in March 1918, and Lieutenant George Lecomber, a pilot of the Royal Flying Corps, posted missing in action. The meal would not have been complete without a few speeches, but it would seem that they were mostly humorous and convivial.
Alderman EZRA ROBERTS, of Vale View, Market Street, is another example of the transience of local fame. To have achieved the Freedom of the Borough is indicative of the esteem in which he was held, and there is no doubt that his various contributions to the life and work local community were considerable. Yet, little account of his worth seems to have survived. What information is available seems to occur only in scattered references.
Mr. Roberts was made a Freeman at the same meeting which granted the honour to Lecomber. At the date of the ceremony, Ezra was 80 years of age, ailing, and unable to attend. The casket containing his Script of Admission was handed over to a councillor and the Town Clerk for presentation in a private ceremony at his home. He had an unusually long record of community service, for example, as councillor for 40 years, of which 23 were as Alderman. He had been Mayor for three terms. One of his earliest offices had been as local secretary of the National Eisteddfod held in Ruthin in 1868, the last in that series following a number of loss-making meetings. He had been Chairman of the County School [Brynhyfryd] Governors since its formation in 1889. Similarly, he had been Clerk to the School Board for the Ruthin district since its formation, later Manager for a period of about 50 years, and clerk to Llanfair School for another 20 years. Mr. Roberts was a man of many parts, having also served as an assistant Poor Law overseer, a rates collector and Clerk to Llanfair Parish Council.
Another involvement, which particularly reflects his cultural interests, was in ‘The Young People's Mutual Improvement Society of Ruthin’, of which on 25th March 1899 he was President. On that date, the renowned Rev. J. Fisher, B.D., delivered a very long lecture entitled ‘Glimpses of Bygone Ruthin’. Perhaps a more significant indication of Mr. Roberts' literary prowess was the fact that he had edited two volumes of sermons entitled ‘Homilies’ of the much-travelled Emrys ap Iwan, i.e. Rev. Robert Ambrose Jones [1851-1906], man of letters and one-time Minister of the Tabernacle Chapel [1888-1895], possibly even designer of the building.
The Calvinistic Methodist Cause played an important and conspicuous part in Ezra's life. He had been a member of the original Capel y Rhos in Rhos Street where as a young man he had been elected Elder in 1865 and Sunday School Superintendent in 1880. When the replacement Tabernacle Chapel opened in Well Street in 1891, a hymn which he had composed for the occasion was sung. He was thus blessed with literary talents and eloquence. A public appeal had been set-up for Mr. Roberts' benefit, such was the estimation of his life's work.
Mr Ezra Roberts did not survive long to enjoy his honour for he died on 30th October 1923 and was buried on 1st November at Rhewl C.M. chapel cemetery. It is unfortunate that his funeral coincided with the visit of the then Prince of Wales, later Duke of Windsor, accounts of which dominated the local press. Contrary to the custom of those times, his funeral was not reported by the Free Press and his death received scant mention, apart from a formal vote of sympathy at the next meeting of the town council. However, The North Wales Times announced his death and reported on his funeral, which was attended by numerous of the great and the good of the neighbourhood. The Welsh newspaper, Y Faner, published an obituary. As one of those who delivered a eulogy, the Rev. Ernest Jones, described him as ‘a true literary man, a beautiful poet and a strong theologian.’
The next Freeman, after a gap of fifteen years, was ex-ALDERMAN T.J. ROBERTS. Roberts, born in Ruthin in July 1869, attended Ruthin Grammar School, Aberystwyth University College and the Pharmaceutical Society's school in London. He married Jane Hughes of Pen Stryt, Llanfwrog, the sister of Mr David Rickman's mother. He died on 18th August, 1952.
He earned his living running a chemist's shop at No: 2, Well Street, appropriately one of the oldest buildings in Ruthin, though one might wonder how he found the time to do so.
'T.J' had been a member of the Denbighshire County Council, 1913-15, and again in 1936, when he also became a Justice of the Peace. His involvement in local politics was extensive. He became a member of the Town Council as a young man in November 1895, retiring in November 1935, completing a career characterised by thoroughness and commitment, lasting forty years. It was said that he had attended over 6,000 meetings, 4,000 of them being directly connected with the work of the Town Council. He kept meticulous records of these meetings and could be relied upon to turn-up any resolution of the Council passed during that time. He had read extensively on local government matters and his familiarity with local government legislation could be relied upon. Indeed, during the illness of the Town Clerk, Mr Roberts acted in his place for twelve months without any reward. He had been 'Father' of the Council not simply by virtue of length of service, but also because of his expertise.
During his time as a councillor, Mr Roberts had witnessed many changes. At the beginning of his term, the Council's finances could be summarised on a single sheet of paper, whereas in 1936 they occupied over 25 pages. Council rents then amounted to about £100 per annum, whereas currently [in 2003?] they were about £1,000. He served as Mayor of the Borough at a very difficult time, from 1912-1914, after which he was made Alderman.
Of the projects he had advocated, one was the provision of a swimming pool at an estimated cost of £5, a bargain even by the standards of the time! However, the council rejected the idea because boys could swim in the river at no cost whatsoever! He was, happily, more successful with other projects. He had helped to raise funds with which to buy the site of the county offices in Market Street. His involvement in charitable projects, many of which today are tax-funded, had been extensive and varied. He had been prominent in the setting-up of a Voluntary Aid Detachment in Ruthin, which took over the Ruthin Hospital and treated casualties from World War I. He chaired a group which funded 32 Belgian refugees in Ruthin for three years and had been involved in recruiting 120 men for the Welsh Yeomanry Brigade. He chaired many committees associated with essential war work.
In terms of town council services, he was credited with promoting the acquisition of the sewage farm from the Ruthin Castle estate in 1919 resulting in a saving of an estimated £20,000. Again, he had enthusiastically encouraged the development of the Council's housing stock. Similarly, in the sphere of education, he had been a Governor of his old school for twenty five years, a member of the Technical School committee for forty years, governor of the county school for twenty years and a manager of both primary schools. It is not surprising that Mr Roberts had not been able to find sufficient time to continue in office as a county councillor or as member of the county education committee. Even so, he had been instrumental in securing for Ruthin a much appreciated series of Gilchrist lectures. In his professional capacity, he had served as a member and chairman of the Denbighshire Insurance Committee as representative of the Denbighshire Pharmaceutical Society.
As a local historian, he belonged to the Cambrian Archaeological and Cymmrodorion Societies and was an authority on Ruthin’s history, on which he wrote and lectured extensively. Among his literary accomplishments, he edited Rhuddenfab's Guide to Ruthin in 1908, 1916 and 1924. Similarly, he edited Burrow’s Official Guide to Ruthin in 1912 and other guidebooks in 1919, 1925 and 1937.
He had amassed a collection of ancient manuscripts, documents and memorabilia, most of which were disposed of at the time of his death, but a collection of his lecture notes and other papers have survived and are held at the Denbighshire Record Office.
Thus, it was that ex-Alderman T J Roberts was honoured on 6th April 1946. In the presence of the general public, His Worship the Mayor, Alderman Ellis Williams and the town councillors, the scroll (prepared by Mr Dyer Gough of Nantclwyd House) was signed, sealed, placed in its silver casket and presented formally with a few appropriate words by Councillor R James Jones, the then father of the council. The new Freeman proclaimed his thanks for and appreciation of the honour bestowed upon him. Naturally, Alderman Roberts alluded to the historical perspective of the ceremony, pointing out that Alderman Ellis Williams, as Mayor, had crossed the threshold of the second century of Mayoral office in Ruthin. Mr George Adams, elected in 1835, had been the first of 44 succeeding mayors who had steered the council through ever growing responsibilities and duties. In reviewing the many changes that had occurred dur- ing his own experience as councillor, Mr Roberts highlighted many improvements - in sanitation, for example. Pigstyes and earth closets at the bottom of gardens had all but disappeared. He recalled that there had been about 30 thatched-roof cottages in town. St. Peter's Square had a cobbled surface, as did Record Street and portions of Clwyd Street. In 1835, there were 771 houses with an average occupancy of five persons each, whereas in 1936, there were 860 houses with a few more than three persons in each. The county rate was then 4d in the pound which had risen to 12/7d in 1935.
Strangely, there was no mention of a celebratory dinner.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Dictionary of Welsh Biography, 1941-1970, Hon. Society of Cymmrodorion, ; J. Meirion Lloyd Pugh (Gol.), "Dathlu Dwbwl – Hanes Daucanmlwyddiant yr Achos, 1791-1991",; North Wales Times; Denbighshire Free Press; The Town Clerk, Ruthin Community Council; Rhuddenfab, Handbook of Ruthin and Vicinity, [1908, 196, 1924], p.15; Mr. David Rickman.