The story of Wales’ first printing press is a story complete with intrigue and adventure.
In Wales’ history even having a printing press could be seen as a seditious and traitorous act. The very first printing press in Wales was established in a cave near Rhiwledyn in North Wales, situated on the Little Orme near the seaside town of Llandudno
The background of the story lies in the religious conflict in this country in the 16th century. After the demise of the Catholic queen Mary, Elizabeth I attempted to reintroduce the Act of Supremacy making the Queen the head of the English church, not the Pope. Initially only an outward sign of conformity to Anglicanism was needed but as the queen became more established and secure measures were taken to ensure greater adherence to the Anglican cause.
In addition, Elizabeth felt more threatened by Catholic plots to depose her and replace her with a Catholic monarch. The people who refused to attend Anglican services were labelled recusants and in 1587 an act was passed fining recusants £20 a month or the loss of two-thirds profit from their estates for non-attendance. The nation was also bound by the law of 1585 making the helping of Catholic priests a treasonable offence punishable by death.
Many Catholics preferred life abroad in exile and many Welsh academics and scholars left the country to study at European universities. Douai in the Spanish Netherlands became an important centre of Catholic activity to reintroduce the faith in Britain. It became apparent very quickly how important the printed word was to become in Elizabethan Britain: printing was a monopoly of the Stationers Company of London and all printed materials required a license from the queen. As a result it was an effective method of censorship. Any unlicensed publication was punished by increasing draconian measures. Catholic recusants in Europe realised that they would have to resort to secret presses to spread their faith.
A key figure in the recusant movement was Robert Gwyn. He had returned from Douai in 1576. He persuaded a fellow recusant Robert Pugh of Penrhyn Creuddyn to set up a secret printing press near the Little Orme to print Catholic materials. Events were about to take an unfortunate turn for Gwyn and Pugh.
In 1586 the Babbington plot was discovered, an attempt to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. The earl of Pembroke, the President of the Council in Wales was ordered to crack down on recusancy. In that year Pugh’s home of Penrhyn Creuddyn was searched and Pugh had to flee taking the printing press with him to a cave at Rhiwledyn. Incredibly Pugh and Gwyn as well as six others such as William Davies, a Catholic priest, lived in the cave for seven months publishing a Catholic work, Y Drych Cristionogawl (The Christian Mirror), urging Catholics to refuse to conform.
The work, the first book ever published in Wales tried to deceive the authorities. The title page states it is published in Rouen, dated 1585 although printed in 1587 and is prefaced with a signature of R.S. i.e. Rhosier Smith , a known Catholic author, who was known by the authorities to be in Europe at the time. It is attributed to G.R. of Milan suggesting Gruffudd Robert an acclaimed Welsh scholar who resided in Milan at the time but recent scholarship suggests the style of writing indicates Robert Gwyn as the author – with his initials reversed to confuse the authorities. Robert Gwyn had previously translated Robert Parson’s Christian Directory into Welsh. All these were methods to hide the true location of the printing press.
The secret press was not to remain hidden for much longer. In April 1587, smoke from the cave was seen by some local men and the next day the cave was raided. The press was too heavy to move but the lead type was thrown into the sea, but the low tide revealed these items later.
Y Drych Cristionogawl remains the earliest surviving book printed in Wales. Only one copy survives housed in the National Library of Wales. Remarkably, it was not to be until 1718 that the first printing press in Wales was to be established.
No one knows exactly what happened to Gwyn afterwards, possibly he remained hidden with other recusant families; he was alive in 1591. Robert Pugh of Penrhyn Creuddyn and William Davies were captured at Holyhead in 1592, attempting to flee the country to Valladolid via Ireland. Pugh managed to escape and lived as a fugitive travelling the country: he lived in Lancashire and for many years at the home of Lord Montague. After assurances from the king he returned to Penrhyn Creuddyn where he lived until his death c. 1629.
The fate of William Davies the priest was far worse. He refused to recant and openly declared his Catholic faith whilst in prison. In 1593 he was hung drawn and quartered at Beaumaris. Reports stated that the crowd witnessing his death were overcome with sorrow. Pope John Paul beatified him in 1987.
Unfortunately the cave can no longer be found, possibly lost to quarrying before the First World War. Charcoal remains near the area may indicate the remains of a wooden floor or altar.
Publishing and printing may have many hardships today but the experience of the commitment and tenacity of the printers of Rhiwledyn cave are a testament of the importance of the printed word and that people were willing to suffer great hardship and pain to bring the printed word to the people.
- Fraser, David. The Adventurers University of Wales Press (1976)
- Gruffydd, R. Geraint. “Gwasg ddirgel yr ogof yn Rhiwledyn.” Journal of the Welsh Bibliographical Society, Vol. 9, no.1, July 1958, pp.1-23 https://journals.library.wales/ accessed March 11 2020
- Jones, John Gwynfor. Early Modern Wales, c. 1525-1640 Macmillan Press (1994)
- Y Drych Cristionogawl https://www.library.wales/ accessed March 11 2020
Picture reference : National Library of Wales