Y Drych Cristianogawl

"Y Drych Cristianogawl" is an example of an early Welsh Catholic book and was the first book to have been printed on Welsh soil.

Books printed in the 16th and 17th centuries as part of the Counter-Reformation movement had to be printed abroad or on secret presses in these islands since Catholic printing was prohibited. Welsh Roman Catholics of the period endeavoured to print and publish a small number of Welsh language books to supplement their missionary activities. The first Catholic book from a Continental press was Morys Clynnog's "Athrauaeth Gristnogaul" (Milan, 1568) whilst the first of a tiny handful of secret press books was "Y Drych Cristianogawl" (The Christian Mirror). This title was printed on a press located in a cave on the Little Orme's Head near Llandudno.

"Y Drych Cristianogawl" is attributed in the printed text to one G.R. of Milan. At one time this G.R. was assumed to be the Catholic grammarian Gruffydd Robert (before 1532 - after 1598), a long-time resident of that city. However, the style of the language is completely different from that of Gruffydd Robert but is closely akin to that of the missionary priest and author Robert Gwyn (c.1540/50 - 1592/1604), a native of Llanarmon near Pwllheli. The work deals with the Catholic Church's teaching on the Four Last Things, viz. Death, the Day of Judgement, Hell and Heaven. There is evidence that the complete text was in existence in manuscript by 1583/84 and that Robert Gwyn met the two English missionaries Robert Persons and Edmund Campion in 1580 to discuss means of overcoming the restrictions on Catholic printing. If Gwyn is the author, there is no evidence to link him to the Little Orme's Head venture though it is perfectly possible that he had a hand in it.

Contemporary sources indicate that the printing took place in late 1586 and early 1587 on land belonging to the Catholic gentleman Robert Pue of Penrhyn Creuddyn. Pue played an important part in the proceedings, being assisted by a printer named Roger Thackwell and six others. One of these six was the priest William Davies, subsequently martyred at Beaumaris. In order to mislead the authorities the book was supplied with a false imprint in Latin claiming that it had been printed at Rouen in 1585. If Gwyn indeed was the author, his initials were deliberately inverted so as to mislead. Only the first part of the text was printed though the preface states that the intention was to print it in its entirety. The activity in the cave ceased and the participants fled when news reached the authorities of what had been going on. Later in 1587 the government discovered a secret press at the home of the doctor and scholar Sion Dafydd Rhys (1534-c.1619) in Brecon. Though it has been suggested that the intention was to print the remainder of the text here, there is no evidence to confirm this claim. The complete text of the "Drych" survives in a single manuscript which can be dated to the year 1600.

"Y Drych Cristianogawl" is a work of importance as an example of an early Welsh Catholic book and also for the fact that it is the first book to have been printed on Welsh soil. Welsh books of the pre-1586/87 years came off London presses, the one exception being Morys Clynnog's Milan volume. Four copies only are extant, three of which are imperfect. It has all the appearances of a book printed in Britain rather than in France. The story of its printing is a romantic one and one of bravery in the face of danger. The cave in which it was produced has not been identified with certainty. One possibility is that it was a cave known to have been destroyed by quarrying operations in the years before the First World War.

Further reading

  • Gruffydd, R. Geraint. Argraffwyr cyntaf Cymru: gwasgau dirgel y Catholigion adeg Elisabeth... Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1972
  • Jones, Philip Henry and Eiluned Rees, eds. A nation and its books: a history of the book in Wales... Aberystwyth: National Library of Wales in association with [the] Aberystwyth Centre for the Book, 1998

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