Dictionary of Welsh Biography

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DAVIES , WILLIAM (d. 1593 ), Roman Catholic missioner and martyr .

Born of good family at Croes-yn-Eirias , Colwyn, Denbs. , he entered the Roman Catholic seminary at Reims (transferred thither from Douai four years earlier) in 1582 along with three other Welsh students, and received ordination as priest at the hands of cardinal Guise in 1585 . Two months later he was sent on the English mission , and he seems to have made at once for his native region, where a Catholic community was gathering round Robert ap Hugh (or Pugh , of Penrhyn Creuddyn , and meeting in a cave in the Rhiwledyn cliffs during the persecution inaugurated in 1586 by the 2nd earl of Pembroke as President of Wales . It has been suggested that he brought with him a copy of the Y Drych Cristianogawl of Gruffydd Robert , which was reprinted at Rhiwledyn . He was probably the ‘ Syr William ’ described by Pugh 's grandson, Gwilym Pue , as having ministered to the Rhiwledyn recusants. A letter written in 1587 to archbishop Whitgift by William Griffith of Caernarvon ( M.P. for the borough, 1586 described the discovery of the cave and the failure to arrest its occupants.

Three years later he was arrested by Foulk Thomas at Holyhead , in the company of Robert Pugh and of four youths destined for the priesthood, whom he was conducting on their way to Ireland with a view to their entering a Spanish seminary . Next day he was taken to Beaumaris , and examined in the presence of Hugh Bellot , bishop of Bangor , and when Davies , on further magisterial examination, confessed his mission but refused to implicate his hosts, he was separated from his companions and confined to a ‘dark stinking dungeon.’ After a month's solitary confinement he was given greater libery, and his cell became a resort for neighbouring Romanists (for whom he celebrated mass) and for Protestants coming to dispute with him; but he refused to avail himself of Robert Pugh 's repeated plans for his escape. At the next assizes he was indicted of treason before William Leighton , C.J. of the Anglesey circuit , and found guilty, but sentence was postponed in the hope of inducing him to recant. Efforts towards this end before the Court of Ludlow being without effect, he was confined at Bewdley and other prisons and eventually returned to Beaumaris in readiness for the next assizes, refusing once more to participate in a plot for his rescue on the way. Here he rejoined his companions, and formed with them a community living by a definite ‘rule’ within the prison for some six months, until, 27 July 1593 , the postponed sentence was carried out, and despite difficulty in procuring the necessary materials, hangman , and site among a hostile population, he was hanged as a traitor — the first to suffer there for the Roman Catholic faith.

A chapel was erected to his memory at Beaumaris in 1909 . Among his disciples, in addition to Roger Gwynne , were Frs. William Robins , Caernarvon (ordained from Valladolid , 1602 ) and possibly Robert Edmonds of Denbighshire (b. 1583 , admitted to Valladolid 1603 , believed to have died in the Gatehouse 1615 ). Fr. Davies is described by Gwilym Pue as ‘ Syr William , seren ei wlad,’ and by T. P. Ellis as ‘one of the most appealing of all the Welsh martyrs.’


  • The Second Douay Diary , 1878 , 12, 30, 186, 198, 203-6;
  • Catholic Record Society , xxx, 33-4 n., 34, 46, 53;
  • Challoner , Memoirs of Missionary Priests, … and of other Catholics, … that have suffered death in England, on religious accounts, from … 1577 to 1684 (ed. Pollen ), 1924 , 190 ff.;
  • Acts of the Privy Council , n.s., xvii, 313, xxii, 366-7, 434;
  • Caernarvonshire Historical Society Transactions , 1946 , 13-16;
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography ;
  • Ellis , The Catholic Martyrs of Wales, 1535-1680 , 53-8, 79, 153-4, 157, 158-60;
  • Hanes y Bedyddwyr yn Nghymru (1893–1907) , ii, 76-80;
  • Efrydiau Catholig , ii, 12-14;
  • R. Geraint Gruffydd , Gwasg ddirgel yr ogof yn Rhiwledyn, Journal of the Welsh Bibliographical Society , IX, 1-23;
  • R. Geraint Gruffydd Argraffwyr cyntaf Cymru (1972)


Emeritus Professor Arthur Herbert Dodd, M.A., (1891-1975), Bangor

Published date: 1959