The Elizabethan country house, Nercwys Hall, was built by John Wynn in the 1638. Wynn, a wealthy gentleman left the estate to his son Robert and there followed a succession of inheritances through the female line until, in 1765, it was owned by John Giffard. The Giffard family were staunch catholics and recusants. The ‘Recusancy Act,’ passed in 1593 during Elizabeth I’s reign, made it an offence to refuse to attend Anglican Church services. The act described as, ‘An act for restraining Popish recusants,’ prescribed civil and criminal punishments including fines, imprisonment and, in extreme case, execution. Other religious groups were also targeted as recusants including dissenting Protestants and Calvinists. Notable recusants of the time included Guy Fawkes and William Shakespeare, who came from a Catholic recusant family.
John Giffard died in 1797 and Nercwys Hall passed to his daughter, Elizabeth Giffard. Elizabeth, a spinster, added large Gothic wings to the hall. One commentator, clearly not impressed, described them as ‘elephantine.’ Other alterations followed including a new gatehouse, a garden with battlement walls, an orangery and a stove house. In 1825 she built ‘Tŷ Castell,’a folly north of the hall. Built in the same style as the new wings, the folly was visually complete when viewed from the hall but was a two dimensional gothic façade with nothing much behind. The folly, built at the highest point in the park, was designed to be enjoyed from the hall. When Elizabeth died in 1842, aged 76, she bequeathed Nercwys Hall to Reverend Maurice Wynn thus ending eighty years of Catholic ownership.
Elizabeth I’s original recusancy laws were repealed in 1650. By then, a number of Catholics had become martyrs, many convicted in show trials. In 1970, Pope Paul VI canonized forty of them including six Welshmen. The Welsh Catholic Church commemorates them with a feast day on the 25th October. Many restrictions on the Roman Catholic faith continued until 1829 and the introduction of the ‘Catholic Relief Act.’ But it was not until 2013 that an act of Parliament was introduced to repeal the ancient laws disqualifying Catholics from the throne. The same act ends male primacy and allows daughters to rank above their younger brothers in the line to the throne.
In the 1960s, the Gothic wings and porch from Nercwys Hall were dismantled. The porch was later salvaged and rebuilt at Portmeirion by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. The folly became a Grade II listed building in 1952 and was restored in 1970. The Royal Commission of the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales describes Tŷ Castell as a cow shed. At one time there was, it seems, a lean-to building behind the folly used to accommodate cattle. It’s difficult to imagine a cow shed with a more regal facade.