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Sir  (John) Goronwy Edwards (1891–1976), by Walter Stoneman, 1946Sir (John) Goronwy Edwards (1891–1976), by Walter Stoneman, 1946
Edwards, Sir (John) Goronwy (1891–1976), historian, was born on 14 May 1891 in Salford, Lancashire, the only child of John William Edwards, railway signalman, the descendant of Welsh farmers in the Vale of Clwyd, and his wife, Emma Pickering, the daughter of an English miner. The family moved back to Flintshire in 1893; the son spoke and read Welsh before he did English. He attended Halkyn national school and then Holywell county school. Edwards was a Welsh foundation scholar in modern history of Jesus College, Oxford, from 1909 and gained first class honours in history in 1913—a year late because of illness. He did research at Manchester University from 1913 to 1915, when he enlisted in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Of his war service in France as an officer in their Pioneer battalion he did not easily speak. He was demobilized with the rank of captain, and had first shown his administrative capacity during a period as adjutant.

In 1919 Edwards was elected a fellow of Jesus College and tutor in modern history. As a tutor he was incisive, humorous, and helpful, ranging with ease from Claudius to Charles II (he had been proxime accessit in the Stanhope prize competition with an essay on Danby in 1913). He allowed no pretentiousness: to an undergraduate foolish enough to use the word ‘transcendental’ in a political thought essay he urged ‘Oh no, not that. We leave that to the philosophers’. Edwards's pupils did consistently well in prize competitions and their final examination, and his help to them continued long afterwards. His university lectures, especially those on Stubbs's Select Charters and their unpublished sequel on fourteenth-century constitutional history, were renowned; judicious, perhaps almost too measured, but supremely clear, especially when arguing a case, they set many problems for examiners. As tutor, lecturer (officially so from 1928 to 1936 and in 1947–8), or writer, he always left a message. His three heroes were his tutor C. T. Atkinson of Exeter College, T. F. Tout, who supervised his research at Manchester, and ‘the great Reginald Lane Poole’, former editor of the English Historical Review. As joint editor of the Review from 1938 to 1959 Edwards more than sustained its high reputation; his comments to would-be contributors were terse but constructive. His diligent and conscientious discharge of these and other duties undoubtedly limited his own historical work, considerable though that was.

Edwards held various offices in his college in turn; but its highest prize was denied him, as was the Oxford regius chair of modern history. In 1948 came the inevitable summons elsewhere, to the directorship of the Institute of Historical Research and a concomitant professorship of history in the University of London. The director's obligations to the institute's students (whose numbers expanded vastly) and to the learned world at large were many, but all were successfully and meticulously discharged; among them was the editorship of the institute's Bulletin.

Edwards's writings dominated the study of two subjects, medieval Wales and the medieval English parliament. As a Welshman who made his career in England, he saw a supreme contrast between the multiple kingship of Wales (taken over by the Normans in the marchia Walliae) and the strong single kingship of England; this in the thirteenth century created an omnicompetent parliamentum which was one root of the omnicompetence of the Commons by whom that parliamentum was afforced. He imparted his message mainly in numerous articles and in the introductions to his editions of texts vital for Anglo-Welsh history. His technical skill and robust common sense were equally evident in his examination of the plena potestas formula in the published early parliamentary writs of summons (Essays Presented to H. E. Salter, 1934) and in his investigation of the record evidence for ‘Edward I's castle-building in Wales’ (PBA, 32, 1946).

Edwards was of medium height and broad in build; he had a round, cheerful face and searching eyes. His academic activities, his alertness, geniality, and sense of humour, and his exertions at golf gave little idea of the rheumatism which long troubled him. (Other interests were photography and music.) He became to many generations of Jesus men, whether historians or not, and especially perhaps to the former soldiers of two wars, increasingly the personification of the college, of which he was made an honorary fellow in 1949; his high regard for the standing of his college made English members as fervent as Welsh in their affection for its special characteristics. He served the principality, and Flintshire in particular, long and loyally, especially on the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire and on the Ancient Monuments Board for Wales; he was proud of being Welsh, but for Welsh nationalism he had no time. He edited leading periodicals, and presided over the Institute of Historical Research, both with distinction, at a time of special importance for historical studies. He was a shrewd, lucid, exact, and original scholar, a lively personality, and a most fair-minded man.

Edwards had been made FBA in 1943, and was given honorary doctorates by four universities and an Oxford DLitt in 1960. He was Ford's lecturer at Oxford in 1960–61, the title of his lectures being ‘The second century of the English parliament’ (printed in 1979). He also gave the Rhys (1944), Raleigh (1956), David Murray (1955), and Creighton (1957) lectures. He was elected FSA in 1959 and was knighted on his retirement from the Institute of Historical Research in 1960. From 1961 to 1964 he was president of the Royal Historical Society. He remained active until three months before his death.

His marriage in 1925 to Gwladys (d. 1982), daughter of the Revd William Williams (also of Halkyn), was supremely happy, and their hospitality was inexhaustible. They had no children. Edwards died in London at Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton, on 20 June 1976.

J. F. A. Mason, rev.


The Times (21 June 1976) · Archaeologia Cambrensis, 125 (1977), 174–7 · BIHR, 49 (1976), 155–8 · D. Hay, ‘Goronwy Edwards’, EngHR, 91 (1976), 721–2 · J. S. Roskell, ‘John Goronwy Edwards, 1891–1976’, PBA, 64 (1978), 359–96 · Welsh History Review / Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru, 8 (1976–7), 466–74 · personal knowledge (1986) · private information (1986) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1976)


NL Wales, research papers |  NL Wales, letters to Sir Thomas Parry-Williams


W. Stoneman, photograph, 1946, NPG [see illus.] · B. F. Walker, pencil drawing, Jesus College, Oxford · photograph, Institute of Historical Research, London

Wealth at death  

£59,350: probate, 29 Oct 1976, CGPLA Eng. & Wales