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Williams, Sir Glanmor (1920–2005), historian, was born on 5 May 1920 at 3 Cross Francis Street, Dowlais, Glamorgan, the only son of Daniel Williams (d. 1957), a haulier in a coalmine, later a clerk, and his wife, Ceinwen, née Evans (d. 1970). In spite of the family's straitened economic circumstances during the depression his parents plied him with books and planted within him a pugnacious desire to make something of himself. Among his fondest memories of his upbringing were the warmth, altruism, and bravery of working-class people in Dowlais, and these values deeply affected his own moral and intellectual development. A devout Baptist chapel-goer throughout his life (his father was a deacon in a Baptist chapel), he became so immersed in nonconformist culture that at one stage he aspired to becoming a Baptist minister. At the age of eight he enthralled an audience at Calfaria Chapel on Dowlais Top by reciting Welsh prose and poetry for an hour and a half.

Educated at Cyfarthfa Castle Grammar School, formerly the home of the tyrannical Crawshay family, Williams swiftly developed a profound understanding of the privations suffered by the Welsh working class and of the democratic socialism that underpinned its community life. At the age of seventeen he won a scholarship to study history and Welsh at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, where, inspired by the proverbial ‘Aber spirit’ and by the tuition of E. A. Lewis, a well-regarded economic historian, he graduated with first-class honours in history and Welsh. Lewis's untimely death, however, robbed him of a suitable supervisor for his graduate research and he was also mortified by his failure, on medical grounds, to join the armed forces. In 1942 he was appointed to teach history and Welsh at Merthyr Intermediate School, where he spent his leisure hours researching for an MA thesis on the Welsh renaissance scholar Bishop Richard Davies.

Williams was still impelled by a strong desire to succeed in academe, and his fortunes took a turn for the better when he was appointed to a temporary lectureship in history at the University College of Wales, Swansea, in 1945. He was to spend the rest of his life living in this ‘ugly-lovely’ town. During his student days he had met (Margaret) Fay Davies, two years his junior, a native of Cardiff and a fellow historian. Then working as a secondary school teacher, she married Williams on 6 April 1946. They had a son and a daughter. Williams swiftly earned tenure and was raised to a senior lectureship in 1952. Five years later, amid some hurtful controversy, triggered by supporters of a rival candidate, he was appointed to the chair of history at Swansea, a post he held until his retirement in 1982.

Over the course of Williams's career no Welsh historian—not even Sir John Edward Lloyd—exercised a greater influence on the study of the history of Wales and in transforming it into a respectable and fruitful discipline than he did. Always busy and energetic as a writer, an entrepreneur, and a talent-spotter, Williams enticed high-quality teachers and researchers to his department, where Welsh history was taught within a broad academic and intellectual framework. He radiated an infectious sense of enjoyment in the classroom and was famously generous with his time and advice. His scholarly reputation was enormously enhanced when he published his ground-breaking book The Welsh Church from Conquest to Reformation (1962), a magisterial volume that at the time of his death remained unsurpassed in breadth and scope. His achievement was all the more remarkable given that, by training and choice, he was an early modern historian. But he had realized that he could not possibly write a convincing account of the protestant Reformation in Wales without having first assessed the condition of the Welsh church in the middle ages. His Welsh Reformation Essays (1967) further bolstered his reputation, but administrative chores and public duties prevented him from bringing his long-promised work on the Reformation to a successful conclusion. When Wales and the Reformation was eventually published in 1997 there was less originality in it than would have been the case had he completed it much earlier, but it was nevertheless respectfully received as an elegant analysis of how the Welsh embarked on a path that made them a protestant, and eventually nonconformist, people. He cared passionately about the cultural heritage of Wales, and in works such as Religion, Language and Nationality in Wales (1979) and The Welsh and their Religion (1991) he showed how the native tongue, a strong sense of spirituality, and a keen sense of nationhood had served as an active leaven in the lump.

In other ways too Williams was a strikingly successful mover and shaker. He persuaded the University of Wales Board of Celtic Studies to sponsor a series of monographs entitled Studies in Welsh History, which, under his joint editorship from 1977 onwards, produced a rich crop of works by young scholars. Just as important was the multi-volume History of Wales, an authoritative, standard work, published from 1981 onwards under his general editorship. His own Recovery, Reorientation and Reformation: Wales, c.1415–1642 (1987) was one of the highlights of this series. Williams also transformed the prospects of the long-standing but incomplete Glamorgan County History. First conceived in 1931, this project had only one volume to its name when he agreed to become general editor in 1960. His colleagues feared that he had taken leave of his senses, but he was absolutely certain that writing and editing works associated with regional and local history was a perfectly legitimate activity. Once more he pursued the undertaking with conspicuous success. By the time of the centenary of the founding of Glamorgan county council in 1989 six bulky volumes had been guided through the press. Each of these initiatives was a striking example of how a persuasive, single-minded individual was able to bring a sense of purpose and unity to the mission of Welsh historians.

A productive and wide-ranging scholar, Williams also wrote in Welsh. Indeed, scarcely a year went by without a Welsh-language publication or review appearing under his name. His Welsh-language biography of Richard Davies, published in 1953, was awarded the Ellis Griffith prize by the University of Wales. A highly readable, abbreviated, Welsh-language version of The Welsh Church from Conquest to Reformation was published in 1968, and Grym tafodau tân (1984), a compendium of sparkling essays devoted to preachers, poets, and prose writers who had exercised the ‘power of tongues of fire’, was rewarded with a Welsh Arts Council prize for literature. At the age of eighty-two he produced another collection of beautifully written essays on religion and politics in Cymru a'r gorffennol: côr o leisiau (2000). Even though he claimed that speaking or writing in Welsh never came easily to him, and even though he made no secret of his Britishness—he once said that he was ‘too British for many a Welsh-speaking Welshman and too Welsh for an English-speaking one’ (The Independent, 28 Feb 2005)—he was an ardent devolutionist and supporter of Welsh culture.

The prolific Williams would surely have published even more had he not played such an active part in the public life of Wales. As president, vice-president, or chairman, he served on virtually every institution of cultural importance in Wales. Aware of his reputation for wisdom and equanimity, public bodies jostled for his services and by serving them Williams deepened his own knowledge of the architectural, archaeological, historical, and cultural heritage of Wales. Among other posts he was chairman of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales from 1986 to 1990 (and a member since 1962), chairman of the Ancient Monuments Board (Wales) from 1983 to 1995, and a member of the Welsh Arts Council from 1978 to 1981. He was one of three appointees to a commission (1963–5) that produced the celebrated Hughes Parry report on the legal status of the Welsh language, and when he became chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Wales and a governor of the BBC (1965–71) he valiantly defended Welsh interests within this highly London-centric institution. Never did any historian in Wales exert more influence on public affairs. His distinction as a scholar and public servant was widely recognized. Honorary fellowships were conferred upon him by Swansea, Aberystwyth, and Carmarthen; the University of Wales made him a DLitt in 1963 and an honorary LLD in 1998; and in 1991 he was presented with the coveted medal of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. Elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1954, he served as its vice-president from 1979 to 1983. In 1970 the Society of Antiquaries elected him a fellow, as did the British Academy in 1986. He was appointed CBE in 1981 and in 1995 he was raised to a knighthood ‘for services to the history, culture and heritage of Wales’. It gave him great joy, too, to be made a freeman of the borough of Merthyr Tudful in 2002.

Physically Glanmor Williams was a tiny man. Barely five feet tall, he was adept at turning his smallness to advantage. Never one to indulge in airs and graces, he preferred to be known as Glan and as the quintessential ‘little boy from Dowlais’. A deeply humanitarian figure, his warmth and generosity were proverbial, and those who met him were instantly struck by his cheery greeting, high-pitched chuckle, and words of encouragement. Blessed with a lively sense of fun, he was a splendid raconteur and mimic. The Christian religion and classical music played a large part in his life and he was an active walker on hills and coastline. But few realized that this distinguished remembrancer, even when he was at the height of his career, was often assailed by bouts of depression and insecurity. Nevertheless his commitment to the cause of Welsh history remained undimmed to the end. Following a short illness he died of heart failure at Morriston Hospital, Swansea, on 24 February 2005, and was cremated at Swansea crematorium, where hundreds of his friends, colleagues, and admirers assembled to pay their tribute. He was survived by his wife and their two children.

Geraint H. Jenkins

Sources  

G. H. Jenkins, ‘Dau fachan bech o Ddowlish’, Merthyr a Thaf, ed. H. T. Edwards (2001), 192–226 · G. Williams, A life (2002) · The Independent (28 Feb 2005) · The Guardian (25 March 2005) · The Times (11 April 2005) · Journal of Welsh Religious History, 5 (2005), 1–3 · Archaeologia Cambrensis, 152 (2005), 192–4 · Studia Celtica, 39/1 (2005), 201–3 · Y Traethodydd, 160/675 (2005), 197–212 · Trafodion Cymdeithas Hanes Bedyddwyr Cymru (2005), 48–50 · Welsh History Review, 22/4 (2005), 762–6 · G. H. Jenkins, ‘Glanmor Williams, 1920–2005’, PBA, 138 (2006), 401–23 · Morgannwg, 49 (2006), 5–8 · Llafur, 9/3 (2006), 7–11 · Renaissance Studies, 20/3 (2006), 379–82 · G. H. Jenkins and G. E. Jones, eds., Degrees of influence: a memorial volume for Glanmor Williams (2008) · WW (2005) · Burke, Peerage · personal knowledge (2009) · private information (2009) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

NL Wales, diaries


Likenesses  

J. Roberts, portrait, NL Wales · obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

£40,785: probate, 11 Nov 2005, CGPLA Eng. & Wales