Professor Sir Glanmor Williams

Pre-eminent and magisterial historian of Wales
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Glanmor Williams, historian: born Dowlais, Glamorgan 5 May 1920; Assistant Lecturer in History, University College, Swansea 1945-52, Senior Lecturer 1952-57, Professor of History 1957-82 (Emeritus), Vice-Principal 1975-78; FSA 1979; CBE 1981; Chairman, Ancient Monuments Board (Wales) 1983-95; Chairman, Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales 1986-90; FBA 1986; Kt 1995; married 1946 Fay Davies (one son, one daughter); died Swansea 24 February 2005.

It is not often that a scholar exerts as profound an influence on his field of study as Glanmor Williams, the doyen of Welsh historians, did on his. From 1957 until his retirement in 1982 he was Professor of History at the University College of Swansea, but that fact alone does not account for the paramount role he played in the advancement of Welsh historiography.

He was the pre-eminent historian of Wales, the most prolific and the most authoritative, who made a magisterial contribution to our understanding of religion, language and society in Wales and led, by example, the remarkable renaissance in the writing of Welsh history which got under way shortly after 1945, when he was appointed to a lectureship at Swansea.

Although his interests ranged from the late medieval period to the modern, he paid particular attention to the 16th century and the impact of the Protestant Reformation on Welsh life and literature. His magnum opus was The Welsh Church from Conquest to Reformation (1962), which dealt with the evolution of the Church in the two and a half centuries that followed the Edwardian conquest of Wales in 1282. This book, employing literary and homiletic sources to explore the religious ethos of the period, is one of the fullest studies of the medieval church ever written.

He went on to publish Welsh Reformation Essays (1967) and Wales and the Reformation (1997), in which he demonstrated how a small group of scholars, seeing in the newly established Protestant Church's use of English a bid to impose uniformity throughout the realm which might harm the largely monolingual Welsh people's chances of acquiring the means of grace, set about translating the Bible, the Prayer Book and a variety of doctrinal works into their native tongue.

The translation of the Bible into Welsh by such scholars as William Salesbury in 1551 and William Morgan in 1588 not only made the language a fit medium for contemporary scholarship but also ensured that the common people, unlike their Celtic cousins in Ireland, Scotland and Brittany, would be literate in their own language for the next four hundred years. The complex story of how the English and Welsh switched their allegiance from Rome to the Anglican Church is told in Williams's books with clarity and an attractively light touch.

In Recovery, Reorientation and Reformation (1987), published as part of a series on the history of Wales by Oxford University Press in association with the University of Wales Press, Williams presented for the first time a comprehensive account of the two centuries after the disappearance of Owain Glyndwr, the national hero of the Welsh people, whose revolt against the English Crown between 1400 and 1415 he had already treated in one of the Clarendon Biographies (Owen Glendower, 1966) and to which he would return in a larger book, Owain Glyndwr (1993).

Once again Williams showed how the Tudor Acts of Union of 1536-43 not only swept away the outmoded traditions of medieval society, thus allowing the English Crown, supported by the native gentry, to extend its dominion over Wales, but also presented the Welsh with new opportunities for cultural renewal, a process which has continued down to the present.

Language and literature were at the heart of Williams's concern to shed light on the concept of Welsh identity as a major subject for historical inquiry, as in Religion, Language and Nationality in Wales (1979), in which he examined the roots of cultural and political nationalism in the modern period, with special reference to the industrialisation of south Wales and the growth of a popular press.

Born and brought up in Dowlais, on a hill above the coal and iron town of Merthyr Tydfil, Glanmor Williams received his secondary education at Cyfarthfa School, housed in a mock- baronial castle which had been the home of the Crawshays, the local ironmasters. He was proud of the town's radical traditions, which included the workers' rising of 1831, of his own working-class origins - his father was a collier and a deeply cultured man - and of the Baptist cause into which he had been born.

His first degrees at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, were in History and Welsh, a language which he spoke and wrote with elegance and panache throughout his long career. Some of his finest work was published in Welsh: Dadeni, Diwygiad a Diwylliant Cymru ("The Renaissance, the Reformation and the Culture of Wales", 1964), Grym Tafodau Tân ("The Power of Fiery Tongues", 1984) and Cymru a'r Gorffennol: côr o leisiau ("Wales and the Past: a choir of voices", 2000) contain many of his most eloquent writings on religion and culture in Wales.

To these themes he brought not only a deep love of his country and an intimate knowledge of its literature but also a calm detachment very different from the polemic of the excitable Marxist historian Gwyn A. Williams, a slightly younger man who, by a curious coincidence, had been brought up a few doors from him (though they were not related) at Pantysgallog, a cluster of streets of which both wrote with affection and great insight. Glanmor Williams rarely showed his political colours, though in an unusually personal essay he once described himself as having more sympathy with socialism than with nationalism, but unable to support New Labour. He was, in his own words, "too British for many a Welsh-speaking Welshman and too Welsh for many an English-speaking one".

It was perhaps for this reason that he was appointed to many committees in Wales and England where he was considered to be "a safe pair of hands". He served the federal University of Wales in several capacities, notably as Vice-Principal and Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Social Studies at University College, Swansea, and, from 1986 to 1996, as Vice-President of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth.

No cloistered scholar, he was also actively involved in the life of the community and the country at large, often as lecturer to local history societies or as after-dinner speaker to learned societies, many of whom relished his fund of anecdotes. He had a nice sense of humour and was not at all pompous or overbearing. Of the Glamorgan History Society and the Gower Society, both of which he helped found, he was among the most zealous members, and for many years he edited their Transactions.

He also edited several massive volumes of the Glamorgan County History and served as Chairman of the Board of Celtic Studies, in which capacity he inaugurated The Welsh History Review in 1960 and, 10 years later, a series of monographs, "Studies in Welsh History", of which he was co-editor. Both these initiatives have enabled scores of young historians to embark on academic careers within and without the University of Wales.

In 1975 Williams was appointed President of the Baptist Union of Wales, helping many of the small and dwindling congregations belonging to his denomination. His gifts for reconciling people of opposing views were put to the test during the six years he served as National Governor of BBC Wales and Chairman of the Broadcasting Council for Wales (1965-71), a turbulent period when there was a growing demand for an improved service in the Welsh language. He became a member of the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales in 1962 and was its Chairman from 1986 to 1990. On the other side of Offa's Dyke, he represented Wales on the board of the British Library and its Advisory Council. He was knighted in 1995.

He gave a highly entertaining account of his long and illustrious career in his autobiography, Glanmor Williams: a life (2002), which is full of his characteristic insight, generosity and humour.

Meic Stephens