Williams, John, 1811-1862

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Williams, John, 1811-1862

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The Rev. John Williams ('Ab Ithel', 1811-1862), Anglican minister and antiquary, took his pseudonym from the surname of his grandfather, William Bethell, but for much of his earlier life he wrote under the name Cynhaval, after his birthplace in Llangynhafal, Denbighshire. He graduated from Jesus College, Oxford, in 1835, and became Anglican curate of Llanfor, Merionethshire, where he married Elizabeth Lloyd Williams; he became perpetual curate of Nerquis, Flintshire, in 1843, and rector of Llanymawddwy, Merionethshire, in 1849. His first book, concerning the relationship between the Church of England and Rome, was published in 1836, followed by another in 1844 on the ecclesiastical antiquities of Wales. Williams was industrious both as a parish priest and as an antiquary, but his enthusiasm and Welsh nationalist fervour often outran his knowledge and judgement. His uncritical approach to historical sources was strongly influenced by the romantic inventions of Edward Williams ('Iolo Morganwg', 1747-1826), and much of his work has since been discredited. Nevertheless, he was regarded by many as one of the leading Welsh scholars of his day, and was able to exert a considerable and decidedly mixed influence on the course of Welsh scholarship. In 1846, together with Harry Longueville Jones (1806-1870), another cleric and antiquary, Williams founded the Cambrian Archaeological Association, whose journal, Archaeologia Cambrensis, he edited until 1853. He also published an edition and translation of the Gododdin in 1852, established the Cambrian Journal, which he edited from 1854 until his death, and was prominent in the Welsh Manuscripts Society, editing four of its publications. The Llangollen Eisteddfod of 1858, which he organized together with Richard Williams Morgan ('Mor Meirion', c. 1815-c. 1889) and Joseph Hughes ('Carn Ingli', 1803-1863), caused much derision and embarrassment; Williams' own family won several prizes, and Thomas Stephens (1821-1875) was adjudicated against because he suggested that the story of Madog ab Owain Gwynedd's American expeditions was not true. Williams was nevertheless considered for the chair of Celtic at Oxford University, and he was appointed by the government in 1858 to complete the editions of the medieval Welsh chronicles Annales Cambriae and Brut y Tywysogion, which had been left incomplete by Aneurin Owen (1792-1851), and which were published in 1860. His editorial work was later severely criticised by academics, who pointed to his lack of the necessary diplomatic skills for interpreting medieval manuscripts, and also to his plagiarism of the work of others, notably Owen himself and Thomas Rowland (1824-1884). Williams became rector of Llanenddwyn and Llanddwywe, Merionethshire, in 1862, by which time he was very ill, and he died in the same year. The Ab Ithel Memorial Fund was established in his memory.

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