CARMARTHENSHIRE HISTORIANS 13
W. Llewelyn Williams, 1867-1922
In the early 1920s Wales lost through death a clutch of worthies who, in distinguishing themselves, brought credit to the Principality. Among them was William Llewelyn Williams, lawyer, politician and historian; others were Sir Owen M. Edwards, Sir David Brynmor-Jones and Sir Henry Jones.
Llewelyn Williams was born in the parish of Llansadwrn on 10 March 1867 at Brownhill, which lies beside the A40 trunk road a little over a mile south-west of Llanwrda. He was the second son of Morgan Williams and his wife Sarah Davies, who, before moving to Brownhill, had lived at Ffrwd-wen, Capel Isaac, where the family had been prominent in the Congregational cause. The parents have been described as being of peasant stock, but they were well-off and able to send Llewelyn to Watcyn Wyn's academy and Llandovery College.
In October 1885 he entered Brasenose College, Oxford, having won an open scholarship and was there when the Dafydd ap Gwilym Society was founded; because of his College he was known as 'the brazen nose' within the company of the society, which, at this time, included Owen M. Edwards
. He acquitted himself well in the school of modern history, just missing a first class degree and the Stanhope prize; as it was, he took the Bridgeman prize.
His Oxford days completed, he might have become a parish priest had he accepted the offer of a discerning bishop, but though he had been exposed to the influence of the Anglican church during his academic career he remained true to the faith of his forbears. Instead he returned to Wales to become a journalist in the service of the Liberal press, first as editor of the South Wales Star
at Barry, in which capacity he soon gained a reputation as a controversialist of no mean worth. His campaign against county court Judges who were unable to speak Welsh resulted in a Mid-Wales Judge being transferred over the Border. After a spell in the editorial chair of the South Wales Post
at Swansea, he moved to the South Wales Daily News
at Cardiff and finally reached London to join the staff of The Star,
being appointed chief sub-editor by the great T. P. O'Connor.
Journalism as a life-long profession failed to captivate him, however, and in less than a decade after leaving Oxford, during which time he had taken a degree in civil law, he was called to the Bar from Lincoln's Inn in January 1897. He distinguished himself as a lawyer by his powerful personality and persuasive eloquence and became leader of the South Wales circuit. He was elected a bencher of his Inn, took silk in 1912 and was appointed Recorder of Swansea (1914-15) and of Cardiff (1915-22), succeeding Sir David Brynmor-Jones in the latter appointment.
As in the case of so many lawyers, politics beckoned Williams and in 1906 he was elected Liberal member of Parliament for Carmarthen Boroughs, a constituency he represented until it was abolished in 1918. He was a Liberal of the old school and had nothing in common with any movement sympathetic towards socialism. He thus opposed land nationalisation, believing that the solution to this question lay in the spread of ownership by independent free-holders. The demand for the disestablishment of the Church in Wales found in him a ready recruit, though he justified his stand on political rather than religious grounds, believing that the Church had, historically, been closely allied with oppressive influences in his native country.
As a nationalist, he stood for home rule for Wales, but only within the framework of the United Kingdom; he was no separatist. His nationalist sympathies he extended to all other Celtic communities and also to 'little Belgium'. It was only because Germany had invaded Belgium that he reluctantly gave his support to the war of 1914-18; otherwise, he might have repeated the opposition he held against the Boer War. As the war progressed he became increasingly uneasy, opposed conscription, defended conscientious objectors and deprecated the wide-ranging powers of the Defence of the Realm Act (Dora)
. He finally broke with Lloyd George, but when he contested the Cardiganshire election in 1921 he was defeated by the official Liberal candidate.
Although he abandoned journalism as a profession, the urge to write never deserted him. His published work in Welsh is not extensive, yet in the popular mind he is probably now best remembered for 'S Lawer Dydd,
relating some charming reminiscences of his childhood, which first appeared in Y Beirniad
in 1917 before appearing in book form the following year. Other stories — Gwilyin a Beni Bach
and Gwr y Dolau
— are of undistinguished quality.
His reputation as an historian rests upon his many articles on Welsh history, notably in the Transactions of the Cymmrodorian Society
from 1900 onwards. Some of these were published in hook form under the title The Making of Modern Wales
(Macmillan 1919), which the author described in a preface as an attempt to describe the transformation of medieval into modern Wales. The book is important because it led the way in the investigation of areas of Welsh history previously neglected; especially significant was his pioneer work in respect of the Roman Catholic attitude to the Reformation in Wales and his account of the Courts of the Great Sessions established by Henry VIII, exercises never before attempted. It was as a specialist in Tudor and Stuart history that he edited the Everyman edition of J. A. Froude's History of England,
dealing with the years between the fall of Wolsey and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. For the same series he wrote an introduction to the historical works of Giraldus Cambrensis.
Almost forgotten are his historical ballads, some reminiscent of 'Chevy Chase'. These patriotic verses tell of Welsh deeds and heroes, but they never achieved the fame of recitation generation by generation as an essential part of childhood schooling. One of these, 'For Country or for King', tells of David Gam, who championed the cause of Heny V, and Owain Vaughan, supporter of Owain Glyndwr, both of whom, at last, shared death at Agincourt. Others are 'The Lay of Prince Griffith', which chants the memory of Gruffydd ap Rhys of Dinefwr, husband of Gwenllian and father of the Lord Rhys, and 'Meiliir's Lament for Gwenllian'. Relevant in this context of hero-worship is the fact that along with Sir John Rhys and Sir T. Marchant Williams he was responsible for the final choice of the Welsh worthies whose statues stand inside the City Hall, Cardiff.
Viewed in the round, Llewelyn Williams appears as something of a paradoxical figure. He was a staunch nationalist and Eisteddfodwr, yet he wrote relatively little in his native language; a faithful Congregationalist — Independent, he preferred to say — by intellectual conviction, yet in many ways he was temperamentally attracted by the Catholic church; an advocate of home rule for Wales, but never a separatist, for he had too great a respect for what he believed to be the benefits that had accrued to Wales as a result of the Acts of Union
. Even so, all his beliefs and ideals were governed by an intellectual consistency that sprang from a profound and overriding dedication to the principle of individual rights and liberty.
Llewelyn Williams was struck down, a victim of pneumonia, at an age when he might still have looked forward to many more years of great achievement, for he died on 22 April 1922, a few weeks after his fifty-fifth birthday. He left a widow, Elinor, nee Jenkins, of Clan Sawdde, Llangadog.
The memory of Llewelyn Williams was honoured on 1 July 1937, when members of the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society visited his birthplace and his grave, an occasion during which it was recalled that he was largely instrumental in bringing about the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire, set up in 1908. In the year following the society's visit, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at Brownhill.