Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Williams, John (1811-1862)

WILLIAMS, JOHN (1811–1862), Welsh antiquary, known in bardic circles as ‘Ab Ithel,’ a name which in later life he appended to his surname, was the son of Roger Williams (son of William Bethell or Ab Ithel) of Ty Nant, Llan Gynhafal, Denbighshire, and Elizabeth his wife. He received his early education in Ruthin grammar school, and on 15 March 1832, at the age of twenty, matriculated at Oxford from Jesus College. He graduated B.A. in 1835, and on 19 July of that year was ordained deacon, and priest on 1 May 1836. He was at the time a curate in the parish of Llanfor, with special charge of the new church of Holy Trinity, Rhos y Gwaliau, and when in 1839 a separate endowment was provided for this church, he became its first incumbent. In 1838 he graduated M.A. From 1843 to 1849 he was perpetual curate of Nerquis, near Mold; in the latter year he received the rectory of Llan ym Mowddwy, where he remained until 1862. In that year the rectory of Llan Enddwyn, with the perpetual curacy of Llan Ddwywe, near Barmouth, was given to him; but on 27 Aug., very shortly after moving to his new home, he died. He was buried at Llan Ddwywe. On 11 July he married Elizabeth, daughter of Owen Lloyd Williams of Dolgelly.

From his youth he was keenly interested in Welsh historical studies, and the Welsh ‘tract,’ afterwards translated into English, which he published at Bala in 1836 under the title ‘Eglwys Loegr yn Anymddibynol ar Eglwys Rufain’ (‘The Church of England independent of the Church of Rome’) was the first of a long succession of works of a like character. In 1841 he won a prize at Swansea eisteddfod for an essay, published in 1842, on the human sacrifices of the Druids. These earlier efforts were embodied in 1844 in ‘Ecclesiastical Antiquities of the Cymry,’ London; second edition in 1854. Ab Ithel, as he had now begun to style himself, was an active opponent of the scheme for the union of the bishoprics of Bangor and St. Asaph, and was thus brought into association with Harry Longueville Jones [q. v.] The two issued in January 1846 the first number of ‘Archæologia Cambrensis,’ a quarterly journal devoted to Welsh antiquities, and before the end of the year succeeded in forming the Cambrian Archæological Association, which took over the new journal and appointed Williams and Jones joint editors. Ab Ithel was a constant contributor to the early volumes, and many of his papers were separately issued, e.g. the account of Valle Crucis (Tenby, 1846), the essay on Druidic stones (Tenby, 1850), and the glossary of terms used for articles of British dress and armour (Tenby, 1851). In 1851 he became sole editor; this office he resigned, however, at the end of 1853, and in 1854 he established the Cambrian Institute and started the ‘Cambrian Journal,’ which he edited until his death. The control of the older association had passed to men who had no sympathy with his uncritical methods and perfervid patriotism. In 1852 he published an edition of the ‘Gododin’ (Llandovery), with a translation, introduction, and notes. Another Welsh association, the Welsh Manuscripts Society, appointed him one of its editors, and under its auspices he published at Llandovery in 1856 ‘Dosparth Edeyrn Davod Aur,’ a mediæval Welsh grammar. At the Llangollen eisteddfod of 1858, of which he was one of the chief organisers, he won a prize for the best essay on Welsh bardic lore; this was published by the Welsh Manuscripts Society under the title of ‘Barddas’ (Llandovery, 1862), though in an incomplete form, the second volume not appearing until 1874. Ab Ithel was also the editor of the society's volume on the physicians of Myddfai (Llandovery, 1861), though his part in this was small. Other works from his unwearying hand were ‘The Holy Oblation’ (1848), ‘Easy Catechisms on the Creed’ (1848), ‘Crwydriadau yr Hen Wr’ (1849), ‘Cloch y Llan’ (1854), ‘Brwydr yr Alma’ (1855), ‘Dafydd Llwyd’ (1856), and ‘The Traditionary Annals of the Cymry’ (1858). In 1854 he began a church monthly, ‘Baner y Groes,’ and during 1859 and 1860 he edited the journal styled ‘Taliesin.’

With all his industry and enthusiasm Ab Ithel had no critical ability, and blindly accepted the bardic traditions popularised by Iolo Morgannwg and William Owen Pughe [q. v.] His defects as a scholar were brought out clearly in the editions of ‘Annales Cambriæ’ and ‘Brut y Tywysogion,’ which he issued for the master of the rolls in 1860. All that was valuable in these was the work of Aneurin Owen [q. v.], whose papers were at Ab Ithel's disposal, and were used without any acknowledgment (Archæologia Cambrensis for 1861; Cymrodor, vol. xi.).

[Memoir of Ab Ithel, by J. Kenward, after running through seven numbers of the Cambrian Journal (December 1862 to December 1864), was in 1871 published at Tenby as a separate volume. Other sources are Archæologia Cambrensis, Foster's Alumni Oxon., Thomas's History of the Diocese of St. Asaph, and an article on Ab Ithel in the Geninen for 1883.]

J. E. L.