Dictionary of Welsh Biography

A new website has been created for The Dictionary of Welsh Biography. It will be launched at the beginning of November 2018 and will include new content, functions and design. Head over to biography.wales now to see what's new!

This website will eventually be replaced by biography.wales. In the meantime, we would like to hear from our users so you're welcome to send us any questions or feedback that you may have.

A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z

WILLIAMS , JOHN ( Ab Ithel ; 1811 - 1862 ), cleric and antiquary .

Born 7 Apr. 1811 at Ty-nant , Llangynhafal , the son of Roger and Elizabeth Williams ; his grandfather's name was William Bethell , and in his later years he adopted this surname in the form ‘ Ab Ithel ’ instead of his earlier pseudonym ‘ Cynhaval .’ He was educated at Ruthin school and Jesus College , Oxford ( 1832 ); he graduated in 1835, and took his M.A. in 1838 . His first curacy was at Llanfor , where he m. Elizabeth Lloyd Williams (his vicar 's niece) and where, in 1836 , he published his first book, Eglwys Loegr yn Anymddibynol ar Eglwys Rhufain . In 1843 he became perpetual curate of Nerquis where, in 1844 , he published his Ecclesiastical Antiquities of the Cymry . In 1849 he was appointed rector of Llan-ym-Mawddwy . In the course of the campaign against the proposal to amalgamate the dioceses of Bangor and S. Asaph , he had become friendly with another opponent of this measure, H. Longueville Jones , and in 1846 these two started the publication of the Archaeologia Cambrensis. He was co-editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis with H. Longueville Jones until 1851 , and then sole editor until he resigned in 1853 . This laid the foundation-stone of the Cambrian Archaeological Association . In 1852 Ab Ithel published an edition of the Gododdin , together with a translation of that work. The two friends quarrelled in 1853 — a clash of temperaments between a ‘dry,’ methodical antiquary and a fiery nationalist whose zeal outran his knowledge.

Ab Ithel had but little scholarship; moreover, such critical faculties as he had were wrecked when he became involved in the romantic inventions of Iolo Morganwg and his school — more particularly Myfyr Morganwg ( Evan Davies , 1801 - 1888 ) . Unfortunately, he was by this time generally regarded, except by a few people of more balanced judgement, as the principal Welsh scholar of his day , and his name was considered in all seriousness for the proposed chair of Celtic in the University of Oxford . He started the Cambrian Institute and its periodical, the Cambrian Journal , which he edited from 1854 until his death. He became the leading light in the Welsh Manuscripts Society , and edited four of its publications; worse still, on the death of Aneurin Owen he was appointed by the government ( 1858 ) to complete the plan of publishing the old Welsh chroniclesAnnales Cambriae and Brut y Tywysogion appeared in 1860 . His editorial work was shot to pieces by later critics — not only because he was quite incapable of editing old manuscripts diplomatically but because he plagiarised the ideas of men like Aneurin Owen and Thomas Rowland without acknowledgement. But the high-water mark of his folly was the ‘ Great Llangollen Eisteddfod ’ ( 1858 ), organised by himself and his friends such as Môr Meirion ( R. W. Morgan ) and Carn Ingli ( Joseph Hughes ) , which aroused derision and shame among his fellow-countrymen — his own family ‘won’ several of the prizes, and Thomas Stephens was the subject of an iniquitous decision because he had the audacity to suggest that the story of Madoc was not true. For all that, the 1858 eisteddfod was an important milestone in the history of the national eisteddfod — no thanks to the promoters.

On the other hand, we cannot for one moment deny Ab Ithel 's industry, both within the Church and outside it, nor his wholehearted patriotism. He was an exceedingly devoted parish priest , and in addition supervised ‘Madam Bevan's’ schools in North Wales , as well as the church schools in the diocese of S. Asaph . He was the first priest to serve the new parish of Rhosygwaliau . He was a High-churchman (but not a ritualist), and in 1850 he did his best to organize a protest against the decision of the Privy Council in the notorious Gorham case. He worked so hard that he had two nervous break-downs — in 1849 , when he was temporarily transferred to the lighter parish of Llangorwen, Cards. ; and in 1855 when he was forced to take sick leave for nearly two years. In March 1862 , he was transferred from Llan-ym-Mawddwy (where his successor was Daniel Silvan Evans ) to Llanenddwyn and Llanddwywe in Ardudwy . But, by this time, his health had broken down completely, and he d. 27 Aug. 1862 ; he was buried in Llanddwywe churchyard. His widow, Elizabeth , received a civil pension, 18 June 1873 .


  • Foster , Alumni Oxonienses ;
  • James Kenward , Ab Ithel an account of the life and writings of the Rev. John Williams ab Ithel, M.A., B.B.D., late Rector of Llanymowddwy, Merioneth (Denbigh, 1871) ;
  • G. J. Williams , ‘Ab Ithel,’ in Y Llenor , 1933 (216-30), 1934 (88-100);
  • J. E. Lloyd in A Hundred Years of Welsh Archaeology , 11-15;
  • Owen Williams , Llyfryddiaeth Sir Ddinbych (1935-7, 1951) , part 3, 179.


Emeritus Professor Robert Thomas Jenkins, C.B.E., D.Litt., Ll.D., F.S.A., (1881-1969), Bangor

Published date: 1959