His father's forebears had been farmers in the Vale of Clwyd, near Halkyn, while his mother was the daughter of an English miner who had migrated from Yorkshire to Cornwall. Their son was brought up in their Welsh-speaking, Calvinistic Methodist home, and the family returned to Halkyn in 1893 when John Edwards became the signalman at Bagillt on the railway line between Holyhead and Chester. Goronwy was proud of his Anglo-Welsh heritage and his Flintshire roots in a border society. He attended Halkyn National School, and then, in 1902, Holywell County Grammar School where his interest in history, especially of Wales, took root. But he excelled at chemistry and it was only a serious bout of rheumatic fever that made laboratory work inadvisable and led him to concentrate on history, Welsh and English.
His first choice of university was Manchester, but in 1909 he won a Welsh foundation scholarship at Jesus College, Oxford, where he graduated with first class honours in history in 1913, the year's delay caused by a recurrence of serious illness. A research scholarship at Manchester University (1913-15) enabled him to study with Thomas Frederick Tout (1855-1929), the pre-eminent medieval historian in Britain whose own writings had included medieval Wales and Flintshire. Both Tout and Edwards were impressed by John Edward Lloyd's magisterial History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest, published in 1911, not least as providing a foundation for the study of the following phase in Wales's history. Edwards completed a MA in 1915 on ‘The Edwardian settlement of Wales: its establishment and its working, 1283-1307’. Tout was Edwards's mentor and patron until his death in 1929 and, despite the difference in age, they had a close personal relationship and were regular correspondents. This relationship had a formative influence on Edwards's development as a historian, both in the training in historical research that he received and in his developing interest in both Welsh and English history. He also had experience of teaching at Manchester as a tutor in history.
Soon after World War I began, Edwards joined the Manchester O.T.C. in January 1915 with the aim of securing a commission after joining the infantry, despite his rheumatism. Some months later he enlisted in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the Denbighshire Regiment. It was to be more than two years before he saw active service, and his letters to Tout betray his frustration. Meanwhile, his administrative duties as an adjutant and, then, a captain revealed his talent for organization which made him indispensable at the regimental headquarters. Eventually, in April 1918, he joined the Denbighshire Regiment (the Pioneer Battalion) in France and had command of a company which entered Lille in October 1918. He found war service both fascinating and unnerving. It revealed to him his administrative capacities but also made him impatient to return to the historical research begun with Tout: ‘It's the last year in France that has nearly made me love the Army and turn traitor to the Cloister’ (he wrote to his mentor). He was given to the occasional military allusion as a teacher later on in life.
Before leaving France in May 1919, Edwards toured the devastated towns and cities of Flanders, taking his camera with him; he remained a keen photographer to the end of his life. With the prospect of demobilisation, and in search of a job, he flirted with the possibility of joining the educational administration of the Punjab in India, but with Tout's support he was elected a fellow and tutor in modern history at his old Oxford college. Before starting at Jesus in the autumn of 1919, he spent time at the Public Record Office transcribing and editing the Flintshire plea rolls for Edward I's reign in order to acclimatize himself anew to research. The outcome was his first book, Flintshire Plea Rolls, 1283-5, published in 1922 by the Flintshire Historical Society with which he remained closely associated for the rest of his life, even serving as its editor from 1922 to 1929 and again, when a busy man, from 1951 to 1960.
He spent almost three decades at Jesus College, probably the happiest period in his life. On 1 September 1925 he married Gwladys (d. 1982), daughter of the Revd William Williams. They had first met at Holywell County School, though Gwladys graduated at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, in music; she and Goronwy shared a deep love of music throughout their lives.
Edwards was senior tutor at Jesus from 1931 and vice-principal in 1945-8, and was a key figure in the University's history school. His lectures on English constitutional history with special reference to the writings of William Stubbs (1825-1901), who had been Tout's tutor many years before, were famous: carefully crafted, judicious and pellucid in formulating an argument; measured in delivery (even repetitive in the interests of clarity), their conclusions were irresistible. As a teacher he was patient, helpful and humane; he disliked pretension, mistrusted applying philosophical musings to historical events, and the fashionable sociological jargon (not for nothing was the Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles his favourite reference work!). The comradeship which he had valued during the war was replicated in his (and his hospitable wife's) warm relationships with students and their abiding respect for him - which was often life-long. At the memorial service for him in 1976, the first lesson was read by a student from the 30s, the Rt Hon. Sir Harold Wilson.
Edwards's personal and professional qualities led to his appointment as one of the editors of The English Historical Review, the premier British journal in history, in 1938, eventually becoming its senior editor: precise, incisive and invariably helpful, he was an outstanding editor until retirement in 1959. The difficulties of World War II were ‘in large measure solved by his equanimity and devotion’, and in 1959 the journal's publishers, Longman, Green and Company, paid public tribute to him: ‘a whole generation of scholars, beginners as well as established historians, have reason, we believe, to feel gratitude for his patience, care and fairmindedness’.
His growing responsibilities at Oxford did not interrupt Edwards's research or the regularity of his publications, mostly concerned with Wales in the generation after Edward I's conquests, and then, from 1925, with a related interest in parliament (and the role of the Commons in it) which signalled his debt to William Stubbs whom he admired but not uncritically. In 1931 he joined the University of Wales's Board of Celtic Studies which had been established to advance Welsh scholarship. J. E. Lloyd was chairman of the Board's History and Law Committee and Edwards, though not a member of the university, served the committee for four decades. The Board sponsored publication of his two editions of texts which were central to his own researches and have underpinned the study of Welsh and Anglo-Welsh history in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries ever since: Calendar of Ancient Correspondence concerning Wales (1935), a volume of texts or summaries of texts from the Public Record Office's archives, securely dated for the first time; and Littere Wallie (1940) from 1217 to 1297, taken from a register of documents whose full transcription by Edwards was accompanied by an essay that transformed understanding of Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and his relations with Edward I. At the same time, essays on parliament, taxation and baronial grievances in an age of war were natural developments from his work on Edward I's reign, and made him the pre-eminent historian of the Commons in parliament in its most formative period. His interest in these two fields of study would be sustained after he left Oxford in 1948.
The greatest disappointment in his academic life was his failure to be appointed principal of Jesus College in 1946, when some felt - remarkably - that a Welshman (with a distinctive Welsh accent) was not what the college needed. Nevertheless, he showed loyalty to the college and his colleagues by serving as vice-principal until 1948. He was made an honorary fellow of Jesus in 1949 which he gave him much pleasure.
Oxford's loss was the historical profession's gain. In 1948 he accepted the directorship of the Institute of Historical Research in the University of London, along with a chair in history, posts which he filled with distinction until his retirement in 1960. Indeed, this appointment released renewed energies in Edwards, at the age of fifty-seven, and enabled him to place his unique gifts at the disposal of a broader, international constituency. His administrative flair, and his genial nature and his (and his wife's) celebrated hospitality were a boon to the Institute: it expanded its numbers of postgraduates and visiting scholars from across the globe after the move to new premises following World War II, and extended its library; its annual Anglo-American Conference of Historians flourished notably. Edwards also became editor of the Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research. For a dozen years, the two premier historical journals published in Britain were edited by the same hand. Edwards, who also found time to edit the Flintshire Historical Society's Journal, felt strongly that such editing was an essential service for the historical profession as a whole. He continued to teach palaeography and diplomatic, of which he was a master, to students from universities at home and abroad; and an introduction to historical method and professional behaviour for young postgraduates that conveyed a down-to earth wisdom drawn from his own experience.
As director his advice was sought beyond the Institute's walls, including in Wales. He became a member of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts in 1953, and joined the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Council on the Public Records. He was appointed to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales in 1949 and was its chairman from 1955 to 1967. He was also a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for Wales which advised the Secretary of State on the historic environment. In 1965-74 he was chairman of the History of Parliament Trust.
His research and publication continued apace and beyond retirement, most notably in further pointilliste studies of the function of early parliaments, the important role of the Commons in them, and the relationship between Commons and Lords, subjects that embroiled him in academic controversy which he handled with common sense and courtesy. His capacity for forensic analysis of both the particular and the general is evident in his detailed analysis of Edward I's castle building, its costs and organisation, and the means by which the Norman marcher lordships emerged, and, on the other hand, in his survey of the study of Welsh law books and of the constitutional development of the principality of Wales from the treaty of Montgomery in 1267 to the twentieth century.
In the absence of a wide-ranging, general book on either of his two major fields of study, in these latter years he placed his and others' work in authoritative perspective, with lengthy booklets on William Stubbs (1952), Historians and the Medieval English parliament (1960), and The Commons in Medieval English parliaments (1957), and, finally, in his Ford lectures at Oxford on The Second Century of the English Parliament (published posthumously in 1979). Edwards's studies of the inter-related development of medieval Wales and England, their political structures and institutions, were original in conception and remain influential. None of his writings was ephemeral.
His scholarly eminence was widely recognised: Fellowship of the British Academy in 1943; Fellowship of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1959; honorary doctorates of the universities of Manchester, Oxford, Wales, Reading and Leeds; Ford's lecturer at Oxford in 1960-1. He was President of the Royal Historical Society in 1961-4 (his four presidential lectures divided appropriately between his Welsh and English interests). In 1969 he was awarded the Cymmrodorion medal by the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion ‘for notable service to Wales’. To mark his seventieth birthday, he was presented with Book of Prests for the King's Wardrobe for 1294-5, ‘an entire medieval wardrobe book’ which he had delved into from his earliest days of research. His eightieth birthday was marked by a special volume of the Flintshire Historical Society, vol. 24. On the occasion of his retirement as director of the Institute in 1960 he was knighted.
Edwards was stocky of build and cheerful of countenance, and without self-importance. He was shrewd and capable of strenuous and deliberate thought, unhurried in coming to conclusions that were rarely contestable. He died on 20 June 1976 at Queen Mary's Hospital, Roehampton, following a fall at home in Barnes, London. His ashes were interred in Flintshire close to the village school at Halkyn which he had attended. A memorial service was held in London on 20 October 1976.
Ralph A. Griffiths
Published date: 2016