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Professor John Gwynfor Jones


Professor John Gwynfor Jones, who died in December 2020, was a towering figure in Welsh History and in the history of Cardiff University.

Professor Jones, known universally as ‘Gwynfor’, was from the Llanrwst area, Conway Valley, but he came to Cardiff to pursue his academic studies. He was awarded a first class honours degree in History and Welsh in Cardiff and then he did his MA in Bangor, where he produced an impressive MA thesis in 1967 on local government and administration in Caernarfonshire in the seventeenth century.

Gwynfor returned to Cardiff for his doctorate, completing his influential PhD in 1974 centred on the voluminous papers of the Wynn family of Gwydir under the Tudors and early Stuarts. These works formed the basis of his early publications which included important essays in the Welsh History Review, The National Library of Wales Journal and the Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, and testified to his abiding interest in the cultural, religious, administrative and social worlds of the gentry in early modern Wales.

Gwynfor was appointed to the History Department at Cardiff in 1964 (hence Gwynfor's oft-repeated reminiscences of life under Stanley Chrimes - head of the department between 1953 and 1974) and then moved to the Welsh History Department when it was created. Throughout his time at Cardiff, he was a key member of staff in the History Department down to his retirement in 2003.

Gwynfor was a prolific writer, an impressive public speaker and an indefatigable servant of Welsh history. He published more than a dozen books including the key studies The Wynn Family of Gwydir: Origins, Growth and Development c. 1490–1674 (1995), Law, Order and Government in Caernarfonshire, 1558-1640 (1996) and The Welsh Gentry, 1536-1640 (Cardiff, 1998), as well as important edited collections and dozens of articles, essays and chapters on a host of subjects ranging from late medieval government to religious culture in modern Wales.

Gwynfor was a renowned expert on the bardic culture of early modern Wales and a pioneer in bringing this evidence to bear in historical studies.

He supported Welsh language education and historical studies at Cardiff during his decades of teaching and administration, and also, beyond of the university, in his work for the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist denomination (Presbyterian Church of Wales), serving as a lay preacher, an elder at Capel y Crwys for over 40 years and Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Wales in 2017, and as external examiner and adviser for the Welsh Examining Board (WJEC).

Gwynfor was a familiar figure in the John Percival Building, and one would often encounter him on his way to teach a class or moving slowly but purposefully up five flights of stairs (he never took the lift) with a sheaf of handwritten notes in his hand and several books in his briefcase. He was also a fixture of the top floor of the Arts and Social Studies Library, ensconced behind a mountain of books which was surmounted by a polite notice asking the librarians not to clear away this architectural wonder which was forming the foundation for his next book or article. Students were often surprised and delighted to learn that this mythical figure they passed daily in the library stacks was the man who had penned so much of the reading they encountered on their course.

‘Retirement’ was a word which never quite applied to Gwynfor as it seemed to make little discernible difference to his work routine apart from his absence from departmental meetings. He remained extraordinarily industrious and productive for many years after his official retirement: his final book, on the Elizabethan martyr John Penry, appeared in 2014.

Gwynfor was a magnetic personality in the lecture theatre and across the decades he acquired a fiercely loyal following of undergraduate and postgraduate students. He was awarded a D.Litt. and was also elected as a Fellow of the Learned Society of Wales in 2016. His impact and influence at Cardiff was enormous and he will long be remembered not only for his scholarship and erudition, but also because of his warmth, kindness and generosity of spirit.

Penned by Dr Lloyd Bowen and Professor Bill Jones.