Williams Gwyn Alf


Gwyn Alf Williams


Born in Dowlais on 30th September 1925, Gwyn Alf (as he was known, to distinguish him from several other eminent Welshmen with similar names) saw himself as "a people's remembrancer", which meant that he an unusual academic historian.


During the heady days of the civil war in Spain he joined the Young Communist League. He asked the local Party office for a rifle and a one way ticket to Spain, only to be told “come back when we’re desperate, son”!


He did however become a D-Day veteran and eventually read History at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and was appointed Lecturer in Welsh History there in 1954.


In the very late 1940s, and early 1950, he found himself opposing the Party line on Tito.  Although he left the Party for the first time, he always saw himself as “an apprentice Communist”.


Williams left Aberystwyth to take up a Readership at York and from 1965 to 1974 he held the Chair of History at that university.


In the 1960s, he joined the Labour Party for a while and then became one of the most notable members of the small Maoist “Communist Organisation in the British Isles”, founded in 1974. This did not last out the decade and Williams rejoined the Communist Party in 1979. When this started to shift heavily to revisionism during the mid-1980s, he became an uneasy member of the Labour Party but eventually found a congenial political home on the left wing of Plaid Cymru.


He presented the history of Wales in lectures, books and many television programmes. But his books are his greatest testament. His `Artisans and Sans-Culottes’ (1968) was about popular movements in France and Britain. Other works included Proletarian Order (1975), a study of Antonio Gramsci and the history of Communism in Italy, and `Goya and the Impossible Revolution’ (1976). As part of his research for these he learnt Italian and Spanish respectively. His wife, Maria, (Fernandez), whom he married in 1950, belonged to the community of steelworkers from northern Spain who were long established in Dowlais.

Returning to Wales in 1974 as Professor of History at University College, Cardiff, he set about re-interpreting key episodes in Welsh history. His The Merthyr Rising (1978) was the first full account of the workers' revolt of 1831.


In Madoc: the making of a myth (1979) he critically examined the evidence for the discovery of America by Prince Madog ab Owain Gwynedd in about 1170 and, in particular, for the existence of a tribe of Indians, known as Mandans, who were said to be his descendants.


He returned to these themes and introduced others in The Welsh in their History (1982), a collection of essays which argues for the opening up of new discourses, and in When was Wales? (1985).


His last book was Excalibur: the search for Arthur (1994). Williams died on 16th November 1995.


Sources include: Morning Star 20th November 1995

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