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‘The Arch-Trimmer’: Sir William Williams of Llantrisant

Author: Professor John Morgan-Guy

FoFC Trustee Dr John Morgan Guy continues his monthly series of blogs discovering the fascinating people connected with our churches.  This month it is the turn of Llantrisant church on Anglesey.

Llantrisant on the Isle of Anglesey/Ynys Môn, which was vested in the FoFC in 1978, has a claim to being one of the most difficult of our churches to find, being accessible only on foot. Nonetheless it is one of the most sought-out of our north Walian vestings. Prominent in the sanctuary of this simple and ancient edifice is what has been described as a ‘highly sophisticated Baroque monument’ of 1670, in memory of the Rev. Hugo Williams, DD, of Nantanog — a house within easy walking distance of his church, rector of this parish, and of Llanrhyddlad (some way off), canon of Bangor and St Asaph Cathedrals. It is not, however, with Dr Williams that we are concerned in this essay, but with his eldest son, born in this remote parish in 1634, and who, as an up-and-coming lawyer – he was Recorder of Chester at the time of his father’s death – was almost certainly responsible for this monument.

Williams may have spent part of his childhood in this quiet place, but the trajectory of his career took him far away from Anglesey.

A short stay at Jesus College, Oxford was followed by residence at Gray’s Inn, being called to the bar in 1658. Marriage to a Denbighshire heiress took place in 1664, and the Recordership of Chester three years later. At the age of 43 Williams was safely launched on the legal and political career, often controversial, for which he is remembered.

Detail of Hugo Williams monument at Llantrisant.

Elected MP for Chester in 1675, his wit and powers of oratory quickly made his reputation in the House of Commons, but he was a man of independent mind, and this often plunged him into hot water. For example, sometimes he opposed the Royal Prerogative powers, and sometimes supported them.

In 1680 he was named Speaker of the House of Commons – a role for which he felt himself to be eminently fitted - the year in which he became Treasurer of Gray’s Inn, for alongside his parliamentary career he continued a high-profile practice at the bar. Space does not permit a detailed account of his turbulent legal and parliamentary career (this can be followed in the excellent article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Detail of Hugo Williams monument at Llantrisant.

What can be said is that it was characterized by sudden changes of allegiance, giving rise to the derogatory description of him by contemporaries as “the arch-Trimmer” (a 'trimmer' being someone who moved between opposing political parties, whether driven by expediency or whim). His support of the unpopular James II alienated many of his friends, especially after his nomination as the king’s Solicitor-General in 1687, the grant of a knighthood, and in 1688 a baronetcy. As Solicitor-General Williams led for the Crown in James’s disastrous attack on the seven Anglican bishops he had imprisoned for refusing to co-operate in his religious policy. It was one of the great ‘show trials’ of the century; the bishops were triumphantly acquitted, Williams’s career was in tatters, and the king’s days were numbered.

But Williams lived to fight another day. 1689 saw him elected as MP for Beaumaris in his native Anglesey, and in this ‘Convention Parliament’ which recognized the sovereignty of William III and Mary II in the place of James II who had fled to France, he was prominent in his support of the new regime, thus reversing his previous allegiance. Nonetheless his pragmatically independent spirit led him within a few years to fall out with his new sovereigns. He died at his Gray’s Inn chambers in July 1700, and is buried at Llansilin in Denbighshire, where his mural monument can still be seen.

Llansilin had long been his residence in Wales; the delightful 17th-century house, Glascoed, which still stands little changed from his day, had come to him through his wife Margaret, who had inherited it from her father. Williams has been called a ‘man of some dash and bravado’; he was an outstanding orator, in court and in parliament; a man with a good, and sometimes self-deprecating, sense of humour; and, true to his upbringing as the son of the rector of Llantrisant, a regular and devout communicant throughout his life.

Read more about Llantrisant church