The Antiquary and Architect of a Nation: Bardism

There are two related aspects to Iolo Morganwg's antiquarian interest: firstly, his work on the genuine Welsh bardic tradition and, secondly, bardism, his own creative vision of that tradition.
Examples of the bardic alphabet, Coelbren y Beirdd

Examples of the bardic alphabet, Coelbren y Beirdd

Iolo's bona fide antiquarian work involved collecting and copying manuscripts. Much of this work was undertaken in preparation for his intended volume on the bardic tradition, 'The History of the Bards', and for the three volumes published under the auspices of the Gwyneddigion, The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (1801-7). He also diligently collected folk songs and tunes
'Cân y Maensaer' (The Stonemason's Song)

'Cân y Maensaer' (The Stonemason's Song)


As a result of this meticulous research, Iolo became an expert on the development of cynghanedd and the genuine bardic tradition. He realized for example that 'Statud Gruffudd ap Cynan' (The Statute of Gruffudd ap Cynan) was not contemporary with the historical Gruffudd ap Cynan and he noticed similarities between the poetry of Dafydd ap Gwilym and the poetry of the troubadours and trouvères on the Continent.

Iolo was also the first to fully appreciate the significance of the eisteddfodau held at Carmarthen (c.1453) and Caerwys (1523 and 1567) to the history of the professional bardic guild. Furthermore, he understood the far-reaching obligations of the technical alterations introduced by Dafydd ab Edmwnd and confirmed at the Carmarthen eisteddfod. Iolo wove this into bardism, using his genuine knowledge to create a fictitious narrative that upheld the honour of Wales and Glamorgan. Nevertheless, we know that Iolo had a fuller understanding of the general development of Welsh strict-metre poetry than any of his contemporaries.

Iolo's genuine antiquarian studies formed the foundation of his bardic vision. The Welsh humanists and antiquaries who preceded Iolo believed that the Welsh bardic tradition was proof positive of Wales's indigenous enlightened state.


Iolo and his contemporaries continued to disseminate this belief in the introduction to :The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales. But in bardism, his version of the Welsh bardic tradition, Iolo went one step further. He defended the language, literature and culture of Wales, as well as the character of the Welsh people. He achieved this by weaving a store of general information and traditions about druidism around the history of the genuine bardic tradition.

Iolo was not the first to believe that the professional bards were the descendants of the druids of old. He followed John Leland and Sir John Pryse in this respect. Also, by the end of the eighteenth century the druid was an important Romantic figure. Iolo scoffed at Henry Rowlands's Mona Antiqua Restaurata (1723) and claimed that Glamorgan, rather than Anglesey, was the true home of druidism in Britain. To Iolo, the terms 'bardd' (bard) and 'derwydd' (druid) were synonymous. His various writings on bardism contain much information on the alleged druidic beginnings of the poetic guild. For example, details about the orders, robes and patriarchal religion of the bards/druids are summarized in The Heroic Elegies of Llywarç Hen (1792) and in the essay 'A Short Account of the Ancient British Bards' which was intended for 'The History of the Bards'.

He also wove radical and Unitarian elements into Bardism in order to prove that the Welsh were a civilized nation from early in their history. One of the most important intellectual influences on bardism was primitivism. Iolo learned much about primitivism from the contemporary debate surrounding Ossian and in the work of Irish antiquaries - Charles Vallancey, Joseph Cooper Walker and Sylvester O'Halloran - who had used Ireland's early history and literature to challenge the received image of the Celts as a barbarous people.

Bardic alphabet

Bardic alphabet

Bardism and its constituent parts (the Glamorgan Classification and bardic alphabet) are a conscious attempt to prove to the influential English world that the Welsh were a sophisticated and civilized nation. Iolo devised a special bardic alphabet, Coelbren y Beirdd, which he attributed to the Welsh bards. It was believed that a strong link existed between literacy and the cultural development of a nation, and Iolo knew that Dr Johnson had attributed the alleged barbarity of the Scottish Highlanders to the fact that they were illiterate. Iolo had also read Paul Henri Mallet's Northern Antiquities (1770), which argued that the general barbarity of the Celtic people was due to their illiteracy and the absence of an indigenous alphabet in the Celtic countries. Coelbren y Beirdd was therefore a direct response to these claims, because Iolo used his counterfeit alphabet as proof of early literacy (and therefore early civility) amongst the Welsh.

The Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain was an integral part of Bardism. Bardism was a solid creation, and its internal structure simultaneously allowed Iolo to praise Glamorgan and confirm his own authority. Iolo's achievement was that he created a national cultural institution which fostered the Welsh language as well as its literature and culture.

See Cathryn A. Charnell-White, Bardic Circles: National, Regional and Personal Identity in the Bardic Vision of Iolo Morganwg (Cardiff, 2007)

External links to websites which discuss the Gorsedd of Bards:
National Eisteddfod of Wales

National Museum of Wales

Introduction to The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (extracts)

These books are venerable monuments of enlightened periods of literature amongst the Britons, while scenes of barbarity were acted over Europe, and darkened the light of our island: a literature whose origin was not borrowed, but matured at home, under that extraordinary system, the Bardic Institution; concerning which, under the name of Druidism, much has been written, much misunderstood, and of which the world yet knows but very little.

From a consciousness that time was rapidly diminishing the number of our most curious manuscripts, the conductors of the present undertaking were induced to take the necessary measures for preserving the contents of those remaining, by printing a few copies to supply the demand of the collectors of British History and Antiquities. Towards accomplishing such a design, they lately increased a collection, which they had been several years accumulating for themselves, by purchasing many manuscripts, and by procuring transcripts of others, and the editors made application also to gentlemen possessed of rich treasures of this kind, for the use of their writings.

. . .

These volumes will form a thesaurus of ancient British verse, through the space of about twelve hundred years; and they will display various characteristics, with respect of style and manner.

The first volume of Prose Archaiology is dedicated to history. It will embrace about the same extensive period as the first volume of poetry ... Therein the reader may perceive, that the Welsh have some records of their origin, and of ancient events, the preservation of which must obtain to them fair cause of exultation, in the presence of the nations of Europe.

The succeeding volume of Prose contains monuments of various parts of learning and science: amongst other matters, maxims of social economy and morality; a splendid collection of proverbs; institutes of grammar and of poetry. These, as they become known, will shine unexpectedly and with brilliant lustre before the world.

'Introduction', The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (3 vols., London, 1801-7), pp. v-vi.)