The legacy of bardism

Local dignitaries in the Colwyn Bay Gorsedd procession of 1910

Local dignitaries in the Colwyn Bay Gorsedd procession of 1910

The most enduring legacy of Iolo Morganwg's bardism is the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain whose assemblies announce the location of the annual National Eisteddfod of Wales a year and a day in advance of the event, as well as conducting its most important ceremonies, including the crowning and chairing of the winning poets. Iolo held his first two Gorsedd assemblies on Primrose Hill in London in 1792. In 1819 he succeeded in linking his invention to the historically attested eisteddfod, when he held Gorsedd ceremonies during and after the Carmarthen eisteddfod of 1819.

Carmarthen 1819

The nineteenth-century press celebrated Iolo's actions at the 'mother of all eisteddfodau'

Dringodd hen Fardd Morganwg, i fyny, a chlymodd ysnoden (riband) lâs am ei fraich ddehau, sef arwydd Bardd. Wedi hyny disgynodd Mr Edward Williams, a nesâodd at yr Esgob, gan ddywedyd wrtho ei fod wedi cael ei awdurdodi (neu ei gymhell, canys ni's gallasom ei glywed yn eithaf eglur) i wisgo ei Arglwyddiaeth âg Urdd Derwydd: Wel, eb yr Esgob, myfi a ymostyngaf i bob peth a farnoch yn gymhwys: yna rhwymodd y Bardd ysnoden wen am fraich ddehau yr Esgob. Creodd hyn ddywenydd hir a chyffredin. Dangosai hyn fod rhagfarn grefyddol wedi cael ei gadael o'r tu allan i'r gynulleidfa gan fawrion a chyffredin. Gweled Esgob Tyddewi yn cael ei urddo gan hen Ymneillduwr oedd olygfa mil mwy hyfryd gan goleddwyr cariad ac ewyllys da cyffredin, a gwrthwynebwyr rhagfarnu a phleidgarwch, na phe gwelsid Arch-esgob Caergaint, yn ei holl wisgoedd a'i rwysg prif-esgobawl, yn cyflawni'r un gorchwyl.

(The old Bard of Glamorgan climbed up and attached a blue riband to his right arm, namely the sign of the Bard. After this Mr Edward Williams descended, and approached the Bishop, telling him that he had been authorized (or urged, because I could not hear him very clearly) to dress his Lordship with the Druidic Order: Well, said the Bishop, I will bow to everything which you consider appropriate; at this point the Bard attached a white riband to the Bishop's right arm. This caused prolonged and general applause. This revealed that religious prejudice had been left outside the audience by the mighty and the common. To see the Bishop of St David's thus honoured by an old Dissenter was a sight a thousand times more beloved by the proponents of love and general goodwill, and opponents of prejudice and partisanship, than had the Archbishop of Canterbury, with all his robes and his archiepiscopal pomp been seen fulfilling the same task.)

A Gorsedd assembly at Colwyn Bay, 1910

A Gorsedd assembly at Colwyn Bay, 1910

However, it took until well into the second half of the nineteenth century until Iolo's invention had been firmly linked to the national Eisteddfod movement. Some early attempts at promoting his public bardic legacy, such as Ab Ithel's Grand Eisteddfod at Llangollen in 1858, Myfyr Morganwg's Rocking Stone Gorseddau and Gwilym Cowlyd's annual Arwest Farddonol, attracted criticism and admiration in equal measure.

Llangollen 1858

The press reports of this important event provided the blueprint for later National Eisteddfodau and their Gorseddau:

The National Gorsedd of British Bards, and the Royal Chair of Powys, accompanied by a Grand National Eisteddfod, in accordance with the 'privileges and customs of the Bards of the Isle of Britain,' commenced at Llangollen on Tuesday, 21st September, and extended over the four succeeding days, during which prizes to the amount of £400 or £500 were awarded to successful candidates in the various departments of poetry and general literature, oratory, music, heraldry, arts, manufactures, &c.

The Eisteddfod was appointed to take place on Alban Elfed, which, Anglicised, is the autumnal equinox, and the province selected was that of Powys, in which Llangollen is situate, and which claims the privilege of a 'Royal Chair,' according to the usages of bardism.

The preparations were in every respect on a scale worthy of a national event, the successful issue of which must, however, be attributed to the zealous and energetic exertions of the Rev John Williams Ab Ithel, M A, rector of Llanymowddwy, and the Rev J. Hughes (Carn Ingli), Meltham Parsonage, Huddersfield, the joint secretaries of the Eisteddfod, whose efforts were also most efficiently seconded by the local secretaries, Messrs Humphreys and Hughes, of Llangollen, and the Rev T. R. Lloyd (Estyn), Llanfynydd. The Llangollen people, too, one and all, appear to have come out with spirit on the occasion. A main object with the promoters has been to adhere as closely as possible to the orthodox rules and customs of bardism, which, with respect to the Gorsedd and the national congress always accompanying it, are defined and established, and the principal aim of which is the elevation of the social, moral, and religious status of the people of Wales, the encouragement of nationality, the perpetuation of the Cymraeg, and the cultivation of Welsh literature, Welsh music, &c . . . Tuesday, 21st September.

At 10 a.m. the bards, druids, ovates, and others, assembled in the pavilion, and were marshalled in order of procession. The scene now presented was to most, if not all present, novel. Those who were members of the three privileged orders were attired in their appropriate habiliments, the bard in a loose habit of blue, the druid in snowy white, and the ovate in a green vestment. One of the ovates bore a peithynen, or coelbren y beirdd, the means by which poetic effusions were recorded in the earliest times. It consists of slender pieces of wood, fitted into an oblong frame, each piece having four lines of poetry cut thereon, in old British characters. The coelbren in question contained Gwallter Mechain's cywydd, 'Cofiant Iolo Morganwg,' and comprised twenty-three staves, on which were inscribed ninety-two lines of poetry. They were ingeniously executed by Mr Edward Lloyd, Cefn y bedd. Bard, druid, and ovate, also displayed on his breast three ears of ripe wheat, symbolical of Alban Elfed, the season of harvest. The procession marched through the town, and thence to the spot known as the Green, in the following manner; –
Standard bearer, carrying the banner of the Red Dragon of Wales.
Brass band.
Blue flag of the bards.
White flag of the druids.
Bards, druids, and ovates, bare-headed, and in costume.
Green flag of the ovates.
People four abreast.

As the procession wended its way over the bridge (considered at one time one of the wonders of the Principality), through Chapel Street, Collen Terrace, and back through High Street, the number of people welled immensely, until the line of march became densely crowded. Many of the houses were decorated with flags. On arriving at the Green, we found that a large body of people had already posted themselves near the bardic circle, intent upon witnessing the ceremonial about to take place. There were several carriages also on the ground. The band played 'The March of the Men of Harlech,' and other appropriate Welsh airs. After coming to a halt, the pressure towards the centre of attraction, where the bardic officials were congregated, was very great, and it required the unceasing efforts of Mr Denman, the chief constable, and his men, to keep a clear space; but never have we seen the duty more good-naturedly, and at the same time effectively, discharged, than on this occasion, by Mr Denman.

The Gorsedd consisted of the maen arch, or maen llog, the chief stone placed in the centre, round which, in a circle of 30 feet diameter, are the 'meini gwyngil,' being twelve stones set on end, to represent the signs of the zodiac. The sun was considered as a type of God – the Sun of Righteousness; hence the construction of the druidical places of worship in a circular shape. Towards the east, on the outside of the circle, were three other stones, at a distance of nine fathoms from the centre piece, and placed in such positions with respect to the latter, that lines drawn from it, through the three, would indicate the points in the heavens at which the sun rises on the solstices and equinoxes of the year respectively. These lines or pencils of light, as they are termed, form the mystic symbol known amongst the Bards and druids as the Name of God – the 'Word' or attribute of creation – it being held by the Bards that God created the universe by showing and pronouncing His own name. It was, we understand, the original intention of the committee to have the stones of such magnitude, and so placed, as to be a permanent memento of the Eisteddfod, but the ground being a charitable bequest to the inhabitants for the purposes of recreation, of which the Board of Health are trustees, this intention could not conveniently be carried into effect.

During the procession, Glas Ynys, a bard according to the privilege and usage of the Isle of Britain, carried a sheathed sword, taking hold of it by the point. On entering within the precincts of the circle the sword was slowly pushed backward out of its scabbard, and placed, being laid hold of by the naked point, on the gorsedd or central stone.

Before the formal opening of the Gorsedd, Ab Ithel, who, as the presiding bard, stood on the central stone, whilst the others were ranged in position near the stones which formed the circle, delivered an address in Welsh on the aspects of bardism in the Isle of Britain. In outward appearance it might be likened to a tree exhibiting two branches. The branches were the Eisteddfod and the Chair, the trunk from which they sprang being the Gorsedd. The Eisteddfod originated in the time of Owain ap Maxen Wledig, on the departure of the Romans, after exercising their rule here for more than 400 years. Its object was to encourage bardism, music, and the general literature of the Cymry, maintain the Welsh language and customs of the country, and cultivate a patriotic spirit amongst the people. The 'chairs' were established, or rather, perhaps, resuscitated, about the sixth century. The chair was a kind of provincial or local convention, where disciples were trained, and bardic matters discussed, preparatory to the great or national Gorsedd. There were at present four chairs in Wales, viz., the Chair of Gwent and Morganwg, Chair of Dyfed, Powys Chair, and the Gwynedd Chair. That of Powys was termed 'royal,' because it had been established by three royal bards, Llywarch Hen, Brochwel Ysgythrog, and Gwron ab Cynfarch. The chairs had their distinctive mottoes. That of Gwent and Morganwg was, – 'Duw a phob daioni.' Dyfed, – 'Calon wrth galon.' Powys, – 'A laddo a leddir.' Gwynedd, – 'Yr Iesu.' The motto of the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Isle of Britain was that which embraced all the others, – 'Y gwir yn erbyn y byd.' Other 'chairs' have been in existence which are no longer in an active state, such as Arthur's Chair, or the Round Table, with its motto at first, – 'Da yw'r maen gyda'r efengyl;' and then, – 'Nid da lle gellir gwell.' The chair of Bryngwyddon, – 'Coel clywed, gwir gweled.' Beiscawen yn Nyfnaint, – 'Nid byth, ond bythoedd.' Urien Rheged (of which Taliesin was principal bard), – 'Myn y gwir ei le.' Raglan, – 'Deffro mae'n ddydd.' The Gorsedd, in its present form, is as old as the period of Prydain ab Aedd Mawr, who lived about a thousand years before the Christian era. There were bards and bardism prior to that date, but they had no organized system, nor any means save song whereby to perpetuate their traditions, nor any established law to preserve their privileges. Lest the old traditions should be lost, Prydain caused a Gorsedd, or national meeting, to be convened, for the purpose of eliciting all that had been retained in the memory of the people respecting the occurrences of ancient times; and it was found that three of the old bards, or, as they were then called, the 'Gwyddoniaid,' i.e., men of knowledge, viz., Plenydd, Alawn, and Gwron, remembered and knew more than all the rest. These three classified the old traditions, and they divided the old order into three sections – bards, druids, and ovates; and this arrangement, having undergone the examination of succeeding Gorseddau for three years, received national warranty. Such was the origin and commencement of the Gorsedd in its outward aspect, as it now appeared. But as regarded its essential requisites, it might be said that bardism was as old as Noah, or even Adam himself, the father of all mankind. The Almighty was pleased to grant to Adam, when created, a revelation of Himself, and of the unseen world. This revelation was a second time given to Noah, unless, indeed, we are to suppose that the first revelation had been sustained in memory. He again taught the whole to his children and posterity, and whilst he and they lived together in the East, it was not possible to fall deeply into religious error. When the general dispersion took place, the heads of families carried along with them that which they knew of the primary religion into their new abodes; and, in the course of time, from the natural corruption of the human heart, the weakness of memory, and from opposing circumstances from without, the patriarchal religion suffered deterioration more or less. God chose one nation out of the whole to maintain the true religion, by means of continued revelations, leaving the rest by natural means to support that which had once been given to them. Of the nations left to themselves, the Cymry succeeded, beyond all others, in keeping the old religion uncorrupted; and thus, when the Messiah came, they saw that He completely answered to the types they had of Him, and they received the Gospel as the superstructure or completion of Druidism. Their ancient system was clothed with Christianity. But this, rejoins some one, is all gone by; what benefit can result from keeping up these old customs any longer? He answered – much in every respect; but, as time was short, he would mention only one. Their act in holding the Gorsedd of the Bards was a public witness that the Cymry at all times considered and believed the unison and agreement that existed between the two dispensations – that the one answered to, and was as the fulfilment of, the other – that God was the same in all ages, and that He carried on His works gradually towards perfection. Alluding to the degenerate condition of the rest of the Gentile world, the reverend gentleman proceeded to explain the ceremonies observed at the Gorsedd. Having glanced at the symbols of the sacred circle, he explained the dresses of the three orders, and their emblems; that of the bard having reference to the blue vault of heaven, indicating peace and tranquillity; that of the druid indicating purity, by its snowy whiteness, intended to resemble light; and that of the ovate, borrowed from the grass of the field, a state of growth and progression. Another ceremony was that of bearing the sword; taking it by the point, instead of the hilt, and in that manner replacing it in the scabbard, intended to show the peaceful occupation of the bard, and that no arms could be borne in the Gorsedd, the mode of sheathing being designed to illustrate the fact that, by his office, the bard should turn the sword against himself before he did so against any other man. (His address was received with frequent marks of applause.)

The Rev M. Morgan (Mor Meirion) then advanced into the circle, and repeated the 'Gorsedd Prayer' composed by Talhaiarn, a bard of the fifth century, as follows: –

Dyro, Dduw, dy nawdd;
Ac yn nawdd, nerth;
Ac yn nerth, deall;
Ac yn neall, gwybod;
Ac yngwybod, gwybod y cyfiawn;
Ac yngwybod y cyfiawn, ei garu;
Ac o garu, caru pob hanfod;
Ac yn caru pob hanfod, garu Duw.

After this the presiding bard recited the 'Gwaedd uwch adwaedd,' or proclamation, introducing it with the national motto, – 'Y gwir yn erbyn y Byd;' and concluding with the provincial motto, – 'A laddo a leddir.' In this proclamation all candidates for bardic honours were invited to the Gorsedd, 'where there was no naked weapon against them,' and seek them at the hands of the graduated bards present. Whilst Ab Ithel pronounced the words just quoted, all the bards approached the central stone, and assisted in sheathing the sword.

The following appeared as candidates for the honour and degree of Bard: –Ceiriog, Pererin, Carnfaldwyn, and Llew Hiraethog, who had previously sent in testimonials of their qualifications. As each presented himself, the presiding bard published the 'Gosteg Cadair' three times, thus, –

'A. B. – Bardd yn hawl ac arddelw ger bron y gadair, ac os oes neb a wyr ac a ddengys achaws cyfiawn a phaham nas gellir, ac nas dylid Bardd o hono, o gradd herwydd a welir yn gyfiawn wrth fraint a defawd Beirdd Ynys Prydain, dangosed.
'Llafar bid lafar.'
And as no one preferred any objection, he took each by the hand, and, looking eastward, addressed him solemnly, –
'Goleuni Duw rhag dy lygaid,
Goleuni Duw yn dy gydwybod,
Gwirionedd Duw ar dy dafawd.
'A ymgeisi di yn dy swydd fel Bardd wellhau moes a defod, cynnal heddwch, a moli pob daionus a rhagor?'
And on receiving the answer, –
'Gwnaf ar air a chydwybod,'
he made the declaration, –
'Bardd ydwyt, gair dy air ar bob un na fo bardd, ac nid un gair o neb un nad bardd arnat ti.'
Whereupon Mor Meirion tied a blue ribbon round his right arm, and he was presented with a brysyll or wand of the same colour, emblematical of 'privilege.'
Next, the following appeared as candidates for the degree of Ovate: – Morddal, Madoc, Glyn Afon, Dinmael, Elfynydd, Ap Ednyfed, Peblig, Gwilym Tawe, Eos Llechid, Gwilym o Fôn, Ivan Avan, Euronwy, Eiluned, and Meillionen Meirion. These were respectively presented by graduated bards, who declared 'on their word and conscience' that they were worthy. On which the presiding bard proclaimed, –
'A. B. – Dywed yr hwn a'i cyflwyna ar air a chydwybod y gellir Bardd o hono (neu honi); ac yna barna y Beirdd yng ngorsedd y dylir Bardd o hono (neu honi) yngradd Ofydd ym mraint Beirdd a Chadair Powys.
'A laddo a leddir.'
And each was invested with a ribbon and a wand of a green colour. The ceremony of graduating Druids was similar, mutatis mutandis, but instead of these being admitted 'on the word and conscience' of a privileged bard, they were elected by a majority of votes. The following were received into the order of Druids: – Ivan Avan and Pererin.

Rocking-stone Gorsedd

The 'secret letters' exchanged in Seren Gomer in 1856 illustrate contemporary suspicions of Myfyr Morganwg's Rocking Stone Gorsedd, which were held up to four times a year:

Mae y diafol yn sicr o genfigenu cyn bo hir wrth apostol y gàreg siglo. Fe fuasai yn foddlawn heddyw i roi i fyny i'r cyhoedd holl guddfwriadau cynghorfeydd pyrth uffern, pe bai Myfyr yn hsybysu iddo ddirgelion y Nod Cyfrin. Mae gormod o gywilydd ar Satan i adael yr urdd berthynol iddi, i ddwyn yn mlaen athrawiaeth y gàreg siglo yn ei enw ef. Mae ganddo ef enw i'w amddyffin, a chymmeriad i'w golli; ac mae ef o angenrheidrwydd yn gorfod rhoi ar ddeall nad oes dim a fyno efe, â'r gwaith.

(The devil will surely be very envious of the apostle of the rocking stone. He would be willing today to give up to the public all the secret plans of the committees of the gates of hell, if Myfyr advised him of the secret of the Nod Cyfrin. Satan is too ashamed to leave the related dignity to them of carrying on the philosophy of the rocking stone in his name. He's got a name to defend, and a good character to lose; and it is essential for him to give to understand that he has nothing to do with this work.)

Inside the tent of the National Eisteddfod at Bangor, 1890

Inside the tent of the National Eisteddfod at Bangor, 1890

From the 1890s, and especially during the reign of Rowland Williams (Hwfa Môn) as Archdruid from 1895 to 1905, the Gorsedd evolved into the festive visual expression of the annual national festival of the Welsh people. Its processions, open air assemblies, historicist costumes and rich regalia ensured that proceedings were attractive to an age that loved public celebrations. Although it never again reached the popularity of the early 1900s again, it has to this day remained an integral part of Eisteddfod proceedings.