Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826)

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Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826)

Edward Williams was born in the parish of Llancarfan, Glamorganshire. Though the language of the house was English, he developed an interest in the language, literature and history of Wales. He received no official education, and he apparently learned to read whilst watching his father carving headstones. He followed in his father's footsteps and became a stonemason. He was interested in the Welsh poetic tradition, and began writing his own poems.

He chose the name Iolo Morganwg as his bardic name. He spent the period between 1773 and 1777 in London, and became prominent in the London Welsh societies, especially the Gwyneddogion. When he returned to Wales he married and went into farming, though only for a brief period.

Iolo became famous in the literary world, and began producing manuscripts that proved that the the tradition of the druids of Wales and the other Celtic countries had survived the Norman Conquest and even King Edward I, but only in Glamorganshire. Unfortunately, these documents had no basis in historical fact; they came from Iolo's imagination.

The Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain

Between 1786 and 1787, Iolo spent a period in Cardiff Debtors' Prison as he was in debt to the tune of three pounds! While he was in prison, he was using the drug laudanum for back pain relief, and wrote “Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain” (“The Gorsedd of Bards of the Isles of Britain”). He also developed the bards' “coelbren”, and maintained that this was the system the ancient druids used. These all came from his imagination too. In 1789, he published “Barddoniaeth Dafydd ap Gwilym”(“Dafydd Ap Gwilym's Poetry”), a collection of poems by the 14th century bard, Dafydd ap Gwilym. This was well-received by the public, by by today it has been shown that the book contains several poems that have no connection with Dafydd ap Gwilym – Iolo himself had written them!

While he was in London Iolo engaged with the Gwyneddigion Society, who were ready to believe what Iolo told them. He fabricated a completely imaginary lineage for the London Welsh. He re-wrote history and noted that the bardic tradition began with the Druids. This learning, known as “Barddas”, was passed down orally and musically from teacher to disciple, and he himself had had the privilege of inheriting this learning. He composed some appropriate literature, (phoney, of course), to support his claims. His interpretation of the history was accepted by most people.

The first Gorseddau

As interest in the Druids grew, Iolo arranged a ceremony on Primrose Hill in London on Alban Hefin (21 June) 1792. A circle of stones was formed, smaller than those used today, with a larger stone in the centre. This was the Gorsedd Stone, or Maen Llog as it is called today. Members were inaugurated by the Gorsedd, and included Dr William Owen Pughe, Gwallter Mechain – who was a student at Oxford, Dr David Samwell – who had been on board The Discovery, and others. Nobody wore Gorsedd robes as they do today, but Iolo tied green, blue and white ribbons on the arms of those who had been made members. He managed to deceive everyone that the Gorsedd of Bards was ancient and traditional, but as we know today, it all came from Iolo's imagination!

In 1795 the first Gorsedd was held in Wales, on Alban Eilir (21 March) in Stalling Down near Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan. A Gorsedd was held there in 1995 too to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first Gorsedd in Wales.

The Gorsedd and the Eisteddfod

The earlier Gorseddau were not considered part of the National Eisteddfod, in fact the National Eisteddfod did not exist at the time! Eisteddfodau had been held for centuries, but these would be local and quite small affairs. But Iolo saw his chance, and called on his Gorsedd members to come together at the Carmarthen Eisteddfod in July 1819. The Gorsedd was held the day after the competitions. Iolo was busy once again fabricating history, and announced that he was holding it “under instruction from Pendaran Dyfed and the crown of King George III”.

At this Gorsedd Druids were inaugurated with a white ribbon to represent innocence, Bards with a blue ribbon to represent truth and Ovates with a green ribbon to represent the arts. The Gorsedd of Bards was held at The Ivy Bush Hotel in Carmarthen, inside a circle of small stones which Iolo had brought with him. The Eisteddfod was transformed from then on. But the first modern Eisteddfod was not held until 1860, in Aberdare, when the National Eisteddfod was established, and by then Iolo had long died.

What was significant about Iolo, not that he had forged so many ancient manuscripts, but that he had, when it was needed, given the Welsh a historical and cultural awakening. By today Iolo Morganwg is seen as one of the founders of the Welsh nation. It was not noticed that his work was fabricated until the 20th Century, and by then it was a tradition to have the Gorsedd of Bards in Eisteddfodau.