I let my imagination wander through the fogs of our Welsh past and paint a
dazzling picture of the druids clad in the white, green and blue robes of
the Gorsedd proclaiming 2,000 years ago, “A oes heddwch ?" And of
Welsh knights, centuries later, gathering with the mediaeval mob to
acclaim the chairing of the bard?
shall I be a sober, conscientious student of history, cry aloud, “Avaunt
imagination!” and set forth the bare and, alas! disillusioning facts
about the origins of the Eisteddfod?
temptation to let my fantasy flit swiftly to and fro concerning the hoary
antiquity of our national institution is great. I might portray some Elfed
of 100 B.C., accompanied by a Geoffrey Crawshay of that period (complete
with woad beneath his martial armour), reciting “englynion” round a
circle of stones on the lonely Welsh mountain tops. I might describe some
Watcyn Evans of the twelfth century, bustling hither and thither in
businesslike preparation for the national festival. It is a temptation, I
confess. But suddenly I think of the rapier-like attacks and the caustic
wit which might shower down upon my poor head from such critics as W. J.
Gruffydd, Iorwerth Peate, and Griffith John Williams, who have been
elected by the powers above to keep a sharp eye on any glimmerings of
pseudo-history in Wales, and I hesitate.Again I think of how maddened I
have felt in countries such as Germany when men like Ludendorff have
invented fantastic beliefs concerning Thor and Wotan and the ideal
nature of the original Teutons and when charlatans such as Rosenberg have
spread pernicious forgeries about peoples like the Jews. Reflecting that
such a falsification of history is revolting, I feel that such methods are
as reprehensible in Wales as they are in Germany.
I shall give the historical facts as far as I have been able to judge them
from my study of the writings of G. J. Williams, Iorwerth Peate, and T.
Shankland. And here are my three main conclusions:
The first Eisteddfod was held not in the dim, distant ages but in 1789,
and it was somewhat influenced by a cunning literary forger.
The first Gorsedd was held not by Druids in Wales but by self-appointed
bards in the heart of Saxonland, in London, and had an element of the hoax
The so-called “eisteddfodau” of the middle Ages were as different from
our modern eisteddfod as is a Methodist prayer meeting from a Test Match.
months before the Paris mob was to revolutionise the course of mankind’s
history by storming the Bastille in 1780 a more genteel and a less
bloodthirsty gathering was in our quiet British way starting a revolution
in the social life of Wales by holding an eisteddfod at Corwen. This
revolution was the work not of Welsh shepherds and farming lads, but of
the London Gwyneddigion Society. Little did they dream when that day they
awarded a silver chair to the composer of the best impromptu poem and
another prize to the best singer accompanied by the harp that they were
heralding the advent of one of the most impressive and stirring folk
festivals which any land has produced—the National Eisteddfod.
of the foremost influences upon the London Gwyneddigion Society was that
curious literary forger, that cross between Chateaubriand, Baron von
Munchausen, and the Scot Macpherson, who invented Ossian, namely, Iolo
Morganwg. The fantasies of lob’s brain can almost be pardoned, however,
when we realise that they led to the National Eisteddfod of today.
eisteddfod which saw the light of day in that historical year 1789 might
have flickered out in early childhood unnoticed and unmourned if it were
not for the literary periodicals and societies which our
great-grandfathers founded in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It
is due largely to these that the Eisteddfod survived a period which saw
the downfall of Napoleon’s Empire, and that in 1819 an eisteddfod was
held at Carmarthen which is even more than the Corwen festival of 1789 the
real progenitor of our modern institution. For three days the early
eisteddfodwyr met, listened to poetry, discussed, and sang, and attended a
concert each evening.
Carmarthen Eisteddfod of 1819 was the bridal day of the Eisteddfod and the
Gorsedd, a loving pair whose bonds grow even firmer as the years roll on.
And the matchmaker was our old friend lob Morganwg, who, had he lived,
would have rejoiced at the matrimonial fidelity of the bride and
bridegroom. For the Gorsedd is a creature of Iolo's imagination and in the
first Gorsedd meeting which was held on Primrose Hill, overlooking London,
there was more than a slight suspicion of a hoax. Here let me quote the
“Morning Chronicle” of September 26, 1792:
is a circumstance of much Curiosity tho’ but little known, that the
Druidic institution, as it existed in Britain in the earliest ages, has
been regularly handed down by a Succession of Bards to the present day,
and is still preserv’d and cultivated by a few individuals—Natives of
Wales. Saturday, September 22, being the day on which the Autumnal Equinox
occurred, and consequently, in the phrase of Bardism, a Solemn Bardic Day,
some Welsh Bards resident in London, assembled in Congress on Primrose
Hill, according to ancient usage, which requires that it should be in the
eye of public observation . . . and whilst the Sun is above the Horizon,
the wonted ceremonies were observed. A Circle of Stones was formed...”
statement that the druidic rites had been handed down by a succession of
bards is an unscrupulous invention of Iolo’s, as those who read the
articles by Mr. Shankland and Mr. G. J. Williams in the “Llenor” (Vol.
III, 1924) will at once agree.
so-called eisteddfodau of the Middle Ages are not the forerunners of our
modern Eisteddfod. Welsh scholars have discovered that the mediaeval
eisteddfodau were gatherings to lay down the regulation of bardic
conventions and procedure. They were a “session,” a Court dealing with
metric codes, examinations, and other technical details. Similar courts
were held in England and Europe. Therefore today’s Eisteddfod has no
direct link with the Middle Ages.No link with the druids! No link with the
Middle Ages! A growth of the last 150 years! Is it not a remarkable proof
of the suitability of the Eisteddfod to our national temperament and of
the enthusiasm of eisteddfodwyr that an institution whose roots in the
past are not as deep as we imagined should have become such a magnificent
example to the world of a nation worshipping at the shrine of poetry and