Though I think Iolo Morganwg is, without question, a man for our times, he was not a man of our times. It’s an overused quote, but it is none the less true that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”. As always, we need to assess people of the past in terms of the values and context that applied at the time. It’s therefore worth taking a look at Iolo’s times before we evaluate the man himself.
Iolo Morganwg was born in 1747 and died in 1826. This was a turbulent time, in which our world, the world we live in the 21st century, was beginning to take shape. The year of his birth saw Samuel Johnson begin work on his landmark Dictionary of the English language; the executions of leaders of the Jacobite uprising; and the third of four ‘French and Indian Wars‘ between Britain and the France of King Louis XV in North America. The year of his death saw the patenting of an internal combustion engine in the independent United States, and the introduction of the first true photographs in the post-Revolution, post-Napoleonic France of King Charles X.
He was born in the small village of Flemingston, in the county of Glamorgan, in Wales. Wales at the time had been annexed to England; in other words, it was regarded as simply being a part of England, with no legal or administrative separate identity. Culturally, and linguistically, of course, it was very different: most people in Wales at the time spoke Welsh, not English. For historical reasons, in Glamorgan, and certain other parts of Wales, there were higher percentages of English-speakers, including borough towns (established by the Norman and later English, conquerors) such as Cowbridge (in Welsh, Y Bont-faen), the nearest market town to Flemingston, and a place which would be very important to him during his life. At this time, amongst the Welsh-speaking educated classes, the dialect of Gwynedd (in north-West Wales) had the highest status, being the area where the influence of the Welsh princes had lasted the longest. However, it was the dialect of Y Wenhwyseg, the dialect of south-east Wales, which was most widely spoken; this is the dialect that Iolo spoke. This is important to remember, because the mass immigration which accompanied the Industrial Revolution had not yet started; nor had the mass Anglicisation of south Wales.
Wales was a part of the Kingdom of Great Britain, formed in 1707 to unite the previously separate Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Scotland. Ireland retained its status as the Kingdom of Ireland, with its own Parliament; in reality, it was treated as a colony, with the Parliament subject to a Viceroy appointed by the English throne. It was mercilessly exploited, producing food for export while the population went short of food. Iolo would be only 19 when the Great Famine began. From 1801, the Kingdom of Ireland ceased to be a separate entity; it was absorbed into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
The English King when Iolo was born was the German-born George II. As King, George was also head of the Church of England. This was the Established Church – in other words, the official religion of the State. This had consequences: there were legal penalties and restrictions on those who did not belong, including Catholics and non-Conformist Protestant churches such as the Quakers or Presbytarians. With the Church being part of the State, its funds were obtained by the tithe system, under which landowners were legally required to pay taxes in kind to the Church, even if they were not Anglicans. Catholics and Nonconformists were, however, tolerated; they accepted the key doctrines of the Anglican faith; in particular, the Trinity. Denial of the Trinity was unacceptable heresy; atheism was unthinkable. Either would be savagely punished by Church and State.
During this period, the British looked both East and West.
To the West, across the Atlantic, King George was the sovereign of the Thirteen Colonies of North America, as well as islands in the Caribbean. These were important sources of revenue for the Crown. This depended heavily on the slave trade, which brought huge wealth to English ports such as Bristol; another location which played an important part in Iolo’s life. Relations with the cultures of the native Americans had been mixed, but not always unfriendly at that time. Exposure to the New Continent, and to many of the ideas of the tribes, such as the Iriquois Confederacy, was contributing to a growing philosophical, and political, revolution in Europe. One of these colonies, Pennsylvania, contained a substantial, self-governing, Welsh-speaking community: the Welsh Tract.
To the East, British control was spreading in India. This was not directly the action of the British state itself; rather, the state had sub-contracted its empire-building to the privately-held East India Company. On behalf of the British government, and in defence of its own profits, the Company waged wars on Indian rulers as well as the armies of France, which had its own imperial goals in the region. In the territories which it had conquered, and which it ran itself, notably Bengal, the Company was – as you would expect – brutal and ruthless in its extraction of profits.
The overall reality was somewhat more complicated, though: the Company engaged in diplomacy with the Mughal Empire which, though in decline, still commanded great power and authority. The Company trained up its own administrators, and cultivated in them a respect for the local languages, cultures, and religions. In this period of British involvement in India, many of the Company’s British employees were highly educated men who learned Indian languages, took Indian wives, and adopted Indian ways in their home lives. This in turn led to a wave of scholarship, as classics of Indian religion and philosophy were translated into English, and scholarly journals were established to further this research. We know that Iolo was familiar with these materials.
Another consequence was the wide availability of cheap Indian opium, which (mixed with alcohol to form laudanum) Iolo used heavily, as did his contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and many, many others; it became part of normal life. There is no doubt that it informed his creative vision.
In social terms, life in Britain was hard. Power was concentrated in the hands of the aristocracy and church prelates. Though Britain was technically a parliamentary system, few could actually vote. The Church held a great deal of power; this was concentrated in the bishops and archbishops – who were rich on the back of the above-mentioned tithe system. In the countryside, land ownership was generally in the hands of the minor gentry, who rented land and homes to local people: and could throw out anyone who angered or opposed them. Even for the gentry, though, life was a challenge. Only eldest sons could inherit; younger sons needed to find some way to earn a living, or fall into poverty themselves. Daughters, as we know from Jane Austen, needed to make a good marriage, or suffer the same fate. Iolo’s mother was one of these daughters: of good birth but impoverished, she was raised and educated by relatives, but had to make the best marriage available. Her husband, Iolo’s father, was a skilled craftsman; a stonemason. He was respectable enough, but it was a major drop in social status.
In Wales, the same social system had a rather different shape. There was no longer a native Welsh aristocracy, the majority of whom had been killed by the English several centuries earlier. The squirearchy had moved to London with the armies of the Welshman Henry Tudor, and their descendants had remained there: much land was thus owned by absentee gentry who rarely visited their estates. The bishops of Wales were likewise mostly absentee; they were usually Englishmen with no knowledge of the language spoken by the people. They took the jobs in the hope of advancing their careers, but rarely visited their diocese. They did, however, keep most of the tithe money. The local clergy of Welsh parishes, who were native Welsh-speakers, lived in poverty and knew that they had little to no chance of ever being promoted. An unanticipated consequence of this was that the common people of Wales had little or no contact with their ‘betters’, compared to their English peers whose squires and bishops were regularly there to remind people of their status. The Welsh, therefore, had a much earlier experience of an ‘equal’ society, while those educated, penurious, and frustrated clergymen, knowing that they would never get a better job, turned their energies to other projects.
One such clergyman was Griffith Jones, whose parish was near Carmarthen. Determined that the Welsh should be able to read scripture in their own language, he devised a system of circulating schools, which travelled the countryside teaching the common people how to read and write. Thanks to him and the others who took on and expanded his work, Wales in Iolo’s time had a very high level of literacy. The fame of Jones’s schools reached as far as Russia, whose Empress, Catherine the Great, sent envoys to study how they worked, to see if the system could be used in her realm.
In Iolo’s time, there was no organised police force. Law and order – and the preservation of social order, and the protection of privilege – was the realm of local magistrates, supported by locally-employed constables – and supported in extremis by local militias and the army. Punishment was extremely harsh. The death penalty was commonly applied. As the demand for labour grew in the colonies, so did the practice of transportation, in which convicts were sent as forced labour to North America and the Caribbean colonies, from where they rarely ever came home again. After the American revolution, they were sent to Australia instead.
In Scotland, the Jacobite rising had threatened the English crown. Victorious, the English suppressed the culture and social structures of the Highland Gaels most associated with the rebellion. In Ireland, the local population, being mostly Catholic, and mostly Irish-speaking, was regarded with absolute contempt by the English establishment, leading to another major rebellion. The Welsh, having been defeated rather earlier, and then ignored, were not seen as such a threat. The English always hated the fact that the Welsh had their own, distinct, identity, though. As Welsh national consciousness grew throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, so did the English loathing of it, culminating shortly after Iolo’s death with the Treason of the Blue Books, which led to a systematic campaign to eradicate the Welsh language. The fact that that campaign failed is in large part due to the fruits of Iolo’s work, but we’ll come to that in a later post. Nonetheless, the English Establishment treated the Celtic nations in the same way as they increasingly treated the peoples they conquered in their expanding empire: backward savages who needed to be taught the English language and converted to the Anglican faith.
Things were also changing economically in Iolo’s lifetime. In the past, education had been the preserve of the gentry, and of the clergy; the universities existed to educate them in the knowledge of the Church. Food was produced as it always had been by farmers; things were made by skilled artisans. There were only a few professions: medicine and the law, for example. With the rise of Enlightenment values, though enquiry into the nature of the world was no longer restricted to finding Biblical explanations; now there was a growth in scientists, agronomists, architects, engineers, professors and professional academics, and so on: all ways in which those younger sons could make profitable careers – and they acted quickly to defend the privileges of their new professions.
And the economy was changing. Thanks to agricultural pioneers, food production was booming; people were eating better, and were healthier. The industrial revolution was beginning, with coal, steel, and copper leading to new towns. The slaving ports were booming and growing rapidly. Wealth was pouring in from slaves, tea, opium, and all the wealth of West and East. London was growing into a metropolis. Manufacturing was moving to factories and machines, rather than skilled workers.
The Establishment, though, clung to its privileges. This led during Iolo’s lifetime to the American Revolution, and to the independence of the United States. This led in turn to the Revolution in France, which seemed – for a while – to portend a new world, free of Kings, based on reason, and equality. The English Crown, and Establishment, responded in the way it knew best: with violence, and repression.
In the middle of all this, there was Iolo Morganwg.
A scion of the gentry turned skilled workman who earned his living by his hands, he was one of their own turned outsider.
A Unitarian, who rejected the Trinity, he was an unacceptable religious heretic, actively working to spread and strengthen heresy.
A political radical, an anti-monarchist, a supporter – and personal friend – of the American revolutionaries, and of the principles of the French Revolution, he was an extremely dangerous political subversive.
A skilled craftsman; a mason-builder; a farmer and knowledgeable agricultural improver; a leading antiquarian: he was a threat to the new professions of the well-born.
A defender of the poor, he was a threat to the powerful and the privileged.
An outspoken opponent of slavery, he was a threat to the wealth of the merchant classes.
A poet of outstanding talent; a promoter of Welsh culture and history; an advocate for Welsh-language institutions, he was a threat to the English ascendancy.
Truly, Iolo Morganwg was a dangerous man.
We’ll explore these themes in future posts:
- Iolo the Bard
- Iolo the Ovate
- Iolo the Druid
Second image by Dip Chand (artist) – https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O16731/painting-portrait-of-east-india-company/, Public Domain, Link