Gorsedd & Eisteddfod




The Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain, in public procession with banners:

In contemporary Druidry, we often find a number of Welsh words being used. Examples are Awen, Nwyfre, and Eisteddfod. They aren’t always used correctly, or properly understood. I’m getting ready to start writing a new series of posts about Iolo Morganwg’s achievements, Iolo the Ovate (I’ve already written a series on Iolo the Bard, and will eventually move on to Iolo the Druid). Before I can, though, I want to cover the difference between Gorsedd and Eisteddfod.

An eisteddfod was originally a bardic competition: a contest between bards to establish who was the best poet. Poems would be composed and publicly read out; judges, acknowledged for their mastery of the poetic corpus and forms, would choose a winner. In more recent times, the meaning of the word has expanded to mean ‘a competition of the arts’: dance, recital, song, musical performance, fine art, and so on. It is normal now for competitors to submit their entries (if the medium allows) anonymously, using a bardic name rather than their real name. In some cases – within OBOD, for example – it has come to simply mean ‘the arty bit’, where perhaps a poem is presented, with no competitive element.

It’s important to establish that an eisteddfod does not necessarily have anything at all to do with Druidry. In fact, most don’t. This really needs to be emphasised, because many people in contemporary Druidry don’t understand this, including prominent figures one might expect to know better. I’ve heard Philip Carr-Gomm, former Chosen Chief of OBOD, referring in an interview on Druidcast to the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod as a Druid-influenced event. That’s not correct. The Llangollen International Eisteddfod has no connection with Druids at all.

Rather embarrassing in their ignorance are comments by ‘Arthur Uther Pendragon’, who I believe is also connected with OBOD. In an interview with the BBC’s Countryfile magazine, he came out with this:

“The first Eisteddfod wasn’t in Wales, or even in Welsh”, Arthur chuckles, “It was in English, on Primrose Hill in London”.

Well, no. That’s not even remotely true.

The first recorded Eisteddfod was held by the Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd, ruler of the Kingdom of Deheubarth in south-west Wales, in the twelfth century: 1176, to be exact. And it was definitely held in Welsh. (As an aside, the territory of Deheubarth closely matched the territory of Demetia, the lands ruled by Pwyll in the First Branch of the Mabinogi).

Of course, it’s pretty much certain that eisteddfodau (that’s the plural form in Welsh) were being held before that; we just don’t have records of them. Eisteddfodau continued to be held in royal courts, and wherever bards gathered, throughout the following centuries. As a ‘Congress of Bards’, the eisteddfod essentially acted as the professional body of the professional poets, ensuring that standards were maintained. As the Welsh aristocracy was crushed by the English invaders, and the lesser Welsh gentry became increasingly anglicised, the class of professional Bards dwindled, and the focus of eisteddfodau shifted to amateur competitions in private homes, and in taverns.

By the eighteenth century, when Iolo Morganwg was active, eisteddfodau were still held in Wales, and wherever else there were Welsh communities: London, in particular. They became increasingly popular throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even today, there are local eisteddfodau, and many schools in Wales will have an annual Eisteddfod, in either Welsh or English, with the Welsh-only Urdd Eisteddfod being one of the major events of the school year.

None of these involve Druids. 

Only one Eisteddfod in Wales has an association with Druids, and that’s the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Here, the Eisteddfod as a whole is governed by the National Gorsedd of Wales (known until a couple of years ago by its original name of the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain, the name given to it by its creator: Iolo Morganwg. Like many others, I disagree with the name change). Members of the Gorsedd, led by the Archdruid, conduct the opening and closing ceremonies; they adjudicate the poetic and prose competitions, and award the prizes: a crown for the winner of the prose competition, and a Chair, or Bardic Throne, for the winning poet. 

So what is this word, Gorsedd, and what does it mean? 

Technically, Gorsedd means a mound, or a throne, and so the place around which a Prince’s bards would gather. By extension it therefore means the gathering itself, as well as the assembled members collectively.

Iolo’s original conception of the Gorsedd was that the Bards, Ovates, and Druids would meet at every equinox and solstice to celebrate culture and maintain poetic standards, to debate justice and spiritual freedom, to evaluate and disseminate advances in knowledge, and to advance the causes of liberty and peace. Members of the Gorsedd would be awarded their rank according to their field of expertise and their achievements. It’s important to remember how radical this was, at a time of political repression, and of a state religion which demanded the spiritual allegiance of the population.

Iolo organised the first two meetings while he was living in London, trying to publish his books of poetry in English. At this time in his life, he was either a personal friend, or a friend-of-a-friend, of prominent political and religious radicals such as Tom Paine, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth, William Blake and the like; George Washington was a subscriber to his book project. He was a prominent member of societies for the Welsh living in London, such as the scholars (and carousers) of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion. These initial meetings – assemblies of the Gorsedd, not eisteddfodau – were held on Primrose Hill in 1792, on the summer solstice and autumn equinox respectively.

The first was mostly attended by members of the Welsh community living in London, and – contrary to Mr. Pendragon’s assertion – was almost certainly conducted largely in Welsh. The second received a lot more publicity, and was held in both Welsh and English. Several more meetings were held in London before Iolo returned permanently to Wales in 1795, during which some prominent English men and women were honoured with membership of the Gorsedd – including, for example, the feminist writer Anna Seward, who was made an Ovate. Very little was recorded about these events, so we don’t know who exactly was present – but you can see above the kind of people Iolo was mixing with. 

Once back at home, Iolo continued to hold hilltop meetings of the Gorsedd in Glamorgan, particularly on Bryn Owain (called Stalling Down in English) near Cowbridge. However, these meetings faced increasing official harassment: the French Revolution, and the execution of the French King, Louis XVI, meant that the British authorities were paranoid about any potentially revolutionary activity. Iolo’s republicanism, and the discussion of liberty at Gorsedd meetings, made them increasingly worried. Participants were followed by police spies; meetings of the Gorsedd were broken up by magistrates and armed militia cavalry. Eventually, in 1799, they were banned.

With the apparent end of the Napoleonic wars in 1812 (not anticipating his escape from Elba, and campaign before final defeat in 1815), it was possible to resume meetings. Iolo and his supporters now changed the format, making the Gorsedd meetings public rather than private. For example, in 1814 two meetings were held at the Rocking Stone in Pontypridd, each being preceded by a procession of the Gorsedd members through the town centre, banners held high.

By 1819, the Welsh were abandoning the established (meaning, part of the apparatus of the state) Anglican church in large numbers, perceiving it (not without good cause) as an English institution which was indifferent, or even hostile, to their language and culture. In an attempt to re-establish their pro-Welsh credentials, the Anglicans organised an eisteddfod in the town of Carmarthen, to be held at the Ivy Bush Hotel*, under the auspices of the Cambrian Society. To try to show their goodwill, they invited a number of prominent non-conformists to participate. Amongst their number was the Unitarian activist: Iolo Morganwg.

The Anglican bishop of St. David’s, Thomas Burgess, opened proceedings with a speech which few, it seems, found memorable. He was followed by Iolo, who succeeded in completely upstaging the unsuspecting Bishop with a passionate speech on the history of the Welsh nation, and their unimpeachable characteristics as a nation of valour, virtue, and the arts, and on the role of the eisteddfod and all present as inheriting and continuing ancient Welsh practice. He followed this by unilaterally inducting the participants into his Gorsedd of the Bards, Ovates, and Druids of the Island of Britain, tying ribbons of the appropriate colour around their arms. The Bishop, caught completely by surprise, was unable to prevent his ‘Anglican’ eisteddfod from being completely co-opted into Iolo’s bardic system (he himself was inducted as a Druid).

From this moment onwards, the two institutions of the eisteddfod and the Gorsedd were connected in the minds of the Welsh. Poor Bishop Burgess tried to ban the Gorsedd from future eisteddfodau, but the idea had caught the imagination of the younger generation of poets in particular, and so Burgess’s efforts largely failed.

The Cambrian Society continued to hold its eisteddfodau until 1834. Iolo only attended one more, in 1824, but the task of organising the participation of the Gorsedd and its promotion of Iolo’s Bardic system was taken over by his son, Taliesin ap Iolo, as well as other supporters such as Aneurin Owen, Gwilym Morganwg, and Gwallter Mechain.  As a result of their efforts, approximately half of the Cambrian Society’s eisteddfodau were attended by the Gorsedd; at other times, they were not invited. Resistance to their participation continued – sometimes because of (quite justified) scepticism at Bardism’s supposed antiquity, sometimes because of Anglican resistance to its pagan overtones, and sometimes simply because there weren’t enough qualified Bards who were able to attend.

Iolo died in 1826. The next couple of decades saw an explosion of popular eisteddfodau, organised by a variety of institutions, including pubs, friendly societies, literary groups, and temperance societies! However, once the Cambrian Society ceased to organise any, the link with the Gorsedd was temporarily broken. The Cambrian Society’s role as sponsor of the most prominent eisteddfod was picked up by the Abergavenny Cymreigyddion Society, which held 10 eisteddfod meetings between 1834 and 1853. As with the previous eisteddfodau, these were well-publicised, and were opened with public processions. The Gorsedd only formally participated in two: those of  1838 and 1840. Nevertheless, Iolo’s material and rituals still featured prominently in the opening ceremonies, and members of the Gorsedd who attended in their personal capacity still wore the marks and symbols of their rank as Bard, Ovate, or Druid.

The Gorsedd, as a separate institution, remained active, and continued to grow in size as more members joined. Iolo’s son, Taliesin Williams (ab Iolo) was in charge until the Cambrian Society ceased its events. After this, leadership of the group was held by Evan Davies. whose Bardic name was Myfr Morganwg. Following Taliesin’s death in 1847, Myfr Morganwg proclaimed himself ‘Archdruid of the Bards of the Isle of Britain’. Under the leadership of the two men, the Gorsedd organised several eisteddfodau of its own, and set up standing stones near the Pontypridd Rocking Stone. From 1849 onwards, the Gorsedd held meetings up to 4 times per year at this site, and continued to do so for 25 years.

All of this was happening in south Wales. Meanwhile, in the north, separate eisteddfodau, and a separate Gorsedd, were being organised by others of Iolo’s followers: William John Roberts (Bardic name: Gwilym Cowlyd), and then John Williams ab Ithel. The latter was hugely successful. In particular, he arranged the ‘Grand Eisteddfod’ of 1858, held in Llangollen. Ab Ithel very cannily used modern advertising methods to publicise the event to the large Welsh communities in Liverpool and elsewhere in England, and made sure that it was easily accessible by train. Huge numbers attended. As with the Gorsedd meetings in the south, Iolo’s symbols and rituals were prominent, while members of this northern Gorsedd now, for the first time, wore Druidic robes designed for them by Hubert von Herkomer, which followed Iolo’s original conception.

One of the greatest outcomes of the Grand Eisteddfod was a meeting of poets of both North and South, who henceforth agreed to establish a National Eisteddfod. This ran for a few years, but then ran out of steam. After a gap of just over a decade, a new National Eisteddfod was established in 1880; this is essentially the organisation which continues to the present day.

For much of this time, the Gorsedd was the subject of attacks from many critics and satirists – those who accused it of being pagan, those who claimed it was all fake, and those who simply thought it was a bunch of grown men running around in funny clothes.

Gradually, however, this died down: the Gorsedd and the Eisteddfod between them succeeded in forming a powerful alliance between the conservative cultural nationalists who were influenced by Iolo’s pseudo-histories, and the younger generations who believed in the Welsh language as a medium for education, science and the arts, and in progress to a better future for the Welsh. The Gorsedd and Eisteddfod, their ideals, and their commitment to both culture and rational enquiry, made them the most powerful institution to sustain and inspire the Welsh while the English establishment assaulted them with the Blue Books. The Welsh no longer mocked the Gorsedd: with the National Eisteddfod, it had become central to Welsh identity and culture.

Since 1881, every annual session of the National Eisteddfod has been opened by a Gorsedd ritual. In 1892, the Gorsedd became co-equal with the Eisteddfod Association in choosing the location of each year’s event, and also became solely responsible for matters of ritual. In 1898, membership was restricted: it was now available only to those who passed stringent exams, with each of the three grades (Bard, Ovate and Druid) having its own exam. The Gorsedd meetings in south Wales had always been bilingual, but from 1898 it was also agreed that the affairs of the Gorsedd would be held solely in Welsh. Non-Welsh speakers could still be admitted as honorary members, but this policy was reversed in 2019 – which gained some attention, as it required the Queen of England to be stripped of her status as an honorary Ovate.

So, it took almost a century, but Iolo’s vision reached fruition. Overcoming government suppression, religious opposition, and mockery, the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain became the public face of the National Eisteddfod – the first, for a long time the only, and still the best-beloved national institution of the Cymry, the ancient race of the Welsh.

One aspect of Iolo’s plan remained unfulfilled, though. This was the theological content of his Bardic system: the journey of the soul from Annwn, through Abred, to Gwynfyd, and his embrace of the concept of reincarnation. From the 1819 Eisteddfod in Carmarthen onwards, the Welsh National Eisteddfod and the Gorsedd became a part of the Welsh establishment and – whether Anglican, non-conformist, or Unitarian – the Welsh establishment was Christian. To this day, a majority of the Welsh-speakers who attend the National Eisteddfod of Wales would probably consider themselves Christians of some description. There was no room there for Iolo’s spiritual insights. These found a home in the Druidic orders in England, amongst whom they lay hidden, almost dormant, until revived by Ross Nicholls, or ‘Nuinn’, the founder of the Order of the Bards, Ovates, and Druids, as part of the spiritual revolution and renaissance of the 1960s.

This has caused some confusion – such as when the Welsh-speaker, Rowan Williams, was honoured with induction as a Druid of the Welsh Gorsedd in 2002. Since he was, at the time, the Archbishop of Canterbury, this caused some concern amongst English evangelicals, who were only familiar with the Druidry of OBOD, the BDO, etc and their activities at Stonehenge! I was actually present at that Eisteddfod, and greatly enjoyed the spectacle of some of these Evangelicals haranguing the ‘pagans’, and being roundly abused back by Welsh-speaking chapel-goers who took great offence at the accusation!

Is there any prospect of the Druidry of the Welsh Gorsedd and the of the National Eisteddfod on the one hand, and the paganism of the Druid Revival, as expressed by OBOD, the BDO, and AODA, on the other, becoming closer to each other? I think there is.

Nearly two decades after the controversy of an Archbishop becoming a Druid, I do wonder whether the Christianity of the National Eisteddfod is slipping. My guess – though I have no data – is that most Welsh Christians today, to the extent that they believe, are closer to Iolo’s Unitarianism: a belief in a loving divinity, but with no particular belief in, or attachment to, the orthodox Trinitarianism of the past. Today, the Unitarians themselves – committed to a rational exploration of faith – accept pagan members and viewpoints, and have a pagan group. Many OBOD members, in turn, would also agree that there exists a benevolent divinity, though they may use different names and terminology. Additionally, Kristoffer Hughes, OBOD Druid, and head of the Anglesey Druid Order, has commented on Druidcast that Welsh people’s familiarity with the Gorsedd made it easier for him to be a pagan Druid: people just shrugged, and accepted it in a way that they may not have outside the Welsh community.

Meanwhile, as I noted elsewhere, pagan symbolism from the distant Welsh past is becoming more apparent in the cultural mainstream. Perhaps they are finding fertile ground once more, completing Iolo’s vision.

Commencement of the Chairing ceremony with the Gorsedd Prayer, written by Iolo Morganwg:

Announcing the winning bard of the poetry competition:

The Chairing of the Bard:

* The Ivy Bush is still in business. I’ve stayed there more than once.

For the material in this post I have depended on The Literary and Historical Legacy of Iolo Morganwg 1826-1926 by Marion Löffler, published in 2007 by the University of Wales Press, Cardiff.

I also used Bardic Circles: National, Regional and Personal Identity in the Bardic Vision of Iolo Morganwg, by Cathryn A. Charnell-White, likewise published in 2007 by the University of Wales Press, Cardiff.

Image credits: Eisteddfod Maes 2009 by National Assembly for Wales on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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