Iolo Morganwg's Vision and Motives

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Dr Cathryn Charnell-White, from the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, explains Iolo Morganwg's motives.

Dr Cathryn Charnell-White, Research Fellow at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, explains the beginnings of the Gorsedd of the Bards to Catrin Stevens:

Catrin: What kind of vision did Iolo himself have of the .. of the Gorsedd of the Bards?

Cathryn: Well, first and foremost, the Gorsedd was a small part of a broader vision - a vision that Iolo called Bardism; and Bardism was based on his study of the genuine, professional bardic guild in Wales and of received learning on the Druids. It was quite a common belief in the eighteenth century that the Welsh bards were descended from the Druids and so Iolo believed that the Druids, the Welsh bards and poets preserved the cultural and historical memory of the Welsh people. So for him the Gorsedd was a sort of cultural society - that would preserve and transmit Welsh traditions to posterity.

The Gorsedd, during Iolo's lifetime, was very, very simple - minimalist - in that sense he was very modern. Members of the Gorsedd were required to stand in the circle barefoot; but there wasn't a big, impressive stone circle. It was a circle made up of, well, small stones that Iolo kept in his pocket. And rather than wear these sort of long, flowing, impressive gowns, the members of the Gorsedd in Iolo's day, wore very simple armbands - so it was a very modest affair. ... Druidism, during the eighteenth century, was a very popular subject - the eighteenth century was perhaps the century of Druidmania … so to that extent he was tapping something popular, something contemporary. But what he did do was marry this received learning on Druidism with contemporary political aspects too … and so his political radicalism - democracy, pacifism and beliefs about liberty, inevitably, trickled into his ideas of the Gorsedd.

Catrin: What were Iolo's motives?

Cathryn: I think that there were three motives, or three layers perhaps, - national, regional and personal. In terms of nationalism Iolo was perhaps responding to contemporary stereotypes about the Welsh character and habits as well as contemporary prejudices about the Welsh language … He's trying to correct this image of Wales as a culturally impoverished nation and he's trying to prove that Wales had, of long-standing, an extremely rich, sophisticated culture. … On a more local level what we see in the Gorsedd is Iolo trying to bolster the image of Glamorgan - as well as being a proud Welshman he was also a proud Glamorganshire man … so for that reason he argued that his Druids, the Welsh Druids, had only survived in Glamorgan and nowhere else, so he was the only man who could speak with authority on the Welsh Druids and more than that, Glamorgan was the seat, the home, of the Druids in Wales. The last sort of layer is the personal layer and the most important one, I think, because for me, it is impossible to remove Iolo, the man, from the vision because he, himself - because he sets himself up as the centre of gravity. He claimed to be the last surviving, genuine Welsh bard, not just in Wales, in Britain, but in the whole of Europe … and it is very interesting to see in his correspondence that people wrote to him, not as Mr. Edward Williams, but as Bard Williams, and would direct their letters at the Bardic Lodge, at Flimston.

(Copyright: Museum of Welsh Life)

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