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The Chairing Ceremony

The Chairing Ceremony, 2009
The Chairing Ceremony, 2009. No-one was deemed worthy of the main prize that year.

The ceremony in which the winning poet is chaired for composing a collection of poems, an ode or other poem - all in strict meter on a specific subject is one of highlights of the Gorsedd of the Bards' pageantry in every National Eisteddfod. It is held on Friday afternoon.

It is a very old ceremony. The custom of competing for a chair in the King's court was already well-established in Hywel Dda's time in the tenth century and when the Lord Rhys 'held his court excellently' in Cardigan in 1176, the prize for the chief poet and chief musician was a chair each. Then, in c.1541, silver chairs were awarded at the Carmarthen eisteddfod and once more at the Caerwys eisteddfodau in 1523 and 1567. Having re-established the eisteddfodic movement in Bala in 1789 winning the Chair became the ambition of every poet, although there was no Gorsedd ceremony associated with it yet. It was at the first provincial eisteddfod in Dyfed / Dinefwr in Carmarthen in 1819 that Iolo succeeded in linking the rites of the Gorsedd of the Bards with the ceremony of Chairing the winning Bard.

In 1867 it was decided to assign the Chair for an ode in strict meter and to award a Crown for the best pryddest in free meter.

Notable Chairs

The Empty Chair at Wrexham, 1876
The Empty Chair at Wrexham, 1876. The winning bard, Thomas Jones (Taliesin o Eifion), had died a few weeks previously.

The Chairing ceremony at Wrexham 1876 was memorable and harrowing because the winning poet, 'Eurebius', Thomas Jones (Taliesin o Eifion) had died a few weeks previously. On the memorial poster for the sad event it was maintained that his dying words had been, 'Has the ode been sent safely?' On the festival stage the members of the Gorsedd wore mourning, and to the music of the Dead March, the chair was covered with a black cloth.

Among the most significant chairs awarded have been:

  • Chairs in the Celtic Revival style:
    Eugene Vanfleteren - Birkenhead 1917 (winning poet - Hedd Wyn)
    J.Kelt Edwards and Elias Davies - Corwen 1919 (Cledlyn Davies)
    Llew Hughes - Barry 1920 (the prize was withheld)
  • The Wrexham Chair 1933 - a gift from J.R.Jones, Shanghai, a native of Llanuwchllyn (Trefin)
  • The Bro Dinefwr Chair 1996 by the Revd T. Alwyn Williams made from the oak left from Llandeilo Bridge, swept away in the great floods of 1845. The carpenter-minister died within hours of finishing it. (R.O.Williams)
  • The experimental Chair in Pembrokeshire and St David's 2002 made by Robert Jones, with its striking symbols, such as the thorn. (Myrddin ap Dafydd)
  • The Crowning Ceremony

    Eluned Phillips, winner of the Crown, Bala, 1967
    Eluned Phillips, winner of the Crown, Bala, 1967. Gwyndaf was the Archdruid.

    One of the three ceremonies enacted by the Gorsedd of the Bards on the Eisteddfod stage, when the winning poet is crowned for composing a pryddest or a sequence of poems not in full strict meter. It takes place on Monday afternoon. In 1867 Archdruid Hwfa Môn announced from the Logan Stone that 'a new order is to be formed for the Pryddest (long poem in free meter), a crowned order'. By the turn of the century the pattern of awarding a chair and crown respectively had been established.

    Eluned Phillips, crowned bard in 1967 and 1983, describes the experience of having to 'Keep the Secret' that she had won the main prize:

    'I had to turn into an absolute recluse. I lost at least 12 pounds of flesh … I didn't want to lie so I had to hide from the light like a mole.' And on the stage itself 'I couldn't resist shedding a tear … You have to live through the experience to be able to appreciate the extreme ecstasy.'

    Since the 1950s the Nod Cyfrin (Mystic Mark) has to be incorporated into every design for a National Crown.

    The Prose Medal

    The Prose Medal winner, Elfyn Pritchard, Denbigh and District, 2001.
    The Prose Medal winner, Elfyn Pritchard, Denbigh and District, 2001.

    The ceremony to honour the winner of the Prose Medal takes place on the Wednesday afternoon and it is one of the main ceremonies of the Gorsedd of the Bards on the festival stage.

    The Prose Medal was awarded for the first time in Machynlleth in 1937 and it was won by J.O.Williams, Bethesda for a volume of essays, entitled Tua'r Gorllewin ac Ysgrifau Eraill. In 1966 the competition was given a full standard ceremony to celebrate the competition.

    Then, in Aberystwyth in 1992, it became one of the official Gorsedd of the Bards' ceremonies. The Medal is presented for a volume of prose, sometimes on a specific theme or in a specific medium such as a novel, diary or series of short stories. Immediately after the ceremony the prize-winning volume is on sale on the Eisteddfod field.

    Withholding the main prize

    No-one worthy of the Crown: Aberdare, 1956.
    The Grand Sword placed across the Chair to symbolize that no one was worthy of the Crown, Aberdare, 1956. In the picture we see: Erfyl Fychan, Herald Bard; Trefin, Grand Sword Bearer; Dyfnallt, Archdruid; Cynan, Recorder.

    Occasionally, the adjudicators of the main competitions decide that there is no-one worthy of the national prize. In an article in the National Geographic in 1965 the Australian, Alan Villiers described the impact such a decision had upon the audience during the Chairing ceremony at Llandudno in 1963:

    'No event symbolizes more vividly the poetic soul of the Welsh and the unyielding pride and integrity that accompany it than the ceremony of Chairing the Bard. This is the high point of the annual National Eisteddfod. … The large stage of an enormous prefabricated pavilion was banked with robed bardic dignitaries and the television lights stabbed at them like searchlights.' …
    But after Thomas Parry, T.H.Parry-Willams and William Morris's adjudication, 'No poem submitted was deemed worthy, … the ritual Chairing of the Bard would not take place. Merit before ritual - no ritual for its own sake! … The 8,000 still sat there in the huge pavilion, as if they had been stunned. Where else, I thought, would people feel so intensely about poetry?'

    To demonstrate that the prize is withheld the Herald Bard and the Grand Sword Bearer place the Grand Sword across the arms of the empty chair where the winning poet or author would have sat.

    The Floral Dance

    Without doubt this is one of the most popular rites in the Gorsedd Circle and on the Eisteddfod stage. About 24 junior-school-aged girls take part; they wear green dresses adorned with meadow flowers and coronets of flowers in their hair and they carry sprays of flowers. The dance portrays the gathering of meadow flowers and it is linked to the Presentation of the Blodeuged (the gift of flowers) as two of the floral dancers add their bouquets to the Blodeuged itself.

    However it is a comparatively recent rite. It was performed for the first time at the Machynlleth Proclamation ceremony in 1936 and it was devised by Cynan, the Gorsedd Recorder, and junior school teachers from the area. The dancers did not perform on the Eisteddfod stage until the Ystradgynlais Eisteddfod in 1954.

    Article Date: 25 July 2010

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