Scrolls, swords and mystic marks

Gorsedd symbols and regalia

T.H.Thomas' plan of the Gorsedd of the Bards' Circle of Stones, 1901
T.H.Thomas, Arlunydd Pen-y-garn, the Herald Bard's Order of the Gorsedd of the Bards' Circle of Stones, 1901

Over the two centuries or more since the first ever Gorsedd, its ceremonies have gathered a variety of iconic symbols and regalia, all of which add to the mystique and colour of eisteddfodic occasions.

In the ceremony to proclaim where the next year's Eisteddfod and Gorsedd are to be held, the Gorsedd Recorder reads from the Proclamation Scroll.

A Proclamation Scroll was used in 1791 before the first ever Gorsedd. Several of the features of later Scrolls can be seen in this first Scroll, namely:

  • noting the year and season;
  • where the Gorsedd is to be held;
  • that there will be no 'naked weapon' against the Bards;
  • some of the mottoes which have become essential elements of Gorsedd ceremonies since, e.g. 'Yn Llygad Haul, wyneb Goleuni' (in the Eye of the Sun and in the face of Light); 'Duw a phob Daioni' (God and all Goodness).

The Mystic Mark was added to the Proclamation Scroll by Taliesin ab Iolo in 1833. In 1946 the artist Meirion Roberts designed a new Scroll which was donated to the Gorsedd by Winifred Coombe-Tennant. In his design in black, red and gold, the artist incorporated the Grand Sword, the Corn Gwlad (trumpet) and the coat of arms of the Princes of Gwynedd in the decorated Celtic capital. Around the text he presented the coats of arms of the thirteen shires (before 1974) of Wales, oak leaves, acorns and a red dragon, but the Mystic Mark does not appear on the Scroll at all.

Y Corn Gwlad

The Corn Gwlad
Fanfare of the Corn Gwlad

The fanfare of the two Corn Gwlad is an essential element of Gorsedd ceremonies in the Stone Circle and especially as they call the winning poet or author onto the festival stage.

It isn't certain when the fanfare of the Corn Gwlad was first introduced to the ceremonies but by the1860s the 'call of the trumpeter' was a customary part of the Logan Stone rite.

At the Wrexham Eisteddfod in 1888, Edward Jones, Mayor of Pwllheli, presented a silver Corn Gwladfor the Gorsedd's use. Then, in 1900 Alicia Needham, an Irish composer, noted that she had ordered a new silver trumpet with a red dragon banner on it, because, she claimed:

'it will look much more dignified and appropriate than the Cornet which was used at Cardiff, and which seemed altogether too modern.'

The trumpeter's gown and cap were designed by Isaac Williams of the National Museum of Wales in 1923.

Members of the Welsh Guards were regular trumpeters after the Second World War and in 1947 Haydn Morris (Haydn Bencerdd) composed a fanfare for the different ceremonies. Since then several different trumpeters have served the Gorsedd. A pair of trumpets previously used at Queen Elizabeth's Coronation ceremony (1953) was donated through the former-Herald Bard (Sieffre o Gyfarthfa)'s Memorial Fund and the pendant banners on them were embroidered by Miss Iles, Brynsiencyn.

The Grand Sword

The Grand Sword in use at the Proclamation Ceremony
'A oes heddwch?'- 'Is there peace?'. The Grand Sword in use at the Proclamation Ceremony for the 2010 Eisteddfod at Ebbw Vale.

One of the Gorsedd's oldest rites is the ceremony of partly unsheathing the Grand Sword. The Archdruid asks the following questions and the audience replies 'Heddwch' (Peace) three times:

'Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd, A oes Heddwch? (The Truth against the World, Is there Peace?)
Calon wrth Galon, A oes Heddwch? (Heart to Heart, Is there Peace?)
Gwaedd uwch Adwaedd, A oes Heddwch? (Shout above responding Shout, Is there Peace?)'

Carrying a sword was one of the rites in Iolo Morganwg's first Gorsedd in 1792. As a pacifist Iolo wanted to emphasise that the Bards met in peace and when a naked sword was placed on the Logan Stone they proceeded to sheath it as a symbol of peace in Gorsedd.

The rite of calling out for 'Peace' was originally a separate one and it was first heard in Carmarthen in 1867. Gradually it became linked to the rite of the Grand Sword when admitting new members and yet again the need for 'peace' between contestants in the Chair and Crown competitions.

In 1888, Phillip Yorke of Erddig Hall presented a ceremonial sword to the Gorsedd which was used until the turn of the century. Then, in 1899, Professor Hubert Herkomer designed a Grand Sword for the Gorsedd. He explained its symbolism:

  • the natural crystal in the hilt represents mysticism;
  • the three sacred lines represent the first attempt to write 'Jehovah';
  • the dragon guards them both.
  • On the scabbard the following mottoes were inscribed:
    'Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd' (The Truth against the World) (motto of the Gorsedd of the Isle of Britain)
    'Duw a phob Daioni' (God and all Goodness) (the Chair of Glamorgan and Gwent)
    'Calon wrth Galon' (Heart to Heart) (the Chair of Dyfed)
    'A Laddo a Leddir' ( He who Kills shall be Killed) (the Chair of Powys)
    'Iesu na ad gamwaith' (Jesus, let there be no injustice) (the Chair of Gwynedd).

This is the Grand Sword still in use today.

The Mystic Mark

Archdruid Brinli (1972-75); Brinley Richards.
Archdruid Brinli (1972-75); Brinley Richards.

The Mystic Mark or the Mark of the Ray of Light, a symbol /|\ devised by Iolo Morganwg to represent the virtues Love, Justice and Truth.

However Iolo himself did not make much use of the symbol and it was after his death that it became increasingly popular. It was first seen on the Proclamation Scroll in Cardiff, 1833. By 1850 it could be seen on the banners in gorseddau and from around 1860 on new members' certificates.

By the end of the century it was considered the approved symbol of the Gorsedd of the Bards and appeared on its programmes, on the new banner and sometimes even on the Gorsedd Stones.

By the 1950s it was decided that the symbol had to be included on every national Chair and Crown.

The Gorsedd Banner

The Gorsedd Banner
The Gorsedd Banner at the Proclamation Ceremony of the 2011 Eisteddfod at Wrexham.

Some sort of banner seems to have been seen at many Gorsedd ceremonies during the nineteenth century. A simple banner with 'Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain' on it can be seen in a photograph of the Gorsedd at Brecon in 1889.

The first official banner, however, was the one designed by T.H.Thomas, Arlunydd Pen-y-garn, the Herald Bard, for the Llandudno Gorsedd in 1896. He explains:

'In the upper part is seen the sun symbolising celestial light, bearing upon it the golden dragon, at once a symbol of energy and the badge of Cambrian nationality; from the sun emerge golden rays, three of which are prolonged downwards forming the 'Nod Cyfrin' of the 'Awen'. ... The lower part of the design represents, in symbol, the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Isle of Britain ... Around the 'Maen Llog' are the twelve 'meini gwynion'; ... Upon the 'Maen Llog' may rest a sheathed sword...
Around the Gorsedd Circle are deposited the plants representing the 'Alban' - trefoil, vervain, corn and mistletoe. The whole design is surrounded by a wide decorative border of oak leaves with acorns from which at parts mistletoe arises.'

These images are on a background of azure-blue silk and the mottoes 'Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd' (the Truth against the World); 'Yn Wyneb Haul Llygad Goleuni' (In the Face of the Sun and in the Eye of Light) and 'Heddwch' (Peace) are embroidered on it in gold. It was embroidered by Miss Lena Evans (Brodes Dâr) and donated by Sir Arthur Stepney, Llanelli.

The Banner has been refurbished several times but remains faithful to this design.

The Hirlas Horn

The Corn Hirlas
The Corn Hirlas, made by W. Goscombe John for Lord Tredegar, who wished to present it to the Archdruid Hwfa Môn in Cardiff in 1899.

The Hirlas Horn is a symbol of the wine offered by Mam y Fro (the Mother of the area) hosting the National Eisteddfod to welcome the Gorsedd. Candidates are nominated for the role and chosen by a panel of gorseddogion.

It isn't certain when the rite was first enacted, but it is mentioned at Conway (the Chair of Gwynedd) in 1861.

Then, towards the end of the nineteenth century, Lord Tredegar (Ifor Hael yr Ail) announced that he intended to donate a Hirlas Horn, made by the designer and sculptor from Cardiff, W. Goscombe John. According to the artist, he was paid £359 for labour and materials. The Hirlas Horn was presented to Archdruid Hwfa Môn by Lord Tredegar in Cardiff in 1899.

It is described as an ox's horn (from South Africa) set in silver and resting on a huge silver dragon, which holds a large crystal ball in one claw. The coat of arms of the Tredegar family is emblazoned on it.

The Hirlas Horn was carried on a bier in Gorsedd processions during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1923 Arlunydd Pen-y-garn designed a beautiful red cloak for the presenter and a head-dress of gold lace was donated by Oswyn Afan.

In the early period the women chosen for the role of Presenter were gentlewomen e.g. Alicia Needham of Ireland, the Marchioness of Anglesey or the Mayoress of the town hosting the Eisteddfod.

When reforming the ceremonies in the thirties and enacting these changes in the fifties, Cynan called for a local 'Mam y Fro' to be chosen as the presenter.

The Evolution of the Gorsedd Robes

Liverpool 1884: the influence of Friendly Societies' regalia on the Gorsedd
Liverpool 1884 - the gorseddogion in aprons and sashes similar to the Friendly Societies' regalia. In the centre are: Hwfa Môn a Clwydfardd.

Members of today's Gorsedd dress very differently from those seen in Iolo Morganwg's first Gorsedd in 1792 where bards were expected to appear barefoot and bareheaded in the Gorsedd Circle. Iolo denoted that they had been admitted as Bards by tying white, green or blue armbands around their arms. This was the custom until the middle of the nineteenth century.

Then, in 1858, in Llangollen, the Gorsedd Bards wore robes of three colours with leeks and ears of corn on them and they carried staffs as they walked in procession. Without doubt the two most strangely-dressed bards were the eccentric Myfyr Morganwg carrying the mystic egg of the Druids hanging around his neck and Dr William Price, Llantrisant in his foxskin head-dress.

In the Mold Gorsedd, 1873, the gorseddogion appeared in the regalia of their respective Friendly Societies, popular at this time. In Liverpool in 1884 they wore light blue silk aprons and sashes emblazoned with the Mystic Mark.

In the photographs of the Caernarfon (1894) and Llandudno (1896) Gorseddau we can see that the costumes are evolving slowly, with the bards appearing in Gorsedd robes and black birettas adorned with the Mystic Mark. The Archdruid wears a mitre (similar to a bishop's mitre) with the Mystic Mark on it.

The Gorsedd gets a Makeover

A sketch of the new Gorsedd robes and headgear by T.H.Thomas
A sketch of the new Gorsedd robes and headgear in T.H.Thomas, Arlunydd Pen-y-garn's manuscripts, c. 1895

During the 1890s two influential artists set about restyling the Gorsedd robes. Herald Bard, Arlunydd Pen-y-garn, (1895 onwards), argued that there was no precedent for the bishop's mitre or the birettas and he supported Hubert Herkomer's attempts at re-designing the robes, based upon a 'Celtic' pattern.

Herkomer (1849-1914), a native of Bavaria, became Slade Professor of Fine Art in Oxford and after 1890 a Fellow of the Royal Academy. His main contact with Wales was through his second wife, Lulu Griffiths, Stanley House, Rhuthin, and after her early death he married her sister, Edith. Herkomer was a creative genius - a blacksmith, painter, engraver, architect, editor, playwright and actor.

He described his new design for the Gorsedd robes thus:

'The foundation of the robe is of ordinary smock shape with sleeves and buttoning behind the neck. Upon the smock are placed hanging draperies three upon each side falling from the shoulders. One hangs in a loop around the sleeves, the two others are free, one long one to hang behind and a shorter one in front... This gathering of folds should be finished by the wearing of a Celtic brooch on either or both sides. An important portion of the costume is the hood which contains a small cap from which it falls covering the neck.'

And when he had completed the work he said, 'To me it has been a special pleasure to contribute towards the safety of the Gorsedd's future picturesqueness.' The Marquis of Bute, Lord Mostyn and Sir Watkin Williams Wynn sponsored these new robes. By 1917, however, standards had deteriorated drastically; as Winifred Coombe-Tennant, Mam o Nedd, commented:

'The procession of the Bards was remarkable then! Some robes were torn, and dirty, or reaching down to just under the knee; others were being held off the floor with the help of safety-pins.'

Eventually the Beili Glas (D. Rhys Phillips) established a Committee for Gorsedd Robes with Ladies Mostyn, Hughes-Hunter and Howard-Stepney, Angela Stepney-Gulston, Awen Mona, Mam o Nedd and others as members. Since then the robes have been refurbished regularly.

Archdruid's Robe and Regalia

Archdruid Brinli (1972-75); Brinley Richards.
Archdruid Brinli (1972-75); Brinley Richards.

When an new Archdruid is installed he is invested with the sceptre, crown, breastplate and ring of his office.

Clwydfardd, the first Archdruid wore a hat like a bishop's mitre with the Mystic Mark on it in Caernarfon in 1894, but the new Herald Bard, Arlunydd Pen-y-garn and the designer Professor Hubert Herkomer disapproved of this head-dress. Herkomer wrote:

'I am at work upon the entire costume for the Arch Druid; making the whole of the ornaments, Breastplate ... and Tiara with oakleaves - all, with the exception of the oakleaves of pure, solid gold. W. Mansel Lewis and I present it to the Gorsedd, bearing all expense together.'

For his designs Herkomer researched early engravings of mythological 'Archdruids', among them the picture of the 'archdruid' in Henry Rowlands's Mona Antiqua Restaurata, 1723. Herkomer's new robe, crown and breastplate were ready for the Newport Proclamation Ceremony in 1896 and he took pride in his contribution:

'Fortunately the love of the picturesque has not been eradicated from man's nature. ... for an arch druid to be wrongly dressed, that is too dreadful to contemplate. I am happy to think that such a calamity has been, for all times, averted. The Gorsedd with its chief must above all be distinctive in its outer appearance as well as in its inner spiritual being.'

Dyfed was the first Archdruid to wear a stola, with the eye of the sun and its rays, a rampant red dragon and a dove emblazoned on it, in 1911.

The Archdruid's sceptre, designed by Arlunydd Pen-y-garn and made by Messrs Spencer and Co., London was presented by Revd C.E.Wright, vicar of Bexley in Kent, in the Colwyn Bay Gorsedd in 1910.

Then in Wrexham, 1912, Mrs Laurence Brodrick (Gwendolen), of Abergele, donated a pendant to the Archdruid.

The ring with seal, designed by Douglas Williams, Fine Art lecturer at the Normal College, Bangor was presented by Principal H.Humphreys-Jones, Liverpool.

The Split Swords

Wales' half of the Split Sword - the gorseddau of Wales and Brittany.
Wales' half of the Split Sword - the gorseddau of Wales and Brittany.

This was a ceremony between representatives from Brittany and Wales. It can be traced back to the1838 Eisteddfod y Fenni (Abergavenny). During a dinner the leader of the Breton contingent, Vicomte Theódore Hersart de la Villemarqué (Kervarker), described the battle of St Kast, when the Bretons allegedly refused to fight with the French and the Welsh refused to fight with the English; instead of which they embraced in peace. During the dinner too, a poem by Lamartine, which mentions the Welsh and Breton custom of uniting two halves of a sword as a symbol of peace and brotherhood, was read out. This gave rise to the creation of the rite of the marriage of the two halves of the split sword.

Gradually, on the suggestion of the Herald Bard, Arlunydd Pen-y-garn, the rite was introduced into National Eisteddfodau and after the establishment of the Breton Gorsedd in 1900 it came to symbolise the unity of the two Gorseddau. The ceremony was seen inside the Gorsedd Circle for the first time at Caernarfon, in 1911. It was a popular rite when Welsh gorseddogion travelled from Wales to Brittany too. It has been enacted occasionally throughout the twentieth century, although the relationship between the two Gorseddau has not always been cordial. The ceremony was last seen at Machynlleth in 1981.

The Blodeuged (gift of flowers)

<i>Y Ddawns Flodau</i> - The Floral Dance
Y Ddawns Flodau - The Floral Dance

The Blodeuged is a sheaf of meadow flowers, ears of corn and grasses, symbolic of the land of Wales. It is presented by a young maiden from the area hosting the Eisteddfod to the Archdruid in the Gorsedd ceremonies. It is a symbol of the desire of the youth of Wales to offer the flower of their talents to the National Eisteddfod. Nominations are received for the role and the Presenter is chosen by a panel of Gorseddogion.

It isn't certain when this rite was first introduced but by the turn of the twentieth century the term used was 'Presenting the Aberthged' (gift of sacrifice). During this early period well-known women and the wives of influential men were chosen as Presenters; e.g. Mrs Tom Ellis (Proclamation at Caernarfon 1905) and Olwen Lloyd George (Carmarthen, 1911). In 1923 the red Celtic cloak designed by Arlunydd Pen-y-garn was first worn. A golden head-dress was donated by Oswyn Afan.

Cynan set about improving the ceremony in the thirties/fifties by introducing the Floral Dance and linking it to the Aberthged presentation.

By the 1970s the term 'Aberthged' was no longer acceptable and 'Blodeuged' (the gift of flowers) was adopted in its stead.

Article Date: 25 July 2010

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