The rituals practised by the Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain may be indelibly associated with Wales’ most distinctive Welsh-language festival, the Eisteddfod – but they first happened in London, 230 years ago today.

The first Gorsedd ceremony was the idea of Edward Williams, much better known by his adopted bardic name, Iolo Morgannwg. 

The National Wales: Edward Williams known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg was a poet and antiquarian. He lived in what is now the Vale of GlamorganEdward Williams known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg was a poet and antiquarian. He lived in what is now the Vale of Glamorgan

In the Welsh language, the word ‘Gorsedd’ means ‘throne’, and ‘eisteddfod’ a ‘collective sitting’ – and although the two organisations are separate, the highpoint of each is the ceremonial act of ‘throning’ or ‘chairing’ a bard; in modern times, the winner of a poetry competition. 

Held on June 21 1792 to mark the summer solstice on Primrose Hill, an ancient site that had already long been associated with both folklore and prophecy, the first meeting of the Gorsedd of the Bards was convened by Iolo Morgannwg to emphasise a supposed lineage between the culture of the ancient Celts and the modern heritage of Wales.

Iolo felt that Wales’ language and culture could only be protected through the reinvention of mystic ritual practices, and forming a stone circle from pebbles was a reminder in London that Wales existed.

The National Wales: Memorial plaque to Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), outside Costa Coffee in Cowbridge, Vale of GlamorganMemorial plaque to Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg), outside Costa Coffee in Cowbridge, Vale of Glamorgan

Iolo had only been in the English capital city for a few months, having walked all the way from his home near Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan. Like so many before him, Iolo sought success in London – his aim was to become a professional writer. 

However, despite the energy he brought to the activity of his social and cultural circle, his letters to his wife Peggy – now stored in the National Library of Wales – demonstrate that for most of that momentous year, Iolo Morgannwg was close to physical and mental collapse.

The National Wales: An ode To Laudanum by Iolo Morganwg outside the Physic Garden in Cowbridge. Laudanum is a tincture of opium. Photo: Siriol GriffithsAn ode To Laudanum by Iolo Morganwg outside the Physic Garden in Cowbridge. Laudanum is a tincture of opium. Photo: Siriol Griffiths

The poet and antiquarian was consuming large quantities of opium to treat an asthmatic condition worsened by the smog of London, and he experienced guilt because he was unable to provide for his family. He often spent nights wandering alone in the streets and fields in the north of the city, near to where he had settled at Holborn.

However, these problems did not stop Iolo from instituting some of the rituals that remain a key part of the National Eisteddfod and the Gorsedd tradition today.

Later, Iolo brought the Gorsedd to Wales, with the first ceremony taking place at Bryn Owain in the Vale of Glamorgan in 1795. 

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Having recovered from his London woes, Iolo went on to live a long and productive life – with his famous forgeries discovered only many decades after his death. 

Many of Iolo’s cultural imaginings, including those that laid the groundwork for the Gorsedd, he claimed to have been based on medieval manuscripts – works of literature, history and cosmology – which were later revealed to be complete fakes.

Iolo Morgannwg held the first Gorsedd ceremony at an eisteddfod in the Ivy Bush Hotel, Carmarthen in 1819, laying the foundation for the long association of the rituals with the National Eisteddfod, founded in 1860.

And despite the vast majority of his so-called ‘sources’ being discredited, Iolo’s legacy lives on in many other aspects of Welsh culture. 

The National Wales: The Super Furry AnimalsThe Super Furry Animals

Some of Iolo’s invented texts remain better known than genuine medieval Welsh literature, and he has been commemorated in popular culture in a song by Super Furry Animals’ frontman Gruff Rhys and in the name of a Welsh language school in Cowbridge - Ysgol Iolo Morgannwg.

Earlier this year, the Gorsedd prayer formed a key part of Cardiff artist-run project Gentle/Radical’s entry for the prestigious Turner Prize.

In 2009 the anniversary of the first Gorsedd was marked by the installation of a plaque made from Anglesey stone at the site atop Primrose Hill, containing one of very few Welsh inscriptions on public monuments in London. 

The National Wales: The plaque of Anglesey Stone designed and carved by Morris was unveiled at mid-day on the summer solstice, 2009, to commemorate the first meeting of the Gorsedd of the Bards which Iolo Morganwg organised on the summer solstice of 1792. Photo: London Remembers CC BY-SA 4.0The plaque of Anglesey Stone designed and carved by Morris was unveiled at mid-day on the summer solstice, 2009, to commemorate the first meeting of the Gorsedd of the Bards which Iolo Morganwg organised on the summer solstice of 1792. Photo: London Remembers CC BY-SA 4.0

Around a relief portrait bust of Iolo Morgannwg, its inscription reads ‘Y gwir yn erbyn y byd / The truth against the world’, a line still used during the ceremony to chair the Bard at eisteddfodau today.

On a low wall nearby, where many visitors to Primrose Hill stop to take in the view across the city, there is also a quotation from the English poet, painter and visionary William Blake, a contemporary of Iolo Morgannwg who was also interested in reviving the traditions of an ancient Britain: ‘I have conversed with the spiritual sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill’.

Speaking to the BBC in 2020, the writer and former archdruid T James Jones called it an "irony… that [Iolo Morgannwg] established the Gorsedd on Primrose Hill in London, but he did this in order to publicise the fact to people in London that there is a Welsh language."

"Wales, for him, was the old Britain, the original Britain," Jones continued. "Not the Great Britain he opposed so vehemently."

The National Wales: CB 2.8.10 REPORTER BEN
THE EISTEDDFOD IN EBBW VALE .  THE  CROWNING OF THE BARD CEREMONY . GLENYS MAIR GLYN ROBERTS BEING CROWNED  (6373569)

However, the Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain founded by Iolo Morgannwg had controversially changed its name the previous year, with the new Gorsedd Cymru said to be ‘less misleading’ and ‘more suitable for the modern Wales’. 

Although the name change was approved by the organisation’s board, membership and Court of the National Eisteddfod, the decision provoked criticism from academic Simon Brooks, who called for a public inquiry into what he saw as the severance of a link between ancient Brythonic culture across the whole island of Great Britain and a modern organisation that had seemingly retreated to Wales.

But whatever the arguments about the name of the Gorsedd and the mystery and controversy surrounding its origin, it is clear that the legacy of that midsummer’s evening in 1792 will live on for a very long time to come.

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