Words can be dangerous: the Gwyneddigion eisteddfodau

Gwyneddigion medal won by Gwallter Mechain at Corwen, 1789 (obverse)

This medal was made in Chester, having been commissioned by the Gwyneddigion Society as a prize at the Corwen Eisteddfod in 1789. It was awarded for extemporare verse, and won by Gwallter Mechain. Dr David Samwell was so incensed that his favourite, Twm o'r Nant, had not won that he threatened one of Gwallter Mechain's supporters to a duel. However, no blood was spilled and Samwell gave Twm a silver pen as a consolation prize.

A portrait of Edward Williams, Iolo Morganwg by George Cruickshank.
A portrait of Edward Williams, Ned of Glamorgan or Iolo Morganwg by George Cruickshank.
Silver gorget awarded at the Corwen eisteddfod, 1789

Silver gorget awarded to Gwallter Mechain at an eisteddfod in Corwen in 1789, which marked the renaissance of the eisteddfodic movement in Wales.

A silver pen given to Twm o'r Nant by Dr David Samwell
A silver pen given to Twm o'r Nant by Dr David Samwell, surgeon to Captain Cook, as a consolation prize for having been supposedly unfairly beaten by Gwallter Mechain at an eisteddfod in Corwen, 1789.

Who were the Gwyneddigion?

The Gwyneddigion Society (Cymdeithas y Gwyneddigion) began in London in 1770, established in response to what some members felt was the Cymmrodorion's lazily highbrow approach. The Gwyneddigion, on the other hand, were a lively lot who revelled in the cut and thrust of cultural debate through the medium of Welsh. Welsh literature, in particular, interested its members deeply and the society sponsored and promoted some of the most important publications in the history of the language, books such as a seminal edition of Dafydd ap Gwilym’s poetry (1789) and The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales (1801-7).

Many of the men associated with the Gwyneddigion were bold and brilliant characters. Among the boldest and most brilliant of them all were David Samwell and Twm o’r Nant.

Colourful characters

Today any Welsh-language poet would be extremely pleased to see a volume of his or her poetry sell five hundred copies. Twm o’r Nant (Thomas Edwards, 1738-1810) boasted that his work, Gardd o gerddi (‘A Garden of verses’, 1790) had sold as many as 2000 copies. Twm was a character with a past. Son of a smallholder, he had had very little education – only a few weeks in Nantglyn Free School and a fortnight learning English at Denbigh. But he thought fast and wrote faster. Pursued by his creditors, he moved from town to town, trying to supplement a meagre income by writing interludes. These popular dramas offered a vividly satirical commentary on the social ills of his day, men whom Twm had had plenty of opportunity to study at first hand such as the greedy landlord, the hypocritical clergyman and the scruple-free lawyer.

The career of David Samwell (Dafydd Ddu Feddyg, 1751-1798) was even more vivid and nomadic than that of his friend. A surgeon on Captain Cook’s last voyage, his journal is an outstanding record of the journey, including an account of Cook’s murder in Hawaii which is almost forensic in its approach. He had a lively interest in the Maori language too, transcribing six Maori chants in Queen Charlotte Sound among other examples, and his is the first written account of the language.

Between voyages he was a central figure in the social and cultural life of the London Welsh. (It was Samwell who supplied the famous antiquarian Iolo Morganwg with laudanum, for example). Known for being extremely gregarious, fond of a drink and incendiary of spirit, he was tempestuously ready to pick a fight with any adjudicator unwise enough to disrespect his literary favourites. It was hardly a surprise, then, that he lost his temper completely when Twm o’r Nant was ‘robbed’ of the chair at the Gwyneddigion’s first Eisteddfod in 1789.

1789: the rebirth of the Eisteddfod

It could be said that the roots of the Eisteddfod tradition date from a meeting held at Cardigan Castle in 1176, under the patronage of Lord Rhys of Deheubarth. The competition was proclaimed ‘through Wales and England and Scotland and Ireland and all the other Islands’, with the chief poet’s chair going to north Wales and the chief harpist’s chair going to the south.

It could equally be argued that it was the year 1789 which saw the beginnings of the modern Eisteddfod, when Thomas Jones, an exciseman from Corwen, asked the Gwyneddigion to sponsor the eisteddfod in Wales. The Gwyneddigion did not sponsor the Corwen Eisteddfod, but this was still the first step towards restoring some kind of standard and dignity – and maybe even a sense of national identity – to the culture of the Eisteddfod. Although the Owain Glyndŵr Hotel where the Corwen Eisteddfod was held in May 1789 had little in common with the present-day pink pavilion, it would be fair to say that this event was a kind of blueprint for the Eisteddfod in its modern-day form.

There was no specific subject for the chair competition at the Corwen eisteddfod. The poets competed in the time-honoured way, extemporising on subjects given on the day. Jonathan Hughes and Twm o’r Nant competed, along with Gwallter Mechain. As Thomas Jones had told Mechain beforehand what the subjects would be, he had a significant advantage. So it was he who scooped the prize of a beautiful silver gorget. The other poets, unsurprisingly, were not best pleased with the situation.

Twm was robbed!

The first time the Gwyneddigion officially sponsored an Eisteddfod was in Bala in September 1789. In doing so, they insisted that they had the right to choose the adjudicators and the subjects for the major competitions. The subject for the chair was Ystyriaeth ar Oes Dyn (‘Reflections on the Life of Man’). Once again Gwallter Mechain had the advantage: Owain Myfyr, a prominent member of the Gwyneddigion, had told him what kind of poem they were hoping to see. When Gwallter Mechain’s ironical nom-de-plume, ‘Anonymous’, was announced at Bala the other poets walked out in protest, with Twm o’r Nant, who had again competed, among them.

Matters almost got out of hand when David Samwell threatened to fight a duel with one of the adjudicators for failing to give the winner’s medal to his favourite, Twm. In the end he was persuaded to back down, and satisfied himself with giving Twm a magnificent silver pen as a consolation prize. It was Samwell, too, who coined the phrase ‘the Cambrian Shakespeare’ to describe him – a generous epithet, but utterly inappropriate to Twm’s particular genius.

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