In 1789 the Gwyneddigion Society had sponsored an eisteddfod in Bala in order to raise the standard and status of eisteddfodau in Wales. From this support the movement for provincial eisteddfodau developed and in 1819 the Bishop of St David's, Thomas Burgess, was very keen to establish such a provincial eisteddfod in Carmarthen. It was held at the Ivy Bush Hotel. Gwallter Mechain (Walter Davies) won the prize for the best ode and Iolo Morganwg tied a blue armband around his arm as a sign that he belonged now to the Order of Bards in Gorsedd.
The next morning, in the hotel grounds, a Gorsedd ceremony was held in a small circle of stones, produced from Iolo's pocket. By associating the Gorsedd with the eisteddfodic movement in this way Iolo succeeded in transforming its future. The National Eisteddfodau and Gorseddau of the late nineteenth century evolved from this simple beginning. As G.J.Williams commented, 'Iolo gave the Welsh nation a national institution'.
Early National Eisteddfodau
Between 1819 and 1858 some Gorseddau were enacted in the provincial eisteddfodau but these did not have a standard form or order. Then, in 1858, Ab Ithel (John Williams 1811-1862) rector of Llanymawddwy, who was 'stark drunk' on Iolo's druidic ideas decided to try to establish a national eisteddfod and gorsedd, at Llangollen under the auspices of the Chair of Powys. Thousands flocked to it and the Gorsedd provided a remarkable spectacle with the eccentric Myfyr Morganwg wearing a druidical egg around his neck and Dr William Price in foxskin headgear!
In spite of these strange sights the Llangollen eisteddfod and gorsedd were a turning-point for the eisteddfodic and gorsedd movements as this was the first step towards a National Eisteddfod with the Gorsedd as an integral part of its activities. Two years later at Aberdare (1861), Ab Ithel's dreams were fulfilled and the first National Eisteddfod and Gorsedd were held.
During the following years Gorsedd ceremonies evolved but everyone was not supportive of them. The druids were like 'a pack of madmen' according to Cynddelw (Robert Ellis) and others feared that the 'ancient' rites did not suit the image of the Victorian Age as 'The Age of Progress'. A correspondent with the Times was in his element in 1867, as he mocked:
'This remarkable piece of pantomime ... the puerile fopperies of making Druids in broadcloth and Ovates in crinoline.'
Doubters and Critics
Although many Welsh people believed Iolo Morganwg's claims regarding the antiquity and authenticity of the Gorsedd, not everyone, even from among his contemporaries, was as gullible:
- John Walters (1721-97), who called it "a made Dish"
- Edward (Celtic) Davies (1756-1831), the author of a book on Druids.
- William Williams, Llandygái (1738-1817 who claimed that 'no vouches can be produced (for it) but the brains of Iolo Morganwg.'
- J.W.Prichard, Plas-y-brain, Llanbedr-goch (1749-1829) who detested Iolo because he was 'always a mischief-maker ... making up some lies to try to deceive the world.'
- Thomas Stephens (1821-75) who criticised the druidic and gorsedd institution in the periodical Yr Ymofynnydd, 1852-3.
Then, towards the end of the nineteenth century, university scholars and academics began to express their doubts:
- John Rhŷs (1840-1915), a Celtic scholar who was appointed the first Celtic professor at Oxford University in 1877, described the Gorsedd as 'antiquarian humbug, positively injurious to the true interests of the Eisteddfod'.
- John Morris-Jones (1864-1929), Professor of Welsh at University College of North Wales, Bangor from 1895 onwards. In a series of five scathing articles in Cymru 1896, he cast doubts upon the alleged authenticity of the Gorsedd and came to the (erroneous) conclusion that the ceremonies had been introduced by Glamorganshire poets during the seventeenth century. He continued, 'it is all but child's play'.
- G.J.Williams (1892-1963) Professor of Welsh at University College, Cardiff from 1947 onwards. Through his meticulous research into Glamorganshire traditions and Iolo's own history he totally undermined the credibility and antiquity of the Gorsedd in an article in Y Llenor, 1922. It was, for him, 'a refuge for quackery', and its members 'merely useless members of an institution based upon falsehood and upheld through arrogance and ignorance.' Yet, he was willing to concede that 'a modern institution can be a blessing to a nation.'
Dignifying the Gorsedd
In view of these attacks upon the Gorsedd's origins, authenticity and merit the supporters of the institution realised, by the 1890s, that efforts should be made to re-organise and dignify Gorsedd ceremonies and to enrich its rites and regalia. This would help to silence its critics and to promote its image.
The Gorsedd found its champion in T.H.Thomas, Arlunydd Pen-y-garn (1839-1915) who was elected Herald Bard in 1895. His artistic training as a professional artist made him the ideal person to reform the Gorsedd. He supported Hubert Herkomer's plans to re-style the Gorsedd's robes and the Archdruid's regalia based upon Celtic patterns. Arlunydd Pen-y-garn designed the Gorsedd Banner, and the Stone Circle and transformed the standard of Gorsedd pageantry.
Many of these changes have survived until today and the Gorsedd of the Bards' debt to Arlunydd Pen-y-garn's creativity and patriotic zeal is immense.
In 1935. Cynan (Albert Evans-Jones 1895-1970) was elected Gorsedd Recorder, an office which he held, between two periods as Archdruid (1950-54; 1963-66), until 1970. Cynan was very interested, as a playwright and actor, in the theatre and he used his talent in this respect to create more colourful, dramatic and disciplined ceremonies for the Gorsedd. He refined the rite of Presenting the Aberthged (the offering of the fruits of the earth); he composed new words for the Chairing Song and he, with the help of teachers from the Machynlleth area, created the Floral Dance in 1936.
Cynan succeeded in getting the Gorsedd and the Council of the Eisteddfod to form one national body - the Court of the Eisteddfod, to manage its affairs, and thus ensured that both parties were considered as equal partners. Furthermore, the new Constitution agreed upon in 1937 and which came of age in Caerphilly in 1950 incorporated the all-Welsh Rule. As Ernest Roberts has shown:
'Cynan, and no-one else, made the Gorsedd one of the main attractions of our National Festival'. This is, after all, 'the only national pageantry we possess.'