1789 and the Gwyneddigion Eisteddfodau

Listen to video narratives in Welsh by Hywel Teifi Edwards:

The year 1789 is a vital one in the Eisteddfod's history - the beginning of the modern period for the Eisteddfod. In simple terms, what happened is this: Thomas Jones of Corwen, an assize-man who took a great interest in the little eisteddfodau then being held in the taverns, asked the Gwyneddigion, a society of Welsh exiles in London, to sponsor the Eisteddfod in Wales. It seems that Wales needed a national institution which could restore some measure of quality and dignity to Welsh-language culture. And the Gwyneddigion agreed.

But of course, they also insisted on the right to lay down the law. If they were going to sponsor the Eisteddfod, they wanted to be assured that definite rules had been laid down - for example, the judge would be chosen by them, so would the main poetic subjects, and the poets would be expected to compete under pseudonyms. In a way they were drawing up a blueprint of the kind of modern competitive Eisteddfod so familiar to us today. Well, Thomas Jones of Corwen, rather disingenuously, said that the Gwyneddigion were sponsoring the Eisteddfod in Corwen in May 1789. In fact they were doing no such thing. But in September of the same year, in Bala, the Gwyneddigion did sponsor an Eisteddfod. At that Eisteddfod, the subject for the chair was A Reflection on the Life of Man.

Corwen, 1789

However, no subject had been set for the eisteddfod in Corwen in May of that year. The poets were to compete spontaneously, according to tradition and custom. That May, the winning poet was Gwallter Mechain, the Reverend Walter Davies, famous in his day.

He had been given quite an advantage, because Thomas Jones of Corwen had told Gwallter Mechain beforehand what the subject of the competition would be. And so he won the prize, this gorget, for spontaneous poetic composition. The other poets were not at all happy.

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.
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.

Bala, 1789

Gwallter Mechain's win at Corwen in May 1789 caused considerable grievance among the other poets, but in September things went from bad to worse. Because in Bala in September, the Gwyneddigion were, for the first time, the official patrons of the Eisteddfod, and they set a subject in advance for the chair competition, an awdl (strict-metre poem) on A Reflection on the Life of Man.

Once again Gwallter Mechain was given an advantage, by none less than Owain Myfyr, president of the Gwyneddigion, who let him know what kind of awdl the Gwyneddigion were looking for, and of course, when his nom de plume was read out at Bala - you wouldn't credit it, but his nom de plume was Anonymous.

So then Gwallter Mechain stood up to be chaired and the other poets walked out in protest, among them the famous Thomas Edwards, Twm o'r Nant. Gwallter Mechain was chaired amidst a storm of protest, the first of many such storms to follow in the Eisteddfod's history since 1789.

Twm o'r Nant's Consolation Prize

Twm o'r Nant, who was a great favourite, had one remarkable supporter, Dafydd Ddu Feddyg, Dafydd Samuel, who had travelled with Captain Cook on the famous voyage where he met his death. Dafydd Samuel was a volatile, fiery kind of man, rather inclined to challenge judges to a duel if he felt that someone like Twm o'r Nant was being unfairly treated.

Well, in order, probably, to raise Twm's spirits after his disappointment at Bala in 1789, Dafydd Samuel gave Twm o'r Nant a silver pen, which you can see here. He also did something else, something which may have done Twm more harm than the wrong done him at the Eisteddfod. He called the poet and dramatist Twm o'r Nant the 'Cambrian Shakespeare', and for years poor Twm was weighed down by the burden of this description. So that's the year 1789 for you. It begins, if you like, tempestuously and amidst great excitement, and in this sense is very characteristic of the history of the Eisteddfod during the decades to follow.

Gwyneddigion medal won at Corwen, 1789 (reverse)
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 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.