The Provincial Eisteddfodau 1819-1834

Listen to video narratives in Welsh by Hywel Teifi Edwards:

The eisteddfodau sponsored by the Gwyneddigion began in Bala in September 1789. The influence of the Gwyneddigion would most likely have been an important one - it's probable that they would have established an important eisteddfod movement. But of course the Napoleonic wars disrupted the old patterns, and very soon the eisteddfodau of the Gwyneddigion had come to an end.

When the war ended, people took up their eisteddfodic interests once again. Prominent among them was a circle of clergymen who used to meet around Christmas time and the New Year, up in Kerry near Newtown, in the rectory there. Their leader was the incumbent, Ifor Ceri, the Reverend John Jenkins. He took a great interest in the old traditional culture, both poetic and musical, and was at the centre of a group of enthusiastic clergymen. It was in fact at Kerry in 1818 that people began to think seriously about reviving the eisteddfod movement and creating real, proper eisteddfodau.

The first of these eisteddfodau - the first provincial eisteddfod - was held the following year (1819) in Carmarthen, under the auspices of a society which had been set up in Dyfed. This was the first of ten provincial eisteddfodau: the movement continued until the year 1843, when it all came to an end in Cardiff. It was the provincial eisteddfodau, without a doubt, which transformed the whole story of the eisteddfod. Eisteddfodau were held the likes of which had never before been seen on Welsh soil.

Carmarthen 1819 and the Gorsedd of Bards

The first of these provincial eisteddfodau was held in Carmarthen, as I said, in the year 1819. And who should come to that eisteddfod every step from Merthyr, where he was staying at the time with his son, but that remarkable old gentleman, Iolo Morgannwg, creator of the Gorsedd of Bards. The Gorsedd had of course been established, and launched, in London some years previously, but it had no link at the time with the Eisteddfod. At the age of seventy, Iolo Morgannwg saw his chance in Carmarthen in 1819. He travelled all that way and there, with a pocketful of chippings as it were, he traced the Gorsedd circle on the lawn of that renowned old inn, the Ivy Bush. And there and then he began to invest bards and druids, among them the famous Bishop Thomas Burgess of St David's, a great patron of the provincial eisteddfodau. And we have here at St Fagans the sword used by Iolo Morgannwg during the druidic Gorsedd ceremonies of that year.

Meanwhile Gwallter Mechain was still competing, still winning. The medal you see here records his achievement in writing the prize-winning elegy to the great hero of Carmarthen and Waterloo, the famous Sir Thomas Picton. Picton was the focus of praise at the Carmarthen Eisteddfod of 1819 and Gwallter Mechain was the winner once again.

National Museums and Galleries of Wales
National Museums and Galleries of Wales

The Concert Culture

Another prominent element at the Carmarthen Eisteddfod of 1819 was the challenge posed by the English-influenced concert culture to traditional Welsh-language culture. The Reverend John Bowen brought a choir, part of the Bath Harmonic Society, down to Carmarthen and held two charity concerts, one in aid of the widows and children of deceased ministers, and the other, believe it or not, in aid of what was called in English 'decayed harpists', that is most probably, old harpists who had grown too frail to support themselves. Of course, the middle classes of Carmarthen and the surrounding areas flocked to these concerts, as they were so fashionable.

And really, from that moment on you see the beginning of the battle in the Eisteddfod between the two cultures. It's odd to think - there's Iolo Morgannwg on the lawn of the Ivy Bush, holding the Gorsedd of Bards, an institution whose sole raison d'être was to celebrate those features of Welsh culture that made it unique. You have that happening on the one hand, and on the other there's this fashionable concert being introduced. From 1819 onwards it would be a battle, a battle that was to cost the poets and Welsh-language culture within the Eisteddfod dear.

Denbigh 1824: a prize for harp-playing

Two very significant eisteddfodau were held at Denbigh in 1824 and 1828, under the auspices of Cymdeithas Cymmrodorion Powys. In 1824, as this picture shows, the prize for playing the harp was this miniature silver model of a harp. It's very interesting, because it's obvious that this particular prize was modelled on the famous model of a harp kept today at Plas Mostyn, and which was won by the harpist at the second Caerwys eisteddfod, back in 1567. It is worth remembering that, as far as we know, the prizes at those early eisteddfodau were made to be worn. And the silver harp given in 1824 in Denbigh obviously has a link with that earlier prize, which makes it very interesting to say the least.

National Museums and Galleries of Wales

Denbigh, 1828: the first royal eisteddfod

The 1824 eisteddfod in Denbigh was an exciting one, and the bigwigs flocked to it. But more exciting by far was the eisteddfod that followed in 1828, again in Denbigh. This was called, for the first time I believe, a National Eisteddfod.

Why, you may ask? In simple terms because the Duke of Sussex, brother of the King, George the Fourth, happened to be in the area and called by. (Incidentally, he was very interested in clocks.) Well he visited the eisteddfod in Denbigh in 1828, and the excitement was great, as you may imagine.

Another eminent figure at this eisteddfod was one of the prominent poets of the period, who was beginning to make a name for himself - another clergyman, Evan Evans, the Reverend Evan Evans, the famous Ieuan Glan Geirionnydd. He won the chair at that Eisteddfod, of course, receiving a very splendid medal for a poem on Belshazzar's Feast. This is an early example, if you like, in these eisteddfodau of the way the Bible would dominate the subjects set for the poets, year after year.

National Museums and Galleries of Wales
National Museums and Galleries of Wales

Beaumaris, 1832: the shipwreck of the Rothesay Castle

We turn now to an example from an eisteddfod held under the auspices of Cymdeithas Gymroaidd Gwynedd, and come to Beaumaris in the year 1832. If the Denbigh Eisteddfod of 1828 had been a royal eisteddfod, then believe it or not, who should visit the 1832 eisteddfod with her mother, the Duchess of Kent? None other than Princess Victoria, who was staying at Baron Hill at the time. She and her mother were meant to visit the eisteddfod but the weather turned against them. So the winning poet, in fact all the winners, were taken over to Baron Hill to meet Princess Victoria, and to be presented with their medals by her.

Among the winners there was one figure who was to play quite an influential role in the history of the Eisteddfod, down to the first national Eisteddfod in the 1860s - the Reverend William Williams, Caledfryn. In 1832 in Beaumaris he won the chair for a poem which was very famous in its day - an awdl on the Rothesay Castle, a ship wrecked off Anglesey. The poem caused quite a stir in bardic circles and made Caledfryn's name. In a way, that poem gave him licence to lord it over his fellow poets.

History of the Welsh Eisteddfodau
History of the Welsh Eisteddfodau