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Feature essay

Reclaiming the Bard of Liberty

During his long and turbulent life the remarkable Welsh stonemason Edward Williams (1747–1826) gleefully confused his contemporaries, as well as future scholars, by sporting a series of different pseudonyms, including Iorwerth ab Iorwerth, Iorwerth Gwilym, Iorwerth Morganwg, Y Bardd Bach o Forganwg (the little poet from Glamorgan), Edwardus Glamorganiensis, Christopher Crabstick, and Iolo Morganwg. From about 1790 he settled on the bardic name Iolo Morganwg (Edward of Glamorgan), but the sobriquet he cherished most, especially in radical circles, was the Bard of Liberty, and his proud bardic motto was Y gwir yn erbyn y byd (‘The truth against the world’).

Curiously, however, Iolo the political animal has been marginalized in Welsh historiography, even though he wrote extensively on religious and political matters, immersed himself in the cause of rational dissent, and made himself a nuisance to the defenders of ‘old corruption’ until his death in December 1826. His beloved son, Taliesin Williams, was partly to blame. Charged with the task of curating his late father's voluminous and chaotic papers and also of writing his biography, Taliesin was probably a trifle embarrassed to discover so much politically incendiary material and so confined himself to editing and publishing selections of bardic and druidic writings, a good deal of which was forged. Just as Welsh Jacobinism had been driven underground in the 1790s, so did Taliesin, either deliberately or inadvertently, deprive the heirs of old dissent in nineteenth-century Wales of a critical part of their inheritance. Three developments in 1847, however, ushered in new opportunities to revive the name of the Bard of Liberty. Taliesin died in February and Yr Ymofynydd, a monthly Unitarian periodical, appeared in September. Part of the latter's editorial brief was to pay homage to Iolo as one of the founders of Welsh Unitarianism and, over the years, Yr Ymofynydd portrayed him as a doughty anti-trinitarian who had expressed forthright political opinions in a hostile world. Some time in 1847, too, Elijah Waring, a Hampshire-born Quaker who had settled in Neath and befriended Iolo, resumed the task, begun in 1827, of writing a biography of the Glamorgan bard. In 1850, twenty-four years after Iolo's death, Waring published an eye-catching account of his career. Entitled Recollections and Anecdotes of Edward Williams, the Bard of Glamorgan, it is a work which writers to this day have pillaged with gay abandon. Although Waring modestly stressed that his aim was to provide a ‘gossipping Memoir’ of ‘old Iolo’ rather than a comprehensive and critical appraisal, he none the less depicted the Bard of Liberty as an unconventional figure, bold, humane, and indomitable. Yet Waring was also discomfited by Iolo's forthright radical stance. He patronizingly dismissed Iolo's ‘dalliance’ with the Jacobin cause, brushed aside his legendary fondness for ‘the tangled wilderness of polemics’, and claimed that he had both modified his views and mellowed during his dotage.

  Augusta Hall (1802–1896) by Charles Augustus Mornewick, 1862 Augusta Hall (1802–1896) by Charles Augustus Mornewick, 1862
Waring's biography, for good or ill, marked a significant watershed in Ioloic historiography. In particular, he had painted a vivid picture of the man and of the passions he had aroused during his lifetime. His work clearly inspired others. In 1857 Thomas D. Thomas, a Unitarian from Cardiganshire, was inspired by Waring to publish Bywgraffiad Iolo Morganwg, the first Welsh-language biography of Iolo. Lacing his account with oral evidence which confirmed Iolo's cast of mind, Thomas depicted him as a radical tribune of the people. But by the 1860s no more than a few greybeards would have recalled the Bard of Liberty in his pomp, and the whereabouts of his precious papers therefore became a matter of urgent importance. When Taliesin Williams died in 1847 the British Museum foolishly spurned the opportunity to receive them, and this peerless literary and historical treasure trove was acquired instead by Augusta Hall (later Lady Llanover) in 1853, and it was thus transferred to the Llanover estate in Monmouthshire, where only privileged scholars were allowed to consult it. Among them was Thomas Christopher Evans, universally known by his bardic pseudonym Cadrawd. A blacksmith's son, Cadrawd was something of a cult figure in mid-Glamorgan in late Victorian and Edwardian times. In many respects he resembled Iolo himself: a gruff, unkempt figure, he hoarded manuscripts like a miser and treated the establishment with waspish disdain. In Gwaith Iolo Morganwg (1913) he highlighted the prickly and rebellious nature of the Glamorgan stonemason, and devoted over a third of the content to his pursuit of peace, justice, and liberty.

Sir  John  Morris-Jones (1864–1929) by unknown photographerSir John Morris-Jones (1864–1929) by unknown photographer
In other, more academic directions, however, Iolo's star was under a cloud by the eve of the First World War. There had always been nervous mutterings about the outlandish behaviour of Welsh druids and bards, but it was left to the first generation of professional academics who occupied chairs in the newly founded University of Wales to launch a sustained onslaught on the Gorsedd of Bards, Iolo's principal cultural legacy. John Morris Jones, professor of Welsh at Bangor, personified the high ideals of the fledgeling federal university and enjoyed iconic status as a rooter-out of humbug, myth, and error. In the periodical Cymru in 1896 he launched a vitriolic attack on the gorsedd, a tirade which he resumed with equal vigour on becoming editor of Y Beirniad in 1911. He certainly liked to stir things up and his abrasive comments about Iolo and his disciples during public adjudications at the annual national eisteddfod attracted considerable attention. Morris Jones raged against Iolo the deceiver, depicting him as ‘a hateful man’, a Machiavellian figure whose literary forgeries had poisoned the wells of Welsh scholarship. About this time a young postgraduate researcher, Griffith John Williams, had begun investigating Iolo's papers with forensic care. In Iolo Morganwg a chywyddau'r ychwanegiad (1926), he exposed Iolo as an accomplished forger of medieval poems, notably those of the brilliantly gifted fourteenth-century cywyddwr Dafydd ap Gwilym. That such an exposé should have been published in the centenary year of Iolo's death made the discovery all the more poignant. His standing as the Bard of Liberty, however uncertain that might have been, was totally eclipsed by the scandal. Save for doughty Welsh Unitarians and devotees of the gorsedd, few were minded to mark the occasion of the centenary of his death with any great enthusiasm.

In academic circles, however, studies of Iolo now focused almost exclusively on his literary mission, his forgeries and his manuscripts. In 1916 the Llanover manuscripts had been transferred to the National Library of Wales, a major repository which became a second home for Griffith John Williams, who was later to become professor of Welsh at Cardiff, and who, in the considered judgement of Sir Thomas Parry, was the greatest Welsh scholar of all time. Williams set himself the task of writing an authoritative biography of Iolo in Welsh. The first of three volumes, Iolo Morganwg: y gyfrol gyntaf, appeared in 1956, but Williams's death in 1963 robbed us of the complete trilogy. For some curious reason Williams did not detect radical tendencies in the early career of the tramping stonemason and he found Iolo's involvement in radical movements in the 1790s rather distasteful. He portrayed his political stance as unreliable, wild and fickle, a harsh verdict which was echoed in another Welsh-language biography by Ceri W. Lewis, published in 1995.

  Gwyn Alfred Williams (1925–1995) by unknown photographer, 1992 Gwyn Alfred Williams (1925–1995) by unknown photographer, 1992
From the 1960s, however, the Marxist historian Gwyn A. Williams began to delve into the Welsh Jacobin tradition within an Atlantic context. In all his work Williams viewed the past as a struggle against vested interests and illiberal behaviour. His upbringing in Dowlais during the years of the depression had predisposed him to identify with plucky underdogs and, on his mother's side, he was descended from the early Unitarians of Merthyr. He immersed himself in socialist and communist literature and, as a memorable lecturer at Aberystwyth, York, and Cardiff, he proved to be as influential in Welsh labour studies as E. P. Thompson was in England. Inspired by Gramsci's concept of ‘organic intellectuals’, he viewed Iolo Morganwg as the Bard of Liberty who became one of the ‘people's remembrancers’ and a moving spirit behind a new Welsh élite which operated within the transatlantic world of the American and French revolutions. Williams saw in Iolo features which his predecessors had either ignored or discounted: the interplay between political revolution, the language of class, and national pride. To him, Iolo the flawed genius personified the maxim of Romain Rolland—‘Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will’.

Nevertheless, Gwyn A. Williams never examined Iolo's papers intensively and, to some degree, his portrait of Iolo was impressionistic. Currently, however, a team of researchers based at the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies is busily engaged on a major reappraisal of the multi-faceted role of this endlessly fascinating man. The aim of the team, working under my direction on his papers in the National Library of Wales, is to publish a series of volumes which, in Iolo's words, will rescue his works from ‘obscurity and oblivion’. Even at this stage it is becoming abundantly clear that, from the French Revolution onwards, Iolo Morganwg decisively entered the political arena and, as the Bard of Liberty, founder of the Gorsedd of Bards, and one of the founders of the Unitarian Society of South Wales, he fully committed himself to the cause of religious and political freedom. There is every reason to believe that when this project is completed this crusty old republican will have regained his reputation as a political firebrand. As one of his Unitarian admirers once wrote: ‘Perish Kings and Emperors, but let the Bard of Liberty live.’

Geraint H. Jenkins


C. A. Mornewick, portrait, 1862, priv. coll.; Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover [see illus.] · photograph, 1992, Western Mail and Echo Ltd, Cardiff; Gwyn Alfred Williams [see illus.] · photograph, NL Wales; Sir John Morris-Jones [see illus.]