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Reference group
Hen bersoniaid llengar [old literary clerics] (act. 1818–1858) was the name given to a group of Church of England clergymen who fostered Welsh culture in the first half of the nineteenth century, often in the face of apathy and outright opposition from the bishops of the established church. The group's name, yr hen bersoniaid llengar, was coined retrospectively by the historian Robert Thomas Jenkins in his Hanes Cymru yn y bedwaredd ganrif ar bymtheg (1933). Members of the group drew on a tradition of patriotic endeavour on behalf of the Welsh language that dated from the early sixteenth century, in particular the literary activity of clerics that culminated in William Morgan's translation of the Bible into Welsh (1588). However, by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the reputation of the church was at its lowest ebb in Wales. Anglicanism had become associated in many Welsh minds with landlordism, the tory party, the English language, and the appointment of esgyb Eingl (English bishops) who had no knowledge of and little sympathy with a largely Welsh-speaking populace. It was against a background of widespread abuses among the clergy, including pluralism, absenteeism, and illiteracy, that Methodism had its earliest success in Wales.

The growing appeal of nonconformity made reform of the Anglican church all the more pressing, and the ‘old literary clerics’—despite their somewhat conservative outlook—were very much in favour of it, but it was not their only concern. Hand in hand went their keen desire to promote the Welsh language and its culture for patriotic reasons. This they attempted, in the first instance, by antiquarian methods, especially the collection, study, and publication of manuscripts in which the historiography of Britain and of Wales and the older poetry and prose had survived. The Welsh Manuscript Society was founded in 1837 by prominent members of the Cymreigyddion Society of Abergavenny, among whom were several clergymen. Anglicans also founded the monthly journal Y Gwyliedydd (1822–37) and organized regional eisteddfodau at which prizes were given for poetry and essays in Welsh. Llandovery College, where the language was given a place in the curriculum, was founded by Anglican churchmen in 1847. In all this activity these patriotic Welshmen, who were working against the prevailing orthodoxy and ingrained prejudices of the established church, had the support and co-operation of an enlightened Englishman—Thomas Burgess, bishop of St David's between 1803 and 1825—who was untypical in that he took an informed interest in the ecclesiastical and literary traditions of Wales.

The most important of the clerics were John Jenkins (Ifor Ceri) of Ceri, Montgomeryshire, William Jenkins Rees of Cascob, Radnorshire, Walter Davies (Gwallter Mechain) of Manafon, Montgomeryshire and later of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in Denbighshire, Evan Evans (Ieuan Glan Geirionydd), who held the curacies of parishes in Cheshire, John Williams (Ab Ithel) of Llanymawddwy, Merioneth, and Thomas Price (Carnhuanawc) of Llanfihangel Cwm Du, Brecknockshire. Associated with them were four remarkable women: Angharad Llwyd (1780–1866) of Flintshire, Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover (1802–1896), of Monmouthshire, Lady Charlotte Guest (later Schreiber; 1812–1895) , of Dowlais, near Merthyr Tudful, and (Maria) Jane Williams (Llinos; 1795–1873) of Aberpergwm in the Neath valley of Glamorgan.

It was at Ifor Ceri's home at Ceri that many of these people met for discussion of their designs for Welsh culture and it was there, for example, that the idea of forming Cambrian societies to collect and publish Welsh manuscripts was first mooted. Ifor Ceri was primarily a musicologist and local historian. He collected folk-songs, especially ballads and carols, but was not averse to the psalm and hymn tunes sung during the early days of the Methodist revival. He was received into the Gorsedd of Bards invented by Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg) at an eisteddfod held at Carmarthen in 1819. Many of the tunes he had collected were later published by others, including John Parry (‘the blind harpist’) and Jane Williams.

William Jenkins Rees was also involved in the eisteddfod, the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, and the Welsh Manuscript Society. Unfortunately his Welsh did not match his patriotic zeal, and his editions of Liber Landavensis (1840) and The Lives of the Cambro-British Saints (1853) are less than satisfactory; his voluminous correspondence, almost all in English, is a valuable source of what we know about his associates. Gwallter Mechain excelled as an editor, local historian, and adjudicator at the provincial eisteddfodau. He edited the works of Huw Morys, William Midleton, and Lewys Glyn Cothi, and helped Samuel Lewis in writing his Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1833). His several parish histories are still well regarded.

Ieuan Glan Geirionydd was perhaps the most versatile of the group; certainly he was the most accomplished poet. Some of his poems in the strict metres are among the best written during the early nineteenth century, though it was to the free metres that he lent a certain clarity and dignity, as well as a smooth melodic quality. Some of his hymns are still sung by congregations in Wales. Ab Ithel was noted more for his work as editor and animateur than for his own writing, though as a Tractarian he was quite uncritical of the established church. He is remembered mainly for having organized the eisteddfod held at Llangollen in 1858, an occasion generally regarded as the forerunner of the national eisteddfod. His zeal knew no bounds: he founded and edited the Cambrian Journal in 1853, launched the periodicals Baner y Groes and Taliesin in 1854 and 1859 respectively, and edited Archaeologia Cambrensis, the journal of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, from 1846 to 1853. Among the major texts he edited for the Welsh Manuscript Society were Y Gododdin, Brut y tywysogion, and Annales Cambriae; however, none of these had any permanent value on account of their lack of scholarship.

Carnhuanawc's interest was in the antiquities of the Celtic countries. He did much to foster relations between Wales and Brittany, learned Breton, and sponsored Le Gonidec's translation of the Bible into that language. He was a prominent figure in the activities of literary societies in Brecon and Abergavenny, then a centre of literary ferment, and was among those who helped Lady Charlotte Guest with her translation of The Mabinogion (3 vols., 1838–49). He was also an ardent advocate of education through the medium of the Welsh language and founded a school for that purpose. He was perhaps the most outspoken of all the literary clerics in his criticism of the church for condoning the use of English and for the appointment of clergymen who knew no Welsh. He was also active on behalf of the Welsh Minstrelsy Society and supported a school for blind harpists. After the death of Iolo Morganwg's son, Taliesin, he edited The Iolo Manuscripts. Such is Carnhuanawc's lasting reputation as patriot and scholar that a society of enthusiasts has been founded to keep his memory green.

In many respects the ‘old literary clerics’ were guardians of the Welsh people's cultural traditions in the period between the foundation of the Gwyneddigion, a patriotic society formed in London, and the new scholarship of the universities of Oxford and Wales. In the absence of any institution which might have provided sustenance to things Welsh, it was they in particular who transformed the eisteddfod into a national festival that has held a central place in the culture of Wales to the present day. Their influence on Welsh society was, for the most part, beneficial but waned after the publication in 1847 of the infamous ‘blue books’, which wilfully denigrated the Welsh language and the morals of the Welsh people from an Anglican perspective. In the second half of the nineteenth century the chapels replaced the church in the affections of the common people, and the old clerics' interest in the remote past began to give way to a new perception of Wales that was largely radical and nonconformist. By the end of the century the demand for disestablishment of the Anglican church had become unstoppable in a country where nonconformists were now in a majority and, under David Lloyd George, the Church of England was disestablished in Wales by act of parliament in 1914; the First World War over, a separate province for the Church in Wales within the Anglican communion was created in 1920.

Meic Stephens

Sources  

B. L. Jones, Yr hen bersoniaid llengar (1963) · M. Stephens, ed., The new companion to the literature of Wales (1998) · R. T. Jenkins, Hanes Cymru yn y bedwaredd ganrif ar bymtheg (1933) · M. Ellis, chapter, Maldwyn a'i Chyffiniau (1981)