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Death of Bishop Morgan, translator of the Bible into Welsh

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 15:41 UK time, Thursday, 9 September 2010

On 10 September 1604, Bishop William Morgan died in relative poverty at his home parish of St Asaph. He is, these days, largely unremembered by most people in Wales but he holds a significance in Welsh history that is second to none. This was the man who translated the Bible into Welsh and by so doing helped a dying language to survive and grow.

Photograph of Morgan's Welsh Bible

Morgan's Welsh Bible first appeared in 1588 (image: istockphoto)

When Henry Henry VIII broke with Rome to create what became the Anglican Church, it brought about widespread objection, even revolt, in many parts of the kingdom.

When, years later, Henry's son Edward VI introduced the Book of Common Prayer into the churches of Wales it left many Welsh men and women bewildered. They could no more understand the service in English than they could the old one in Latin. But the old Catholic services had at least been familiar. They knew what they were going to get.

The security of Wales was always a concern for the Tudors. After all Henry VII had himself come ashore at Milford Haven in 1485 and then marched through Wales to his victory at Bosworth Field. Both Edward and Elizabeth knew how critical it was to keep this turbulent region calm and at peace.

As a consequence an Act of Parliament in 1563 commanded the Welsh Bishops to allow and encourage the translation of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh because, in the words of the Act:

""the English tongue is not understood by the greatest number of Her Majesty's obedient subjects inhabiting Wales."

William Salesbury, a lawyer from Denbigh, produced the first translation in 1567 - but only of the New Testament. And the words of his translation were very formal and stiff, hardly calculated to ensure the acceptance of the Welsh people.

Enter William Morgan. He had been born in 1545, the son of a farmer in the Conwy Valley. Educated at Cambridge, he became vicar of Llanrhaedr-ym-Mochnant in 1578 and, realising the inadequacies of Salesbury's translated Bible, spent the next 10 years making his own translation into Welsh.

He was encouraged by Archbishop Whitgift and by several Welsh language poets, thus ensuring that his Bible was lyrical and passionate at the same time.

When the new Welsh Bible appeared in 1588 it was clear that this was a classic Welsh text, a work of great beauty that appealed to the gentry and the ordinary man or woman in the fields. In the eyes of many Welsh scholars, Morgan's Bible literally saved a language that, at the end of the 16th century, was beginning to fragment into a number of different dialects and styles.

By going back to early sources, including texts such as the Mabinogiand other early bardic poems, William Morgan managed to avoid the corruption of the Welsh tongue and produce a work of magnificent power and style.

When, 50 years later, Griffith Jones began his Circulating schools, this was the text he and his teachers used. Over 250,000 people were taught to read and write using Morgan's Bible.

The spoken language also benefited from Morgan's translation with the result that the language did not die away, as had been feared, but grew in strength and power as the years rolled by.

Llandaff Cathedral

Llandaff Cathedral

In 1595 William Morgan became Bishop of Llandaff and began to revise his great work. He also produced his translation of the Book of Common Prayer at about this time. In 1601 he was made Bishop of St Asaph, a position he held for the next three years.

William Morgan died in 1604, not quite a pauper but with few material possessions, and was buried somewhere in the grounds of St Asaph Cathedral. His grave remains unknown but a memorial in the Cathedral grounds marks the achievement of the man who, more than any other single individual, did so much to defend, protect and develop the Welsh language.

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