The first eisteddfod - Christmas 1176

Wednesday 22 December 2010, 13:07

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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These days we are used to our main or major eisteddfodau being held in the summer months - the Urdd in the week of the Whitsun holiday, the International at Llangollen in the first week of July and the National Eisteddfod in the first week of August.

It hasn't always been like that and, even now, in many parts of Wales the "winter eisteddfod" is still an important part of the cultural year.

The very first eisteddfod took place over the Christmas period of 1176.

The three main events remain very much a part of the summer programme of festivities. It is interesting to note, therefore, that the very first eisteddfod actually took place not in the summer, but over the Christmas period of 1176.

The term "eisteddfod" was not used for this first event and did not achieve common parlance until the 15th century. When this first cultural gathering was called it was known simply as a bardic tournament.

Following the victory of Duke William - William the Conqueror as he became known - at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 there took place a piecemeal division of England.

The great lords and warriors who had been persuaded to help William in his campaign greedily accepted their payment or prizes - prizes that invariably meant huge parcels of land previously owned by the Saxon Earls.

Wales, however, was left untroubled for some time. It was a wild and ferocious country where for many years, both before and after the Normans began their incursions, the king's writ truly "did not run."

Only in the late 11th century, when the great Marcher Lords of Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford finally felt strong and powerful enough, were the first attacks made across Offa's Dyke.

The next 200 or so years saw a period of intense warfare and bloodshed as the Norman barons and the Welsh princes clashed in battle after battle, campaign after campaign.

It was a see-saw period with first one side then the other gaining the upper hand.

However, by 1155 Rhys ap Gruffydd had, through military strength and cunning, managed to bring all of Deheubarth - the western parts of Wales - under his control.

It had been a long and powerful struggle and Rhys had been forced to submit to the power of Henry II, the English king, on no fewer than four occasions.

Such was the Welsh determination, however, that no sooner had Henry withdrawn his troops, thinking that the war had finished, Rhys rebelled and rose up in defiance once again. Henry was finally forced to come to terms with Rhys, formally granting him the title Lord of Ystrad Tywi. He has been known as the Lord Rhys ever since.

There were to be further campaigns and battles in the years ahead but, for now, the Lord Rhys felt sufficiently secure to turn his mind to matters other than warfare.

What Rhys wanted was to organise and run a cultural event that would underline his position as the most important Welsh chieftain in the country.

He had seen and enjoyed many aspects of Norman culture or life style but knew also that he could not afford to alienate his native Welsh followers.

He was fond of music and poetry and, like most of the Welsh princes, patronised bards who, in return, wrote long odes or verses extolling the significance of the Lord Rhys.

What he now decided to do was to hold a bardic tournament over the Christmas period of 1176/77, a festival of music and poetry - for prizes - that would celebrate the arts and ensure the supreme position of the Lord Rhys as a far-sighted ruler and as a major supporter of artistic endeavour.

Such a gathering of poets, singers and musicians probably owed more to Norman than Welsh influences as, up to that point, there had not been any similar event in Wales. In France, however, they were a common occurrence.

It was a significant moment in Welsh history as all of the eisteddfodau since held in the country owe more than a little to this first event.

Perhaps even more important, however, was the statement Rhys was making by holding the tournament in Cardigan Castle rather than at Dinefwr, the traditional seat of rulers of Deheubarth.

Cardigan, recently restored, was a stone-built castle and both it and the surrounding Borough of Cardigan had been recently acquired from the invading Normans. Rhys was clearly showing his power and position to Normans and Welsh alike.

This first eisteddfod had many of the aspects of the modern event. The tournament was announced a year in advance and minstrels and bards from places as far-flung was Ireland and France were invited to come to Cardigan to compete.

Two bardic chairs were to be awarded to the victors in poetry and music. A bard from Gwynedd in North Wales won the poetry chair while the son of Eilon the Crythwr, from Rhys' own court, claimed the prize for music.

Now regarded as the first eisteddfod ever held in Wales, it does not take much imagination to conjure visions of the festivities, the singing and dancing, the feasting and flirting, that undoubtedly took place at Cardigan over that Christmas period in 1176.

Bardic tournaments continued to be held during the 15th and 16th centuries until the Acts of Union in the reign of Henry VIII saw eisteddfodau decline in importance. From that point on it became more important to look to London if you wanted financial and political favour and Welsh noblemen and the emerging middle classes turned their backs on Welsh culture.

Not until the Gorsedd of Bards held a special ceremony at the Ivy Bush Hotel in Carmarthen in 1819 did the eisteddfod once again become a significant factor in Welsh life. But, in one form or another, the eisteddfod survived and the Lord Rhys, by calling his first bardic tournament at Cardigan in 1176, had begun a tradition that continues in the present day.

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