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Iolo Morganwg: scholar, antiquarian and forger

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:33 UK time, Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Iolo Morganwg remains one of the most intriguing characters of Welsh history. Many people remember him as the eccentric moving force behind the modern day Eisteddfod and, certainly, during the 79 years he was alive he was regarded as the leading expert on ancient and medieval Welsh life.

Iolo Morganwg

Iolo Morganwg

It was only after his death on 18 December 1826 that the truth was finally revealed - Iolo had forged many, if not most, of his manuscripts and ancient documents.

Born Edward Williams on 10 March 1747 in the village of Llancarfan, Iolo spent his childhood and early youth at Flemingston in the Vale of Glamorgan.

His father was a stonemason, a trade Iolo also followed, but the ambitious young man soon developed a love of traditional Welsh poetry and actually began to compose it himself. This was in the tradition of Welsh poetry writing where the practitioners were, largely, from the working classes.

He took the name Iolo Morganwg as his bardic name, thus commemorating his native county, and spent the years between 1773 and 1777 in London where he became closely involved with the London-Welsh clique. Returning to Wales Iolo married and, for a while, tried his hand at farming.

However, it was in the literary field that Iolo soon began to make his name. He began to produce manuscripts that proved the Welsh or Celtic druidic traditions had survived the trauma of the Roman conquest - and, indeed, the later barbarity of Edward I. Unfortunately, many of these documents had little or no relation to reality, having been conceived in the fertile mind and imagination of none other than Iolo Morganwg himself.

He developed his own rather mystical philosophy of life, helped perhaps by the fact that he was an inveterate and consistent user of laudanum. It was a strange creed, a coming together of Christianity and Arthurian legend, but it was a philosophy and a way of life that suited the lifestyle of this strange but compelling man.

Iolo even developed his own bardic alphabet, claiming that it was the system used by the ancient druids themselves. He regularly produced forged manuscripts and books, one of them being a book that he attributed to Saint Cadoc. He did find time to write some poetry of his own, a collection of his work, real and genuine, being published in 1794. After his death his son gathered together his various papers and produced them as The Iolo Manuscripts.

In 1789 Iolo published Barddoniaeth Dafydd ap Gwilym, supposedly a collection of poetry by the 14th century poet Dafydd ap Gwilym. The collection was well received but it has since transpired that the book included several poems that had no connection to the old Welsh bard. They were actually written by Iolo himself.

In 1791 Iolo went back to London and on 21 June the following year, at Primrose Hill, he was instrumental in founding the Gorsedd, the community of Welsh bards. The ceremony and the proceedings, Iolo claimed, were based on ancient druidic rites.

They were, of course, forgeries but at the time nobody seemed to notice. By the time the extent of his fabrication was discovered the traditions of the event were already far too well accepted by most enthusiasts to even consider a change.

Despite Iolo's efforts, it took time to establish - or re-establish - the Eisteddfod as a significant event in Welsh society. Not until 1819, when the Gorsedd of Bards held a special ceremony at the Ivy Bush Hotel in Carmarthen - the event is commemorated in a stained glass window in the hotel - and marched in full regalia through the town, was the imagination of the Welsh people truly caught by the idea of a celebration of art and culture.

The first modern Eisteddfod, in its present form, was held at Aberdare in 1860 and by then Iolo was long dead. Despite his forgeries but due, in large measure, to his enthusiasm it has gone on from strength to strength.

The real significance of Iolo Morganwg is not that he forged so many of his supposedly ancient manuscripts but that, when it was most needed, he provided the Welsh people with a cultural and historical re-awakening. Indeed, he is now viewed by many as one of the main architects of the Welsh nation. The Eisteddfod has survived his forgeries and so, too, has the concept of 'Welshness', something that has been an essential commodity over the years.

In many respects Iolo Morganwg was a far sighted and gifted individual. He was amongst the first to advocate a National Library for Wales - and, for that matter, a folk museum as well. He loved the Vale of Glamorgan and nearly all his activities were intended to assert the Welshness of south Wales, an area he considered had been unjustly Anglicised over the years.


  • Comment number 1.

    The so-called Welsh Culture that is faithfully followed and nurtured with thousands of pounds of our money weren't just the ramblings of some "dope head?".....Never!

    Are WE dopes or what??????

  • Comment number 2.

    Dopes, nope. Often, visionary leaders are imperfect characters. If the worst outcome of Iolo Morgannwg's "dopiness" is a National cultural celebration, and a renewed feeling of cultural pride and identity, that's nothing compared to believing the WMD propaganda that took the UK into the Iraq War.

  • Comment number 3.

    Not to excuse the forgery, but literary "inventiveness" was not viewed in the same way then as it is now. Modern historiography as we know it did not even start until the 16th century or later, and it was a long time before activities like this came to be regarded as reprehensible.


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