1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eisteddfod
EISTEDDFOD (plural Eisteddfodau), the national bardic congress of Wales, the objects of which are to encourage bardism and music and the general literature of the Welsh, to maintain the Welsh language and customs of the country, and to foster and cultivate a patriotic spirit amongst the people. This institution, so peculiar to Wales, is of very ancient origin. The term Eisteddfod, however, which means “a session” or “sitting,” was probably not applied to bardic congresses before the 12th century.
The Eisteddfod in its present character appears to have originated in the time of Owain ap Maxen Wledig, who at the close of the 4th century was elected to the chief sovereignty of the Britons on the departure of the Romans. It was at this time, or soon afterwards, that the laws and usages of the Gorsedd were codified and remodelled, and its motto of “Y gwir yn erbyn y byd” (The truth against the world) given to it. “Chairs” (with which the Eisteddfod as a national institution is now inseparably connected) were also established, or rather perhaps resuscitated, about the same time. The chair was a kind of convention where disciples were trained, and bardic matters discussed preparatory to the great Gorsedd, each chair having a distinctive motto. There are now existing four chairs in Wales,—namely, the “royal” chair of Powys, whose motto is “A laddo a leddir” (He that slayeth shall be slain); that of Gwent and Glamorgan, whose motto is “Duw a phob daioni” (God and all goodness); that of Dyfed, whose motto is “Calon wrth galon” (Heart with heart); and that of Gwynedd, or North Wales, whose motto is “Iesu,” or “O Iesu! na’d gamwaith” (Jesus, or Oh Jesus! suffer not iniquity).
The first Eisteddfod of which any account seems to have descended to us was one held on the banks of the Conway in the 6th century, under the auspices of Maelgwn Gwynedd, prince of North Wales. Maelgwn on this occasion, in order to prove the superiority of vocal song over instrumental music, is recorded to have offered a reward to such bards and minstrels as should swim over the Conway. There were several competitors, but on their arrival on the opposite shore the harpers found themselves unable to play owing to the injury their harps had sustained from the water, while the bards were in as good tune as ever. King Cadwaladr also presided at an Eisteddfod about the middle of the 7th century.
Griffith ap Cynan, prince of North Wales, who had been born in Ireland, brought with him from that country many Irish musicians, who greatly improved the music of Wales. During his long reign of 56 years he offered great encouragement to bards, harpers and minstrels, and framed a code of laws for their better regulation. He held an Eisteddfod about the beginning of the 12th century at Caerwys in Flintshire, “to which there repaired all the musicians of Wales, and some also from England and Scotland.” For many years afterwards the Eisteddfod appears to have been held triennially, and to have enforced the rigid observance of the enactments of Griffith ap Cynan. The places at which it was generally held were Aberffraw, formerly the royal seat of the princes of North Wales; Dynevor, the royal castle of the princes of South Wales; and Mathrafal, the royal palace of the princes of Powys; and in later times Caerwys in Flintshire received that honourable distinction, it having been the princely residence of Llewelyn the Last. Some of these Eisteddfodau were conducted in a style of great magnificence, under the patronage of the native princes. At Christmas 1107 Cadwgan, the son of Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, prince of Powys, held an Eisteddfod in Cardigan Castle, to which he invited the bards, harpers and minstrels, “the best to be found in all Wales”; and “he gave them chairs and subjects of emulation according to the custom of the feasts of King Arthur.” In 1176 Rhys ab Gruffydd, prince of South Wales, held an Eisteddfod in the same castle on a scale of still greater magnificence, it having been proclaimed, we are told, a year before it took place, “over Wales, England, Scotland, Ireland and many other countries.”
On the annexation of Wales to England, Edward I. deemed it politic to sanction the bardic Eisteddfod by his famous statute of Rhuddlan. In the reign of Edward III. Ifor Hael, a South Wales chieftain, held one at his mansion. Another was held in 1451, with the permission of the king, by Griffith ab Nicholas at Carmarthen, in princely style, where Dafydd ab Edmund, an eminent poet, signalized himself by his wonderful powers of versification in the Welsh metres, and whence “he carried home on his shoulders the silver chair” which he had fairly won. Several Eisteddfodau, were held, one at least by royal mandate, in the reign of Henry VII. In 1523 one was held at Caerwys before the chamberlain of North Wales and others, by virtue of a commission issued by Henry VIII. In the course of time, through relaxation of bardic discipline, the profession was assumed by unqualified persons, to the great detriment of the regular bards. Accordingly in 1567 Queen Elizabeth issued a commission for holding an Eisteddfod at Caerwys in the following year, which was duly held, when degrees were conferred on 55 candidates, including 20 harpers. From the terms of the royal proclamation we find that it was then customary to bestow “a silver harp” on the chief of the faculty of musicians, as it had been usual to reward the chief bard with “a silver chair.” This was the last Eisteddfod appointed by royal commission, but several others of some importance were held during the 16th and 17th centuries, under the patronage of the earl of Pembroke, Sir Richard Neville, and other influential persons. Amongst these the last of any particular note was one held in Bewper Castle, Glamorgan, by Sir Richard Basset in 1681.
During the succeeding 130 years Welsh nationality was at its lowest ebb, and no general Eisteddfod on a large scale appears to have been held until 1819, though several small ones were held under the auspices of the Gwyneddigion Society, established in 1771,—the most important being those at Corwen (1789), St Asaph (1790) and Caerwys (1798).
At the close of the Napoleonic wars, however, there was a general revival of Welsh nationality, and numerous Welsh literary societies were established throughout Wales, and in the principal English towns. A large Eisteddfod was held under distinguished patronage at Carmarthen in 1819, and from that time to the present they have been held (together with numerous local Eisteddfodau), almost without intermission, annually. The Eisteddfod at Llangollen in 1858 is memorable for its archaic character, and the attempts then made to revive the ancient ceremonies, and restore the ancient vestments of druids, bards and ovates.
To constitute a provincial Eisteddfod it is necessary that it should be proclaimed by a graduated bard of a Gorsedd a year and a day before it takes place. A local one may be held without such a proclamation. A provincial Eisteddfod generally lasts three, sometimes four days. A president and a conductor are appointed for each day. The proceedings commence with a Gorsedd meeting, opened with sound of trumpet and other ceremonies, at which candidates come forward and receive bardic degrees after satisfying the presiding bard as to their fitness. At the subsequent meetings the president gives a brief address; the bards follow with poetical addresses; adjudications are made, and prizes and medals with suitable devices are given to the successful competitors for poetical, musical and prose compositions, for the best choral and solo singing, and singing with the harp or “Pennillion singing” as it is called, for the best playing on the harp or stringed or wind instruments, as well as occasionally for the best specimens of handicraft and art. In the evening of each day a concert is given, generally attended by very large numbers. The great day of the Eisteddfod is the “chair” day—usually the third or last day—the grand event of the Eisteddfod being the adjudication on the chair subject, and the chairing and investiture of the fortunate winner. This is the highest object of a Welsh bard’s ambition. The ceremony is an imposing one, and is performed with sound of trumpet. (See also the articles Bard, Celt: Celtic Literature, and Wales.) (R. W.*)
- According to the Welsh Triads and other historical records, the Gorsedd or assembly (an essential part of the modern Eisteddfod, from which indeed the latter sprung) is as old at least as the time of Prydain the son of Ædd the Great, who lived many centuries before the Christian era. Upon the destruction of the political ascendancy of the Druids, the Gorsedd lost its political importance, though it seems to have long afterwards retained its institutional character as the medium for preserving the laws, doctrines and traditions of bardism.
- According to Jones’s Bardic Remains, “To sing ‘Pennillion’ with a Welsh harp is not so easily accomplished as may be imagined. The singer is obliged to follow the harper, who may change the tune, or perform variations ad libitum, whilst the vocalist must keep time, and end precisely with the strain. The singer does not commence with the harper, but takes the strain up at the second, third or fourth bar, as best suits the ‘pennill’ he intends to sing. . . . Those are considered the best singers who can adapt stanzas of various metres to one melody, and who are acquainted with the twenty-four measures according to the bardic laws and rules of composition.”