The National Eisteddfod is Wales’s premier cultural festival and, at the beginning of the 21st century, its eclectic array of competitions encompasses such diverse artistic fields as the visual arts, rock music, choral singing and the most intricate aspects of Welsh poetry. As its location alternates annually between the south and the north, it has no permanent home. Its highlights, the colourful ceremonies of the Gorsedd of the Bards, are among those stereotypical images which have been used for well over a century to project Welsh cultural identity. Although, primarily, a creation of the Victorian era, the eisteddfod (pl. eisteddfodau) has its roots in the Welsh cultural renaissance of the 18th century and is a notable example of how patriotism and the reinvention of tradition often go hand in hand. Emulating the success of the National Eisteddfod, Urdd Gobaith Cymru established its own annual youth eisteddfod in 1929 while Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod has, since 1947, provided a multi-national dimension. A host of smaller eisteddfodau, both at a village and regional level, are also held annually throughout the country. However, with the demise of the coalmining industry, the annual South Wales Miners’ Eisteddfod, staged at Porthcawl since 1948, was held for the last time in 2001. Eisteddfodau have also played a prominent part in Welsh culture in England and in North America, Australia, Patagonia and South Africa. Indeed, particularly in Australia and South Africa, the eisteddfod is part of the general cultural scene.

The medieval eisteddfod
Poetic contests were an important feature of the Welsh bardic order throughout the Middle Ages. At the time of the Poets of the Welsh Princes, a poet acquired the status of pencerdd (chief of song) by engaging in a poetic dispute with his fellow poets, and, according to Welsh law, the victorious pencerdd was awarded a chair, most probably at the royal court. The festival held by the Lord Rhys (Rhys ap Gruffudd; d.1197) at Cardigan in 1176 is often referred to as the first recorded eisteddfod, although the earliest record of the word dates from the 14th century, when it meant throne or seating place. According to Brut y Tywysogyon: ‘[Rhys] set two kinds of contests: one between the bards and the poets, and another between the harpists and the crowders (see Crwth) and the pipers and various classes of string-music and awarded chairs to the victors in both contests.’ In arranging such a spectacle, Rhys may well have been emulating the Norman puy, a guild-festival at which lyric poets competed.The first recorded use of eisteddfod as meaning a formal assembly of poets and musicians dates from 1523.

During the era of the Poets of the Gentry, three such assemblies are recorded as having been held: at Carmarthen (c. 1450/1) and Caerwys (1523 and 1567). The principal aim of all three was to enhance and safeguard the corporate identity not only of the professional praise poets, but also of the harpists and datgeiniaid (professional declaimers of poetry) who were an integral part of the medieval Welsh bardic order. Poetic and musical contests were an important feature of such occasions, and at the Carmarthen Eisteddfod the prize-winning poet, Dafydd ab Edmwnd – who was awarded a small symbolic silver chair – was also entrusted with the task of reformulating the rules of the traditional metres and cynghanedd. At the first Caerwys Eisteddfod (1523), the rules governing the training of poets and musicians and those pertaining to their perambulations were refined and formulized in a document called Statud Gruffudd ap Cynan (The Statute of Gruffudd ap Cynan). According to the Statud, card-playing and drunkenness were well beneath the dignity of a poet, and it even stipulated that poets were not to give undue attention to the wives and daughters of their noble patrons.

Reinventing the tradition
The 16th century saw the demise of the bardic order and of the professional poets, but the lowly poets of a later age sought to revive the eisteddfod. During the 18th century, a number of poetic assemblies were held in taverns, mostly in mid and north Wales. They were advertised beforehand in Welsh almanacs and called eisteddfodau. The poets vigorously competed with each other, but, more often than not, it seems that there was only one victor – Bacchus. John Edwards, a squire from the Llangollen area who took a keen interest in such meetings, was, according to his contemporary, Gwallter Mechain (Walter Davies), ‘as fond of barddoniaeth (poetry) as of cwrw (beer) and vice versa’. In 1789, when only four poets attended an eisteddfod at Llangollen, Thomas Jones, a Corwen exciseman, sought the advice and guidance of the Gwyneddigion Society in London, who agreed to help raise Welsh culture above the level of the tavern eisteddfodau. The year 1789 is therefore a turning-point in the history of the eisteddfod: a movement was launched which would lead in 1861 to the emergence of the National Eisteddfod, and for some 150 years the London Welsh would heavily influence that movement.

The Gwyneddigion provided a blueprint for the modern competitive eisteddfod – subjects set in advance, fit adjudicators appointed to prepare written adjudications, competitors required to use pseudonyms, substantial prizes offered and the public allowed into the meetings. In September 1789, at Bala, the revived medieval eisteddfod ceased to be. Instead of closed sessions for poets and minstrels, the eisteddfod began to approximate to a popular festival.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars retarded its growth, but in 1818 a number of ‘literary parsons’ (see hen bersoniaid llengar) led by Ifor Ceri (John Jenkins; 1770-1829), vicar of Kerry near Newtown, re-launched the eisteddfod venture. Supported by Thomas Burgess, bishop of St David’s, and sundry patriotic members of the gentry class, four provincial societies were established in Dyfed (1818), Gwynedd (1819), Powys (1819), and Gwent and Glamorgan (1821) which, guided by the Cymmrodorion in London, held 10 eisteddfodau between 1819 and 1834. These ‘Cambrian Olympiads’ transformed eisteddfod culture. Prize-winning compositions were published, and in 1819 the Gorsedd of the Bards and the fashionable concert were introduced, thereby starting a linguistic battle between Welsh and English that would bedevil the eisteddfod for over a century.

After 1834, further impetus came from Abergavenny where another 10 remarkable eisteddfodau were held, from 1835 to 1853, by the Cymreigyddion Society, inspired by Carnhuanawc (Thomas Price), vicar of Llanfihangel Cwmdu, and the redoubtable Lady Llanover (Augusta Hall). In the north, eisteddfodau at Aberffraw (1849) and Rhuddlan (1850) caused much excitement and then, in 1858, Ab Ithel (John Williams; 1811–62), vicar of Llanymawddwy (Mawddwy), organized the Grand Llangollen Eisteddfod, which led directly to the creation of the National Eisteddfod. An unquestioning follower of Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams), Ab Ithel organized a druidical extravaganza which conflicted with the expectations of radicals who aspired to an eisteddfod imbued with the spirit of progress. It was time for a regular National Eisteddfod conducted by an elected body.

The national eisteddfod
‘Yr Eisteddfod’ was established at Denbigh in 1860 and its council organized eight annual National Eisteddfodau, in north and south alternately, the first in Aberdare (1861) and the last in Ruthin (1868), when debts overcame it. In the 1870s, local committees, mainly in the north, tried to emulate ‘Yr Eisteddfod’ until, in 1880, Hugh Owen (1804–81) succeeded in establishing the National Eisteddfod Association which launched the current series of National Eisteddfodau at Merthyr Tydfil in 1881. Prompted by reformers such as Cynan (Albert Evans-Jones), the Association and the Gorsedd united in the revised constitution of 1937 to form the National Eisteddfod Council. In 1952, the constitution was again revised to create the Court of the National Eisteddfod which has been the ruling body ever since.

The National Eisteddfod was to provide a platform on which a small nation, eager to flex itself after the 1847 education report’s assault on its character (see Treason of the Blue Books), could display its talents. Ifor Ceri’s programme for a revival of Welsh culture was undermined by costly concerts for the Anglicized gentry. In the 1860s, Hugh Owen’s attempt by means of a Social Science Section to project Wales as a progressive country again marginalized the Welsh language, and so things would continue from 1881 onwards, until the 1937 constitution declared Welsh to be the sole official language of the National Eisteddfod. The ‘All-Welsh Rule’ came into use at Caerphilly in 1950, since when it is true to say that the National Eisteddfod has championed the language. For almost a century, it had neglected it.

A major contributing factor to the marginalizing of the language was the fact that the National Eisteddfod from the outset was a showcase for the ‘Land of Song’, English being the primary language of the choral competitions and the concerts that attracted the crowds. Welsh was the language of a discounted literature and, what was worse, of the Gorsedd which the progressives maintained made Wales a laughing stock. But the Gorsedd survived contempt and continues to demonstrate in a colourful, public way - by chairing and crowning poets, and honouring the winners of the prose medal and the Daniel Owen memorial prize - that a society should celebrate its writers. The choirs no longer dominate the proceedings, but the National Eisteddfod is still a splendid platform for musicians and singers, as Bryn Terfel’s career shows. Drama, arts and crafts, architecture, dance and pop culture have long since counted as much as traditional music and literature in the annual fare provided. The alternative ‘Maes B’ for the young is creating its own mythology, and the national institution that emerged in the 19th century when evolution was first a burning issue, itself continues to evolve. Its survival depends on that – and on the people’s appreciation of its part in their story.