Bardic Controversies


Astrocelt shares some research into the developing and changing Bardic Tradition within Wales, through various internal debates recorded within its controversies, with the Druidic community.



In the Welsh Bardic tradition, contentions have come to light through the centuries. These suggest they occurred when the craft was undergoing a transition. This has been credited to influences disquieting a wider area, within a changing social world. While sparse records exist within the historical record of there resulting impact on the craft. Yet in one specific case a dispute arising from the Caermarthen Eisteddfod of 1451, rippled through time. So it is of no surprise to find it still being discussed and debated in the early 1800s; during the period of the Celtic antiquarian revival.

One may ask, what is a Bardic convention or dispute? These primarily concerned themselves with matters of tradition upholding its craft excellence. They involved in most cases the pencredd or head Bardic poet. However there were exceptions, as one understands that intermediate bards also became involved. An example is the convention from the early 1400s. This was not confined to one specific area but spilled out from Gwynedd into Powys and later into Glamorgan. It to has specific interest towards neo-Druidry relating to awen. This subject was discussed and defined in poetic verse. Indeed the medium of communication within the contentions was undertaken using poetic verses with its metrical rules of composure. In so doing, it often raised them to new poetic heights of excellence. This particular disputed poetic exchange suggests it became the source from which Edward Williams; alas IoIo Morganwg utilised and incorporated in the late eighteenth century within his Druidic system.

Moreover there were earlier contentions from the 1300s. Dafydd ap Gwilym who came into debate with Gruffudd Gryg over matters of slavery, along with those concerning love. Yet, later debates from the sixteenth century involved the pencredd William Cywnal and the archdeacon of Merionedd, Edmund Prys. This debate concerned the promised, and later request for a gift concerning a bow. The controversy is generally recognised to be essentially one concerning the changing cognitive role within society. Such alteration is reflected through tradition poets, when compared to those of the new renaissance learning with its humanistic thinking. This in itself illustrates a change. Specifically when William Cywnal considered that Edmund Prys, whom had undertaken a university education took displeasure. For Edmund had not received the legitimate training recognised by its traditional craft.

Previous training and contention is often kept within the confines of its bardic circles, consequently it later become classified as a bardic secret from those outside it confines of the period. Thus it resulted in a wider general belief from the 16th century, were poets specialised in keeping their craft knowledge amongst themselves. On the other hand this too was the normal procedure from previous centuries through oral transmission. In contrast the humanist poets linked new poetic ideas with classical language and learning thus introducing new scholarship and later a revised bardic system. It therefore stands that something rather special occurred at the bardic contention of 1451 at Caermarthen. Once again a change is reflected within the tradition, as extra mitres of poetic verse became added. The Bardic debate additionally prolonged the Eisteddfod with its duration extending into three months of competition.

So what was it all about? Simply the chair was awarded to the pencredd Dafydd ab Edmund who is credited with rearranging the mitres, in such a way; the sound of verse became a ripple of melody. Yet the awarded chair was centred on a controversy that not only concerned the additional mitres. Accusations and tampering with its patron and eisteddfod judge Gruffudd ap Nicholas, was also raised. Indeed it was brought to the head by the bards from Glamorgan according to a later recorder. Subsequently, the competition became repeated again, the chair was awarded again to Dafydd ab Edmund for the second time. Indeed his style of the fifteen canon verses became adopted throughout most of Wales in consequence, in preference to the previous nine.

Nonetheless it would appear this affair was aired again by a later pencredd, Simwnt Fycan a native of Clwyd in the sixteenth century, nearly 100 years after the event. A longer period was to elapse before it was heard of again. The Celtic antiquarian Walter Davies within his comparative Study of the Bardic institutions gave it a new airing in the early 1800s. Here it is simply described as rivalry between two bardic traditions. Yet Walter Davies suggests the antiquity of the mitres used by the Glamorgan bards originally descended from the poetic tradition of the sixth century. Such learning in Walters Davies opinion had originally derived from the House of Urien. At that time the household was situated in Rheged. Nonetheless Davies essay became presented in 1819 at another Caermarthen Eisteddfod. One which introduced new technical craft classes, it too adopted the Gorsedd of the Bards which added pageantry to the Eisteddfod proceedings. In time the introduction of the Gorsedd stone circle were also included becoming the focal point for such celebrations. These featured for a further hundred years into the early 1900s.

Bardic contentions indicate they have an importance to the survival of preserving its traditional poetic craft which also raised its excellence. In most cases one can uncover revealing clues of the period in which they occurred. Furthermore they can assist in answering questions,establishing either facts or rousing a greater understanding of the bardic tradition in general.

© Astrocelt 2003


Prime Sources

NLW Ms 1715c Crosswood 75

NLW Ms 158 Peniarth

Secondary Sources

Miles, D., The secret of the Bards of the Isle of Britain, Gwasg Dinefwr Press, 1992

Stephen, M., (Ed.) The New Companion to the Literature of Wales, University of Wales Press Cardiff, 1998

Thomas G, Eisteddfodau Caerwys, University of Wales Press Cardiff, 1968

Williams J., Traditional Annals of the Cymry, Tenby 1867

Bardic, Controversies, Tradition, Wales,
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