Williams and many of his fellow London-Welsh were greatly influenced by the success of the American colonies in winning their independence from the English Crown. They began to make known their own desires for recognition of a separate identity for Wales. The French Revolution, following hard on the American, with appeals for liberty and equality, also added to these longings. In the institution of the Eisteddfod (first recorded in the late 12th century) the London Welsh saw a chance to restore the dignity of an ancient and honorable Welsh custom and make it source of national pride.
In 1792 an article in The Gentleman's Magazine noted the following:
This being the day on which the autumnal equinox
occurred, some Welsh bards, resident in London,
assembled in congress on Primrose Hill, according
to ancient usage.
The president of the above meeting was Edward Jones, musician and antiquary who was harpist to the Prince of Wales (the future King George IV). Jones was unhappy with what had been happening to so many Welsh musical traditions at the hands of the uncompromising, Puritanical new religious leaders, who, in their misguided zeal, were busy stamping out so much that had been part and parcel of informal gatherings and dances for centuries. His writings were an attempt to stop the rot.
A prolific author, Jones' major work was "The Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bard," published in 1784, followed by two further additions. In 1802, he explained his great work of scholarship:
The sudden decline of the national minstrelsy and
customs of Wales is in a great degree to be attributed
to the fanatick imposters, of illiterate plebian
preachers, who have too often been suffered to over-
run the country, misleading the common people from
their lawful church, and dissuading them from their
innocent amusement, such as singing, dancing and other
rural sports, with which they had been accustomed to
delight in from the earliest times...The consequence is
Wales, which was formerly one of the merriest and
happiest countries in the world, is now become one of
Also in 1802, in the same work, Jones gave his reasons for reviving the ancient Eisteddfod:
Seeing with regret the rapid decrease of performers
on the harp in Wales, with the consequent decline of
that elegant and expressive instrument, as well as of
our National music and Poetry, gave me the first idea
of reviving the ancient Eisteddfod ... which meeting I
caused to be convened at Corwen, in Merionethshire,
about the year 1788.
With so much of what was essentially an oral tradition, it was apparent to Iolo Morgannwg that a body of cultural traditions need to be re-established and set down in writing. Iolo Morgannwg took up the challenge; he cannot thus be criticized too severely for inventing some of these "traditions." He came up with many innovative ideas, among them the institution of the Gorsedd (the assembly of bards) that ever since its introduction into the Carmarthen Eisteddfod of 1819, has played such a prominent role in Welsh cultural affairs.
Iolo also called for a national library for Wales and a national museum, though these were not to come to fruition for over a century. Much of his inspiration, like that of Edward Jones, his contemporary and rival, may have come from his distaste at the excesses of Methodism (then sweeping like wildfire through Wales). In a letter to a friend in 1799, he wrote: "North Wales is now as Methodistical as South Wales, and South Wales as hell." It was Iolo who came up with the stirring and emotional three-time cry of the archdruid at the Eisteddfod: "A Oes Heddwch?" (Is there peace?).
Other prominent London Welshmen were also busy recreating tradition. In 1792, a dramatic address by Sir William Jones re-established the ancient claim that Prince Madog, of Wales, had discovered North America three hundred years before the voyage of Columbus. Jones praised the so-called "Welsh Indians," descended from Madog and his fellow explorers, who were, he stated, a "free and distinct people, who have preserved their liberty, languages, and some traces of their religion to this very day."
Though subsequent discoveries did not bear out the truth of Sir William's theories, first promulgated by John Dee in the reign of Elizabeth I, the revival of the legend had an enormous effect upon the Welsh people, restoring an almost lost sense of pride and dignity. It was also Sir William, while working in India with the East India Company, who discovered the connection (hitherto unknown) between the Celtic languages and Sanskrit, the ancient language of Indian holy books. The Welsh language was thus given an honored place in history, a full partner in the Indo-European family of languages.
National pride was also a product of the dissemination of the writings of Richard Price, a prolific author of works on divinity and theology, but best known for his "Observation on the Nature of Civil Liberty", published in 1776, the year that began the American Revolution. Price fervently believed that the American colonies had an absolute right to their independence and tirelessly advocated their cause. For his work, he was granted many honors in both England and America, which offered him citizenship in the new republic of the United States. Price also waxed eloquent in his praise of the French Revolution and its defiance of long-established, but long-corrupted authority.
As far as Wales itself was concerned, Price claimed that communities everywhere had the right to govern themselves. He had the revolutionary and most startling idea that British Members of Parliament were simply trustees to carry out the wishes of their constituents. Price's arguments were very influential in the writings of another Welshman, David Williams, whose essays on religious freedom, universal education, and the need for voting rights put him way ahead of his time. His Letter on Political Liberty was published in 1782, though its real influence was not felt in Wales until the arrival of the Chartist Movement in the 1840's.
By the end of the 18th century, thanks to writers such as Sir William Jones, Richard Price and David Williams, the first serious democratic and popular movements in Wales had been planted and begun to grow. The Welsh language could only grow in stature and strength along with them and later became an essential part of the continuing struggle. In this, despite what Edward Jones had to say about the movement, it was enormously aided by the coming of Methodism.
Chapter 14: Methodism
The place to meet new friends and interesting people, ask questions, get and give answers and share experiences relating to Wales and Welsh culture. Click.