Iolo Morganwg

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Iolo Morganwg
Born Edward Williams
10 March 1747
Pen-onn, Glamorgan, Wales
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Occupation Poet, literary forger
Language Welsh
Nationality Welsh

Edward Williams, better known by his bardic name Iolo Morganwg ([ˈjɔlɔ mɔrˈɡanʊɡ]; 10 March 1747 – 18 December 1826), was an influential Welsh antiquarian, poet, collector, and literary forger.[1][2] He was widely considered a leading collector and expert on medieval Welsh literature in his day, but after his death it was revealed that he had forged a large number of his manuscripts.[3] Regardless, he had a lasting impact on Welsh culture, seen most notably in his foundation of the Gorsedd, and the philosophy he developed in his forgeries had a huge impact on the early neo-druid movement. His bardic name is Welsh for "Iolo of Glamorgan" (the county's name is spelt "Morgannwg" in modern Welsh). Iolo is the diminutive of "Iorwerth", a Welsh name often seen as equivalent to "Edward",[2] although neither name is a translation of the other.

Early life

Edward Williams was born at Pen-onn, near Llancarfan in Glamorgan, Wales, and was raised in the village of Flemingston (or Flimston; Trefflemin in Welsh). He followed his father into a career as a stonemason. In Glamorgan he took an interest in manuscript collection, and learned to compose Welsh poetry from poets such as Lewis Hopkin, Rhys Morgan, and especially Siôn Bradford.[2] In 1773 he moved to London where the antiquary Owen Jones introduced him to the city's Welsh literary community, and where he became a member of the Gwyneddigion Society: he would later also be active in the Cymreigyddion Society. In 1777 he returned to Wales, where he married and tried his hand at farming, but evidently met with no success. It was during this time that he produced his first forgeries.

Williams's son, Taliesin (bardic name, Taliesin ab Iolo), whom he had named after the early medieval bard Taliesin, later went on to collect his manuscripts in twenty six volumes,[4] a selection was published under the title of the Iolo Manuscripts by the Welsh Manuscripts Society in 1848.[5]

Literary career

From an early date Williams was concerned with preserving, and maintaining, the literary and cultural traditions of Wales. To this end he produced a large number of manuscripts as evidence for his claims that ancient druidic tradition had survived the Roman conquest, the conversion of the populace to Christianity, the persecution of the bards under King Edward I, and other adversities. In his forgeries he develops an elaborate mystical philosophy which he claimed represented a direct continuation of ancient druidic practice. Williams's reported heavy use of laudanum may have been a contributing factor.[2]

Williams first came to public notice in 1789 when he produced Barddoniaeth Dafydd ab Gwilym, a collection of the poetry of the 14th-century Dafydd ap Gwilym. Included in this edition was a large number of previously unknown poems by Dafydd that he claimed to have discovered; these poems are regarded as Williams's first forgeries.[2] His success led him to return to London in 1791. There he founded the Gorsedd, a community of Welsh bards, at a ceremony on 21 June 1792 at Primrose Hill. He organised the proceedings, which he claimed were based on ancient druidic rites. In 1794 he published some of his own poetry, which was later collected in the two-volume Poems, Lyric and Pastoral. Essentially his only genuine work, it proved quite popular.[2]

Williams worked with Owen Jones and William Owen Pughe on The Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales, a three-volume collection of medieval Welsh literature published between 1801 and 1807.[3] The Myvyrian Archaiology relied partially on manuscripts in Williams's collection, some of which included his forgeries. Forged material included a false Brut chronicle and a book attributed to Saint Cadoc. The second volume, which collected the Welsh Triads, contained an additional "third series" of forged triads, as well as Williams's alterations to the authentic ones.[2]

After Williams's death some of his collection was compiled into The Iolo Manuscripts by his son, Taliesin Williams.[2] His papers were used by many later scholars and translators, and were used for reference by Lady Charlotte Guest as she was translating the prose collection Mabinogion. Guest did not, however, rely on William's editions of the tales themselves except for Hanes Taliesin.[2] Later still, more of Williams's forgeries were published in the text known as Barddas.[6] This work, published in two volumes in 1862 and 1874, was claimed to have been a translation of works by Llywelyn Siôn detailing the history of the Welsh bardic system from its ancient origins to the present day. Though it contains nothing of authentic druidic lore, it is the fullest account of the mystical cosmology Williams developed.[6] Other works by Williams include the "Druid's Prayer", still used by the Gorsedd and by neo-druid groups; a treatise on Welsh metrics called Cyfrinach Beirdd Ynys Prydain ("The Mystery of the Bards of the Isle of Britain"), published posthumously in 1828; and a series of hymns published as Salmau yr Eglwys yn yr Anialwch ("Psalms of the church in the wilderness") in 1812.


Iolo's philosophy represented a fusion of Christian and Arthurian influences, a romanticism comparable to that of William Blake and the Scottish poet and forger James MacPherson, the revived antiquarian enthusiasm for all things "Celtic", and such elements of bardic heritage as had genuinely survived among Welsh-language poets. Part of his aim was to assert the Welshness of South Wales, particularly his home region of Glamorgan, against the prevalent idea that North Wales represented the purest survival of Welsh traditions. The metaphysics elucidated in his forgeries and other works proposed a theory of concentric "rings of existence", proceeding outward from Annwn (the Otherworld) through Abred and Ceugant to Gwynfyd (purity or Heaven).

He had a shop in Cowbridge which had a sign outside which said that the sugar he sold was not from plantations using slavery. He also refused inheritance from his brothers, who owned plantations in Jamaica which used slave labour.[7]

By 1799, he had become a Unitarian and he was the leading spirit when a Unitarian Association was formed in South Wales in 1802; it was he who drew up the Rheolau a Threfniadau of that body published in 1803.[1]

Bardic alphabet

Iolo Morganwg developed his own runic system, in Welsh Coelbren y Beirdd ("the Bardic Alphabet"). It was said to be the alphabetic system of the ancient druids. It consisted of 20 main letters, and 20 others "to represent elongated vowels and mutations."[8] These symbols were to be represented in a wooden frame, known as peithynen.


Such was the extent of his forgery that, even into the 21st century, some of his tampered versions of medieval Welsh texts are better known than the original versions.[9]

A Welsh-language school in Cowbridge, Ysgol Iolo Morganwg, is named after him, and Super Furry Animals vocalist Gruff Rhys dedicated a song to him on his 2014 album, American Interior.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Welsh Biography Online
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 Jones, Mary (2004). "Edward Williams/Iolo Morganwg/Iolo Morgannwg". From Jones' Celtic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11 June 2009.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Jones, Mary (2003). "Y Myvyrian Archaiology". From Jones' Celtic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11 June 2009.
  4. Elijah Waring (1850). Recollections and anecdotes of Edward Williams the bard of Glamorgan; or, Iolo Morganwg. Charles Gilpin. pp. 4–. Retrieved 15 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Iolo Morganwg; Owen Jones; Society for the Publication of Ancient Welsh Manuscripts, Abergavenny (1848). Iolo manuscripts: A selection of ancient Welsh manuscripts, in prose and verse, from the collection made by the late Edward Williams, Iolo Morganwg, for the purpose of forming a continuation of the Myfyrian archaiology; and subsequently proposed as materials for a new history of Wales. W. Rees; sold by Longman and co., London. pp. 1–. Retrieved 15 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Jones, Mary (2004). "Barddas". From Jones' Celtic Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11 June 2009.
  7. "Support for bardic founder plaque".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Bromwich, Rachel. Trioedd Ynys Prydein. University of Wales Press, 2006. Pg. 213

Further reading

  • Jenkins, Geraint (ed.) (2005). A Rattleskull Genius: the Many Faces of Iolo Morganwg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press
  • Löffler, Marion (2007). The Literary and Historical Legacy of Iolo Morganwg 1826–1926. Cardiff: Univ. of Wales Press. ISBN 978-0-7083-2113-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Morgan, Prys (1975). Iolo Morganwg, (Writers of Wales). Cardiff: University of Wales Press
  • Williams, Edward (c. 1810). Williams (ab Iolo), Taliesin (ed.). Iolo Manuscripts. Llandovery: William Rees (published 1848).CS1 maint: date and year (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Williams, G. J. (1956). Iolo Morganwg. Y Gyfrol Gyntaf, Cardiff: University of Wales Press
  • Williams, G. J. (1926). Iolo Morganwg a Chywyddau'r Ychwanegiad. Cardiff: University of Wales Press

External links