Dragons, harps, costumes and flowers: they all have something to tell us about the development of Welsh identity!
These symbols came to be essential ingredients when advertising anything ‘Welsh’, such as national events and traditional produce. Take, for example, Wales’s National Eisteddfod. Still held annually at the beginning of August, this festival; historically centered around literature, music, art and poetry, made a profound use of ‘Welsh’ symbols in its promotions.
Pageantry, symbolism and ceremony played an important role in a Welshman’s life during the 19th and 20th centuries. These customs fed into an effort to project Welsh identity, at a time when indigenous cultures were consciously displaying their distinctiveness.
In this blog, we will use the National Eisteddfod’s official programmes to show how meaningful symbols were used to project ‘Welshness’.
A brief history of the National Eisteddfod
The beginning – In 1176 Lord Rhys hosted the first known ‘eisteddfod’. He held two major competitions at Cardigan Castle; one in poetry, and the other in music.
A sudden decline – Similar tournaments were held in the 15th and 16th centuries. The phrase ‘eisteddfod’ was coined during this period. However, these gatherings declined during the reign of Henry VIII.
Revival – London based Welsh societies revived the eisteddfodic tradition at the end of the 18th century. Iolo Morganwg, inventor of the famous Gorsedd of the Bards ceremonies, played an important role in reviving the eisteddfod on a national scale by associating the Gorsedd with the institution.
Formalising the ‘National Eisteddfod’ – At Denbigh in 1860 a Council and General Committee were elected to manage ‘Yr Eisteddfod’, a newborn national organization. The following year, at Aberdare, the first official ‘National Eisteddfod’ was held.
Popular symbols and their roots
The Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch) is one of Wales’s most recognizable symbols. Believed to have been used by King Arthur and other Celtic leaders, it symbolizes Wales’s ancient roots and represents its formidable past warriors.
The Triple harp (Y Delyn Deires) is thought of as Wales’s national instrument. Used for centuries to accompany folk-singing, dancing and poetry recitations, the triple harp epitomizes Wales’s rich literary and musical heritage.
The Welsh Dress (Y Wisg Gymreig) was largely developed during the 19th century by a devoted cultural patron called Augusta Hall, or Lady Llanover. The most basic traditional Welsh costume consisted of a red woolen cloak and a tall black hat. Hall believed that such a custom would promote Welsh industries and identity.
The Mystic Mark (Y Nod Cyfrin), the symbol /|\ was devised by Iolo Morganwg. It represents the virtues Love, Justice and Truth. The symbol was widely used on Eisteddfod programmes and represented the Gorsedd’s presence at the event. The Gorsedd was once thought of as an ancient Druidic circle which glorified Wales’s rich bardic tradition.
Reviving Welsh Culture
The use of symbols on Eisteddfod programmes can be considered within a wider context of a general effort to revive Welsh culture. It is clear that such a movement looked to the past for inspiration and encouraged Welsh people to take pride in their heritage and history.
David Lloyd George was born in Manchester on the 17 January 1863 then raised in Wales, where he became one of the most famous radicals of the century. Between 1890 and 1945 he was elected Member of Parliament for Caernarfon.
Through the early years of the First World War, Lloyd George became Chancellor of the Exchequer under the leadership of Herbert Henry Asquith. In 1916 he became Secretary of State for War and later that year became the first Welsh speaking Prime Minister.
In 1916 The Times published a letter where the writer objected to the holding of the Eisteddfod during war time. In response to this article Lloyd George delivered a speech at the Aberystwyth National Eisteddfod which started:
“Why should we not sing during the war? Why especially should we not sing at this stage of the war?”
He continues to criticise the letter pointing out that Britain is still alive, not down, shattered and broken so “why should her children not sing?”
Through-out his speech Lloyd George vigorously defends the holding of the Eisteddfod during the war:
“Hundreds of wars have swept over these hills, but the harp of Wales has never yet been silenced by one of them, and I should be proud if I contributed something to keep it in tune during this war, by the holding of this Eisteddfod today.”
According to the Abergavenny Chronicle Lloyd George said, “our soldiers sing the songs of Wales in the trenches, and they hold their little Eisteddfodau behind the trenches” where he continued to read a telegram sent from the front line:
“Greetings and best wishes for success to the Eisteddfod; from Welshmen in the Field. Next Eisteddfod we shall be with you.”
On the 22 of August 1916 the newspaper ‘Y Genedl’ reported that there were over 7,000 listening to Lloyd George defending the National Eisteddfod at Aberystwyth. Newspapers reported that he remained at the festival for some time after delivering his speech and then left the town amid scenes of tremendous enthusiasm.
On the 15 February 1934 Lloyd George then recorded part of his famous ‘Why should we not sing?’ speech at the BBC studios, ready to be broadcast on the radio, for the world to hear.
Listen to a clip from the speech:
Copy of this address is kept at the National Library of Wales, and thanks to the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project has been digitised and safely stored at the British Library’s digital repository. You can listen to the recording at the Library’s Reading Room and it will soon be available online.
This post is part of the Story of Wales series. Click on the Story of Wales category on the right to see all the posts. You can also subscribe to our blog on the right to receive weekly emails of all our posts.
A crowd of over 150 people on the deck of a ship surveyed the land that is to be their new home. It was Thursday 27 July 1865. The Mimosa had dropped anchor at last and the settlers waited eagerly to set foot in Patagonia.
It was almost exactly two months since they had begun their voyage from Liverpool docks, and it was a wonder that the venture had come this far. After years of negotiation with the government in Buenos Aires, the intention had been for them to sail to Patagonia aboard the Halton Castle, a ship twice the size of the Mimosa. It failed to return from its previous voyage and new arrangements had to be made. The settlers – individuals, couples and families from places such as Mountain Ash, Aberdare, Rhosllanerchrugog and Ffestiniog as well as Liverpool and Birkenhead – waited a month while the Mimosa was prepared for the journey.
As for the voyage itself, it began with stormy weather as they left Liverpool, there were strong winds on the way and other days when the sea was calm and the sun was scorching. Three children died on the ship and two were born, and there was a wedding too. Prayer meetings were held daily.
They had arrived in Patagonia despite all, and two leaders of the venture, Lewis Jones and Edwyn Cynrig Roberts, were there to greet them. Joseph Seth Jones, a 20-year-old printer from Denbigh aboard the ship, noted in his diary that Lewis Jones had come to them by boat and that he was welcomed with great joy. ‘His report was satisfactory in general and far beyond our expectations.’ he wrote, ‘He said that he had succeeded in the face of extraordinary barriers.’ The diary is a precious record of the voyage through the passengers, and it is held at the National Library.
A new chapter in the venture began with the landing in Patagonia; they would have to face another journey of 40 miles to reach the Chupat valley (later known as Dyffryn Camwy), not to mention the formidable challenge of making a new home for themselves in such arid and barren land. There would be times when the venture very nearly failed completely, but, to many people’s surprise, the Welsh language is still spoken in Patagonia today.
In terms of the number of Welsh people who went there (a total of about 4,000 by 1900), the story of the Welsh settlement in Patagonia is only a small part in the entire history of migration from Wales during the nineteenth century. Many more went to the United States and Australia, for example, and some of those people relocated again to join the community in Patagonia. But the fascination that surrounds Patagonia continues today and has brought attention to this chapter in the nation’s history. It stems from the romantic depiction of the South-American landscape, from the courage and persistence of the setles, and of course from the vision behind the venture: the desire to establish an independent state where the Welsh language was the primary medium for all aspects of life, including law, politics, education and trade. The ambition of the venture, both practically and ideologically, was both controversial and wondrous then as it is today.
The National Heritage Lottery Fund’s Unlocking Our Heritage project aims to protect the UK’s unique and rare sound collections. The British Library and the 10 national hubs will digitize 160,000 audio items, catalog 470,000 recordings, and look at the rights of 100,000 items.
The National Library of Wales will digitise audio collections from Wales, in order to protect and create access to the files. These sound recordings will be used in learning and engagement activities, and will raise the profile of the UK Sound Archives collections. By the end of 2021 more people will be engaged with audio material and a new website will enable listeners to listen and explore a selection of online recordings.
Through the generosity and kindness of the Friends of the National Library of Wales we have received a donation of a listening bench which will enable us to take these digital recordings on a tour of Wales. A selection of audio clips will be played on the bench at different locations over the next few years.
The Reverend Canon Enid Morgan, Chair of the Friends of the National Library of Wales, said:
The Friends are delighted to present this lovely Audio Bench as a gift to the Library. We are proud that over the years we have been able to help the Library in a variety of ways to add and care for its collections and this project which aims to digitize Welsh audio collections in order to protect and create access to them is a key part of our history as Welsh people.
Before the bench begins its journey it can be seen here on the front lawn of the National Library. Clips of interviews and music are played by Dylan Baines, Ectogram, Malcolm Gwyon, Meibion Mwnt, Tecwyn Ifan, Blew and Plethyn. These artists were originally recorded for Radio Cymru sessions, with the majority unheard since the early 80s. “I would like to thank the Friends of the National Library of Wales for supporting this project and for their kind donation. This is a great opportunity to release clips of sound collections from Wales that would otherwise have remained hidden. There will be an opportunity for people to listen and engage with these recordings in their local communities.” Alison Smith, Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Hub Project Manager (UOSH).
While cataloguing the main Brogyntyn Estate and Family Records, I encountered a small number of documents which showed evidence of fire damage. Now, over ten years later, I have discovered the reason why. Letters and documents in the Longueville solicitors’ collection have revealed that Brogyntyn Hall was extensively damaged by a blaze on 14 March 1874.
….the present mansion contains valuable manuscripts, books, and works of art, whose loss would he irreparable. When, therefore, the news was spread that the mansion was in flames, considerable excitement prevailed in Oswestry and the neighbourhood, and before the night was over large numbers of people from places as far off as Chirk, and even from Wrexham it is said, had made their way to Brogyntyn. The fire was discovered about a quarter past four by Mr Shingler, the head gardener, who was in the garden and saw smoke issuing from the roof, round the kitchen chimney stack. Of course the alarm was given at once, and preparations were made to deal with the flames in the most effective way. A mounted messenger was despatched for the Oswestry engines, and a staff of men belonging to the house and estate was at once collected on the roof…….
Once the fire was extinguished, steps were taken to repair the devastation and insurance claims were submitted via the solicitors. The reconstruction, plastering and interior decoration were estimated at £1800. Alterations and additions to Brogyntyn Hall had already been ongoing prior to the fire. An architect’s bill from 1873-1874 showed payments to Mr Carrington on account of plumbers’ work, J. Vaughan for masonry and W.N. Lacon for ironmongery. Naturally the fire damage to the house must have caused further headaches to its owners. A letter by Benjamin Ferrey, the architect, dated 26 February 1875, reflected his exasperation with his aristocratic clients:
I have not seen either Mr or Mrs Gore yet and I hear of so many changes in what they propose to do at Brogyntyn this year that I am puzzled. About a month since, I was desired to prepare drawings for the smoking room, gun room, conservatory and basement offices. Now Pryce writes to me that he hears nothing more is to be done about them but the work is to be confined to the internal fitting…..I have desired Pryce to get in every bill connected with the works as I find orders are given without my knowledge….
From 1875 to the present day, it seems to be a universal experience that nothing ever goes smoothly when you get the builders in!
This is a guest post as part of the Story of Wales series, which looks at different aspects of Welsh history, and how today’s Wales remembers, and shapes it. Subscribe to the blog on the right to ensure you don’t miss any posts.
The National Library of Wales is home to some of the key surviving manuscripts that contain some of the most influential texts in Welsh mythology.
These include the White Book of Rhydderch, within which we find the earliest version of the Mabinogi – the best-known tales in Welsh mythology.
Authors turning to Welsh history and mythology for their inspiration is nothing new. Just as Welsh coal powered the industrial revolution, our mythology has been mined by authors and has powered the boiler-rooms of some of the most popular fantasy series in the world.
The most high-profile of these is the Lord of the Rings, in which Wales has influenced everything from the Elven language, romantic unions between warriors and Otherworldly fair maidens, swords of destiny, and frequent journeys underground into Annwn-like subterranean regions.
The Harry Potter series, too, is full of parallels with Welsh mythology. I was particularly struck by the scene where the evil Lord Voldemort is resurrected from a cauldron in a plotline not too dissimilar to that of the Pair Dadeni, the Renaissance Cauldron, in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
The influence of Welsh mythology has stretched beyond the western world too – the Korean massive multiplayer game Mabinogi, which is based on the legends of the same name, has around 500,000 players.
The most high profile and lucrative fantasy series at the moment is, of course, Game of Thrones. The eight and final TV series has just concluded with more than 38 million watching the first episode. Two more books, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, are still forthcoming and a number of spin-off films and series are no doubt in the offing.
There are a number of parallels between the Game of Thrones series and Welsh mythology and history, but here are a few that struck me while watching and reading.
Perhaps one of the most striking theme in the series is that of being under siege from an invading ‘other’ – in the case of Game of Thrones, the white walkers from ‘beyond the Wall’.
The closest analogue to this tale might be the walls built by the Romans to separate them from the Picts. But it also has parallels with how the coming of the Anglo-Saxon to Britain, which was portrayed as a punishment by God in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.
Most notably, the Britons in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s tale had left themselves open to attack by acting immorally and quarrelling amongst themselves.
This is mirrored in how the different Houses in George RR Martin’s series weaken themselves during the War of the Five Kings, raping and pillaging as they go, not realising that a greater threat is on the doorstep of Westeros.
There are also parallels to British history in the way the ‘First Men’ who speak the ‘Old Tongue’ and worship Old Gods populate the peripheral parts of Westeros.
Meanwhile, the Andals from Essos, who have brought their ‘Common Tongue’ with them, have taken over much of the more fruitful, sunny and prosperous parts of the landmass.
‘My Kingdom for a dragon!’
George RR Martin has also confirmed that there are strong parallels between the plot of Games of Thrones and the 15th-century Wars of the Roses, in which Wales played a large part.
As with Game of Thrones’ Joffrey Baratheon, the Wars of the Roses included younger heirs to the throne – the Princes in the Tower – who were probably murdered so that another – Richard III – could seize the throne.
The role of Pembroke-born Henry VII, banished across the sea but out to seize the throne for himself, is taken up by Daenerys Targaryen.
As well as being of Welsh descent Henry VII landed in Wales and recruited military reinforcements there before marching to victory at Bosworth Field.
How are yew?
Trees such as the oak and yew were sacred to the Celts, as they are to the First Men who still worship the Old Gods in Game of Thrones.
It’s no coincidence either than the Weirwoods in the Godswood in Game of Thrones are white with red leaves. These are the colour of the supernatural in Welsh mythology.
When Pwyll comes across a pack of hounds at the very beginning of the Mabinogi – the Dogs of Annwn – they’re white with red ears.
The animal and tree-worshipping Children of the Forest mentioned often in Game of Thrones also have clear parallels with the Tylwyth Teg of Welsh mythology.
Incestuous sexual relationships, rape, and people turning into animals – Game of Thrones has all three in spades.
George RR Martin has however had a hard time topping the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi.
After Gilfaethwy rapes his uncle’s servant, the powerful sorcerer turns him and his brother Gwydion into a pair of mating animals, first a stag and hind deer, then a sow and board, and finally a wolf and she wolf.
The two brothers mate as all three animals and have three sons, Hyddwn, Hychddwn and Bleiddwn (Stag-man, Tall-piglet, and Wolf-man).
In Game of Thrones, Joffrey is born of an incestuous relationship between his mother and uncle. Several characters can also take over the bodies of nearby animals.
There are continuous references throughout the Game of Thrones books and TV series to a war that happened in the past that installed Robert Baratheon as king.
The spark that set the war off was Rhaegar Targaryen’s (Daenarys’ brother) kidnapping of Edward Stark’s sister and Robert’s significant other, Lyanna.
Robert and Ned go after her, and this causes a civil war than brings down the Targaryen’s.
Some have pointed to Helen of Troy as the obvious inspiration – the face that launched a thousand ships.
But there’s a very strong similarity to the story of Branwen ferch Llŷr in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi.
Her mistreatment by the Irish King Matholwch sets off a war with Britain. Her brothers, King of the Britons Bendigeidfran and Efinisen, set off to save her.
As with Game of Thrones, there’s a very high body count. All the main characters are dead by the end of this war between Britain and Ireland, including Matholwch, Bendigeidfran, Efnisien, and Branwen.
What’s in a name?
A number of the characters in Game of Thrones have Welsh names which give some clue to their character or fate.
One of the most obvious is ‘Tyrion’ – whose name isn’t far from the Welsh word ‘Tirion’ meaning ‘considerate’.
The dwarf, although he can be cruel, is also one of the more sympathetic characters in the series owing to his own mistreatment.
However, the character of Bran Stark is the most obvious example of George RR Martin drawing inspiration from Welsh legend.
There are obvious parallels with the mythological figure of Bran, or Bendigeidfran as he’s known in the Mabinogi.
Bran in Game of Thrones develops psychic powers after being thrown out of the upper window of a castle and losing the use of is legs.
Bendigeidfran’s weak spot is also his legs and his own powers only grow stronger after he’s ‘killed’ with a spear to the foot.
Like Bran is carried around Westeros by Hodor, the Bran of Welsh mythology is carried around Britain before being buried on the White Hill (now the site of the Tower of London).
Game of Thrones is probably best known for the sheer amounts of gore and that too owes something of a debt to Welsh mythology.
Ramsey Bolton (played by Welshman Iwan Rheon) has a penchant for dismemberment that is very similar to Bendigeidfran’s villainous half-brother Efnisien.
The psychotic Efnisien likes nothing more than cutting ears and lips, crushing people’s heads with his bare hands, and burning small children alive.
Welsh history has also seen its share of violence. Some have pointed out the parallels between the Red Wedding, in which the Starks and the Tullys are butchered during a wedding hosted by Lord Walder Frey, and the Christmas Day massacre at Abergavenny Castle in 1175.
Them, the Norman Baron named William de Braose invited the Welsh chieftain named Seisyll ap Dyfnwal to a feast at his castle, before locking the doors and massacring him and his men.
It’s notable of course that while many people in Wales are familiar with these tales second hand from Tolkien, Martin and Rowling, but don’t realise their origins are Welsh.
There’s a lot of work to be done in Wales to get to know our own history and mythology. That’s why I wrote my third novel, Dadeni, in order to introduce many people in Wales to our own mythology.
If you haven’t done so already, visit the National Library or pick up a book about Wales’ history and mythology.
Who knows, it may inspire you to write the next Game of Thrones!
Here’s Oscar Seager one of the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage volunteers talking about his experience working on the Drake Sound Archive Collection.
Since volunteering in the Screen and Sound department of the National Library of Wales on the Unlocking our Sound Heritage project from February of this year, I have listened to numerous different audio clips on the Drake Sound Archive. These clips, while mainly focusing on business-related topics as they took place in the Cardiff Business Club, surprised me on the variety of talks that took place.
Many clips that I have listened to were recorded in 1998. However, more recently, many clips have moved to the 21st century. The topics that were mainly covered in this period were in relation to the Euro and the concerns that people faced in uniting under a single currency in terms of trade. However, other clips covered other topics that gave an interesting insight into things that I would never have come across in my academic studies in my History course including filmmaking (which was surprisingly discussed by Richard Attenborough) or the more random discussions such as the benefits of alcohol upon the body (discussed by Dr Thomas Stuttaford). While I had a fundamental understanding of what was being discussed in any clip, to be able to listen to a professional in that line of work discuss it is of significance to me.
However, it is not simply the fact that these clips are interesting that make my involvement in the UOSH feel worthwhile but also that these tapes have no longer been set aside but are now being made available in the British Library catalogue for others to listen to, truly unlocking our sound heritage for everyone to take full advantage of! Seeing my own work appearing on the library catalogue brought about a moment of pride and accomplishment to me as I was actively contributing to a historiography and also gaining valuable experience for my MA in Archive Administration at the same.
Exactly 50 years ago on July 1st 1969, Prince Charles was invested as Prince of Wales in Caernarfon Castle. The investiture was controversial and led to widespread protests. Conversely, it was also widely supported and championed by the Secretary of State for Wales, George Thomas.
Rhodri Evans, who has been researching the radical response to the investiture as part of a PhD at Aberystwyth University has curated a small exhibition on the subject in the Library’s Summers Room.
The exhibition will run until Friday July 5th, and will include material from the Library’s print, archival and screen and sound collections.
National Assembly for Wales Archive and the Welsh Political Archive
The first signing of the Treaty of Versailles happened 100 years ago today in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles near Paris. Although the fighting in World War I had finished with the signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918, it took 6 months of negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference to agree the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty outlined the terms of the peace between Germany and the Allied Powers.
In this video, learn more about the Peace Conference and the negotiations that formed the Treaty of Versailles with our expert, Rob Phillips who will lead you through original documents that shed light on the fraught discussions.
The British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was one of the Big Three who shaped the Treaty of Versailles, and you can learn more about him in our digital David Lloyd George exhibition.
You can also read the letters of his personal secretary at the time, Frances Stevenson, sent from the Paris Peace Conference to her family. They give insight not only into the goings on at the Conference, but to the thought of David Lloyd George himself. She writes that he thought the treaty was a ‘terrible document’, he of course felt strongly that Germany should not be punished too harshly.
An important gift, which recently came into the Library’s possession, was the Roese Collection, a valuable and comprehensive collection of contemporary Welsh art. Many of the items from this iconic collection can be viewed within the Collecting Contemporary exhibition here at the National Library. Within this blog Caryl and Dr Herbert Roese who kindly donated these works to the Library, give us an insight into the how this iconic collection evolved. Next Wednesday, on July 3rd at 1 pm, Caryl Roese will be giving a lunchtime talk at the Library’s Drwm on this important collection. A warm welcome to all. Free admission via ticket. Tickets available via the Library’s website: https://bit.ly/2J4G8s3 or by phone: 01970 632 548.
Being from South Wales, we were first introduced to Welsh Paintings per se by the Polish artist Josef Herman who I knew as a child in Ystradgynlais. He drew attention to the Coal Mining era between 1944-55.
In the 1960s we developed a serious interest in collecting paintings. In the 1970s, we decided to concentrate on purchasing abstract works by Welsh artists, some of whom were already well known, such as Ceri Richards. It was also important for us where possible to meet and talk to the individual artists about their work. Many long lasting friendships grew out of these meetings.
The first painting we acquired was one of Ernest Zobole’s Landscapes, i.e.No.2 of 1978, which we saw in his studio at Penrhys Road, Ystrad Rhondda, and we were later able to purchase two further works by the artist namely Painting about a Landscape (1997) and Ystrad and People No.10 (1961).
We were introduced to Ivor Davies by way of the Washington Gallery, Penarth. Over time we bought a number of his works, e.g. Mabon (1997), Natur a Meithrin/Nature and Culture (1983), and were presented with a gift namely Ivor’s View through a window (1969).
Glenys Cour’s style of painting appealed to us enormously leading to our purchase of Celtic Landscape (2001) at the Martin Tinney Gallery in Cardiff. We visited the artist many times at her home in the Mumbles, where we also acquired the work Celtic Stone (1998/99). During an exhibition at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, celebrating the poetry of Vernon Watkins i.e. Taliesin and the Mockers, we acquired Glenys’s paper collage I stood erect at the birth of rivers. It was illustrated in the artist’s same titled book and on the cover of the 2004 Dylan Thomas Festival brochure.
Another Welsh artist who invited us to his studio to view his work was Iwan Bala. As a result, we purchased the wonderful Omphalos (1999). It was inspired by the artist’s stay in Zimbabwe, something we had in common.
It is also worth mentioning the names of some other painters in the collection and the titles of their works: Keith Bayliss Visiting Angel, Gwenllian Beynon Hapus, Anthony Evans Cae Melyn & Brain, Ruth Jen Evans Tir Terfyn, Neal Howells Black Puck, Bert Isaac (several created in 2001-2003), Mary Lloyd-Jones Hen Waith Cwmystwyth, Islwyn Watkins (several created in 2001 and earlier) to name only a few.
We believe that we should all support our own modern Welsh artists, which explains our choice of mostly abstract works.
A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.
Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.