Edward Williams/Iolo Morganwg/Iolo Morgannwg
b. March 10, 1747, Pennon, Llancarfan, Glamorgan, Wales.
d. December 18, 1826, Trefflemin, Glamorgan.
Renowned forger and collector of medieval Welsh documents, and godfather of the mesodruid phenomenon, which was greatly influenced by his involvement with Freemasonry.
Son of Edward Williams, a stonemason, he was born in Pennon and raised in Flimstone. He claimed to have had no formal schooling, but to have learned to read while watching his father, a stonemason, carve words onto gravestones. He took up his father's craft, becoming a stonemason, while also learning to write poetry form local bards like Lewis Hopkin, Siôn Bradford, and Rhys Morgan. Williams apparently took an early interest in Welsh manuscripts, and reportedly made friends with local collectors.
In 1773, he left for London, where he met Owain Myfyr, who introduced him to the Society of Gwyneddigion. This association would later lead him towards editing the Myvyrian Archaiology with Myfyr.
In 1777, he returned to Wales, and in 1781, he married and attempted life as a farmer. It was apparently a failure. The next few years are largely a mystery; he returned to London and lived there from 1791 to 1795, where he conducted the "bardic ceremonies" on Primrose Hill.
In 1789 he produced his first forgery, Barddoniaeth Dafydd ab Gwilym, which while primarily a collection of the work of the great fourteenth-century poet, also included a staggering number of poems "found" by Williams, and later edited by Owen Jones and William Owen Pughe. Of course, given the lack of canonization for Dafydd's works, it wasn't hard to claim any number of poems were by Dafydd. The impressive element is that Williams' forgeries were so good at capturing Dafydd's style.
In 1794, he produced the first of his only truly geniune works, Poems, Lyric and Pastoral. The two-volume set was reportedly popular enough that George Washington, at the time first president of the United States, as well as the Prince of Wales and Horace Walpole were subscribers (Schimanski, para 18). He also wrote a number of hymns, published in 1812 as Salmau yr Eglwys yn yr Anialwch.
He had a hand in the Myvyrian Archaiology (1801 - 1807), one of the earliest printed collections of medieval Welsh literature; unfortunately, some of the works were his forgeries, including poems attributed to Iolo Goch and Dafydd ap Gwillim, as well as an extra third of the Welsh triads, a fictitious book by Saint Cadoc, and a forged brut. He also had his thumb in the short-lived magazine Y Greal (1805-7), including his forgeries there.
Williams was actually a collector and copier of manuscripts, however; some of the items found in his papers can be found in authentic manuscripts of various dates, such as a version of the Hanes Taliesin, and some poems.
Some of these papers were collected in The Iolo Manuscripts (1848), edited by his son Taliesin Williams, who unfortunately didn't realize how much his father had actually invented. Still, there was much in his own hand which has since been proven to predate him, though whether they can reflect any real claim of ancient authority is unlikely. It was from these manuscripts that Lady Charlotte Guest culled most of her notes from when she was translating the Mabinogion from the Red Book of Hergest. However, she did not rely on any of his transcriptions of the Mabinogion, except for the "Taliesin" episode, which has also been found in an earlier version than Williams's.
He is also the source for the spurious Barddas, which claims to be the work of one Llewellyn Sion in the sixteenth century, recording the beliefs of the ancient bards and their history. Even if his manuscript is authentic, it is still only from the sixteenth century, and hardly representative of the beliefs of the bards from ancient times to the beginning of the sixth century, much less represent a continuation to the eighteenth century.
Cyfrinach Beirdd Ynys Prydein (1829) was a posthumous work, which seems to have been later subsumed into Barddas.
Bardism and Druidry
His "bardic" name is translated as "Edward of Glamorgan"--Iolo the diminutive of Iorwerth (the Welsh version of Edward), and Morgannwg the Welsh name for Glamorgan1. He claimed to have manuscripts which proved that Druidism and the bardic tradition had continued unmolested in Glamorgan since the days before the Romans, through the introduction of Christianity, and into the modern era. He was wrong. Morgannwg had the fear that the Welsh were losing their heritage and traditions, and so felt he had to preserve and reintroduce them to the public. Unfortunately, some of this task involved forging documents and creating traditions.
In 1792, he created the Gorsedd, an essembly of Welsh poets, which merged with the Eisteddfod, created by his rival William Jones. He also contributed certain ceremonial aspects to the Eisteddfod, likely culled both from his own imagination and the Masons.
Williams claimed to have found a manuscript at Raglan Castle which contained the works of one Llewelyn Sion--a record of the bardic institution going back to the settlement of Britain.
Barddas and Williams' Curious Theology
Suspicion that Williams had forged a large number of "medieval" Welsh works began at least as early as 1868, when William F. Skene, in his Four Ancient Books of Wales, wrote:
It is a peculiarity attaching to almost all of the documents which have emanated from the chair of Glamorgan, in other words, from Iolo Morganwg, that they are not to be found in any of the Welsh MSS. contained in other collections, and that they must be accepted on his authority alone. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to say that they must be viewed with some suspicion, and that very careful discrimination is required in the use of them.
Reportedly, Williams had a heavy laudanum habit, and so much of those forgeries were made under what may have been a sincere--though misguided--effort to "preserve" Welsh tradition.
Williams was actually a rather gifted poet who understood his subject; if he had stayed on the straight and narrow, we may be thinking of him less as forger and more as a Blakeian visionary.
1. Thanks go to Evan Ifor Powell, who explaned the name Iolo to me.
Matthews, John. "Introduction." Barddas. ed. and trans. J. Williams ab Ithel. Llandovery: Welsh Mss. Society, 1862. new edition: York Beach, ME: Weiser/Red Wheel, 2004.
Morgannwg, Iolo. Barddas. ed. and trans. J. Williams ab Ithel. new edition: York Beach, ME: Weiser/Red Wheel, 2004.
Morgannwg, Iolo. Iolo Mss.. ed. and trans. Taliesin Williams. Llandovery: Welsh Mss. Society, 1848.
Prescott, Andrew. "Freemasonry and the Problem of Britain." Inaugural lecture to mark the launch of the University of Sheffield's Centre for Research into Freemasonry, 5 March 2001. URL: http://freemasonry.dept.shef.ac.uk/?q=papers_4
Schimanski, Johan. “The ‘Lyric Pastoral’: A Natural Genre? (With an Introduction to a Debate between Genette and Derrida)”. Skriftserie for litteraturvitenskap ved Universitetet i Oslo 9 (1993): 74-84. URL: http://www.hum.uit.no/a/schimanski/artikler/lyrpast.htm
Skene, William F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales. vol.I. Edinburgh: Edmonston And Douglas, 1868. pp.29-32. URL: http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/fab/fab004.htm
Y Bywgraffiadur Cymreig. Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion of London. 1940. WWW: Welsh Biography Online URL: http://yba.llgc.org.uk/AnaServer?ybawbo+1892113+aview.anv+v=av&l=c.
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Mary Jones © 2004