Gorsedd, plural gorseddau is a Welsh word means literally `high seat', a word that is used in modern Welsh to mean specifically 'throne' but also indicates any seat of power or authority. 'Gorsedd y Beirdd', the Gorsedd of Bards is simply an assembly or gathering of bards, where 'bards' is understood to refer to druidical priests rather than poets.
The History and Origins of the Gorsedd
I am giving you the Patriarchal religion and theology,
the Divine Revelation given to Mankind
and these have been retained in Wales until our own day. 1
So wrote Edward Williams, an itinerant stonemason, who in the year 1792 founded what he called the 'Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain' together with a group of fellow Welsh expatriates. They assembled at Primrose Hill in London on the autumn equinox and 'according to ancient usage...the wonted ceremonies were performed'2 within a circle of small stones. (Which Edward Williams had thoughfully brought with him, there being no suitable stone circle in the vicinity.)
Edward Williams was fortunate in coming across a mumber of ancient manuscripts that set out in detail the organisational arrangements for the Gorsedd and the precise wording of the ceremonies to be conducted enabling him to enact a vivid re-creation of the Celtic heritage of Wales. Edward Williams revealed how the old druid orders of the pre-Christian era had not been destroyed but taken authority within the new Christian church and produced a synthesis of both the old and new faiths. (A synthesis naturally obscured by the later advent and imposition of Romish Christianity.)
In the year 1819 the Gorsedd ceremony was repeated in Wales itself, at an eisteddfod held at the Ivy Bush Hotel in Carmarthen. This began the association between the traditional Welsh concept of the competitive arts festival, the Eisteddfod, and the Gorsedd. By the time the concept of holding an annual National Eisteddfod had emerged in the mid nineteenth century, the Gorsedd and its ceremnonies had become an integral part of the eisteddfod itself.
The concept of the Gorsedd was sufficiently popular that it spread to the other Brythonic peoples; Brittany established its own Gorsedd of Bards, the Goursez Breizh in 1900 and Cornwall followed suit with the Gorseth Kernow in 1928.
Gorsedd y Beirdd Ynys Prydein
The 'Gorsedd of Bards of the Isle of Britain' is now firmly established as a Welsh national institution and is officially described as;
is an association whose members consist of poets, writers, musicians, artists and individuals who have made a distinguished contribution to the Welsh nation, language and culture. 3
Although Edward Williams conducted all his ceremonies in the English language, and indeed a lot of the business of the early eisteddfodau were conducted in English as well, both the Gorsedd and the National Eisteddfod are now strictly Welsh speaking institutions.
The major role of the Gorsedd is ceremonial. As the National Eisteddfod is a perepriatic affair that changes location every year, the Gorsedd is responsible for conducting the ceremony of proclamation of each new Eisteddfod which takes place within a specially constructed faux stone circle at the chosen location. (As a result of which Wales is littered with faux stone circles.)
It is also responsible for conducting the major ceremonies within the Eisteddfod itself, namely the Crowning of the winner of the competition for free verse, the presentation of the Prose Medal to the winner of that competiton, and the Chairing of the winner of the competition for poetry composed in accordance with the old strict metres.
These ceremonies basically involve holding aloft a partially sheathed sword, asking the question, "A oes heddwch?" (is there peace?), to which the assembled audience replies "Heddwch!" (Peace!), and sheathing the sword. After which some children do a floral dance.
The Gorsedd is headed by an Archdruid, who is elected for a term of three years, and divided into three separate orders as follows;
- Urdd Ofydd, the 'Order of Seers' who wear green robes,
- Urdd Bardd, the 'Order of Bards' who wear blue robes,
- Urdd Derwydd, the 'Order of Druids' who wear white robes.
Entry to the first two ranks is by examination but entry to the Order of Druids itself is through achievment and distinction. Anyone can therfore join the first two orders as long as they can pass the necessary exams (although prior knowledge of the Welsh language is something of an advantage) but membership of the top order is by invitation only.
It is worth noting that since there never has been a Welsh state, and until very recently no kind of national Welsh political body whatsover, the Gorsedd has taken on the role of providing the closest thing there is in Wales to a national honours system.
Elevation to the status of the Order of Druids is therefore the one honour that the Welsh nation can bestow upon individuals and prominent Welsh sportsmen and women, politicians and performers, poets and playwrights have all been recognised in this way. Members have included David Lloyd George, Richard Burton, Gareth Edwards, Ron Davies, Robert Croft, Bryn Terfel as well as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams is himself a member of the Order of Druids and chose the bardic name of 'ap Aneurin'. Whilst he is not the first member of the Church in Wales to accept such an accolade, he is most certainly the first Archbishop of Canterbury that is also a 'druid'.
The unfortunate truth of the whole affair
It is necessary to point out that Edward Williams, better known under his bardic name of Iolo Morgannwg, politely called an 'eccentric scholar', was in fact something of a prankster and an accomplished forger. (Not to mention the fact that he appears to have been an opium addict as well.) The 'ancient manuscripts' he claimed to have found where all his own work and their contents entirely the product of his own imagination.
It is probably fair to say that the whole idea of Druidism and its central role in Welsh life was Williams' for which there is little of any historical support, indeed whether druidism per se had any significant role in the religous life of pre-Christian Britain is very much debatable.
None of this actually matters all that much, as no one in Wales actually takes any of this mumbo-jumbo seriously. Everyone understands that Edward was having us all on, so that everyone is now in on the joke and besides, after two centuries we have all got rather used to the whole thing and regard it as a splendid piece of pantomime. And as far as I am aware Wales is the only nation that honours the great and the good by making them wear ankle length nightgowns in public.
Whilst the main functions of the Gorseddau of Wales, Brittany and Cornwall are now the preservation and promotion of their respective cultures, none of these institutions have any connection whatsoever with any similarly named Gorseddau established under the auspices of the British Druid Order, which are spiritual rather than cultural institutions. These go by such names as the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Abiri, the Gorsedd of Bards of Cor Gawr, the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Rhigor, and even the Gorsedd of Bards of Caer Pugetia based in Seattle.
1 Quote derived from the Alistair Moffat source
2 From the Gentlemans Magazine, again derived from the Alistair Moffat source
3 As per www.eisteddfod.org.uk
Alistair Moffat The Sea Kingdoms (Harper Collins, 2002)
John Davies A History of Wales (Allen Lane, 1993)
Detailed rules regarding the organisation of the Gorsedd can be found at