Williams, Edward (1746-1826) (DNB00)

WILLIAMS, EDWARD (1746–1826), Welsh bard, known in Wales as ‘Iolo Morgannwg,’ was born on 10 March 1746 at Penon in the parish of Llan Carfan, Glamorganshire. His father was a stonemason; his mother, whose maiden name was Mathews, was of good birth and education. As a lad he was too weakly to attend school, and from the age of nine until his mother's death in 1770 he worked desultorily at his father's trade, and, with his mother's aid, made up by persistent study for his lack of schooling. On her death he left Glamorganshire, and for about seven years worked as a journeyman mason in various parts of England. He then returned to Wales, and in 1781 married Margaret, daughter of Rees Roberts of Marychurch. His occupation interfering with his health, he set up in 1797 a bookseller's shop at Cowbridge, but found the confinement irksome, and took to land surveying instead. Flemingston, in the vale of Glamorgan, now became his home, and from this centre he made long expeditions, always on foot, in search of manuscripts bearing on Welsh history. He died at Flemingston on 18 Dec. 1826, and was buried there. A tablet was erected to his memory in 1855.

Williams was not only a man of great powers of mind, but also of remarkable independence of character, and as a self-taught genius attracted, on his visits to London, a good deal of notice from the men of letters of his day. He was distinguished by many original traits. He lived sparely, dressed quaintly, and set no store by money. A keen opponent of slavery, he renounced some property left to him by slave-holding brothers in Jamaica, and in his Cowbridge shop advertised for sale ‘East India sugar, uncontaminated by human gore.’ He was a unitarian and in warm sympathy with the early revolutionary movement in France, and thus came into contact with Priestley, Gilbert Wakefield, and David Williams. His independence is seen in the way in which, on presenting to the Prince of Wales an ode on his marriage in 1795, he appeared before him with the leathern apron and trowel of his craft. Southey held ‘bard Williams’ in great respect, and gave him a place in ‘Madoc’ (p. 79 of edit. of 1805, ‘Iolo, old Iolo, he who knows,’ &c.). His ‘Poems, Lyric and Pastoral,’ were published in London in two volumes in 1794, and the list of subscribers, including as it does the names of Robert Raikes, Thomas Paine, and Hannah More, shows how wide was the circle of his patrons.

It was, however, in Welsh literature that Williams played his most important part. He had inherited from John Bradford (d. 1780) [q. v.] the bardic traditions which had grown into a system in Glamorgan (though not elsewhere recognised) during the previous three centuries, and accepted them as genuine relics of the age of the Druids, embodying customs to which all Welsh bards should conform. This view he expounded about 1790 to Dr. William Owen Pughe [q. v.], who adopted it and gave it publicity in 1792, in his preface to the ‘Heroic Elegies’ (see p. lxii). Iolo also obtained for it in 1791 the support of Dafydd Ddu, the leader of the bards of North Wales (Adgof uwch Anghof, 1883, p. 14). In this way the ‘gorsedd’ and its ceremonies won a recognised place in Welsh literary life. The documents bearing upon the subject were mainly collected by Edward David [q. v.] and prepared for publication by Iolo. His treatise ‘Cyfrinach y Beirdd’ (‘The Mystery of Bardism’) was almost ready for the press at his death. Though the bardic system, of which he was the champion, is known to be a modern fabrication, it was accepted in good faith by Iolo. Other bardic papers of his were used after his death by John Williams ‘ab Ithel’ (1811–1862) [q. v.] in the compilation of ‘Barddas.’ Iolo was one of the three editors of the ‘Myvyrian Archaiology’ (1801), for which he collected and transcribed many manuscripts; the Welsh Manuscripts Society published in 1848 what was meant by the bard to be a continuation of this work, under the title ‘Iolo MSS.’ (Llandovery, reprinted at Liverpool in 1888). He published no original Welsh verse save ‘Salmau yr Eglwys yn yr anialwch’ (‘Psalms of the Church in the Desert’), Merthyr, 1812 (2nd edit. Merthyr, 1827); a second volume appeared at Merthyr in 1834 (2nd edit. Aberystwyth, 1857). His manuscripts, many of them still unpublished, are at Llanover and at the British Museum.

Taliesin Williams (1787–1847), Iolo's son, was born at Cardiff on 9 July 1787 at Flemingston. He edited ‘Cyfrinach y Beirdd,’ Swansea, 1829, 2nd edit. Carnavon, 1874, and the second volume of the ‘Salmau’ for the press after his father's death, and did the same service for the Iolo MSS. as far as p. 494, when the work was interrupted by his illness. He died at Merthyr Tydfil on 16 Feb. 1847. His own works were: 1. A poem on ‘Cardiff Castle,’ Merthyr, 1827. 2. ‘The Doom of Colyn Dolphyn,’ London, 1837, a poem in three cantos, with copious historical notes.

[The preface to ‘Poems Lyric and Pastoral’ is largely autobiographical. Elijah Waring's ‘Recollections and Anecdotes of Edward Williams,’ London, 1850, is a storehouse of personal facts. For the history of the ‘Gorsedd,’ see J. Morris Jones in ‘Cymru’ for 1896. The Cardiff library catalogue gives bibliographical details.]

J. E. L.