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Yr Hen Iaith part thirty five: Maintaining Tradition in an Age of Change

03 Mar 2024 9 minute read
Basingwerk Abbey near Holywell, Flintshire, aerial view (Creative Commons Licence)

We continue the  history of Welsh literature to accompany the second series of podcasts in which Jerry Hunter guides fellow academic Richard Wyn Jones through the centuries.  This is episode 35.

Jerry Hunter

One of the fascinating things about Welsh-language literature during the Tudor period is that traditional bardic culture continued despite massive political, religious, technological and educational transformations.

As had been the case for centuries, professional Welsh bards continued to compose praise poetry for patrons, pursuing  this ancient calling in the context of a changing society.

This was an organized profession, and as such it was regulated. Welsh bards were instructed in the traditional manner by  a pencerdd (literally a ‘song-’ or ‘poetry-master’, but perhaps best translated as ‘bardic teacher’ or ‘chief poet’).

The connections between teachers and pupils formed bardic lineages extending back through the centuries which anchored the living practitioner in the greatness of the past.

Bards were graded formally at an eisteddfod or during a neithior (wedding feast) held by an influential uchelwr (gentry) family. And bards were licensed.

A surviving document confirming Gruffudd Hiraethog’s bardic status survives, written in 1546 by his teacher, Lewys Morgannwg. It begins with these words: Bid hysbyssol i bawb o voneddigion a chyffredin o fewn siroedd a thaleithiav Kymrv . . . ., ‘Let it be known to everybody both noble and common in the counties and states of Wales . . . .’

The three states of Wales

As discussed in the previous episode, during the reign of Henry VIII the map of Wales was redrawn in terms of English-style counties.

However, traditional Welsh bardic practice operated with reference to an older geography,  tair talaith Cymru, ‘the three states of Wales’ (Aberffraw/Gwynedd, Mathrafal/Powys and Dinefwr/Deheubarth).

This native geography was delineated in the medieval Welsh law tracts (‘the law of Hywel Dda’), but that native law was eliminated by the ‘Acts of Union’ at the very time when the map of Wales was being redrawn.

It is this immediate context which makes a few words in Gruffudd Hiraethog’s bardic license so interesting.

This document describes the geography of Wales in two completely different ways, acknowledging the political and administrative realty of the Tudor present while also operating by force of imagination in an ancient Welsh world. Sixteenth-century Welsh bards travelled through siroedd (‘counties’) and  taleithiau (‘states’) at one and the same time, negotiating the present while maintaining tradition.

If Lewys Morgannwg was Gruffudd Hiraethog’s bardic teacher, he himself claimed Tudur Aled as his teacher.

Tudur Aled died during the reign of Henry VIII, in 1525 or 1526. A praise poem in the strict cywydd metre which he composed for Wiliam ap Siôn Edwart, Constable of Chirk, is an excellent example of how the old and the new combined in bardic poetry of the period.

The opening couplet describes the patron in traditional terms which would not be out of place in a composition from the previous centuries.

Heliwr hyddlwdn, hael, rhoddlawn,
Hefyd, ar wayw, hyfedr iawn.

‘Hunter of a young stag, generous, full of gifts,
Also extremely skilled in using the spear.’


The manly virtues manifest in hunting and warfare are celebrated along with the patron’s generosity. While praising a patron’s martial ability characterizes the earliest Welsh praise poetry, Tudur Aled elaborates in a manner which tells us that we in are not in the early Middle Ages anymore:

Plât i ymladd, ple teimlwyd?
Pybyr, o faes, pob arf wyd;
Pe â gwn, well pwy a’i gwna?
Pwy i’th fyw ar bob bath fwa?

‘Plate [armour] for fighting, where is it felt?
You are lively on a battle-field with every kind of weapon;
If with a gun, who does it better?
Who of your contemporaries [is better] with every type of bow?’

The gun

Despite anachronistic stereotypes of medieval warfare, full plate armour reached its peak in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And, in addition to shooting bows, Wiliam ap Siôn Edwart is praised for his skill with that newer weapon, the ‘gun’.

As noted in the previous episode, the growth of literacy is one of the most important transformation characterizing this new period. In addition to praising his patron for his warlike traits, Tudur Aled celebrates his cultured lear

Torri â’th inc o’r tri thro
Achau, arfau, a cherfio.
Mae’r cronig mawr, cywreinwaith,
Mewn un llaw, mwy no’n holl iaith.

‘Drawing with inc the three feats:
Genealogies, coats of arms and engraving.
The big chronicle – a fine work –
Is in one hand, bigger than our entire language.’


The superlative flattery is of course characteristic of bardic praise, as Tudur Aled claims that Wiliam ap Siôn Edwart reads a history book containing more words than the entire language.

Leading us to see the patron as an archetypical ‘Renaissance man’, the bard also praises him for his musical ability, using a lovely phrase – berw yn y bysedd, literally a ‘boiling’ or ‘bustle in the fingers’ – to describe how he plays an instrument.

We are in fact told that the man can play many instruments, both wind and string ([p]ib and [t]ant), naming specifically the luwt, borrowed from the English word ‘lute’, as well as the exemplary Welsh instrument, the telyn or ‘harp’.

If the praise sometimes yields to fanciful exaggeration, the way in which the poet supports his patron’s political aspiration anchors the work firmly in the Tudor present.

Wiliam ap Siôn Edwart had been made a ‘seuer’, waiting on the king during his meals, an honour duly noted by the bard:

Sewer o lys Harri lân,
Seiniwyd i’w fes[1] ei hunan

‘A seuer to fair Harry,
Called to his own dining-hall.’


Tudur Aled concludes by wishing that his patron receive an even higher honour and be made a Knight of the Garter: Torch a gart aur iwch, gowrtiwr, ‘[May there be] a golden necklace and garter for you, courtier!’

This last word, borrowed into Welsh as [c]owrtiwr, is perhaps the most succinct way of stressing the Welsh uchelwr’s connection with the Tudor court.

The heads of Welsh monasteries were also drawn from the uchelwr class and, like their lay relatives, these religious leaders often served as patrons for poets.

The bard Siôn Ceri, active c. 1520 to c. 1545, composed a beautiful cywydd of praise to Tomas Pennant, abbot of Dinas Basing or Basingwerk Abbey, near Treffynnon or Holywell in Flintshire.

The adjective hael, ‘generous’, is applied to the patron in the opening lines, placing it solidly within the conventions of praise poetry.

In addition to referencing the money given out by this generous patron and the lavish feasts held in the abbey for visiting guests, the bard praises Tomas Pennant for construction work carried out in and around the monastery.

Adnewyddaist neuaddoedd
Tai Dduw a’i saint, addas oedd.

‘You renovated the halls
Of the houses of God and his saints, it was fitting.’

Industrious abbot

The bard tells us that the industrious abbot has given the ‘old monastery’ (hen  fynachlog) a ‘fresh coat’ (clog glas).

Siôn Ceri goes into architectural detail as he describes the renovations carried out under the abbot’s supervision: Plwm ar frig cerrig yn cau, ‘Lead closing the tops of stones’.

A new roof had been put on, with lead making ensuring that the slates or ‘stones’ were water-tight.

The well for which Holywell was named – the ffynnon in the Welsh name Treffynnon – is Ffynnon Gwenfrewi or St. Winifred’s Well, a site of pilgrimage believed to contain healing powers.

In addition to spending on renovations at his monastery, Tomas Pennant had embarked on an ambitious new building project in order to improve the experience of pilgrims visiting the holy well.

A gweithio mur, a gwaith mwy,
Gwyn afrifed, Gwenfrewy.
Dechrau ar lled ochrau’r llyn,
Da diweddych dy dyddyn
A gwalau serth eglwys hon,
A chloi’i phen uwchlaw ffynnon.

‘And working on a wall, and doing more work –
Innumerable blessings – for Gwenfrewi.
Beginning along the sides of the pool,
Well may you finish your little building
And the straight walls of this church
And close the roof over the well.’


Forcing Wales to become Protestant was surely the most far-reaching of the societal transformations which came during the reign of Henry VIII. Bringing an often violent end to centuries of Catholic religious practice, one aspect of the Protestant Reformation was the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

 Nonconformist Welsh historians of the twentieth century often suggested that Welsh monasteries were rotten institutions, fulfilling no real cultural function and ready to be overthrown during the Reformation.

However, this poem by Siôn Ceri was composed on the very eve of the Dissolution and it provides evidence which runs counter to that propagandist Protestant historiography.

This Welsh monastery was anything but culturally irrelevant at the time. The abbot was welcoming professional poets, providing resources which helped maintain and inspire the bardic tradition.

This monastery was, quite literally, a site of literary production. And it was a site of cultural production in other ways as well; rather than letting the physical infrastructure of the old institution decay, the abbot was ensuring that architectural renovation – and perhaps even innovation – was taking place.

As some of that building work was designed to improve the experience of pilgrims, we might even say that this religious institution was making plans to enhance the religious experience of common people.

Yet this work was not to be completed: the officials acting on behalf of Henry VIII came and closed the monastery.

The newly-placed lead was stripped from the new roof, ensuring that rain would come in and destroy the building. No more poets would be supported by Basingwerk Abbey or by any other monastery in Wales.

[1] bwyd; pobl sy’n rhannu bwyd (o’r Saesneg ‘mess’)

Catch up with all the previous episodes in this series here

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