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Yr Hen Iaith, part thirty six: Elis Gruffydd and the Boundaries of Welsh Writing

17 Mar 2024 11 minute read
Cronicl o Wech Oesoedd by Elis Gruffydd (National Library of Wales)

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 36.

Jerry Hunter

The longest narrative work ever written in Welsh was not produced in Wales. The text in question is the massive chronicle composed by Elis Gruffydd between c. 1530 and 1552, a staggeringly ambitious account of world history which begins with the biblical Creation and ends in the early 1550s.

It contains nearly 2,500 large manuscript pages, each one crammed with enough writing to fill a typed A4 page today.

If we can see his work as a boundary-breaking literary achievement, Elis himself led a life which crossed geographical boundaries.

This most industrious of Welsh writers was originally from Gronant, Gwespyr, in the parish of Llanasa, Flintshire.

Born between c.1485 and c.1495, he belonged to the uchelwr or gentry class, although his family was comparatively impoverished. We know nothing of his early life, but he learned to write before leaving the land of his birth.

Given his intellectual curiosity, it is likely that Elis Gruffydd would’ve attended university if his family could’ve afforded it.

Instead, he joined Henry VIII’s army as a young man and took part in several military campaigns on the continent.


Having served with Sir Robert Wingfield while in the army, Elis later took up civilian employment in the 1520s as the keeper of that English magnate’s London house.

He returned to soldiering at the end of that decade, after gaining a position in the Calais garrison, posted to keep the French from recapturing the English king’s last foothold in their land.

It was there that he wrote his chronicle of Chwech Oes y Byd, ‘The Six Ages of the World’. This Welsh literary milestone was produced by a solider writing in his spare time.

After completing the final part of his chronicle in 1552, Elis sent it home to Flintshire, including a kind of address on one of his manuscript’s large pages:

Da y delych di o feddiant Elis Gruffydd, sawdiwr o Galis, i feddiant Tomas fab Tomas fab Siôn fab Gruffudd Fychan i Bant-y-Llongdy yng Ngwespyr, o fewn plwyf Llan Asaph yn sir y Fflint o fewn Tegangyl.

‘Well may you come from the possession of Elis Gruffydd, soldier of Calais, to the possession of Tomas fab Tomas fab Siôn fab Gruffudd Fycan, to Pant-y-Llongdy in Gwespyr, in the parish of Llanasa in Flintshire in Tegeingl.’

There is no evidence that Elis Gruffydd ever returned to Wales after leaving in his youth to follow the life of a soldier. However, he wrote in Welsh for a Welsh readership back in Wales.


In presenting his work to this readership, Elis engages in a complex rhetorical maneuver, exhibiting a kind of supplication common in the period while also drawing attention to the uniqueness of his work.

He flatters his readers with a dizzying assemblage of similes, each one describing the author as a simple instrument designed to help more capable men do more important work.

Elis writes that he is like ‘the spur to make the horse walk, run or trot faster’ (yr ysbardun i wneuthud i’r march gerdded, rhedeg, neu duthio ynghynt ) or ‘a whetstone’ (agallen) which ‘learned men’ (gwŷr dysgedig) can use ‘to sharpen their knives’ (i hogi eu cyllyll) so that they can in turn sharpen their writing instruments in order to ‘smooth out and perfect’ (i lyfynhau ac i berffeithio) the chronicler’s rough work.

His text is like a field ‘prepared’ ([b]raenaru) and turned into ‘big awkward furrows’ (yn gwysau mawr balciog), ready for others to plough and plant with seed.

Finally, after pretending to belittle himself thoroughly with these comparisons (while simultaneously dazzling the reader with his imaginative verbosity), Elis Gruffydd ends his presentation by suggesting something entirely different:

nid wyf yn cymeryd arnaf amgenach na gwr syml disas diddysg anwybodol a fai yn cymeryd arno fod yn ben llongwr i lywio ac i gyfarwyddo llongiad o wyr o fliant ac anrhydedd dros fôr llydan i wlad yn yr hon ni buasai neb ohonynt hwy erioed yn y blaen.

‘I don’t pretend to be anything other than a simple, common uneducated and unknowledgeable man who pretends to be a ship captain steering and navigating a ship full of men of fine fabric and honor across a wide sea to a country in which none of them have ever been before.’

Apparently genuflecting once more before his readers, protesting that he is simple and uneducated by comparison, he is also stressing that he his presenting them with something the likes of which they have never seen before.

If the author himself was living across the sea in Calais, he was taking Welsh readers to a new literary land.

Elis Gruffydd employed a large variety of sources when compiling his sprawling history of the world, including Welsh folktales encountered during his youth, manuscripts containing medieval Welsh historiographical texts, and printed English chronicles.

Given that Elis recorded events to which he was an eye-witness and often wrote in an intimate first-person authorial voice, we might argue – at the risk of anachronism – that later parts of the chronicle be seen as the first autobiography in the Welsh language.

Social network

Many of the contemporary events which he recorded came to him by word of mouth, thanks to the army’s lively Welsh social network to which Elis belonged.

During his time in London, the man from Flintshire was one of many Welsh people serving in the corridors of power, and he had many friends who brought him rumors, news and stories from the highest of places.

These parts of the chronicle provide us with a Welsh servant’s fly-on-the-wall view of the Tudor court. The following anecdote was apparently told to Elis by one of his friends around the time when Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded:

Ynghylch y cyfamser yma, megis ag y clywais i wŷr o’r llys yn dywedyd, y digwyddodd i’r brenin [fod wrthi] yn cellwair â’r frenhines, [ac yn] dywedyd yn y modd yma: “Yn wir, ped fai penpryd Dgian Semer ar dy gorff di, diogel ydyw na allai ddyn yn y byd lunio gwraig na morwyn berffeithiach ei phryd a’i gwedd a’i ymddygiad no thydi.”   Y Geiriau a gymerth y frenhines yn soredig iawn. Ac o hyn allan ni bu gymaint o gariad ag a fuasai rhyngthent hwy yn y blaen.

‘About this time, as I heard one of the men of the court say, it happened that the king was jesting with the queen, saying in this manner: “Truly, if you had Jane Seymour’s face on your body, it is sure that nobody could form a woman or a maiden of more perfect appearance and deportment than you.”  The queen was most offended by the words. And from that time on, there was not so much love between them as had been before.’

This short misogynistic narrative is surely the sixteenth-century equivalent of a ‘sick joke’. While it is presented as a true account of a conversation overheard by an eavesdropping royal servant, it must have reached the ears of Elis Gruffydd after Anne Boleyn was beheaded, her gruesome demise indexed by the king’s suggestion that he would like to see Jane Seymour’s head on her shoulders.

Striking autobiography

One of the most striking autobiographical sections of the chronicle records the transition in Elis Gruffydd’s own life when he was leaving service in London and taking up his new position in Calais. His ship was anchored near the coast of England when a storm engulfed it, a terrifying experience described by Elis in memorable detail:

Ac ynghylch saith ar y gloch o’r nos y daeth corff y demystl hon atom ni; yr hon a chwythodd mor greulon ag i’r angore golli eu gafael a myned yn ôl y llong, yr hon a oedd y gwynt yn ei gwthio i’r môr.

‘And about seven o’clock at night the body of the tempest came upon us; it blew so cruelly that the anchors lost their grip and went after the ship, which the wind was pushing to sea.’

He tells us that all aboard prayed for salvation while they worked frantically to save the ship: yn yr amser yr oeddem ni yn crio ar saint, pawb wrth y modd y bai ei oglyd, ‘at which time we were invoking saints, each in the manner which might save himself’. The Welshman then lists the various saints’ images in English churches upon which his fellow travelers were calling:

. . . rhai ar Fair o Walsingam, eraill ar y Grog o ddrws y gogledd yn Eglwys Bawl, ac eraill ar Saint Safiwr o Farmisai, eraill ar Fair o Farkyng, ac eraill ar Fair o’r Puw yn Wesdmysdyr.

‘ . . . some [calling upon] Mary of Walsingham, others on the Rood at the north  door in St. Paul’s Cathedral, and others on St. Savior of Marmisai, others on Mary of Marking, and others on Mary of Pew in Westminster.’


Elis Gruffydd had become a Protestant by this time, yet he confesses that he himself fell prayed to a Catholic saint. While we think of St. Dwynwen as the Welsh patron saint of lovers today, she was also apparently sought by those seeking safe passage at sea (something perhaps suggested by the seaside location of her church on Llanddwyn near the Anglesey coast):

Yn yr amser yr oeddwn i cyn waned fy ffydd â gŵr arall, o’r achos yr addewais i ynof fy hun ddyfod ar fy nhraed a cheiniog i Ddwynwen pa bryd bynnag ar y rhoddai Duw a’r Saint gennad i mi i sathru troedfedd o dir Lloegr. Ac yn y modd yma yr oeddem ni oll yn rhoddi ein gobaith yn fwy i gyffion o gau brenne, y rhain a oedd rai ohonynt hwy 300 o filltiroedd oddi wrthym ni, nog i Dduw ac i’r prenne, drwy wyrthiau Duw, a oedd yn ein cynal ni ar ucha y dŵr.

‘At that time I was as weak in my faith as the next man, because I promised inside myself that I’d come on foot with a penny for Dwynwen whenever God and the Saints gave permission for me to trod a foot of England’s land again. And in this way we were all placing our faith more in blocks of false wood – some of which were 300 miles away from us – rather than in God and the pieces of wood which were, through God’s miracles, keeping us on top of the water.’

This passage offers important insight into the nature of religious belief in England and Wales during the early years of the Protestant Reformation.

When faced with death, the Welsh traveler and his English companions turned instinctively to the religious culture in which they had been raised.

However, once Elis Gruffydd was safe in his new home in Calais and meditating at leisure, his Protestantism was in control and he was able to analyze and criticize his own religious back-sliding.

And he did so in writing, employing his lively prose style and acerbic wit to create a memorable piece of self-satire.

Further Reading:

Thomas Jones, `A Welsh Chronicler in Tudor England’, Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru 1 (1960).

Prys Morgan, ‘Elis Gruffydd of Gronant – Tudor chronicler extraordinary’, Journal of the Flintshire Historical Society, 25 (1971-2).

Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, ‘Elis Gruffydd a Thraddodiad Cymraeg Calais a Chlwyd’,  Cof Cenedl 11 (1996).

Jerry Hunter, Soffestri’r Saeson: Hanesyddiaeth a Hunaniaeth yn Oes y Tuduriaid (2000).

Jerry Hunter, ‘Taliesin at the Court of Henry VIII: Aspects of the writings of Elis Gruffydd’,  Trafodion Anrhydeddus Gymdeithas y  Cymmrodorion (2003).

Jerry Hunter, ‘Poets, Angels and Devilish Spirits: Elis Gruffydd’s Meditations on Idolatry,’ yn Joseph F. Nagy a Leslie Ellen Jones (goln.), Heroic Poets and Poetic Heroes in Celtic Tradition (2005).

Patrick K. Ford (translator) and Jerry Hunter (introduction), Tales of Merlin, Arthur, and the Magic Arts from the Welsh Chronicle of the Six Ages of the World  (2023).

Catch up with all the previous episodes in this series here

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