Welsh Bards & Hungarian Balladeers: Imagining the Past – Poetry & History.

Wars of Independence:

 Revolutionary leaders of the ‘Ides of March’ 1848, including the ‘national poet’, Sándor Petöfi (centre, arm raised) & Lajos Kossúth (right).

In 1857, the legendary martyrdom of the courtly poets of Wales by Edward I was used by the nineteenth-century Hungarian poet János Arany to serve as a parable of resistance to another Empire after the ‘heroic’ uprising and war of independence of 1848-49 in his native country. Arany’s poem, Walesi bardok (The Bards of Wales) is learnt and recited today by every elementary school child in Hungary. It is also available in modern English and Welsh translations. Arany apparently based his original poem on a translation into Old English of an even older poem in Old Welsh, using these medieval incidents to write an allegorical and parabolic poem about the Plantagenet King Edward’s crushing of Welsh Independence in 1282-83) and his legendary massacre of the country’s bards. In it, Edward arrives in Montgomery to survey his new territories but fails to find a warm greeting among the lords. He demands a bard to praise his deeds at the banquet, but is only sung to in the following terms:

“the brave were killed, just as you willed,

or languish in your gaols;

to hail your name or sing your fame,

you’ll find no bard in Wales”

After having this bard put to death, Edward sends out to find a bard who will sing to propose ‘the loyal toast’ on pain of being sent to a similar fate at the stake. Altogether, five hundred are burnt;

but none would sing to cheer the king,

the loyal toast to raise.

So Edward returns to London, only to find himself haunted by the singing of those he has martyred:

But over drums and piercing fifes, 

beyond the soldiers’ hails,

They swell the song, five hundred strong,

those martyred bards of Wales.

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The Hungarian poet János Arany, as a young man.

János Arany is, of course, writing for a Hungarian audience, following the brutal suppression by the Austrian Hapsburgs of the 1848-49 Uprising against their rule, in which many Hungarian ‘bards’ or ‘balladeers’, and latter-day ‘men of letters’ were involved and many were killed or imprisoned. They are remembered on a national holiday in the middle (‘Ides’) of March. Despite the large amount of data found in Arany’s letters, we are not familiar with his works that draw on British sources with complete accuracy. Research has shown that the poet derived many of the motifs used in his ballads from English language poetry, some of it translations from original poems of the medieval Welsh bards, but due to the lack of proper philological evidence, this connection is often brought into question. His claims about an original Old English/Welsh poem may have been part of his ‘cover’ story for the private circulation of the poem in 1857 and its eventual publication in 1863, lest it fell foul of the Austrian censors. In the second section of this article, I will use twentieth-century literary studies to answer the age-old question: Where did Arany encounter these certain elements of the story and its telling, and where are they drawn from? To do this, we first need to place these legendary elements of Arany’s best-known poem into the context of the medieval history of Wales and our knowledge of the Welsh bardic tradition.

When was Wales?:

In the period before the Norman Conquest of England, the Welsh ‘kingdoms’ and territories had become prey on both sides to both Viking and Saxon incursions. The British dynasties had retreated into the hills and mountains of the north and west, their strongholds, and the ‘Welsh’, as they were known by the Saxons, cherished their laws and customs and preserved their language, expressing themselves in poetry and song. The old bards were always welcomed at the feasts of the chieftains, and they acclaimed the greatness of their ancestors in their battles against the Saxons and the glory of Arthur and his ‘Knights’. In the late eighth century, the King of Mercia, Offa, had constructed a dyke, or ditch and bank, along the unofficial boundary between his Kingdom and the Welsh territories, which roughly marks much of the Welsh-English border to this day. The early decades of the eleventh century were troubled times when usurpers like Llywelyn ap Seisyll (1018-1023) seized power. With his son Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, the whole of Wales came under a single ruling family for the first time. But on the eve of the Norman conquest, Harold Godwinson defeated Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, the king of Gwynedd. With Gruffudd’s death in 1063, Wales was disunited once more, but Harold, on succeeding Edward the Confessor on the English throne, was unable to take advantage of this weakness, as he had to put all his efforts into the defence of his own crown against the claims of William of Normandy.

‘Smash & Grab’ – The Normans in Wales:

The Norman ‘Conquest’ of Wales, unlike that of England, was piecemeal before 1282, but that served only to expose and intensify Welsh disunity. The initial ‘invasions’ were not conducted by the newly crowned King William as a religious crusade, like his march through the south-east of England to Westminster and Winchester, but as a piece of private enterprise on the part of the Norman barons, with the King’s agreement. William found it necessary to give his barons large estates along the indistinct border so that they could protect the frontier of his kingdom. They advanced by the easier valley routes and using the old Roman roads, conducting ‘smash and grab’ campaigns from their newly acquired estates in those borderlands, which they later gave the French name ‘March’. A little further east William established three great strategic centres, from which the Normans could advance into this area. From Hereford, important in Offa’s time, but re-established in 1066 and based on the cathedral settlement, went William FitzOsbern, establishing border castles at Wigmore, Clifford and Ewyas Harold, at Chepstow and later at Caerleon. From Shrewsbury, dating from the time of Aethelfleda, the early tenth-century ‘Queen’ of Mercia and re-established in 1071, Roger de Montgomery proved a constant threat to the Welsh in the middle border of Powys. From William’s third strategic centre at Chester, rebuilt in 1071 on the site of the Roman Deva, Hugh d’Avranches opened a route into North Wales, enabling Robert of Rhuddlan to press forward to gain lands of his own and establish his castle at Rhuddlan. These nobles became known as Lords Marcher, and they attacked and conquered the lands of the Welsh princes. They built castles and enforced law and order in the surrounding countryside. But as they advanced into the valleys of South Wales, the Welsh retained their freedom in the northwest (Gwynedd), for it was difficult for even well-equipped armies to penetrate the mountainous region of Eryri (Snowdonia).

For many years prior to the Conquest of England, Anglo-Saxon kings had claimed lordship over Wales and this loose relationship had been reluctantly accepted by the Welsh princes, at least ‘de facto’; Earl Harold’s devastating campaign of 1063 had forcibly reminded the Welsh of the military strength of their English neighbours. As king of England, William I inherited this claim to Wales but, faced with problems in both England and Normandy for some years after his victory at Hastings, he had little inclination to involve himself directly in Wales. As a result, and as can be seen on the map below, except for the three incursions from Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester and their establishment of nascent lordships by the Norman barons, the division and control of the Welsh territories between the four ‘kingdoms’ remained essentially the same in 1086 as it had been in 1066. Certainly, the three earls rapidly and individually moved aggressively against the eastern districts of Wales, with Earl Roger Mortimer also launching raids deep into the interior. He became the major figure in the central sector of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, one of King William’s trusted lieutenants and created Earl of Shrewsbury by 1074. Ralph Mortimer was also his ‘vassal’, having come to England with the Conqueror. By 1086, Ralph was firmly established as a tenant-in-chief, possibly through his association with William FitzOsbern as Earl of Hereford. The Wigmore chronicler records that Mortimer distinguished himself in suppressing the rebellion of the Saxon magnate, Edric the Wild, who had taken up arms against the Normans in Herefordshire and Shropshire, having allied himself with two Welsh princes. The rebels had threatened Hereford and burned Shrewsbury as the revolt spread into Staffordshire and Cheshire. The significance of this rebellion can be judged from King William’s decision to temporarily abandon personal control of his campaign in the north of England to deal with the rising, doing so with the same ruthlessness with which he then ‘harried’ Yorkshire. It is likely that Ralph had come to the king’s notice during this short campaign and by 1086 he held estates that once belonged to Edric. He had also been one of the lords who had put down the rebellion of FitzOsbern’s son, Roger, in 1075. Ralph received a number of the estates that Roger forfeited. As the Earl of Shrewsbury’s kinsman and steward or seneschal, he was allied to one of the most powerful barons in the kingdom and was his right-hand man, holding his Shropshire lands through this service.

The Domesday Book of 1086 records that Roger Mortimer held lands and property in twelve English counties, mainly in Herefordshire and Shropshire, with several manors waste in the Welsh March.

Based on the Domesday Book of that year.

After the successful conquest of England by William of Normandy, his barons then extended their control up the river valleys so that, by the beginning of the twelfth century, they controlled much of the Welsh lands, albeit indirectly, building castles as they went and mixing and marrying with the Welsh to establish themselves as Norman-Welsh overlords, speaking mainly Norman-French and gradually Welsh, but little or no English. From a crude beginning, the Norman lordships of the March grew into a complex and multi-ethnic society and a power in their own right. The lords succeeded the Welsh princes in owing little beyond allegiance to the English Crown; they were often decisive in the politics of both England and Normandy. The three earls were given wide powers within their earldoms, untrammelled by the king, but what, if any, instructions they were given with regard to military adventures in the rest of the country is not known; it seems likely, however, that they were advised that they could annex lands on their own account, but must not involve King William, whose primary interests lay elsewhere. They were, nevertheless, primarily vassals of the Anglo-Norman kings. In his When Was Wales? (1985), Gwyn Williams explained how the relationship between invaders and invaded, a simple one at first, soon became more complex …

… Very rapidly they became hopelessly enmeshed with the Welsh in marriage, lifestyle, temporary alliance. A new and hybrid culture grew up in the March with quite astonishing speed. Plenty of marchers over time were cymricized … several became more Welsh than the Welsh. … The formation of so peculiar and potent a society was the direct result of Welsh survival and recovery.

It was from their lands in the March of Wales that the Mortimers exercised their power and influence in England. Holding lands in Wales as marcher lords they were members of a select group of barons owing allegiance as tenants-in-chief to the king but ruling their lordships with a degree of independence unobtainable by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy in England. Nevertheless, King William had made arrangements for the defence of the frontier, indeterminate as it was, and for the introduction of Norman administration into the English borderlands, a remote area where his representatives would have to have more freedom of action than elsewhere in the kingdom which would remain under the rule of the Welsh princes.

During the last decade of the eleventh century, Welsh independence grew more and more precarious due to a much more aggressive attitude towards the kingdoms on the part of the Norman lords with lands in the Borders. A Welsh chronicler related with some exaggeration that the French seized all the lands of the Britons,  but Earl Roger did push far into Ceredigion and then into Dyfed to set up what would become the lordship of Pembroke. Meanwhile, there was a free-for-all along the Anglo-Welsh frontier; the Welsh cantref (‘hundred’) of Maelienydd, adjoining the Mortimer estates of Herefordshire and Shropshire, offering a natural target for Ralph Mortimer to annex more territory for himself, probably in the early 1090s when other border lords were acquiring Brycheiniog (Brecon), Buellt (Builth) and Elfael. It is likely that Ralph built the castle at Cymaron (below) to secure control of his new lands; this castle, on the site of the cantref’s old Welsh llys (court), became the major fortress of the lordship until it was replaced in the thirteenth century by Cefnllys; it did, however, remain the centre of Maelienydd’s judicature.


The Norman system of castle, manor and borough was dominant in the lowland areas where the Norman advance had been most effective. Weekly markets and yearly or twice-yearly fairs were now a feature of life where country folk could trade. The areas administered in this way constituted ‘the Englishries’. In contrast, in ‘the Welshries’, the more hilly areas, the Welsh by and large retained their own way of life, based on the Law of Hywel Dda, King of the Deheubarth (880-948), but paid tribute to the Norman lord. Many of the castles that had been built up and down the March became fortified centres of government, each lordship having one main castle and usually other castles the centres of sub-lordships. At first, the castles were of the simple motte and bailey type; but, under increased Welsh attacks, were soon strengthened. On each lordship, the lord developed certain lands paying in money or kind for their homestead and share of the plots. During the Conqueror’s reign, the Normans had made significant inroads into southern and northern Wales, but in central Wales, the raids mounted by Earl Roger of Shrewsbury had not been followed up by more permanent occupation, probably because considerable military resources were needed to deal with a resurgent Powys under Gruffudd ap Cynan. No doubt, Ralph Mortimer was involved in these earlier raids. Unlike the Saxons or the Vikings, the Norman method was not simply to raid and destroy Welsh houses; they marched to a point well inside Welsh territory and built a fortress, from which they proceeded to reduce the surrounding countryside to submission, including any local lords who might object.

A widespread uprising broke out in 1094 and in many districts, including Maelienydd, the Welsh regained temporary control of their lands. The lords were unable to cope with the crisis and the king had to come to their rescue, a pattern which would be repeated on a number of occasions over the following centuries. By the end of the eleventh century, the Welsh Border had undergone an unprecedented political change. The Normans of the March who had gained their lands by private conquest ruled virtually autonomously. In these lands, the king had little right to interfere. The origins of this constitutional anomaly lay in the Conqueror’s arrangements for the settlement and defence of the Anglo-Welsh frontier, but Gwyn Williams (1985) has added colour to this chronicle:

The shattered dynasties … with their backs to an Irish wall, using their own weapons and stealing the Normans’, fought back. They beat the bandits out of the west, only to bring the power of the English king down on their heads. Henry I rolled his power into Wales over Welsh kings and Norman lords alike.

In the early twelfth century Henry I, in what is probably an example of the kind of licence that King William granted explicitly or implicitly to his border earls, had authorised one of his barons to conquer part of Wales:

King Henry sent a messenger to Gilbert FitzRichard, who was a mighty, powerful man and a friend of the king, and eminent in his deeds. And he came forthwith to the king. And the king said to him: “Thou wert always asking me a portion of Wales. Now I will give thee the land of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. Go and take possession of it.” And he accepted it gladly from the king. And he gathered a host and came to Ceredigion and took possession of it and made two castles in it.

Thus began the piecemeal, entrepreneurial ‘internal colonization’ of Wales. The king’s solution to the problem of the Welsh frontier worked whilst his appointees were men with whom he had a personal bond and affinity; but when the earldoms with all their prerogatives passed to their successors by inheritance, there would be distinct dangers for the Crown, as was made evident in Roger FitzOsbern’s rebellion. Wales was very different from England in politics as well as in geography. Although its inhabitants acknowledged a common Welsh identity, it was a country of many sovereign states with mountainous terrain governing their borders and hindering relationships with their neighbours. These petty principalities, perhaps as many as eighteen in number in the eleventh century, were often at each other’s throats, as the Cambro-Norman bishop, Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerallt Cymro, described:

This nation is, above all others, addicted to the digging up of boundary ditches, removing the limits, transgressing landmarks, and extending their territory by every possible means. So great is their disposition towards this common violence … hence arise suits and contentions, murders and conflagrations, and frequent fratricides.

Another source of perennial political weakness in the principalities were the rules of inheritance, or gavelkind, by which land was divided equally between all the sons, which militated against any constitutional centralization. A politically fractured Wales made it much easier for the marcher lords to conquer the country piece by piece and conduct a policy of divide and rule; on the other hand, the usual lack of a Welsh national leader made it more difficult to conduct diplomatic negotiations. To what extent individual conquests in Wales were actually licensed is not clear, but many were probably not expressly authorised by the king.

Welsh Princes & Marcher Lords:

From time to time during the Middle Ages, however, a Welsh prince was able to win control over other principalities, form alliances, and exert capable leadership over large tracts of Wales; the Welsh would then prove formidable adversaries to the marcher lords. If ‘independent Wales’ was politically fragmented, so in one sense was the March. The lords may have, on the surface, presented a coherent power bloc, but the pattern of lordship and power in ‘the March’, with the marchers’ individual political agendas and rivalries, would often change. Death and the lack of a direct male heir, or line of heirs, marriage, wardship, and the creation of new lordships by the king, as well as forfeiture of them to him, all influenced the development of the March.

Ralph Mortimer had kept his distance from the rebellion of Robert, the third Earl of Shrewsbury and other barons in 1102, which was an unsuccessful conspiracy to replace King Henry with Duke Robert on the English throne. King Henry confiscated Shrewsbury and took the Montgomery lands in the west, making Carmarthen the first royal lordship in Wales. He imported Flemings and planted them in southern Dyfed where they transformed its agrarian economy, making it ‘the Little-England-Beyond-Wales’ that it is known as today, pushing the Welsh north of a line known as the landsker which still remains a visible physical and cultural boundary, dividing the English-speaking south from the Welsh-speakers to the north. It demonstrates how, by the early twelfth century, the Normans had re-established control over Wales as a whole, other than the remoter parts of the north-west,  even if their hold was to remain tenuous until the end of the next century. Ralph Mortimer remained a key figure in this consolidation, benefiting from the Earl of Shrewsbury’s disgrace, since the king’s decision not to appoint a successor to the powerful magnate had removed one of the contestants for power along the Welsh border and into central Wales. But in the following early decades of the twelfth century, his attention and resources were increasingly drawn away from his lands on the Anglo-Welsh Border to events in Normandy and the quarrels between the kings of England on the one hand and the dukes of Normandy on the other. For some time, Normandy remained as important as England or Wales to the Norman aristocracy, but the descendants of the first generation of barons in these countries were to become increasingly ambivalent in their attitude to the Duchy until in 1204 they were forced to choose between their lands at home and those acquired by conquest across the Channel. Most chose to stay, mainly because of the generations of intermarriage with the Welsh nobility that had taken place by then, as shown in the Mortimer family tree below:


Although the Mortimers’ affairs both in Normandy and in England, as loyal supporters of Henry I, would have been expected to prosper, there is no evidence of this in the court rolls or chronicles during the twenty-five years from 1115 to 1140, perhaps suggesting that, on the contrary, they fell foul of King Henry and that the Mortimer lands were confiscated by the Crown. The only record is of a marriage alliance between Ralph’s daughter and William the Conqueror’s nephew Stephen, who had been implicated in the 1095 revolt as a possible replacement for William II and had also been involved in unsuccessful baronial revolts in Normandy which had been supported by Louis VI of France. Another record suggests that Ralph died in c. 1115 and that his son Hugh eventually received his inheritance of the Mortimer lands in Normandy, England and Wales. By the 1130s, they had added Maelienydd to their Welsh lands. But in 1135 Henry I died without a male heir and England descended into civil war between the supporters of Stephen of Blois and Matilda, Henry’s daughter. Once more the attention of the marcher lords was drawn away from Wales, and the Welsh princes seized their chance.

The recovery of Gwynedd under Gruffudd ap Cynan and his son Owain Gwynedd is the central fact about Wales in the first half of the twelfth century. They rebuilt Gwynedd into a power, driving it across north Wales to the Dee. Gruffudd was half-Viking himself and lived during his early life in Dublin. He tried to recover his Welsh heritage several times before he actually did so; and the tradition is that he brought with him Irish minstrels and that he tried to revise and revive Welsh bardic customs, almost in the same way as Hywel Dda is reported to have done with Welsh laws. Certainly, there was a great flowering of poetry during the last part of his reign, and the reign of his son, Owain Gwynedd. Unlike most of the earlier poetry which is anonymous, this was by named authors, who often had a very personal style and who assumed that they themselves were important to the people: they had a status in society, a position to keep up. They were members of what might be called a bardic order, professional men with work to do. The school of court-poetry which they founded lasted more or less intact until the Edwardian conquest of Wales in 1282; then in slightly altered form well into the fourteenth century. Owain also thrust south into Ceredigion. Powys, in full revival and trying to recreate its ancient principality, was confronted with a new and permanent menace. In Deheubarth, the prince’s sons fought the Normans and each other for their inheritance, and Rhys ap Gruffydd began to establish himself. When there were leaders such as him in the twelfth century, an uneasy modus vivendi between the Welsh and the English would be established after military successes had enabled the Welsh to recover some, and on occasion almost all, of their lands.

What followed was a period of temporary truce rather than permanent peace, and in the face of Welsh resistance and counter-attack, the marcher lords’ conquests were far from secure; their lands increased and decreased in the area. By 1200, however, much of eastern, southern and south-western Wales had been consolidated under Norman control. Also, as the twelfth century progressed, there was a continuing and accelerated opening up of the land along the border, with many of the great woodland areas being cleared to make way for agriculture, and to provide timber for housing, fuel and ships. In addition, the final decades of the century saw the growth of townships around the Norman castles. Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, then united all the Welsh princes under his control. His triumphs and those of two further princes, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Llywelyn Fawr‘s grandson, Llewelyn ap Gruffudd in the thirteenth century, led to a great outburst of poetry that did much to keep alive the desire for independence. But Welsh unity was fleeting; it did not long survive the departure of a national leader and the principalities soon reverted to their customary political isolation and division.

The Normans had taken only five years to conquer England; it took them over two centuries more to subdue and subjugate Wales. For the first hundred and fifty years, the smaller of the two countries was subjected to periodic attack and colonisation by the marcher lords. But it was beyond the military capacity of the Anglo-Normans, so often preoccupied as they were, with events elsewhere, to mount a full-scale conquest of the interior. In 1154, the English civil war came to an end with the accession of Henry II, son of the Empress Matilda’s match with Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. Henry II established the Angevin Empire, and in two big land-and-sea campaigns brought the Welsh resurgence to a halt. Owain Gwynedd pulled back to the west of the River Conwy, while Rhys was hemmed-in, in his traditional base of Dinefwr (Dynevor). From here, he was able to launch raids against the marcher lords, and these transformed into an all-out war when Gwynedd joined in. Clearly, the native Welsh, neither princes nor people, had yet accepted the Normans as their masters. In 1163, during his first big military expedition into south Wales, one old Welshman of Pencader (Carmarthenshire) was asked by Henry II what he thought of his chances of victory, and whether his countrymen could resist his military might. He was, after all, ruler of the European empire of the Angevins as well as the King of England. The old man had joined the king’s army against his own people because of their evil way of life, but his reply still amounted to a declaration of independence:

This nation, O King, may often be weakened and in great part destroyed by the power of yourself and of others, but many a time, as it deserves, it will rise triumphant. But never will it be destroyed by the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God be added. Whatever else may come to pass, I do not think that on the Day of Direst Judgement any race other than the Welsh, or any other language, will give answer to the Supreme Judge of all for this small corner of the earth.  

These words were spoken within the tradition of the bards speaking truth to princes and potentates, be they Welsh or Norman, without fear or favour.

The Tradition of the Bards in Welsh Courtly Life: The Cynfeirdd & Gogynfeirdd.

The works of the early medieval poets, the Cynfeirdd – ‘the poets who came first’ – form the first period of the poetic history of Wales, to circa 1100. Much of the poetry from the tenth century and before has not survived, but the output of the Cynfeirdd was probably more varied than it appears, including many poems that were more personal, informal and unconcerned to prove anything save the permanence of human affection. A high proportion of the early poetry was obviously produced by men of professional standards and on the whole, it was finished work that won widespread regard and survived. But the professionalising of the poetic art becomes much more marked when we reach the Poets of the Princes in c. 1100. The work of the Cynfeirdd had already exhibited a notable characteristic of Welsh poetry throughout the ages: the ‘bard’ is accountable to wider society, and is its spokesman and, as revealed above, its critic. He was recorder, instructor and celebrant: Beirdd byd barnant wyr o galon said the poet of the Gododdin (‘the bards of the world pass judgement on men of valour’). As Gwyn Jones wrote in his (1977) introduction to The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English:

The bard, we might say, is the poet as public figure. It is his business to maintain a leader’s fame, retail tribal triumphs and disasters, persuade and foretell, convey to his hearers that accepted lore and precept relating to animals, weather, crops, human nature and behaviour which involves man in the visible and palpable world, and to set forth repeatedly and unequivocally in the compressed verse-forms, bare syntax and severely stylized diction common to his kind the cherished beliefs of a hierarchical and war-waging society: valour, loyalty, service, reward.

The Cynfeirdd were followed by the Gogynfeirdd, from circa 1100 to circa 1350. Their work is also known as Court Poetry, but this ‘school’ was a definite movement, with all its ‘members’ sharing the same general idea of what great poetry was supposed to do. They certainly regarded themselves as inheriting this tradition from older models, and particularly from Taliesin, but in certain important respects, they differ from any older poetry that we know of. For one thing, their diction is characteristically archaic, their syntax elliptical in the extreme. Earlier poetry is difficult to comprehend because many of the words used have either disappeared from the Welsh language or changed their meaning over thirteen hundred years or more. By the same token, Chaucer’s Middle English is difficult for modern non-experts. But the Gogynfeirdd must have been difficult even at the time they wrote. The amount of difficulty varied from poet to poet, but there is no denying that it exists and that the greatest among these poems are frequently the hardest to make sense of. These poems also differ in form from their predecessors. The earliest Welsh court-poetry had been written in mono-rhymed sections of usually under a dozen lines apiece, enormously increasing the length of these sections: Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch’s great Lament for Llywelyn the Last, quoted in translation below, has only one rhyme from the beginning to end of its hundred-plus lines. This is exceptional, but sections of between twenty and fifty lines are by no means uncommon.

It is not really possible to say what was ‘normal’ in court poetry, and variations were also present in the saga-style poetry of the previous period, though little of it survives besides that of Aneurin and Taliesin, the greatest masters of form in the Welsh language. It was to their revered Taliesin in particular that the poets of the newly self-confident twelfth-century Wales turned when they needed an earlier form to imitate. Not that they copied his form exactly, since the issues of their century were very different from those of the sixth. The poems of the Gogynfeirdd, as much as those of the Mabinogion, represent a synthesis and a refining attitude in the culture of their time. Cynddelw, widely regarded as the greatest of these poets, wrote a completely original and masterly poem, his Elegy for Madog ap Maredudd with a sweep and intellectual power behind it that only he was capable of:

Door of a fort he was, companion shield,

Buckler on battlefield, and in brave deeds;

A tumult like flame blazing through heather,

Router of enemies, his shield stopped their way;

Lord sung by a myriad, hope of minstrels,

Crimson, irresistible, unswerving companion.

Madog ap Maredudd had been the chief patron of the poet as a young man and almost certainly a personal friend. He was the ‘hope of minstrels’, for they loved him, but they also their ‘hope’ because he stood for what they stood for, and his victories in battle were made theirs by the singing of them. The last line begins, in the Welsh, with three adjectives descriptive of his leadership in war; but the noun they qualify is ‘cymdymdaith’ for one who goes on a journey with you, a companion or comrade. This is one of the keywords of the whole poem, repeated throughout as a rhyme-word, from the first lines, and making the connexion between poetry, leadership in war and companionship.

Henry II’s Expeditions against all Welshmen:

The weak king of England, Stephen died in 1154, and Henry II was crowned as his successor, bringing the Plantagenets and the House of Anjou to the throne. In 1157, and again in 1165, the English armies marched into parts of North Wales controlled by both Powys and Gwynedd; and though Owain Gwynedd survived both invasions, he had to pay homage and put a check on his territorial ambitions. Henry II, previously distracted by the Becket controversy, eventually responded to the challenge from Gwynedd by mobilising a massive expedition in 1165 to destroy all Welshmen. But his attempt at genocide collapsed humiliatingly in the Berwyn Mountains in the face of bad weather, bad logistics and good guerilla tactics by the Welsh. Owain Gwynedd again cut loose to the Dee while Rhys took Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywi and much of Dyfed. Powys, threatened with renewed extinction, rallied to the English crown. Henry offered a settlement, formally confirming Rhys in his lordships and making him Justiciar of South Wales. The Lord of Powys died in 1160, and his lands, according to the Welsh custom of ‘gavelkind’ were divided among his sons, forever dividing the ancient ‘kingdom’. At a time when that kingdom’s very continuity depended on its ability to maintain strong dynastic, Welsh tribal law made it almost impossible for a son to succeed a father without incurring the bitterness of fratricide and civil war. All Welsh rulers took oaths of fealty and homage to the Plantagenet king. Centralisation was the only hope of securing relative autonomy for the Welsh princes from the English king as their sovereign liege. They succeeded in maintaining this for over a century, but theirs was a precarious state, with English troops able to appear at will anywhere in their territories. Owain Gwynedd died in 1170 and Hywel, his poet son, was killed by his half-brothers, who then split up the territories between them. Welsh expansionism also had to reckon with England’s reviving strength as a limiting factor: the princes, first the Lord Rhys in the south and then the two Llywelyns in Gwynedd, could no longer see themselves as sovereigns, but rather as feudal vassals of the English Crown. By the end of the twelfth century, the frontier which had emerged over two generations or more had been settled.

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The old kingdom of Morgannwg-Gwent was replaced by the shires of Glamorgan and Monmouth, two of the strongest bastions of Norman power in Wales. In the end, Powys was split into two, Powys Wenwynwyn in the south usually supporting the English crown, while the northern Powys Fadog tended to side with Gwynedd. A core of the old principality of Deheubarth had been re-established, but it was ringed by marcher lordships with a strong base at Pembroke and royal estates around Carmarthen. Much of the south and east seemed by the mid-thirteenth century to be under almost permanent Norman control. Only Gwynedd had ultimately emerged as fully independent. Under Owain’s ultimate successors it grew into a major force, the strongest power in ‘Welsh Wales’ at the time. It was able to combine its natural mountain barrier and its Anglesey granary with its newly learned modes of feudal warfare. Its laws were based on those of Hywel Dda. The Deheubarth had a temporary overlord, ‘The Lord Rhys of Dinefwr’, Yr Arglwydd Rhys, but Gwynedd had its ‘prince’, a term which, because it was imprecise, could be charged with constitutional significance. Owain and his successors deliberately did so.

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The Arms of Gwynedd

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, Wales consisted of two political zones: the marcher lordships established in the century before by the Norman nobility, and the native principalities of Gwynedd, Deheubarth and Powys, whose constant jostling for power had become a cause for increasing concern for the English monarchy and aristocracy. It was during this period that the parts of Wales under Norman control came to be known as marchia Wallie, the March of Wales, whilst ‘independent Wales’, with a growing sense of national identity, continued to be governed by its native rulers whose ‘principalities’ were increasingly known collectively as Wallia, or Pura Wallia. With the ebb and flow of conquest and the periodic recovery of lands by the Welsh, the boundaries of the March were constantly changing; the medieval ‘March’ as a geographical term, therefore, had a very different meaning from the early modern ‘March’ which Tudor government used to describe the Anglo-Welsh border counties it created.


Llywelyn Fawr (‘the Great’) to Llywelyn ‘the Last’:

Within a few years of the beginning of the thirteenth century, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (‘the Great’), Prince of Gwynedd, had united all the Welsh princes under his overlordship and was also supported by the English barons against King John. With the help of his allies, he had recovered much of the March for the Welsh, including the Mortimer lordships of Maelienydd and Gwerthrynion. In 1234, the ‘Treaty of the Middle’ brought about an uneasy peace between Henry III, the marcher lords and Llywelyn. The triumphs of Llewelyn the Great and later those of his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, further inspired the renaissance of Welsh poetry, which did much to keep alive the desire for independence. Early in 1241, the Welsh princes and lords again met Henry III at Worcester, formally submitting to his kingship. In return, he had endorsed their right to resume hostilities with Ralph Mortimer after their truce had expired. In other words, for Henry III, it was not the king’s business to involve himself in disputes between the Welsh lords and the marcher lords.

Above: The Lordships of the Mortimers in Wales in 1282

Thus, by the second half of the thirteenth century, the only Welsh who were relatively free from Norman rule lived in Gwynedd, the wild, mountainous area around ‘Eryri’ (Snowdonia). They were led by the ambitious Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, who succeeded his uncle in 1246, tried to become independent of the Plantagenet kings. To the south and east, taking in most of the best land and expropriating much of its wealth, there was an arc of marcher lordships owned by the Montgomery, Mortimer, Bohun, and Clare families (see the map above showing the Mortimer Lordships above and the map below showing Wales in 1267). Their lands stretched deep into mid-Wales and along the rich and open south coast. As Gwyn Williams commented, …

There was a permanently disputed shadow zone and endless border raiding, but there was also a fine mesh of intermarriage and fluctuating tactical alliances. The beautiful Princess Nest of Deheubarth could play the role of a Helen of Troy, precipitating wars over her person.

At the same time, King Henry III became little more than a puppet ruler of England, and the real power behind the throne after the first meeting of an English Parliament in 1265 was Simon de Montfort. Yet the threat of invasion from France and the rebellion in the Welsh marches threatened the longevity of his rule. His son, Prince Edward’s escape from his baronial guards at Hereford in May 1265 provided the opposition to de Montford’s rule with both a royal leader and a developing soldier of outstanding ability. With Simon remaining at Hereford, Edward mustered his forces at Worcester before moving to capture Gloucester and the last available crossing over the River Severn. Simon marched to Pipton in the March, near Hay-on-Wye, where he met Llewelyn ap Gruffudd and concluded an agreement whereby the latter would supply five thousand infantry for de Montfort’s army. Moving to Newport to outstrip the Royalist pursuit, Simon attempted to take passage across the Severn but his transports were sunk by Edward’s warships from Gloucester and he was then forced to undertake a long and hungry march back to Hereford. Prince Edward then turned his attention to the de Montfort stronghold at Kenilworth, where the young Simon was planning to come to his father’s aid. The Prince moved on the stronghold from Worcester, swooping on the castle in the early hours of 1 August and catching most of its baronial force asleep. Young Simon escaped the subsequent slaughter by taking shelter in the castle, but his army no longer provided a force capable of intervening in the campaign. While Edward was absent from Worcester, the older Simon led his army away from Hereford to cross the Severn at Kempsey en route to Kenilworth via Pershore. By 3 August, he had reached Evesham and Prince Edward was determined to intercept him before he reached Kenilworth.

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OS Map showing the site of the Battle of Evesham, 1265.

A night march from Worcester brought Edward’s army to the banks of the Avon at Cleeve Prior. He detached a cavalry column under the marcher lord, Roger Mortimer, to seal de Montfort’s escape route over Bengeworth Bridge, by deploying his own and Gloucester’s troops on Green Hill to the north of Evesham. Simon’s only chance was to attempt to fight his way out of the trap, even though he could muster only some six thousand men to the eight thousand royalist troops. Nevertheless, Simon’s forces included Llewelyn’s spearmen, supplied after the Welsh prince became the ally of de Montfort and brought his army across the border. Simon deployed his army as a single column with mailed horsemen in the van and the Welsh spearmen in the rear. He aimed this column at the junction between Gloucester’s and Edward’s troops and launched it forward at the charge as heavy rain began. It was a desperate strategy devised by a veteran soldier and it might have succeeded had the cavalry wings of the royal army not swung in on de Montfort’s flanks. Many of the Welsh spearmen, recognising that Llywelyn’s ‘incursion’ into England had failed disastrously, had already slipped away by this point leaving Simon’s remaining troops to be submerged in an avalanche of attacking royalists. Although the baronial army continued to resist for some hours, both Simon and his son Henry were cut down with nearly four thousand of their soldiers. King Henry had been taken onto the battlefield anonymously by de Montfort, but in the melée was rescued by someone in the royalist army.


The Fate of Princely Wales & Plantagenet Hegemony:

Twelve years after Evesham, King Edward I, as he had by then become, decided to intervene decisively in the March, determined to demonstrate, unlike his predecessor, that affairs there were his business and that he was the overlord of the marcher lords. Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, despite his alliance with the English rebel Simon de Montfort, had been recognised as Prince of Wales by Henry III (that is, overlord of the native princedoms beyond the March) in 1267. In return, Llywelyn had sworn his allegiance to Henry. However, he had thrice refused to pay homage to Edward I, partly because Edward had taken his intended de Montfort bride captive on her arrival in England from France.

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Edward I, in Parliament in 1272, flanked by Alexander III of Scotland & Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd of Wales.

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Llywelyn ap Gruffydd
Prince of Wales
Prince of Aberffraw and Lord of Snowdon

Contemporary depiction of Llywelyn ‘the Last’

Edward came to the throne in 1272, and in the Statute of Westminster of 1275, he declared that he would do right by the March, and anywhere else where his writ did not run, seeking fairness and justice for all complainants. But Llewelyn proved reluctant to fulfil his side of the bargain he had made with King Henry and to accept, in turn, the feudal overlordship of the Plantagenets over the whole of England and Wales. Despite the debácle at Evesham, he remained overconfident, having expanded his territories at the expense of both rival Welsh princes and the marcher barons. In 1277, the English King determined to subdue him and bring him to heel once and for all.

Edward proceeded by land via Chester, Flint and Rhuddlan, and sent a fleet to cut off food supplies from Anglesey so that the Welsh prince was forced to accept a negotiated peace. The terms of The Treaty of Aberconwy (see the map below) were harsh for the Welsh prince: he was forced to surrender the area known as ‘the four cantrefs’ between Chester and the River Conwy, which Edward then used to create a new series of powerful marcher lordships. Edward also imposed a potentially crippling war indemnity of fifty thousand pounds. It is hard to see how Gwynedd could ever have raised such a sum, but the waiving of the demand was a means by which Edward demonstrated the control he now had over Llywelyn.

The division of Gwynedd following the Treaty of Aberconwy in 1277. Llywelyn continued to rule west of the River Conwy (indicated in green). The Perfeddwlad, east of the Conwy, was divided between Dafydd ap Gruffydd (shown in gold) and areas ceded forever to the English Crown (shown in red).

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It is tempting for historians, with hindsight, to interpret Edward’s incursions into Wales as part of a grand strategy to establish a Plantagenet empire within the British Isles with sovereignty over the whole of Britain and Ireland, especially after the loss of many of his family’s continental lands during the previous centuries. In fact, however, Edward’s interventions in Wales and Scotland were purely opportunistic, at least in their beginnings, and ran alongside but did not replace, the revival of English claims in France. He did not begin his reign with a ‘grand plan’ for a ‘Union’ of three or four countries, as suggested on the map above. Nevertheless, his single-minded concentration of the kingdom’s resources and his shrewd use of his armies and his navy (to supply them) brought Welsh independence to an end in 1284 after a second rebellion was suppressed. This had begun in 1282 when Llewelyn’s brother Dafydd launched a revolt against the English from his lands in Gwynedd. Ironically, Llywelyn had re-established himself as an ally of the English crown by that point but felt aggrieved at the lack of reward for his former services by Edward. Dafydd’s rebellion forced Llewelyn’s hand; instead of crushing the rebellion, he joined his brother. Edward’s response was to launch a full-scale war of conquest. Proceeding along the north Wales coast as he had done five years before, but now through what was a friendly territory, his forces took Anglesey and pushed Llywelyn back into the fastnesses of Snowdonia. Llywelyn then attempted to move south, but was ambushed at Irfon Bridge near Builth, and killed, as depicted below.

The Death of Llywelyn.
This image is available from the National Library of Wales. You can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84629434

His brother Dafydd was eventually captured by Edward’s forces, possibly through treachery, in June 1283, and hideously executed at Shrewsbury. All of Dafydd and Llywelyn’s lands in Gwynedd were confiscated by the English Crown. Independent Gwynedd was obliterated along with all insignia and other symbols which might be used to revive the cause. Gwyn Williams wrote of how, with the fall of the House of Aberffraw, the epoch of the Welsh Princes came to a sudden and brutal end:

The Welsh passed under the nakedly colonial rule of an even more arrogant, and self-consciously alien, imperialism. Many historians, aware that the feudal principalities and princes have elsewhere made nations, have largely accepted the verdict of nineteenth-century Welsh nationalism and identified the House of Aberffraw as the lost and legitimate dynasty of Wales. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd has become Llywelyn the Last. In fact, Wales of the Princes had to die before the Welsh nation could be born. That Welsh nation made itself out of the very tissue of contradictions which was the colonialism that choked it.

The statue of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in Cardiff City Hall.

The Plantagenet hold on Wales, now extending over the north and west of the country, was accompanied by a second great phase of castle building. Edward rebuilt the castles at Caernarfon, Flint and Rhuddlan and built new concentric ones at Harlech, Conwy, Beaumaris and Criccieth, to overawe the Welsh, standing both as bastions and as symbols of Plantagenet rule. Important market towns grew up around the new castles. But the military occupation of the northwest was also followed up by a constitutional settlement, imposed and established by the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan. By this, the former principality was placed under the direct jurisdiction of the English crown and Anglo-Norman law. Both Gwynedd and the Deheubarth were divided into shires, like in England, and English courts of justice were introduced. Further revolts, in 1287 and 1294 were ruthlessly suppressed, and in 1295 the Earl of Warwick defeated the North Welsh rebel leader, Madog ap Llewelyn, at Maes Madog, in an engagement which presaged the tactical use of ‘mixed formations’ of archers and dismounted men-at-arms in the Hundred Years War.

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The Edwardian Conquest of Wales, 1277-1283: Two wars, in 1277 (marked with red arrows) and 1282-3 (blue arrows), brought the whole of Wales under direct English rule. Castles were built by Edward after the 1277 Campaign (in green) and the 1282-3 Campaign, besides those captured by him in the second war (in mauve).

The king then undertook a great circular progress through Wales to reinforce his authority. Although there was no drastic change in the customs of the people, and the tribal and clan groupings still existed, these slowly broke down over the following centuries. In 1301 Edward granted all the English Crown lands in Wales to his eldest son, ‘Edward of Caernarvon’, titled as ‘the Prince of Wales’ in what some have presented as an attempt to appease the Welsh people. In reality, however, it was a powerful reminder that the days of the native princes were over. Half of Wales became a unified Principality, to be ruled directly through statute by the English king. Gradually, too, there was a resulting decline in the power of the Marcher lordships. The king, concerned at their level of autonomy, had now acquired his own Welsh lands.

Harlech Castle, Gwynedd. Rebuilt by Edward I after 1283 for the then enormous sum of eight thousand pounds. Harlech, which featured the latest concentric defences, was one of a series of castles built by Edward to isolate Gwynedd from the rest of Wales.

Renaissance Learning & National Reassertion:

Within Wales, the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a time of national reassertion, if also one of constant struggle, bitter warfare, internecine as well as external, that ended in national humiliation and the loss of independence. By then, however, a succession of famed princes had left a deep mark on the national consciousness, and on poetry. During this period, the native Welsh were admitted to much of the rapidly developing ‘renaissance’ of learning across Europe. This was not limited to the writing of poetry; there were also works on medicine and science in the Welsh language. In a revival arising directly from the struggle for independence, the bardic order was reorganised. Bardic schools were arduous and apprenticeships in the strict metres were long. Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd (1081-1137) was credited with the initial impetus, and he was, possibly, the first to systematise the eisteddfodau under the Maiestawd Dehau (‘the Majesty of the South’); The Lord Rhys, Justiciar of the King, who exercised some shadowy, theoretical authority over every lord in Wales, whether Welsh or Norman, yet nevertheless endowed the Welsh language and its poetry with prestige. This was the age of the gogynfeirdd, the court poets, when every court and many a sub-court had its official pencerdd, the master-poet who sat next to the prince’s heir in the hall, and its bardd teulu, the household poet.

Certain of the works of the court poets still communicate instantly and fully today. The poetry of Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd (d. 1170), for example, brought a lightness and elegance, together with a new note of gallantry, into court poetry with his threefold hymning of the splendour of battle, the beauty of his homeland, and the sexual attractiveness of women. The poets had official functions and were the remembrancers to dynasties and their people. They evolved a complex, difficult and powerful tradition which, in the thirteenth century, involved a renaissance influence; princes like Owain Cyfeiliog were themselves poets. All were patrons of poets, not only for the poets’ sake but also for their own. Gwyn Jones (1977) eloquently summarised this ‘symbiotic’ relationship:

The poet had his place, including his place at court, and his place in the Order of Bards; and he had his duties. There were events, deeds, intentions to be recorded, persons like a patron and his wife to be extolled in this world and lamented on their departure for the next; poets themselves must die, and what was the Lord of Heaven but another patron to be praised and placated? And all these things had to be done in the right way, in set form and rule. Poetic structure became regularised, the ‘awdl’ (ode) dominated, with its end-rhymes, sections, connections, repetitions, vocabulary, figures and tropes, alliteration and internal rhymes, woven into rhetorical or musical patterns of song, sonorous, powerful and directed very much at the ear. A poet might be born: he had also to be made. There was a craft to be learned, and without mastery of this craft, whatever else you might be, you would not be a court poet.

This interdependence was well expressed by the greatest of those poets of the twelfth century: “Thou without me”, cried Cynddelw (c. 1155-1200) to the Lord Rhys, “thou hadst no voice; I without thee, no voice have I”. Cynddelw was already, in his own day, styled as the Great Poet, a bard of unfailing technique and power, and mastery of every genre: eulogy, celebration, marwnad (mourning) for a lost lord, a petition for reconciliation with an offended patron, a troubadour-like love song, and a poem composed for his own death-bed. Anthony Conran (1967) gave the following evaluation of Cynddelw’s poetry:

The odes of Cynddelw are not merely greater than the sum of their parts, they are much, much greater. Every detail in them, every turn of phrase, every metaphor, may be hackneyed and second-hand; but the whole is magnificent. They reflect a way of life in which human relationships formed a complicated pattern, extending outwards through the family circle. For some purposes, in twelfth-century Wales to know who your third or fourth cousins were might indeed make the difference between life and death. Duties to your family, to your local lord, to your king, to your church, and your claims upon them in turn – these were far and away more complex in tribal Wales than they ever were under feudalism. … This is not to say that the individual phrase, any more than the individual person, had necessarily to be ordinary and of no account. … For the principles behind Cynddelw’s craftsmanship, like those behind the tribal organization of society, could bestow importance upon such individuals, phrases or persons, where otherwise there would be mediocrity and lack of purpose.

The great, experimental period of the Gogynfeirdd seems to have begun in Gwynedd around 1135, the year that the ‘anarchy’ of the reign of Stephen began in the Kingdom of England and two years before Owain Gwynedd succeeded his father, Gruffudd II (ap Cynon) to the princedom in North Wales. The first poem that can be dated, and is wholly in this style, was Meilyr’s Elegy for Gruffudd ap Cynon, though it was not the first poem that Meilyr had written to that prince as his chief bard. From 1137 to the end of that century, there was a continuous stream of poems preserved in the manuscripts. These are not only official poems, eulogies and elegies for princes. Meilyr’s other surviving poem of importance is the Poem on his Deathbed, a meditation on his life as a poet containing a poignant request to be buried on Bardsey Island, the graveyard of the saints. According to Anthony Conran, it is a beautiful piece of work, justly famous and imitated several times by later poets. Meilyr’s son, Gwalchmai was even more experimental, expressing with a confident freedom the excitement and sweetness of being a warrior and a lover of girls in the time of Owain Gwynedd. These two bards were succeeded by Hywel, Owain’s illegitimate son, who also played an important role in Welsh courtly life until his assassination by his half-brothers near Pentraeth (Anglesey) in 1170.

For the first time, in Hywel’s romantic poetry, foreshadowing that of Dafydd ap Gwilym a century and a half later, there was a genuine lyricism informing whole poems in which feeling shapes the form, instead of merely being its servant. From the metrical point of view, there was little difference between the three twelfth-century bards, but Hywel’s lyricism is essentially organic in the way it grows, with its ‘bounding line’ and personal commitment to the way his heart was leading his mind. One of his most famous poems belongs to the genre known to his contemporaries as Gorhoffedd, meaning ‘Boast’, ‘Vaunt’, ‘Exultant Utterance’, ‘Celebration’. What was boasted about or celebrated was the poet’s valour in war, the beauty of his beloved homeland, and his delight and success with his countrywomen. Another poem celebrates his romantic assignations with eight ladies during sojourns from Chester to the coast of South Wales.

The increasingly patriotic feelings found in these early Gogynfeirdd was not limited to Gwynedd. In Powys (mid-Wales), in the poetry of Cynddelw and Prince Owain of Cyfeiliog, the new movement was also gathering momentum. Even in the Deheubarth, the other major Welsh territory (in the southwest), it was politically and culturally expansive by the end of the twelfth century. The poetry of Powys differs slightly in sentiment from that of Gwynedd: as befits the border country between Wales and England, it was more involved with the past, less taken with the joys of the present. Even so, until 1160 and the death of Madog ap Maredudd, Cynddelw seems to have been content to stay as Madog’s house-poet, celebrating (among other things) the beauty of the princess Efa and his own reception by her maidens. But after that date, the mood seems to change, and very little innovative poetry appeared. After the excitement and freedom of the earlier Gogynfeirdd, most of the later bards, like the great Cynddelw himself, saw themselves as being in the service of an inherited ‘national’ mission, rather than simply the servants of a particular prince. His greatest poems, with their historical preoccupations, date from the 1160s, but are really a reversion to an earlier phase in his writing, though also an extension of it. His eulogy, In Praise of Owain Gwynedd, demonstrates these preoccupations:

In arms against Angles in Tegeingl’s lands,

Blood spilling in streams, blood pouring forth.

Dragons encountered, rulers of Rome,

A prince’s heir, red their precious wine.

In strife with the Dragon of the East,

Fair Western Dragon, the best was his.

Ardent the lord, sword bright above sheath,

Spear in strife and outpouring from sword,

Sword-blade in hand and hand hewing heads,

Hand on sword and sword on Norman troops, …

At Aberteifi they cut through falling spears

As at Badon Fawr, valiant war-cry,

I saw war-stags and stiff red corpses,

It was left to the wolves, their burial;

I saw them routed, without their hands,

Beneath birds’ claws, men mighty in war;

I saw their ruin, three hundred dead,

I saw, battle done, bowels on thorns;

I saw strife cause a dreadful uproar,

Troops contending, a rout collapsing.

I saw struggle, men falling from sea-cliffs,

I saw their fortress, enemy slain,

I saw soldiers’ spears around a stone wall,

I saw for Saxons sorry corpses,

Long day at an end, princes’ reaping. …

(Dragon of the East = Henry II of England; Tegeingel = Flintshire; Aberteifi = Cardigan; Badon Fawr = Mount Badon, the unknown site of the legendary Arthur’s victory over the Saxons in 516).

The Welsh in Search of Nationhood – the ‘Battle’ of the Bards:

In early Welsh poetry, there is very little sense of Wales as a nation, a united people of a whole geographical country, before the thirteenth century. As Conran has put it,

Wales, to use an etymological metaphor, is a back-formation from the Welsh. It is the people, the ‘Cymry’, who are important: their country is essentially the Island of Britain as a whole and the fact they now occupy only that fraction of it called Wales is no more than an unfortunate historical accident. This fact is very important at all periods of Welsh history: even Owain Glyndwr was … not always content to limit his ambitions to the territorial bounds of Wales.

That was certainly the case with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s incursions into England beyond the March, which resulted in Edward I’s decision and determination to end Welsh independence. Hywel’s romantic lyricism about Gwynedd, or North Wales, seems quite distinct from Gwalchmai’s loyalty to Owain, as Gwynedd’s ‘king’, but it is also quite distinct from the intense preoccupation of some of their contemporary ‘North Walians’ with Y Fro, the ‘home district’ or ‘heartland’, which is also crucial in the overall historical identity of ‘the Welsh’. Perhaps we can locate this change in tone of the poetry of the 1160s, in the growing mood of anxiety which resulted from events across the border, events that would have a more direct and immediate impact on Powys than on the other principalities, especially Gwynedd. Sometime after the first English incursion of 1157, the bard Gwalchmai fell from favour with Owain Gwynedd and his sons. This may have been a sign of the tension between the tribe and the feudal ambitions of its chief. The bards were committed to the tribe, of course, and besides, from a purely professional point of view, they could ill afford a situation in which a single prince would have a monopoly of the patronage of their order. If a feudal state had materialised in Wales at this point, their status would have been reduced to that of minstrels, as in other emerging European feudal states. Also, while Irish minstrels were often openly cynical in bestowing bardic favours, Welsh poets, on the whole, seemed to have maintained their integrity and avoided scandal, even at the cost of political expediency. After the death of Owain Gwynedd, however, the clouds seemed to gather. While some of the poets were convinced by Llywelyn Fawr‘s attempt to found a Welsh feudal state in the thirteenth century, others were dubious and some even downright hostile. What is more, even when they tried to advocate a united country, their verse-forms remained obstinately tribal.

The change to a feudal worldview would have resulted in a completely new kind of poetry, geared to different rhythms and based on an altered view of the bard’s function in society. As it was, although the craft remained the same the poetry of the thirteenth century did not fulfil the promise of the twelfth. When the storm finally broke in 1282, with Edward I’s invasion and the tragic (almost accidental) death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, there is a sense of some kind of release, almost as if this was the tragic moment the poets had been awaiting. Certainly, it produced a poetic masterpiece when Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch (‘son of the Red Judge’) transcended the bounds of formal elegy in his outcry for his dead lord, Prince Llywelyn. Soon after the events of the Conquest, Gruffudd wrote a courtly Lament for Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (the Last) which begins with an imagined return visit to Aberffraw on Anglesey, the royal seat of the rulers of Gwynedd:

Heart Cold in the breast with terror, grieving

For a king, oak door, of Aberffraw.

Bright gold was bestowed by his hand,

A gold chaplet befitted him.

I grieve for a prince, hawk free of reproach,

I grieve for the ill that befell him,

I grieve for the loss, I grieve for the lot,

I grieve to hear how he was wounded.

Mine, rage at the Saxon who robbed me,

Mine, before death, the need to lament.

Mine, with good reason, to rave against God

Who has left me without him,

Mine to praise him, unstinting, instilled,

Mine to be ever mindful of him,

Mine all my lifetime sorrowing for him.

A lord like a lion leading his land,

A lord chafing for devastation,

A lord who prospered, till he left Emrais

No Saxon would venture to strike him,

A lord, stone in his roof, Welshmen’s monarch,

Of the right line to rule Aberffraw.

Many a home black in the firebrand’s track,

And many a place pillage lays waste,

Many a wretched cry as at Camlan*,

Many a tear rolling down a cheek,

With my prop cut down, gold-handed prince,

With Llywelyn’s death, gone is my mind.

Ah God, that the sea should cover the land!

What is left us that we should linger?

No place to flee from terror’s prison,

No place to live; wretched is living!

All counties, all towns are now troubled,

All households, all clans are collapsing.

All the weak, all the strong he kept safe:

All the children now cry in their cradles.

King right royal of Aberffraw,

May heaven’s fair land be his home.

(*Camlan was Arthur’s disastrous last battle, its site still unknown.)

This was, according to Conran, the greatest poem, probably, in the Welsh language, a ‘tour de force’ of controlled anguish and dismay that rises to visionary heights. Step by step, the poet leads us through all the mazes of conventional lamentation … into a world that is lost forever, the deep eschatological darkness of the end of all hopes.

After his death, Llewelyn’s head was struck off and exhibited on a stake in London. His death was disastrous for Welsh hopes of national independence and called forth many elegies, of which this apocalyptic outburst is the most remarkable. Its last section plays forcibly on the two meanings of pen in Welsh, as in English, for ‘chief’ or ‘chieftain’ and ‘head’. In his collection of Welsh poetry in translation, Gwyn Jones (1977) reproduces the last eighteen lines of Gruffudd’s poem in the original Welsh, which illustrate its rhetorical effects and sound patterns, and the problems attendant on the translation of bardic Court Poetry. Below are the first ten lines of the eighteen.

Pen pan las, ni bu gas gymraw;

Pen pan las, oedd lesach peidiaw,

Pen milwr, pen moliant rhag llaw,

Pen dragon, pen draig oedd arnaw.

Pen Llywelyn deg, dygn o fraw – i’r byd

Bod pawl haearn trwyddaw.

Pen f’arglwydd, open dyngwydd a’m daw;

Pen f’enaid heb fanag arnaw.

Pen a fu berchen ar barch naw – canwlad,

A naw canwledd iddaw.

Later, the author of the Llansteffan manuscript 144 (dealing with the acts and deeds of the gentry and their ancestors/ kinsmen) wrote of the close relationship between Court Poetry and dynastic histories, underlining the role of the bard in Welsh society:

Our histories were not written by schoolmasters that travelled no further for his knowledge than a child’s journey from his breakfast to his lesson, nor by any monk that journeyed no further than from mass to meat, nor by any prentice that had no other education but that from shop to market, nor by any base person of birth, condition or calling. But by noble bards, nobly descended barons and fellows to lords and princes.

These bards were therefore men of high status at the heart of affairs, not humble ‘eaters of broken meats’ at the outward end of the prince’s table.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 001-6.jpg
Kidwelly Castle, Dyfed, south-west Wales. The defences of major castles could be updated several times during their lifetimes: Kidwelly began as a walled enclosure in the 12th century, to which round towers and an outer wall were added in the thirteenth and finally, a large gatehouse after 1300. Kidwelly (‘Cydweli’) was one of the areas jurisdictional answerable to Carmarthenshire, part of the ‘Crown lands’ after 1284 (see map below).

Despite the partisan nature of much of this eulogising of the Welsh princes, the Norman lords of the March had also succumbed to the charms of the court poets, harpists and singers. The Cambro-Norman Archdeacon of Brecon, Giraldus Cambrensis (1146-1223) had made a special note of the harmonies he heard:

… when a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers, all joining together, in the end, to produce a single organic harmony and melody in the soft sweetness of the B-flat…

What happened next, after the Conquest was, in some senses, distinctly odd. Wales was an occupied country, divided up into royal shires and Marcher lordships, with the Welsh in the former principalities literally ‘walled out’ in their own country. Edward I built, at enormous expense, those great castles at Conwy, Caernarfon and Beaumaris that so dominate the visitor’s view of North Wales. Of course, they were originally intended to dominate the ‘view’ of the rural population of Gwynedd, defending the approaches to the mountain hide-outs of Eryri. He also rebuilt the castles at Harlech, Criccieth and Bere to control ‘escape’ exits and entrances to the south. Each of the castles protected its ‘borough’, where English settlers were encouraged to live and do trade, and where the Welsh were expressly forbidden to go.

The Welsh princely houses, on whom Welsh culture and aspirations were founded, were practically eradicated as a force in the land. This is what must have given rise to the bardic myth of Edward’s massacre of the bards. Wales was deprived of any overt national life and was also impoverished, too poor to support her conqueror’s defence programme. The concept of the ‘Principality’ had, initially, gone some way towards offering a national ideal. Llywelyn the Last had been recognised as ‘Prince of Wales’ by Henry II in 1267 and by Edward I five years later. Edward did not see fit to let the title lapse but conferred it upon his eldest son, Edward of Caernarvon, who, according to the legend, was held up by his father over the castle’s battlements for popular adoration. The Principality of Wales was not integrated into England, however, but became a quite separate possession of the English Crown, ruled by statute and not by acts of Parliament. During the Glyndwr Rising of 1400-15, Owain deliberately had himself proclaimed Prince of Wales in an act of denial that the title could be owned by a royal son of the English Crown. In terms of a lawful aristocracy, it was the Norman Marcher Lords, their ranks swelled by a further supply of English lords, not the ‘Pura Wallia’, who kept their feudal independence as tenants-in-chief until their lands were finally integrated into the Welsh counties by the Acts of Union of 1535 and 1542. Only in ‘loyal’ Powys did the Welsh lords continue in place.

Areas marked in brown are the lordships created by Edward I, granted to English nobles, and the brown line shows the limit of the marcher lordships.

After his conquest of Wales and the partition of the country into Crown lands and the March, Edward, with his passion for law and order, would have considered the divided administration of the country, the relative independence of the rulers of much of it and its fragmented judicial system as anathema; but the Marchers with their jealously guarded immunities were difficult to dislodge, and although Edward flexed his muscles towards them, he seems to have accepted the political reality of the March, provided his authority as monarch was recognised. On one occasion, the king confiscated Wigmore Castle (a reconstruction of which is shown below) when Edmund Mortimer executed an inhabitant of the royal lordship of Montgomery, thereby encroaching on the king’s rights, and Edmund was only able to recover it after payment of a fine of a hundred marks and providing a straw effigy of the man to be hung on the gallows in the town of Montgomery. In 1297, the men of the nearby Mortimer lordship of Maelienydd submitted a list of grievances to Edward I, who seems to have induced Edmund to grant the men of the lordship charters of their liberties, a further example of his preparedness to intervene in the administration of the March.


The March of Wales and the borderlands were still viewed with suspicion by the Plantagenet Crown and its Anglo-Norman nobility; they remained territories in which it was difficult to exercise royal supervision and for the Crown to intervene militarily. Throughout the Middle Ages, the marcher lordships were a refuge for rebellious barons, criminals and anyone else who wanted to ‘disappear’. Today the Borderlands contain a fascinating variety of towns, while a number of the motte and bailey castles are now no more than mounds, like Nantcribbau near Montgomery, which had been captured by Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn on the instructions of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1263.

Yet again, the change in national fortunes led to new developments in the nation’s poetry in the fourteenth century. The failures of the two Llewelyns to establish a feudal principality before that had created a powerful cultural stalemate in thirteenth-century Wales. The National inspiration and desire were continually aroused, only to be frustrated by the pressure of events. Then the full-scale invasion of Wales and the loss of Welsh independence so brutally underlined by the killing of Llywellyn, ‘our last prince’ in 1282 and his brother Dafydd the following year, helped to make the old, long-established, serious-minded, rigidly formalised court poetry obsolete. The Conquest released this pent-up energy but did not solve the fundamental political problem; it simply anaesthetised it.

Sculpture of Dafydd ap Gwilym by W Wheatley Wagstaff at City Hall, Cardiff
Sculpture of Dafydd ap Gwilym by W Wheatley Wagstaff at City Hall, Cardiff

The change in form and subject may not have been as sudden or as complete as it looks to be, but as so often and in so many kinds of literature, a poet of genius appeared to divide one age of poetry from another. That was Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of the most consummate metrists the British Isles have known. Dafydd (c. 1315/1320 – c. 1350/1370) is regarded as one of the leading Welsh (and Welsh language) poets of any century, and amongst the great poets of Europe in the Middle Ages. For Cynddelw, the best flowers of the thorn brake had been the scarlet entrails of the enemy dead, whereas Dafydd’s professed ambition was less to stand firm in battle with his lord than dally under the birch-bough with his sweetheart of the hour. Over the three centuries that followed the fall of princely Wales, and into the ‘modern’ era, a long line of gifted poets, backed by their sustaining patrons, with a strikingly effective verse form in the ascendant, and an attuned and receptive audience, maintained the most brilliant epoch of Welsh literature and its dream of a unified, independent Wales, but in a markedly different way than the bards of the previous three centuries.

Bardic Traditions and the Romantic Era in European Poetry:

‘The Bard’

From the second half of the eighteenth century, this still unbroken and revived bardic tradition of the ‘Celtic’ nations of the British Isles began to have a profound influence on the Romantic poets across Europe, though mostly through translations into English. János Arany (1817—1882) was one of them, already in his own day and country a well-known Hungarian poet, writer, translator and journalist. He is often said to be the ‘Shakespeare of ballads’ because he wrote over a hundred ballads that have been translated into over fifty languages. Vilmos Tolnai has proved that many of János Arany’s ‘English’ books are from the Tauchnitz Edition, which started in the 1840s. According to Tolnai, Arany bought Dickens’ A Child’s History of England when it was published by Tauchnitz in 1845 and claimed that this is how he would have read the short story of the Welsh bards for the first time. However, this first appeared in serial form in Household Words, running from 25 January 1851 to 10 December 1853. Dickens also published the work in book form in three volumes: from 1851 to 1853. Volume II of this was titled, England from the Reign of Henry the Third, to the Reign of Richard the Third (1853). It was in this second volume that Dickens wrote about the Edwardian conquest of Wales, in Chapter XVI, England under Edward the First, called Longshanks. He ended this with the following comment about the legend of the massacre of the bards:

There is a legend that to prevent the people from being incited to rebellion by the songs of their bards and harpers, Edward had them all put to death. Some of them may have fallen among other men who held out against the King; but this general slaughter is, I think, a fancy of the harpers themselves, who, I dare say, made a song about it many years afterwards, and sang it by the Welsh firesides until it came to be believed.”

Despite the apparent error in his dating, there is no doubt that Tolnai’s theory has some truth to it, but we must also mention two other books alongside Dickens’, in which the poet had most likely read the same story. Dickens himself gives no clue that he was aware of these earlier sources when he recorded the ‘legend’. Oisean (Gaelic) was the narrator and purported author of a cycle of epic poems published by the Scottish poet James Macpherson, originally as Fingal (1761) and Temora (1763), later combined under the title The Poems of Ossian. Macpherson claimed to have collected word-of-mouth material in Scottish Gaelic, said to be from ancient sources, and that the work was his translation of that material. By 1800 Ossian had been translated into Spanish and Russian, with Dutch following in 1805, and Polish, Czech and Hungarian in 1827–33. The poems were as much admired in Hungary as in France and Germany. Arany wrote Homer and Ossian in response, and several other Hungarian writers – Sándor Petőfi, Baróti Szabó, Csokonai, Sándor Kisfaludy, Kazinczy, Kölcsey, Ferenc Toldy, and Ágost Greguss, were also influenced by it (Oszkár Elek (1933), “Ossian-kultusz Magyarországon”, in Egyetemes Philologiai Közlöny (LVII): 66–76). In 1847, Tauchnitz published Ossian’s poems, translated by James Macpherson. The earlier Scottish author Hugh Blair in his (1763) A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian had already upheld the work’s authenticity against Samuel Johnson’s scathing criticism, and from 1765 his claim was included in every edition of Ossian to lend the work credibility. In his dissertation, Blair wrote the following:

“When Edward I conquered Wales, he ordered the execution of all the Welsh bards. This merciless policy clearly displays how much influence the bard’s music had on public opinion and how much the king feared this influence.”

Notwithstanding the matter-of-fact nature of Blair’s statement, the ‘executions’ were more likely, as Dickens suggested, to be legend rather than historical fact, for there is no trace of them in either Welsh or English medieval sources, but they were also, as we have seen, part of significant mythology that sought to explain the temporary fracture in the ‘Celtic’ Bardic tradition resulting from the Edwardian Conquest.

“The National Poet”, Sándor Petőfi (1 January 1823 – most likely 31 July 1849).

Hungarian national poet Sándor Petőfi also wrote a poem entitled Homer and Ossian, comparing the two authors, of which the first verse reads:

Oh, where are you Hellenes and Celts?
Already you have vanished, like
Two cities drowning
In the waters of the deep.
Only the tips of towers stand out from the water,
Two tips of towers: Homer, Ossian.

‘The Bard’

Despite its doubtful authenticity, the Ossian cycle popularized Scottish and Celtic mythology across Europe and became one of the earliest and most popular texts that inspired romantic nationalist movements over the following century. European historians agree that Ossian’s poems and their vision of mythical Scotland spurred the emergence of enlightened patriotism on the continent and played a foundational role in the making of modern European nationalism. As already noted in the introduction, the circulation of Walesi Bardok (circa 1857) coincided with the visit of the Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph to Hungary, at a time when there was a sense of deep resentment at Austrian oppression and suppression of dissent experienced by many Hungarians. Arany wrote his own preface to the poem:

“The historians doubt it, but it strongly stands in the legend that Edward I of England sent five hundred Welsh bards to the stake after his victory over the Welsh (1277) to prevent them from arousing the country and destroying English rule by telling of the glorious past of their nation.”

However, whether we refer to this event as having taken place in 1277 or 1282-3, there is no surviving evidence in Welsh or English to verify it. What is evident, however, is that between 1849 and 1867 in Hungary, it was not safe for poets to write openly of their hatred of the Austrian Empire, so Arany used his knowledge of British history and literature to compose a masterly yet thinly-veiled attack on the Hapsburg monarchy, leaving his Hungarian readers in little doubt as to whom his scorn was directed. Arany, who was fully familiar with Ossian’s poetry, had the chance of reading Blair’s dissertation too since it was bundled in with most Ossian editions. The poet could also have known the story from Thomas Percy’s dissertation, An Essay on the Ancient Minstrels: Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. In essence, Percy’s telling doesn’t differ much. From 1867 the Austrian Empire was transformed into Austria-Hungary with Hungarians as a ‘partner’ nation instead of a subject people. After World War I, The Bards of Wales became widely known in the independent state of Hungary, which had lost two-thirds of its territory with the break-up of the empire. The map below shows Hungary in its historic form of Arany’s day, with his birthplace (Nagyszalonta) in the then Bihár County, present-day Romania. Nagykőrös, where he wrote the poem, was – and is – in Pest County, south of the capital. He died in Budapest.

Hungary in the period 1848-1918.

The Life and Works of János Arany:

Arany’s fame as a narrative poet is based not only on his prodigious output but also on his thoroughly Hungarian way of thinking and expression, derived from a profound national consciousness. From 1833 he attended the Reformed Church College of Debrecen where he studied German and French, though he quickly became tired of scholarly life, and temporarily joined an acting troupe. Later on, he worked in Nagyszalonta, Debrecen, and Budapest as a teacher, newspaper editor, and in various clerical positions. In 1840 he married Júlianna Ercsey (1816–1885). They had two children, Júlianna, whose early death from pneumonia devastated the poet, and Lászlo who also became a renowned poet in his own right and a collector of Hungarian folklore. In 1845, János Arany won the competition of the Kisfaludy Társaság (a literary society founded that year) with his writing, “Az elveszett alkotmány” (The Lost Constitution). This was a satire dealing with the excesses of Hungarian country life. Two years later, he won this prize again with Toldi, a folk epic recounting the search of a valiant but impoverished nobleman for fame and fortune. He immediately worked out “Toldi estéje” (Toldi’s Evening), which eventually formed the last part of the Toldi Trilogy, the middle part of which he completed much later. After Toldi, which became one of his most famous works, was published, he and Sándor Petőfi became close friends (see their letters: To János Arany by Petőfi and Reply to Petőfi by Arany). He also became friends with Vörösmarty and Tompa.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-9, Arany wrote patriotic poetry and joined in editing a popular newspaper. When Petőfi went to join the Polish General Bem’s forces, he left his wife and young son first with Vörösmarty and then with Arany. With the crushing of the Revolution by Austria and Russia in 1849, Arany lost his job as a junior civil servant, his property and his best friend, Petőfi. Petőfi’s death in the War of Independence that followed the Revolution had a great impact on him. Like all Hungarian patriots, he was completely overwhelmed by the events of 1849. He worked for a while as a tutor to the aristocratic Tisza family, and in 1851 was invited to teach at the Protestant High School in Nagykőrös, south-east of Budapest, where the local museum and other public buildings are named after him. It was during this time that he published Toldi’s Evening and many of his ballads. In 1858 he was elected a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (which like the Academie Francaise, had been established to promote both the sciences and the arts and became the supreme arbiter of Hungarian grammar). He moved to Buda where he was also editing two literary journals, The Fictional Observer and Garland, and was elected director of the Kisfaludy Society in 1860, which by then had become the greatest literary association in Hungary. In 1864, Arany published his epic, “Buda halála” (Death of Buda) and became the secretary-general of the Academy of Sciences in 1865. With that appointment, his financial future was secured, but the early death of his daughter Júlianna in the same year overshadowed everything and marked the beginning of Arany’s hiatus as a poet. For almost a decade, he published nothing and was constantly in ill health. He did not write any original pieces until the summer of 1877 when he resigned from the Academy and plunged himself feverishly into writing. As its secretary and through the position with the Kisfaludy Society, Arany helped to promote the work of other writers. Most notably, the publication of Imre Madach’s Tragedy of Man (“Az ember Tragédia”), which has been compared to Dante’s Inferno for the breadth of its scope and philosophical insight, was made possible by Arany’s recommendation.

The poet in ‘old’ age.

Arany then began working on his poetic cycle entitled Őszikék. This work is substantially different from his previous works, concerning themes like elderliness, or the imminence of death. It has been said that only Thomas Hardy can be compared with Arany for such a spurt of literary achievement at so advanced an age. Besides finishing “Toldi szerelme” (Toldi’s Love), to complete the trilogy, he translated three dramas of Shakespeare into Hungarian, considered to be some of the greatest translations into Hungarian in history; he also helped other Hungarian translators with his comments. He revealed a great preference for the cultures and literature of Britain. The stimulating effect of translating Shakespeare roused a vivid echo in Arány, and he succeeded in transplanting the dramas of the bard into a Hungarian worthy of him. His translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets and tragedies are still considered the best and most literary among the Hungarian renditions of the bard’s works. Fundamentally, however, the epic poetry of János Arany represents the legendary and historical past of his nation. The Death of Buda (1864), the first part of a projected Hun trilogy is one of the best narrative poems in Hungarian literature. The other parts of the trilogy (Ildikó, and Prince Csaba) are unfinished. Arany died in Budapest on October 22, 1882, just one week after attending the unveiling of Petőfi’s statue on the banks of the Danube. The first selection of his works was published in eight volumes between 1883 and 1885. His prose and correspondence were edited by his son and published in four additional volumes.

Arany, by Barabas.

János Arany recalled national heroes and revived ancient legends when national consciousness and pride were paralysed by the crushing of the 1848 Uprising. This was a heartfelt patriotic service for that generation. Not only his epics but also his many lesser narrative poems have become classics in the hundred and forty years since his death. His historical narratives have lent inspired details and breadth to real events. His most famous poem, A Walesi Bárdok (The Bards of Wales) is an exception that supposedly describes Edward I’s visit to the newly conquered territories in Wales where he ordered the execution of five hundred Welsh bards, lest their songs incite the people against their conqueror. Here are some further extracts, in a translation by Peter Zollman (1997), from A Walesi Bárdok (The Bards of Wales (1857)), beginning with a verse in the original Hungarian, followed by its translation by Peter Zollman (1997) and further verses in English:

Edward király, angol király,

Léptet fakó lován:

Hadd látom, úgymond, mennyit ér

A velszi tartomány.

King Edward scales the hills of Wales

Upon his stallion.

“Hear my decree! I want to see,

My new dominion.

“Show me the yield of every field,

The grain, the grass, the wood!

Is all the land now moist and rich

With red rebellious blood?

And are the Welsh, the wretched Welsh,

A peaceful, happy folk?

I want them pleased, just like the beast

They harness in the yoke.”

“Sire, this jewel in the crown,

Your Wales is fair and good:

Rich is the yield of every

Grassland and the wood.

“And Sire, the Welsh, God’s gift, the Welsh,

So pleased they all behave!

Dark every hut, fearfully shut

And silent as the grave.”

King Edward scales the hills of Wales

Upon his stallion.

And where he rides dead silence hides

In his dominion.

He comes to high Montgomery

To banquet and to rest;

It falls on Lord Montgomery

To entertain the guest:

“Well then, you sirs, you filthy curs,

Who will now toast the king?

I want a bard to praise my deeds,

A bard of Wales to sing!”

They look askance with a furtive glance,

The noblemen of Wales,

Their cheeks turn white in deadly fright,

As crimson anger pales.

Deep silence falls upon the halls,

And lo, before their eyes,

They see an old man, white as snow,

An ancient bard to rise.

“I shall recite your glorious deeds

Just as you bid me, Sire,”

And death rattles in grim battles

As he touches the lyre.

“Our dead are plenty as the corn

When harvest is begun,

And as we reap and glean, we weep:

You did this, guilty one!”

“Off to the stake!” The King commands,

“This was churlishly hard.

Sing us, you there, a softer air,

You, young and courtly bard!”

“Maiden, don’t bear a slave! Mother,

Your babe must not be nursed!…”

A royal nod. He reached the stake

Together with the first.

But boldly and without a call

A third one takes the floor;

Without salute, he strikes the lute,

His song begins to soar:

“The brave were killed, just as you willed,

Or languish in your gaols:

To hail your name or sing your fame

You’ll find no bard in Wales.

He may be gone, but his songs live on – 

The toast is: King beware!

You bear the curse and even worse

Of Welsh bards everywhere.”

“I’ll see to that! – Thunders the king –

You spiteful Welsh peasants!

The stake will toast you, every bard,

Who spurns my ordinance!”

Five hundred went singing to die,

Five hundred in the blaze,

But none would sing to cheer the king,

The loyal toast to raise. –

But over drums and piercing fifes,

Beyond the soldiers’ hails,

They swell the song, five hundred strong,

Those martyred bards of Wales.

William Blake, an illustration for The poetry of Thomas Gray, ‘The Bard’.

Continuing Cultural Links:

János Arany is today considered as one of the greatest Hungarian poets alongside Sándor Petőfi, Endre Ady, Miklós Radnoti and József Attila. His poems are among the most widely read works in Hungary, with schoolchildren required to memorise and recite A Walesi Bardok as part of the National Curriculum. His lyric poetry is also justly famous for its humour, though overshadowed by his epic poems and ballads. In 2011, fittingly, one of Wales’ leading contemporary cultural figures transformed the work for a modern Hungarian audience. Composer Karl Jenkins’ symphony, based on the poem, received its world premiere in Budapest’s Palace of Arts that summer with the MÁV Symphony Orchestra. The composer, who conducted his own work, said:

“I knew nothing about this poem twelve months ago. It’s written in Hungarian and all children in Hungary have to learn it at school. It’s very political, and is about King Edward’s invasion of Wales, crushing the Welsh rebels. They see it as analogous with their own suffering as part of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. I’ve been commissioned to set this in three languages – it is an English piece but there will be Welsh and Hungarian versions. The idea is to do a double premiere – one in Budapest and one probably in the Llangollen Eisteddfod this year. It came as a great surprise to me because I, like many people in Wales, never knew that this poem existed.”

Karl Jenkins’ work represents an important re-imagining of Arany’s poetry and its connection to both the past of Hungary and to the Welsh past. Historical sources are important in this process, but so is imagination in making the past relevant to the present and future. On the latter, in 2021 I became fully aware of the growing links between the two nations through this revival of interest in Arany’s poem. In particular, cultural and educational exchanges have taken place between Nagykőrös, the town in Hungary where he taught in the 1850s when he wrote the ballad and the town of Montgomery near the Welsh border with England which is featured in the poem. As an alumnus of the University of Wales, currently working for the Reformed Church University in Hungary, the continuation of the bardic tradition is, for me, essential to the future of European civilisation.

Literary Sources:

Anthony Conran (1967), The Penguin Book of Welsh Verse: Translated (with an introduction) by Conran in association with J. E. Caerwyn Williams. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Gwyn Jones (1977), The Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English. Oxford: University Press.

George Szirtes et. al. (eds.) (1997), The Lost Rider: A bilingual anthology: The Corvina Book of Hungarian Verse. Budapest: Corvina.

Erika Papp Faber (ed.) (2012), A Sampler of Hungarian Poetry. Budapest: Romanika Kiadó.

Sándor Fest (1918), “Arany János Balladáihoz”, in Lórant Czigány & János H. Korompay (eds.) (2000), Fest Sándor: Skóciai Szent Margittól a Walesi Bárdokig: Magyar-angol történeti és irodalmi kapcsolatok (Anglo-Hungarian Historical and Literary Contacts). Budapest: Universitas Kiadó.




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