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Reference: NLW MS 13107B

Who was Iolo Morganwg?

Iolo was born in Llancarfan, the son of Edward and Anne Williams. His father was a stonemason. Iolo said that he learnt to read by watching his father carve letters on gravestones. His mother was a cultured woman and a member of the Mathews family of gentry of Llandaf and Radyr.

Iolo mastered his father's trade, and in 1773 he went to London to look for work. There, by attending the lively meetings of the Gwyneddigion Society, he came to participate in the Welsh life of the city. After working in various parts of England, he returned to the Vale of Glamorgan in 1777; and in 1781 he married Margaret Roberts. During 1786-7, following a troubled period as a businessman, Iolo spent time in a debtor's prison in Cardiff. It is believed that Cyfrinach Beirdd Ynys Prydain ('The Secret of the Bards of the Isle of Britain'), one of his most accomplished forgeries, was a product of his year in prison.

In 1791, he returned to London proclaiming, in both Welsh and English literary circles, that he was heir to all the mysteries of Druidism. In 1792 on Primrose Hill, in London, he held the first ceremony of Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain (The Gorsedd of the Bards of the Island of Britain). The ceremony was later to become one of the main attractions at the National Eisteddfod.

Iolo returned to Wales in 1795 and began collecting material for his magnum opus, 'The History of the British Bards', a book that would, he believed, explain to the world all the history and learning of the Druids. In 1801 and 1807, a large number of his forgeries were published in the Myvyrian Archaiology, after he had persuaded the editors that they were texts copied from old manuscripts. Yet he never succeeded in writing 'The History of the British Bards'. He died in 1826, leaving a vast collection of manuscripts. This collection is now at the National Library of Wales.

Iolo's papers were read voraciously by his admirers during the 19th century, and his forgeries were not exposed until the 20th century, through the scholarship of Professor Griffith John Williams. But his genius as a poet and visionary also came to be appreciated: one of the most inventive and prolific forgers in the history of literature.

Further reading

  • G.J. Williams. Iolo Morganwg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1956.
  • Prys Morgan, Iolo Morganwg. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1975.
  • Geraint H. Jenkins, Facts, Fantasy and Fiction: The Historical Vision of Iolo Morganwg. Aberystwyth : Canolfan Uwchefrydiau Cymreig a Cheltaidd Prifysgol Cymru, 1997.