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Title illustration from ‘Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards’ – and what an illustration!

Looking back across all of history, let’s find somewhere convenient to start.

Before the Bards emerged there were Druids. It’s a reasonable assumption that around 2,000 years ago the druidical hierarchy was constitutionally divided into what we know were three classes: priests; philosophers; poets. It was from the poetic division that the Bardic tradition was to emerge.

Title page from ‘Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards’- and that’s quite a title!

We then have to fast-forward to the seventh century before any formal Bardic structure can be identified, when it seems to have been a prerogative peculiar to the ancient kings of Britain to preside in the Eisteddfod, or Congress, of the Bards. Accordingly, in his ‘Musical and Poetical Relicks of the Welsh Bards’, published a millennium later in 1784, Edward Jones notes that late in the seventh century Cadwaladr sat in “an Eisteddfod assembled for the purpose of regulating the Bards, taking into consideration their productions and performance, and giving new laws to harmony”.

Frustratingly, there then follows three centuries during which history again goes missing. Expressing his frustration, Jones notes that: “From the era of Cadwadr history is obstinately silent concerning Welsh music and poetry to the middle of the tenth century, a period illuminated by the laws of Howel. In these laws we do not find the musical or poetical establishment of the national Bards; but they contain such injunctions respecting the Bard of the palace, and the chief Bard of Wales, as in some measure compensate for that defect of information.”

So by the tenth century a semblance of structure is being recorded: classifications are emerging, as are the two highest levels in the Bardic heirarchy: at the very highest level, the chief Bard of Wales and below him, each holding a position directly related to an individual prince, the Bard of the palace.

The Bard of the palace was clearly an extremely senior court position. Jones notes that: “When the chief Bard appeared at the court of the Welsh princes, he sat next to the Judge of the palace. None but himself and the Bard of the palace was allowed to perform in the presence of the prince. When the prince desired to hear music, the chief Bard sang to his harp two poems, one in praise of the Almighty, the other concerning kings and their heroic exploits, after which a third poem was sung by the Bard of the palace.” Ensuring all the prerequisite boxes were ticked, the poem sung by the Bard of the palace was almost certainly a warm and generous eulogy to his patron prince.

In terms of the presence of the Bard of the palace at court, Jones explains that: “At the prince’s table on the three great festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, he (the Bard of the palace) sat next to the Master of the palace, and publickly received from the hands of that officer the harp on which he performed.”

Clearly, the position of Bard of the palace was of great eminence, emphasised by the fact that he was required to stand by the side of his prince in every circumstance – including, as Jones explains: “Accompanying the (prince’s) army when it marched into an enemy’s country”. The services of the Bard of the palace at such times were not without reward: “When the prince had received his share of the spoils, (the Bard of the palace) was rewarded with the most valuable beast that remained”.

Jones describes how the Bard of the palace would have been appointed: “He (the Bard of the palace) obtained his pre-eminence by a poetical contest, which was decided by the Judge of the palace, who received on this occasion from the successful candidate, as an honorary fee, a bugle-horn, a gold ring, and a cushion for his chair of dignity. His (the Bard of the palace’s) poetical rights and authority were not subject to the controul (sic) of the prince, and his privilege of protection lasted from the beginning of the first song in the hall of the palace, to the conclusion of the last.”

Adding fuel to the fire of deduction which flames around The Druidstone Ring, Jones makes a second reference to a ring when he continues by explaining: “The Bard of the palace, who was in rank the eighth officer of the prince’s household, received at his appointment a harp and an ivory chess-board from the prince, and a gold-ring from the princess.”

In relation to The Druidstone Ring, it is interesting to note the mention above, on two occasions, of what Jones describes as “gold” rings. A ring made of gold seems an extra-ordinarily generous gift. At some point between the tenth and eighteenth centuries, may a gilted ring (made of a cheaper metal and coated in gold gilt, giving the appearance of gold) have become, for descriptive purposes, a gold(en) ring? So, a ‘gold’ ring given to a harper Bard – whose identity, because he is receiving the award after a competition, could not be known beforehand and therefore could not be engraved beforehand. What better inscription to be engraved on the gift than a harp and the Welsh word closely connected with medieval harping, ‘Pur’ (Pure).

It seems that with every justification the question is asked: may The Druidstone Ring have been the gift from a princess at Gwenyclepa to her newly-appointed Bard of the palace?

To adopt the path that led to Bardic honour was not simply a matter of individual choice. Jones explains: “We like wise find that a vassal by the practice of Poetry and Music, which he could not adopt without the permission of his lord or prince, acquired the privileges of a freeman, and an honourable rank in society. Nothing can display more forcibly the esimation and influence which the Bards enjoyed at this early period, than their remarkable prerogative of petitioning for presents by occasional poems. This custom they afterwards carried to such excess, and such respect was constantly paid to their requests, that in the time of Gruffydd ap Cynan, it became necessary to controul (sic) them by a law which restrained them from asking for the prince’s Horse, Hawk, or Greyhound, or any other possession beyond a certain price, ot that was particularly valued by the owner, or could not be replaced.”

It seems that, looking back in time at the apparently bizarre conventions of the time, once a request for an item was made by the Bard of the palace to his prince, the answer could never be ‘no’.

Jones reflects on the then-contemporary Bardic structure in this way: “We have hitherto viewed them in a very various and extensive sphere. It was their office to applaud the living and record the dead: they were required to possess learning and genius, a skill in pedigree, an acquaintance with the laws and metres of poetry, a knowledge of harmony, a fine voice, and the command of an instrument.” This structure was no longer sufficient.

It was in part to impose some measure of restraint on Bardic requests, besides also seeking to introduce a more sophisticated structure, that around the year 1070 prince Bleddyn ap Cynfyn, the author of yet another code of Welsh laws, established some regulations respecting the musical Bards, and revised and enforced those which were already made. Following the same theme, a little later, towards the close of the eleventh century, Jones records that: “The great prince Gruffydd ap Cynan invited to Wales some of the best musicians of Ireland; and being partial to the music of that island, where he was born, and observing with displeasure the disorders and abuses of the the Welsh Bards, created a body of institutes for the amendment of their manners, and the correction of their art and practice. This grand reformation of the Bards was effected by dividing them into classes, and assigning to each class a distinct profession and employment. The Bards were now therefore distributed into three grand orders, of Poets, Heralds and Musicians; each of which again branched into subordinate distinctions.”

Each of these three orders itself had three subordinate distinctions, or classes. Of the order of Musicians, the first class was assigned to the performers on the Harp, the second the Crŵth, the third singers.

Amongst the numerous relatively local feasts and festivals which were held, one event from the period is particularly notable and Jones’ description of it is used here to illustrative the importance of the Bardic tradition: “At Christmas, in the year 1176, Rhys, prince of South Wales, gave a magnificent entertainment with deeds of arms, and other shows in his new castle of Cardigan or Aberteifi, to a great number of illustrious natives and foreigners; notice of which had been given a year and a day before the proclamation through all Britain and Ireland. The musical Bards of North Wales and South Wales, who had been expressly invited to the festival and a poetical contest, were seated in chairs wth much ceremony in the middle of the great hall of the castle. Animated with their usual emulation, the presence of their noble audience, and expectation of the rich rewards promised to the victors, they pursued to a great length their generous strife, which terminated with honours to both parties, the pre-eminence of Poetry being adjudged to the poetical Bards of North Wales; and in music to the domestic musical Bards of Prince Rhys.”

In relation to income, Jones explains that: “The revenue of the Bards arose from presents at princely and other nuptials, and from fees in their annual circuits at Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, and in their triennial Clera. Their fees and presents were regulated with proportion to their degrees; and the number of visitants to the condition of the person who received them. Likewise in order to encourage the clerwyr to keep up the language, and the memory of the exploits and pedigrees of the Britons, they were allowed a certain sum out of every plough-land, and in proportion out of every half plough-land of their district. A month before each festival, the pupils enquired of their teachers what routs (sic) they should take in their approaching circuit, lest too many should resort to the same part of the country. A Pencerdd was not licensed to visit the commonality, unless he chose to accept a fee beneath his station and dignity: nor could any Bard of an inferior degree appear before gentry and nobles. The Bards were not suffered to request presents beyond a certain value, under penalty of being deprived of their musical instruments and practice for three years: when this happened, the present illegally requested became forfeit to the prince.” There’s more on ‘Clera’ a little later on this page.


It’s useful, indeed important, to understand the role of Eisteddfodau (Eisteddfods) in medieval times. Jones explains: “The Eisteddfod was a triennial assembly of the Bards, (usually held at Aberffraw, the royal seat of the Princes of North-Wales formerly, situated in Angelsey; likewise Dinevawr, the royal castle of the Princes of South-Wales, in Caermarthenshire; and Mathtavel, the royal palace of the Princes of Powis, in Montgomeryshire; for the regulation of Poetry and Music, for the purpose of conferring degrees, and of advancing to the chair of the Eisteddfod, by the decision of a poetical and musical contest, some of the rival candidates; or establishing in that honourable feat the Chief Bard who already occupied it.

“Wishing to convey to my readers a clear idea of this important subject, I annex an extract, faithfully translated, from the Statute of Prince Gruffydd ap Cynan, concerning the manner of holding an Eisteddfod.

“When the congress hath assembled, according to notice and summons previously issued, at the place appointed, they shall choose as umpires twelve persons skilled in the Welsh language, Poetry, Music, and Heraldry; who shall give to the Bards a subject to sing on, in any of the 24 metres; but not in ambaebean carols, or any such frivolous compositions. The umpires shall see that the candidates do not descend to satire or personal invective, and shall allow to each a sufficient interval for composing his Englyn or Cywydd, Music, or other task that they shall assign. They shall moreover take down the names of the several Bards present intending to exhibit, that every one may be called by his name, in order, to the chair to perform his composition, The unsuccessful candidates shall acknowledge in writing that they are overcome, and shall deliver their achnowledgment to the chief Bard, that is, to him that shall win the chair: and they all shall drink health to the chief Bard, and all shall pay him fees: and he shall govern them till he is overcome in a future Eisteddfod.”

Lest we somehow miss it, Jones states the obvious when he continues: “What served greatly to heighten the emulation of the Bards, if they wanted any additional incitement, was the presence of the prince, who usually presided in these contests. Their compositions delivered upon these occasions are frequently upon historical subjects, and are valuable for their authenticity; for it was the business of the Eisteddfod, not only to give laws to Poetry and Music, but to extinguish falsehood, and establish certainty in the relation of events.”

Jones describes the Eisteddfodic process in some detail, explaining: “Such, and so various, were the regular Bards, who by a naviciate and probation of an appointed term of years, and the performance of poetical and musical exercises, acquired degrees in the Eisteddfod. As that venerable assembly existed long before the period I am describing, a description of it ought, perhaps, to have been already exhibited: but I chose to wait till, under the auspices of a prince to whom our Poetry and Music are ever obliged, I am enabled to display it to the eyes of the curious in its most perfect form.”

The path to Bardic excellence was a difficult, challenging, path. Jones explains: “Whoever desired to proceed to degrees in Music, was presented to the Eisteddfod by a musical Pencerdd, who vouched for his capacity. During his noviciate of three years, he was called Disgybl Yspâs heb râdd, a probationary student of Music without a degree; and if he learnt top play the harp, was only suffered to use that instrument strung with horse-hair, that he might not (as I conjecture) by his rude attempt at harmony, torment the ears of the principality, and mght pursue his studies with greater diligence, incited by the hope of relinquishing it for one furnished with strings of a more audible and pleasing sound.

“His next step was to the degree of Disgybl Yspâs graddol, a graduate probatinary syudent of Music, for which he was obliged to know ten cwlwms, one colofn, five cwlwms of cydgerdd, one cadair, and eight caniads.

“He then commenced Disgubl Fifgyblaidd, or Bachelor of Music, but was previously required to be master of twenty cwlwms, two colofns, ten cwlwms of cydgerdd, two cadairs, sixteen caniads, and the twenty-four measures of Music: and to play them with facility and correctness.

“He next became Disgubl Penceirddiaidd, or Master of Music, a degree which implied a preparatory knowledge of thirty cwlwms, three colofns, fifteen cwlwms of cydgerdd, three cadairs, twenty-four caniads, and four gostegs: and skill in defining them properly and distinctly.

“Later he was admitted Pencerdd, or Doctor of Music, and was obliged to know forty cwlwms, four colofns, twenty cwlwms of cydgerdd, four cadairs, and four gostegs: and to understand all the laws and modifications of harmony, especially the twenty-four Measures of Music, and to explain them as they were written in the book of musical division; to compose a caniad pronounced faultless by the proficient Bards, and to show in all its properties, its divisions and subdivisions, its licenses and refts, the natural notes, all the flats and sharps, and every change of movement through the several keys. If the Pencerdd was a Harper, he was required to know the three excellent Mwchwls, which were equal to the four colofns, and the three new Mwchwls which were equal to four cadairs. All this he was obliged to know and perform in a masterly manner, so that professors should declare him competent to be an author and a teacher of his art.”

However, that was the sequence of progression only as long as progress was maintained. Jones continues: “The Eisteddfod was a rigid school. The poetical or musical disciple who, at the expiration of his triennial term could not obtain a higher degree, was condemned to lose that which he already possessed.” With three-year intervals between levels the entire process consumed 15 years of training to reach the highest level. And if at the end of each three-year period the Bard had not reached the required standard to progress up a level he dropped down a level – in doing so dropping back three years, so in fact losing six years of training. Doubtless many more began than finished.

Evidently, the role of the Eisteddfodau during this period in history was to increasingly rationalise the activities of the Bards; Eisteddfodau of those times bore little relationship to the events, principally of entertainment, we call ‘Eisteddfodau’ today.


Whereas the triennial Eisteddodau were about monitoring and controlling the quality of the Bardic tradition, the similarly-triennial Clera was all about Bardic performance.

Clera, which unlike the circuits of the festivals was not geographically limited, extended throughout Wales. Besides the five musical (and four poetical) levels of Eisteddfod graduate which enjoyed the benefits of Clera, such was the benevolence of the Welsh institutions that Bards afflicted with blindness, or any other such natural defect, were indulged with the privilege of engaging with Clera.

At Clera, a circuiting Bard would visit and perform at a house where he (in those times it was always a ‘he’) would receive an appropriate level of gifts. He had the authority to remain at the house he first visited until invited to another; the same applied to each subsequent house he visited. If, however, the Bard rambled from house to house, or became intoxicated, his Clera fees were confiscated and applied to the uses of the church. Worse still, if he offered, as Jones puts it, “any indecency to mistress or maid”, he was fined, imprisoned, and required to forfeit his Clera for seven years.

In closing his review, Jones reflects on what, by the mid-eighteenth century, had become of the Bardic traditions: “When Wales became an English province, Poetry had been generally diffused among the lower classes of the people. From that period they forgot their former favourite subjects of war and terror, and were confined to love, and the passions which are nearly allied to it, of pity and of grief.

“At length, towards the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the constitutional system of the Bards became entirely extinct in Wales. What contributed to keep alive, under every discouragement of foreign oppression, the poetical vein of the Welsh peasantry, was their primitive spirit of hospitality and social mirth which assembled them to drink mead, and sing, and dance, around the harmony of the Harp, Crŵth, Pipe, and Drum; and what has preserved from very distant times many of these little sonnets, is their singular merit, and the affection with which they are remembered.”