Royal National Eisteddfod

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Royal National Eisteddfod

Type of Holiday: Folkloric
Date of Observation: First week in August
Where Celebrated: Location alternates between North Wales and South Wales
Symbols and Customs: Chairing Ceremony, Choral Singing, Crowning Ceremony, Floral Dance, Gorsedd, Homecoming, Welsh Language


The Royal National Eisteddfod is a weeklong celebration of poetry, CHORAL SINGING , drama, art, and the WELSH LANGUAGE that takes place in either North Wales or South Wales every year in early August. It is derived from the tournaments in which Welsh bards (epic poets who recited their work) and musicians competed against one another for the patronage of the wealthy back in the tenth century. The first truly national eisteddfod (which means "sitting down together" or "gathering") was held in 1176, when the Welsh prince known as Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd held a festival at his castle in Cardigan featuring two competitions, one for bards and the other for musicians who played the traditional Welsh instruments-the harp, the crwth (similar to a lyre), and the pibcorn (hornpipe). He awarded a chair-literally a seat at his table, which also meant steady employment-to the best musician and the best poet. The ceremony known as "Chairing the Bard" remains a highlight of the Royal National Eisteddfod today (see CHAIRING CEREMONY ).

After that it became customary for wealthy noblemen all over Wales to hold eisteddfodau at which poets and musicians (both singers and instrumentalists) competed according to very strict rules regarding composition and performance. A hierarchy was established whereby apprentice poets and musicians could work their way up to professional status by mastering various techniques and areas of knowledge in their field. But then, when Wales became politically unified with England in 1536, London became the center of cultural life, and these annual gatherings lost momentum. It was Edward Williams (1747-1826), better known as the bard Iolo Morganwg (John of Glamorgan), who stirred up feelings of Welsh patriotism and drew attention to the idea of a national eisteddfod as a good way to revive ancient Welsh traditions. By 1881 the National Eisteddfod Association had been formed for the express purpose of organizing an annual cultural festival, the location alternating between North and South Wales, and the event has been held regularly since that time, with only brief interruptions during the First and Second World Wars. The Royal National Eisteddfod's most outstanding feature is the fact that all of the competitions-which today encompass poetry, prose, music, drama, and art-take place entirely in the WELSH LANGUAGE . About 6,000 competitors in these fields prepare all year, often by achieving prominence at smaller eisteddfodau around the country, for the main events, which include the "Crowning of the Bard" (see CROWNING CEREMONY ) on Monday of the festival week, the Prose Medal Ceremony on Wednesday, and the "Chairing of the Bard" on Friday. There are also competitions for visual artists and craftspeople, theater groups, and even Welsh pop and rock bands. The "Welsh Learner's Pavilion" is dedicated to promoting Welsh culture, with cooking demonstrations, dance and drama workshops, and instruction in the Welsh language.


Chairing Ceremony

Although the scope of the Royal National Eisteddfod has expanded over the years to include a wide variety of art forms, it is still poetry that takes center stage during the weeklong festival. There are two main competitions, one for "the Chair" and one for "the Crown" (see CROWNING CEREMONY ). The former is known in Welsh as Y Cadeirio (The Chairing), and it involves awarding a chair or seat of honor to the poet who has composed the best long poem in strict metres. All entries are submitted anonymously to avoid favoritism, and the Chair is awarded in front of the assembled GORSEDD of the Bards.

Choral Singing

In ancient Wales the art of singing, particularly choral singing, was very well established and passed down from teacher to student. Some people even believe that the Welsh invented part-singing or harmony, although this is unlikely. Welsh "mastersingers" never used music that had been written down because they wanted to keep their art form exclusive, and because the frequency of war meant that they had to be prepared to pack up and leave on a moment's notice, carrying their skills and traditions in their heads.

The period from 1840 until the First World War (1914-18) represented a "golden age" for Welsh male choirs. Community hymn-singing festivals were common, and the singing that took place in chapel every Sunday was of an unusually high standard, often involving four-part harmony. Many Welsh chapels had their own orchestras, which would join the choirs in performing oratorios. Today the popularity and strength of the choirs remains, although many of them now admit women.

Crowning Ceremony

The "Crowning of the Bard" ceremony is held to honor the best free-verse poet. Like the CHAIRING CEREMONY , it takes place in front of the GORSEDD , and the winner's identity is not revealed until he or she mounts the stage to accept the crown. The ceremony usually takes place on Monday of festival week in the main pavilion, where thousands of people gather to hear the winning bard recite.

Floral Dance

A flower dance is performed after the CHAIRING CEREMONY as well as after the Prose Medal competition and the CROWNING CEREMONY . The dancers are young Welsh girls, and the steps they follow are based on a pattern designed to suggest the gathering of wildflowers from a field.


Gorsedd means "high seat" in Welsh. It is a group of poets, writers, musicians, artists, and other individuals-who have included athletes and opera stars-recognized for their contributions to sustaining the Welsh culture, language, and traditions. It was Edward Williams (alias John of Glamorgan) who founded the Gorsedd in 1792 in London and brought it to the Eisteddfod held in Carmarthen in 1819. It was also Williams who put the Gorsedd members in Druids' robes to make them look like members of an ancient bardic court. The group's full name is Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain or "Court of the Bards of the Island of Britain," and it is their job to organize the ceremonies at which the Chair, the Crown, and the Prose Medal are awarded.

Although the Gorsedd members are dressed to resemble Druids, their connection with Druidism as a religion and with the Druids who guarded the secrets of the ancient Celts is purely imaginary. When he established the group in the late eighteenth century, Edward Williams did everything he could think of to convince people that its members were descended from these ancient Celtic priests.


Welsh people from all over the world return home to attend the Royal National Eisteddfod. A special ceremony, known as Cymru a'r Byd, is held to welcome them back to their homeland. Although this was not part of the original eisteddfod as it developed in the nineteenth century, it has been a tradition since 1948, when the ceremony was first held to welcome returning Welshmen who had served in the Middle East during World War II (1939-45).

Welsh Language

As mentioned above, the Welsh language is used at all Royal National Eisteddfod events. It was spoken throughout the country up until the late eighteenth century, and less educated people, especially in rural areas, continued to speak it for another 100 years. But as workers began to leave Wales to find jobs in the factories of England, Scotland, and Ireland, English became more common. Nowadays it is estimated that less than a fifth of the people actually know Welsh, which some scholars believe is the oldest language still spoken in all of Europe. Most native Welsh speakers live in the more rural areas of the north and west.

Since the passage of the Welsh Language Act of 1993, there has been a widespread effort to promote the use of Welsh in public contexts, to teach it to students between the ages of five and sixteen, and to make road signs bilingual. But there is probably no other factor as instrumental in promoting the use of Welsh as the growing popularity of the Royal National Eisteddfod. Although simultaneous translation is available for tourists at many events, encouraging people to speak and understand Welsh is clearly a primary purpose of the festival.


Leach, Maria, ed. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology & Leg- end. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. Merin, Jennifer, and Elizabeth B. Burdick. International Directory of Theatre, Dance, and Folklore Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979. Rabin, Carol Price. Music Festivals in Europe and Britain. Rev. ed. Stockbridge, MA: Berkshire Traveller Press, 1984. Shemanski, Frances. A Guide to World Fairs and Festivals. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. The Book of Festivals. 1937. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Trawicky, Bernard, and Ruth W. Gregory. Anniversaries and Holidays. 5th ed. Chicago: American Library Assocation, 2000. Van Straalen, Alice. The Book of Holidays Around the World. New York: Dutton, 1986.


BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation)
References in periodicals archive ?
The ``Eisteddfod Proceedings'' at the start of the volume sum it all up: ``The Royal National Eisteddfod of 1900 was inaugurated on Monday evening, the 17th September, by an influential gathering in the Council Chamber of the Town Hall, where the Lord Mayor (The Right Hon Louis S Cohen) presided over a very good attendance, the meeting being held under the auspices of the Honourable Society of Cymrodorion.
The Williamson Collection includes poster drawings for the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales, Caernarfon 1935, the Great Western Railway (Harlech), Hornby, Dunlop, White Star Line, MG Cars, Fyffes and Chiquita Bananas, Imperial Airways and many others.
I meant 'cultural festival') should properly be the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales.
Then in the 1960s, the choir won six out of eight times and gained second place on another occasion in the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales.
SIR - The reference by Dr David Meredith (August 9) to the 'Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales' was the first time that I have seen that great institution being addressed by its proper name in your columns recently.
As in Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Frenhinol Cymru, or Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales.
A FORMER director of the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales was remembered in a special concert to mark the centenary of his birth.
SIR - How I wish that there were more people like Dillwyn Miles who agree that the official title of our annual cultural festival is still the ROYAL National Eisteddfod.
Perhaps with tongue in cheek, Lord Elis-Thomas said Wales might continue down the republican road by dropping the majestic prefix from the Royal National Eisteddfod and the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show.
SIR - Mr Tudor Radcliffe's letter (September 29)to the Western Mail refers to 'the National Eisteddfod (which was for years the Royal National Eisteddfod)'.
In an interview in t he left-wing Plaid Cymru online magazine Triban Coch he also suggested the ``royal'' should be dropped from the names of the Royal Welsh Show and the Royal National Eisteddfod if the country wanted to be more republican.
SIR - J Owen (September 22) is not correct when stating that only Welsh is allowed in the tented areas of the National Eisteddfod (which was for years the Royal National Eisteddfod).

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