Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826), or Edward “Ned” Williams of Glamorgan as he was known in English, was a Welsh poet, manuscript collector, patriot, political activist – and forger. He is known for his creation in 1792 of the Gorsedd, a meeting of bards at which new bards were inducted and which continue today, especially associated with Welsh language festivals. He’s also best known for his counterfeiting of poems by the 14thcentury Welsh poet Daffyd ap Gwilym and for creating a philosophy claiming, in part, that the Druids survived the Roman conquest and later Christianization of Britain, which had a large impact on the neo-Druid movement.
Morganwg is controversial, to be sure. For a time, after the discovery of his forgeries, scholars rejected his writings outright. More recently, he’s been undergoing something of a reappraisal. The forgeries notwithstanding, the man had a large and lasting influence on Welsh culture.
Writer Gareth Thomas, author of the novel A Welsh Dawn (2014), decided to let Morganwg speak for himself. The result is I Iolo, a biographical novel that deftly combines the facts of the man’s life with some fact-based recreation of Morganwg’s story. It’s told from Morganwg’s point-of-view and written in the present tense, giving the narrative a sense of immediacy.
In Thomas’s hands, Morganwg emerges as neither a hero nor a villain but someone more complex. His story in complicated – one must reconcile the man who inspired generations of Welsh patriots with the man who seemingly without compunction invented poems and credited them to a well-loved poet of the 1300s (Morganwg was himself a poet gifted enough to be able to pull that off, at least for a time).
He was also a lousy businessman, failing at nearly everything he set his hand to except what his father trained him to be – a stonemason. He tried operating stonemason shops, a shipping business, a bookstore – all to no avail. At one point he spent a year in debtor’s prison, which did nothing to improve his financial position but did give him more reason to dislike the English. And he was well known locally for neglecting his family, including for five years while he worked to get his poetry published in London.
Thomas was educated in Rhyl, Pontllyfni, Cwmbran, Cardiff, and London. He studied drama and worked as an actor, teacher, author, and director. When he was 50, he began learning the Welsh language via a correspondence course. He lives in Cowbridge, the Welsh town closely associated with Morganwg.
I Iolo tells the story of a complex man who continues to have influence on the culture of his region today, almost two centuries after his death.
Top photograph of hills in Wales by Nick Cozier via Unsplash. Used with permission.