Bards have been crucial to the culture of Wales for millenia. I would hardly be the first to recognize that the Welsh, as a people, have an affinity for music. Anyone who has heard a stadium full of football supporters singing the Welsh national anthem with full harmonies can see that.
What might be less well-known is that the history of Welsh music dates back to the middle ages and beyond, as evidenced not only by the poems and songs left to us by bards throughout the ages, but by the Welsh language itself. In fact, the English word bard is derived from the Welsh word bardd.
The tradition of a bardic class can be traced to Celtic times when no distinct line was drawn between a druid and a bard. Upon the advent of Christianity, however, the role of the bard was modified in the sense that he became more of a court poet and less a seer.
A medieval document called The Triads of Britain details the three principle tasks of a bard:
One is to learn and collect sciences.
The second is to teach.
The third is to make peace
And to put an end to all injury;
For to do contrary to these things
Is not usual or becoming to a Bard.”
Within native Welsh society, the bard’s job was to act as the repository of oral tradition, including history, poetry, and music. The bard was an educator of the people, and his duty, culturally speaking, was sacred. The laws of Hywel Dda, codified in the 9th century, delineate the bard as a member of the king’s household, part of whose duty is to sing of the sovereignty of Britain. Bards were members of a class unto themselves, such that, even as late as 1596, Edmund Spenser wrote that bards were “held in so high regard and estimation … that none may displease them, for feare to runne into reproach through their offense, and be made infamous in the mouths of all men.”
One of the first Welsh bards whose name we know is that of Taliesin, who lived in the 6th century and is linked to King Arthur. Taliesin is, in fact, the first bard known to sing about him. Another bard of that era is Aneirin, who sang of a battle’s leader, who “fed black ravens on the ramparts of a fortress, though he was no Arthur”.
I have written bards into my Gareth & Gwen Medieval mysteries, including the three most famous bards of the twelfth century all associated with the Kingdom of Gwynedd. These are the court bard Meilyr, his son Gwalchmai, and Hywel, the son of Owain, the King of Gwynedd, whom Meilyr and Gwalchmai served. Owain’s nephew, Rhys, is credited with holding the first eisteddfod, or country-wide musical gathering of the bards of Wales, in 1176 during his rule of Deheubarth.
The English King Edward, who conquered Wales in 1282, recognized the cultural power of the bards and sought to restrict their influence. A first step was the near-elimination of the Welsh nobility, particularly in the north, since it was their patronage that allowed the bards a living. He also held a gathering of upwards of 1000 bards in 1284 to “celebrate” his conquest of Wales. In addition, although there is no historical record indicating that King Edward ordered the massacre of 500 Welsh bards, such an event has been memorialized, in a Hungarian poem titled, The Bards of Wales. Even today, all Hungarian school children are taught to memorize it, the text of which includes the words:
“Five hundred went to a flaming grave,
And singing every bard.
Not one of them was found to cry.
‘Long live King Edward!’”
Even today, despite the best efforts of King Edward and those who followed him, the Welsh musical tradition continues with the annual National Eisteddod of Wales, which includes eight days of performances with upwards of 6000 competitors. It is the largest musical and poetry festival in Europe.