Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain (The assembly of the bards of the Island of Britain) is an association of Welsh poets and musicians allegedly dating from the time of King Arthur. The modern incarnation was founded by lolo Morganwg (Edward Williams, 1747-1826) in 1792, and linked to the eisteddfod movement in 1819.
Lolo belonged to a coterie of local Welsh-language poets in Glamorgan (Morgannwg) in the 1770s, who believed strongly in the need for a cultural association to give prestige to neglected areas of Wales (Cymru) and to raise the standing of Welsh literature in general. During his visits to London (Welsh Llundain), he learned about the Druid Universal Bond, founded by John Toland in 1717, and the Ancient Order of Druids, founded by Henry Hurle in 1781. lolo expanded his original vision of an association of Morgannwg bards to a much broader institution, claiming a kind of apostolic succession from the ancient druids. The first modern ‘Gorsedd of Bards’ was held on Primrose Hill in London in June 1792. The earliest Gorsedd held in Wales itself is recorded for May 1795 in Cowbridge (Y Bont-faen).
In 1819, lolo persuaded the Cambrian Society of Dyfed to hold a Gorsedd at the same time as their eisteddfod, the first such association. lolo had devised ceremonies and a liturgy and awarded ribbons to each order: green for ovates, blue for bards, and white for druids, today symbolized by gowns.
In 1880, the National Eisteddfod Association was founded to provide a permanent basis for the organization of Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (the National Eisteddfod of Wales), but it was not until 1888 that a permanent organization was set up, Cymdeithas yr Orsedd (the Gorsedd Society), and that the first archdruid
(Welsh archdderwydd), David Griffith ‘Clwydfardd’, was appointed. The fact that Welsh was declared to be the sole language of the Gorsedd acted as a strong counterpoise to the Anglicizing tendencies within the National Eisteddfod itself in this period. By the end of the 19th century, the regalia with which present-day audiences are familiar were designed by the artists Sir Hubert von Herkomer and T. H. Thomas.
During the 20th century, Gorsedd ceremonies gradually became more solemn. The modern Gorsedd has approximately 1,300 members. It is particularly prominent in the proclamation ceremonies ahead of each National Eisteddfod, as well as in the ceremonies of the crowning of the bard, the chairing of the bard, and, more recently, the ceremony of the award of the prose medal.
From 1896 onward, the very basis of the existence of the Gorsedd came under attack from a new generation of Welsh scholars led by John Morris-Jones, who claimed that it sprang from the overheated imagination of Iolo Morganwg and had no actual basis in Welsh history. By the late 20th century, however, the Gorsedd had been accepted as a Welsh national institution that was a product of the imaginative mythologizing of the late 18th-century Romantic movement (see Romanticism).