This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

September 2003


21 September 1928:   Revival of Cornish Gorsedd at Boscawen ’n Un, the traditional site of the Cornish Gorsedd.

In days of old a gorsedd was a periodic gathering of Celtic bards at which they would publicly recite their poetical works, and sometimes face each other in prize competitions. As the Middle Ages faded away such regular gatherings gradually fell into disuse, or were even outlawed by authorities fearful of a revived Celtic spirit. But with the reawakening of Celtic nationalism in the late 1700s activists took up the old custom of the gorsedd as a means to revive and reinforce the Celtic languages.

The first, and perhaps the most famous of these, was the Welsh Gorsedd y Beirdd, inaugurated by Iolo Morganwg on Primrose Hill in London in 1792. Iolo’s historical sources for his druidical ceremonies were dubious at best, but his convocation of robed bards continued on in Wales and in time became the centerpiece of the annual week-long cultural festival known as the Welsh National Eisteddfod.

The Welsh example would inspire revivalists in other Celtic nations. In 1899, Breton language activists came together to launch a gorsedd of their own, the first of which would be held on 1 September 1900. Cornish language revivalists immediately resolved to follow up with a Cornish gorsedd, but plans lagged until the founding of the Old Cornwall Society in 1920. Quickly growing into a federation of local chapters, the Old Cornwall Society provided a renewed impetus towards reviving the Cornish gorsedd.

On 7 August 1928 seven Cornishmen and one Cornishwoman journeyed to Treorchy in South Wales where they were made bards of the Welsh Gorsedd at the National Eisteddfod. That evening several of the newly-made bards met in Cardiff to set plans into motion for launching a Cornish gorsedd. They invited the great Cornish language scholar Henry Jenner to become their first Grand Bard, and nominated an additional four Cornish scholars to join them and fill out the bardic circle to the proper number of twelve.

Their planning was detailed and thorough. The prominent Victorian artist Herbert von Herkomer designed their blue druidical robes. A crown and breastplate were made for the Grand Bard, replete with intricate Celtic designs and sporting the Awen, the Cornish Gorsedd’s distinctive symbol of three descending rays of light. In keeping with Cornwall’s mineral heritage, the crown and breastplate would be made entirely of copper. For the inaugural meeting on 21 September 1928, the bards choose Boscawen, a traditional site for bardic gatherings in times past.

The Cornish Gorsedd (sometimes spelled Gorseth in Cornwall) has remained an annual event ever since, held in different places in Cornwall from year to year, sponsored by local members of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies. In keeping with its mission of encouraging and promoting the Cornish language and culture, the bards award annual prizes in a variety of competitions, on both adult and children’s levels. Entries are submitted in June, examined and judged over the course of the summer, and the awards announced at the annual Open Gorsedd held on the first Saturday in September. (The 2003 Gorsedd will be on 6 September at Launceston.)

The competitions for 2003 include Cornish language prose and verse, musical composition, essay and short story in English on Cornish themes, art and photography. Contestants are not confined to natives of Cornwall: the 2003 music prize will go to an American named John Sheridan.

The Gorsedd begins with the sounding of the Corn Gwlas (the Horn of Peace) to the four directions of the compass, followed by a prayer in Cornish. Then comes the ceremony of the Offering of the Fruits of the Earth by the annually named Lady of Cornwall and her two assistants, accompanied by young people dancing to harp music. Bards who have passed away since the last Gorsedd are commemorated, and then new bards are initiated and given their bardic names. Then, after delegates from other Celtic countries address the gathering, the awards are announced. Winners in each category are presented with trophies, to be kept until passed on to next year’s winner.

The Ceremony of the Sword closes the day’s events. With hands clasped on each other’s shoulders the bards gather around the Sword Bearer, who holds aloft a partly unsheathed sword. Together they declare their fealty to Cornwall, and the Gorsedd closes with another call to peace.

In recent years the Cornish Gorsedd has sprouted branches in Cornish communities overseas. Since 1988 the Barthes An Orseth Kernow Yn Australya has convened its own Cornish Gorsedd every other year in Moonta, South Australia. There is no lack of qualified Cornish bards to fill a proper bardic circle in Australia. Since the native born Australian Langdon Bonython was initiated as the Cornish bard Kernow Tramor in 1935 there have been many in that country, with about 17 active today.

Nor has the Cornish community in the United States been silent: bardic gatherings have been hosted by the Cornish American Heritage Society at their biannual Gathering of Cornish Cousins.

Though younger than its Welsh and Breton counterparts, at 75 years on the Cornish Gorsedd can count considerable success in the efforts to preserve and revive the Cornish language and the spirit of Cornish nationhood.

For more information on Cornwall, see the Cornwall Nation Page.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2004 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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