Youth and educationEdit
Williams was born at Penon in the parish of Llan Carfan, Glamorganshire. His father was a stonemason; his mother, whose maiden name was Mathews, was of good birth and education. As a lad he was too weakly to attend school, and from the age of 9 until his mother's death in 1770 he worked desultorily at his father's trade, and, with his mother's aid, made up by persistent study for his lack of schooling. On her death he left Glamorganshire, and for about 7 years worked as a journeyman mason in various parts of England.
He then returned to Wales, and in 1781 married Margaret, daughter of Rees Roberts of Marychurch. His occupation interfering with his health, he set up in 1797 a bookseller's shop at Cowbridge, but found the confinement irksome, and took to land surveying instead. Flemingston, in the vale of Glamorgan, now became his home, and from this centre he made long expeditions, always on foot, in search of manuscripts bearing on Welsh history.
Williams was not only a man of great powers of mind, but also of remarkable independence of character, and as a self-taught genius attracted, on his visits to London, a good deal of notice from the men of letters of his day. He was distinguished by many original traits. He lived sparely, dressed quaintly, and set no store by money.
A keen opponent of slavery, he renounced some property left to him by slave-holding brothers in Jamaica, and in his Cowbridge shop advertised for sale ‘East India sugar, uncontaminated by human gore.’ He was a unitarian and in warm sympathy with the early revolutionary movement in France, and thus came into contact with Priestley, Gilbert Wakefield, and David Williams. His independence is seen in the way in which, on presenting to the Prince of Wales an ode on his marriage in 1795, he appeared before him with the leathern apron and trowel of his craft.
Southey held "bard Williams" in great respect, and gave him a place in Madoc (p. 79 of edit. of 1805, ‘Iolo, old Iolo, he who knows,’ &c.). His Poems, Lyric and Pastoral, were published in London in 2 volumes in 1794, and the list of subscribers, including as it does the names of Robert Raikes, Thomas Paine, and Hannah More, shows how wide was the circle of his patrons.
He died at Flemingston on 18 Dec. 1826, and was buried there.
It was, however, in Welsh literature that Williams played his most important part. He had inherited from John Bradford (d. 1780) the bardic traditions which had grown into a system in Glamorgan (though not elsewhere recognized) during the previous 3 centuries, and accepted them as genuine relics of the age of the Druids, embodying customs to which all Welsh bards should conform. This view he expounded about 1790 to Dr. William Owen Pughe, who adopted it and gave it publicity in 1792, in his preface to the Heroic Elegies (see p. lxii). Iolo also obtained for it in 1791 the support of Dafydd Ddu, the leader of the bards of North Walesf (Adgof uwch Anghof, 1883, p. 14). In this way the "gorsedd" and its ceremonies won a recognized place in Welsh literary life. The documents bearing upon the subject were mainly collected by Edward David and prepared for publication by Iolo. His treatise Cyfrinach y Beirdd ("The Mystery of Bardism") was almost ready for the press at his death.
Though the bardic system, of which he was the champion, is known to be a modern fabrication, it was accepted in good faith by Iolo. Other bardic papers of his were used after his death by John Williams ‘ab Ithel’ (1811–1862) in the compilation of ‘Barddas.’ Iolo was one of the three editors of the ‘Myvyrian Archaiology’ (1801), for which he collected and transcribed many manuscripts; the Welsh Manuscripts Society published in 1848 what was meant by the bard to be a continuation of this work, under the title ‘Iolo MSS.’ (Llandovery, reprinted at Liverpool in 1888). He published no original Welsh verse save Salmau yr Eglwys yn yr anialwch (‘Psalms of the Church in the Desert’), Merthyr, 1812 (2nd edit. Merthyr, 1827); a 2nd volume appeared at Merthyr in 1834 (2nd edition, Aberystwyth, 1857). His manuscripts, many of them still unpublished, are at Llanover and at the British Museum.
A tablet was erected to his memory at Flemingdon in 1855.
- Poems, Lyric and Pastoral. London: J. Nichols, for J. Johnson / J. Owen / E. Williams / Darton & Harvey / et al, 1794.
- Salmau yr Eglwys yn yr anialwc. Merthyr Tydfil, UK: William Williams, 1812; Merthyr-Tydfil, UK: H.W. White, 1834.
- Dafydd ap Gwilym, The Fair Pilgrim: A poem. Bath, UK: S. Hazard, for G.G.J. & J. Robinson, London, 1791.
- Correspondence (edited by Geraint H. Jenkins, Ffion Mair Jones, & David Ceri Jones). Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2007.
- Lloyd, John Edward (1900) "Williams, Edward (1746-1826)" in Lee, Sidney Dictionary of National Biography 61 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 294-395 . Wikisource, Web, Jan. 12, 2017.
- Williams, Edward (Iolo Morganwg) at the Dictionary of Welsh Biography
- "Trickster, Forger or Genius: The story of Iolo Morganwg, one of the 18th century's most colourful characters"
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the Dictionary of National Biography (edited by Leslie Stephen). London: Smith, Elder, 1885-1900. Original article is at: Williams, Edward (1746-1826)