ALTHOUGH it may not be in the heartland of Welsh-speaking culture, Abergavenny played a vital role in the creation of the National Eisteddfod.

The National Eisteddfod is an event which each year - with the exception of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic - sees thousands of people come together to celebrate Welsh culture.

It has grown to become one of the largest cultural events in Europe, yet its revival from small beginnings was propelled by a woman who lived near the Monmouthshire market town.

While the history of the Eisteddfod can be traced back to a bardic competition held in 1176 in Cardigan Castle, the modern National Eisteddfod was established in the 19th century.

Abergavenny was to play a key role in the creation of the Eisteddfod that we know today. Smaller competitions were held in the town from the 1830s which formed the basis for the modern festival.


There is one person who, above all, was central in driving that development.

Augusta Waddington was born in 1802, the youngest daughter of Benjamin and Georgina Waddington, who had moved to Llanover from Nottingham in 1792. In December 1823, Augusta married Benjamin Hall of Abercarn.

Free Press Series: PATRON: Lady Llanover.

Lady Llanover

He was an MP for 22 years until 1859, and later was appointed Commissioner for Works - it is after him that Big Ben is said to be named. Their marriage joined the large estates of Llanover and Abercarn.

This woman of English descent became Lady Llanover and her love for Wales and her hard work were to prove crucial in the effort to revive Welsh culture.

She entered the scene at a time of great peril for Welsh culture and the language. By the 1830s Monmouthshire was changing fast. As its valleys became industrialised, so people came to work in its collieries and ironworks and the Welsh language was threatened.

Lady Llanover was greatly influenced by a local bard, Thomas Price, who she met at a South Wales Eisteddfod in 1826. He taught her Welsh and soon after she took the bardic name 'Gwenynen Gwent', ('the bee of Gwent'). She became an early member of Cymreigyddion y Fenni, or the Abergavenny Welsh Society.

The society aimed to ensure the survival of the Welsh language in Monmouthshire, and in Welsh intellectual life more broadly. The society was founded in 1833 in the Sun Inn in Abergavenny. Its purpose was to give its members with the chance to socialise in Welsh and to secure the use of the language in the town.

Free Press Series:

The Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod field in 1952. Picture: Barrie Potter

She used the daily life of Llanover Hall to protect and promote traditional crafts, the language and music. She insisted workers, tenants, and even her guests had to wear traditionally-made and styled Welsh clothes. It is from this time that the tradition of the Welsh ‘stovepipe’ hat was revived.

She made sure that the properties on the estate had Welsh names, and required all her tenants and estate workers to speak Welsh. As finding local Welsh speakers became more and more difficult, she encouraged people whose first language was Welsh to move from West Wales to Monmouthshire.

In 1850, she helped found Y Gymraes (The Welshwoman), the first Welsh-language periodical for women. She also collected traditional Welsh recipes and published them.

Her tireless campaigning saw her become patron of the Welsh Manuscripts Society and the Welsh Collegiate Institution at Llandovery. She funded the compilation of a Welsh dictionary by Daniel Silvan Evans and bought valuable Welsh manuscripts by Taliesin Williams, Taliesin ab Iolo and the collection of Iolo Morgannwg.

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Princess Anne at the Eisteddfod in Llangollen in 1977

A staunch non-conformist she was interested in the temperance movement and had all the public houses on her estate closed. She opened a temperance inn which would not sell alcohol called Y Seren Gobaith (The Star of Hope) which replaced the Red Lion at Llanellen.

What is considered to be the classic Welsh harp owes its survival to her. By the early 19th century, the triple harp, in contrast to the pedal harp was becoming rare.

It used three rows of strings instead of the more common single row and was already in decline when she became committed to Welsh culture. She campaigned to preserve the instrument and the skill in playing it. Thanks to her endeavour, the Welsh triple harp survives today.

Free Press Series: P'nawn Llawen Llanofer being performed in the Yurt. These are a  series of stories set to music dedicated to Lady Llanover of Monmouthshire..

P'nawn Llawen Llanofer being performed in the Yurt. These are a series of stories set to music dedicated to Lady Llanover of Monmouthshire

Her zeal for all things Welsh saw her take part in the growing scene of provincial eisteddfodau held in the early 19th Century. She won first prize at the Cardiff Eisteddfod of 1834 for her essay on 'The Advantages resulting from the Preservation of the Welsh language and National Costume of Wales'.

This event was to signal the end of these smaller, provincial events, but her drive was to see Abergavenny take centre stage in Welsh culture. She sponsored eisteddfodau at Abergavenny, which paved the way for the truly national event we see today.

With her husband she created a series of eisteddfodau held at Abergavenny between 1835 and 1853. The prizes were often substantial, some of up to eighty guineas and attracted some of the greatest Celtic scholars of the time.

Free Press Series: The crowds flock to Abergavenny for the Eisteddfod..

The crowds flock to Abergavenny for the Eisteddfod

Medals from these eisteddfodau can be seen at The Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans. They include that given to Thomas Watkins, an essayist who competed regularly in Abergavenny under the Bardic name 'Eiddil Ifor'.

Another medal, from the year 1837, which was won by William Morgan for his skill with her beloved triple harp.

The late 1840s saw many smaller nations across Europe rediscover their voices. Revolutions in 1848 would see peoples like the Hungarians, Polish and more assert their identity. While Wales hadn't seen revolution, great changes were going on across the country.

Free Press Series: Awarding the eisteddfod crown in Newport, 1988.

Awarding the Eisteddfod crown in Newport, 1988

As Wales became industrialised, so too did railways begin to connect corners of the country. By the 1850s, it became possible to have thousands of people travel from across Wales to one place where this cultural celebration could happen. The Eisteddfod held at Llangollen in 1858 showed what was possible and by 1861, the first National Eisteddfod was held at Aberdare.

Of all those who strove to revive this great festival, Lady Llanover, must take great praise. The National Eisteddfod created a cultural haven for the language and so this very busy bee of Gwent must get some credit for her part in the survival of Welsh.