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A brief history of the eisteddfod

Updated Wednesday, 14 September 2022

An eisteddfod (literally a session) is a cultural competition unique to the Welsh people. So, how did it come to be?

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The eisteddfod story goes back to 1176 when Lord Rhys of Deheubarth held a feast at Cardigan castle and invited singers and poets from all the Celtic lands to compete for prizes. The event was proclaimed a year in advance, which is a characteristic of the modern eisteddfod. 

We know of eisteddfodau which were held at Caerwys, Flintshire in 1523 and 1568, mainly for poets, though with some music competitions, but it was in the late eighteenth century that the modern eisteddfod came into its own, beginning with a gathering of poets and probably some singing at Corwen in 1789. 

Photo of the Compositions Book from the 1789 Corwen EisteddfodCompositions Book from the 1789 Corwen Eisteddfod. Image courtesy of David Ellis Evans, People's Collection Wales.

More music

It was still mainly a poetry festival, but by the early nineteenth century there was growing emphasis on music. Societies such as the Cambrian Society of Dyfed were formed in order to preserve Welsh traditions, including music, and competitions in harp playing and singing were a feature of their eisteddfodau. Since then, music has occupied a central place in eisteddfodau everywhere.

Cymreigyddion y Fenni, the Abergavenny Welsh society, was formed in 1833 and held a series of eisteddfodau from 1834 to 1853. These included competitions for the playing of the traditional Welsh triple harp, and harps were awarded as prizes. It was the Abergavenny eisteddfod of 1837 that awarded a prize to Maria Jane Williams for her collection of folk-songs, later published as Ancient National Airs of Gwent and Morganwg in 1844.

Photo of a triple harp awarded at the Abergavenny Eisteddfod in 1848.
A triple harp won by Edward Hughes at the Abergavenny Eisteddfod in 1848. Image courtesy of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales, People's Collection Wales.

Scaling up

From the mid-nineteenth century eisteddfodau grew in size and became regional and national events, as the development of railways made travel easier: around 1,500 miles of railtrack were laid in Wales between 1840 and 1870, and excursion trains were run to large eisteddfodau.

Choral music became popular in Wales from the 1860s onward, and choral competitions became a regular feature of eisteddfod life at every level. In 1873, a mixed choir drawn from several communities in south Wales competed for a trophy at the Crystal Palace and defeated a London choir. This victory helped foster a belief in the choral excellence of ‘the land of song’. 

Photos of posters of the 1906 National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon and the 1911 National Eisteddfod in Carmarthen.Posters for the 1906 National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon and the 1911 National Eisteddfod in Carmarthen mentioning grand competitions and concerts. Images courtesy of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru - The National Library of Wales, People's Collection Wales.

The National Eisteddfod held at Carmarthen in 1911 hosted a total of 69 competing choirs in various groupings – mixed, female, male voice and children’s choirs. Choral competitions at the National Eisteddfod in particular became battle grounds for giants. In 1930 the Chief Choral Competition at the National Eisteddfod in Llanelli lasted for six hours. At the modern National, time is better regulated, but many local eisteddfodau will be held far into the night.

Spread and influence

Eisteddfodau have travelled with Welsh people as they have moved elsewhere. Communities of Welsh people in towns in England, the United States and Australia have held eisteddfodau as a badge of their Welsh identity. One notable event was the eisteddfod held as part of the World’s Fair at Chicago in 1893, where the Welsh Ladies’ Choir conducted by Clara Novello Davies and the Rhondda Gleemen conducted by Tom Stephens were both winners in their respective categories. 

Newspaper article from 1893 detailing the eisteddfod at the Chicago World's FairArticle in The Western Mail, 21st September 1893, detailing the eisteddfod in Chicago. Read the full article.

Famous Welsh singers like Stuart Burrows and Bryn Terfel owe a great deal to the experience they gained as eisteddfod competitors. Stuart Burrows won the Blue Riband (the champion soloist’s prize) at the Caernarfon National Eisteddfod in 1959. Bryn Terfel was joint winner of the W. Towyn Roberts Memorial Scholarship at the Porthmadog National Eisteddfod in 1987. Both subsequently enjoyed glittering careers.

Eisteddfodau today

Eisteddfodau continue to be held at every level, local, regional and national. Schools and societies hold their own eisteddfodau, and the Urdd, the Welsh youth movement, holds an annual national eisteddfod which is the largest young people’s festival in Europe.  

Most modern eisteddfodau include competitions for poets and authors, singers and instrumentalists, ensembles and choirs, and will showcase traditional, classical and popular music. The spirit and atmosphere of an eisteddfod are impossible to express in words, but it would be fair to say that an eisteddfod encapsulates for many people what it is to be Welsh.

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