Gorsedh Kernow came about as the result of the scholar Henry Jenner’s interest in Cornish language and Cornwall (Jenner was a bard of the Breton Gorsedh) and support from the Welsh Gorsedh and the recently formed Federation of Old Cornwall Societies (1920).
Jenner was getting old in 1927, the year before the foundation of the Cornish Gorsedh, and he was joined in his planning by another Cornish scholar, Robert Morton Nance.
At the conference of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies in February 1928 it was agreed that the officials of the Welsh Gorsedh be invited to hold a ceremony in Cornwall, with a view to forming a Cornish Gorsedh.
The Welsh Gorsedh was in favour and ten ‘worthy’ Cornish people were initiated at the next Welsh Gorsedh at Treorchy in August 1928 as the core of the planned new Cornish Gorsedh.
The proposal was that members of the Cornish Gorsedh should be dressed, as in Wales, in white, blue or green, according to the individual’s status. Nance however felt that, in Cornwall, all members of the Gorsedh should be treated equally and all wear the blue of bards. This is still the case today, with senior bards and holders of office having a different style of head-dress or wearing plastrons (ceremonial breastplates).
After their admission at Treorchy, seven of the now eight Cornish bards met in Cardiff and constituted themselves, together with Henry Jenner and his wife Kitty, as the Council of Gorsedh Kernow. Jenner was to be Grand Bard and Nance his deputy. It was decided that any candidates for admission into the Gorsedh should ‘exhibit a manifestation of the Celtic spirit’.
On 21st. September 1928 following extensive coverage in the Western Morning News, the first Gorsedh Kernow was held at Boscawen Un, site of an impressive ancient stone circle in St. Buryan, west of Penzance. Representatives of the Welsh Gorsedh joined the eight Cornish bards, twelve bare-headed initiates, members of the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies and the mayors of seven Cornish boroughs. Led by Penzance Silver Band, they all processed from Boscawen Farm to the circle. The ceremony was conducted in Cornish, Welsh and English and ended with the singing of Old Land of our Fathers.
After the ceremony, an Executive Committee or Council was formed with the particular duty of arranging the following year’s Gorsedh.
Bowcawen Un was followed in 1929 by Carn Brea as the site for the ceremony and by the Hurlers, near St. Cleer in 1930. The plan was – and the practice still is – to move the site around Cornwall – East, West and Centre.
In 1930 the admission of ‘Bards of Honour’ from other countries was introduced and two years later that of ‘language’ bards – for proficiency in Cornish. N.B. Generally the level of proficiency in 1932 was basic compared to that of today.
In May 1934 Henry Jenner, Grand Bard of Gorsedh Kernow, died at the age of 85. The automatic choice for a new Grand Bard was Robert Morton Nance, who continued in the role until his death in 1959. From this point the period of tenure was changed to three years with an optional further three years if approved by the Gorsedh Council.
Although by 1936 there were around 140 bards, it was felt that not enough was being done to ‘manifest the Celtic Spirit’ and a broader field of competitions was introduced. In the first year of literacy awards in 1937, no fewer than 107 essays were submitted. Slowly but surely, too, people from different walks of life were invited to join the Gorsedh.
The Gorsedh ceremony, previously known as the ‘Open Gorsedh’, where bards are ‘on view’ to the public, has been held every year since 1928, although during the war years a scaled-down version was used – at Nance’s house in Carbis Bay in 1939 and at the Royal Institution of Cornwall in Truro from 1940 to 1945.
Adapted from Rod Lyon’s book Gorseth Kernow. Some of the material on other pages also comes from his book.