Translation of the Welsh Bible
William Morgan was born in Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant in the parish of Penmachno in 1544/5, son of John Morgan and Lowri Williams. John Morgan was a sub-tenant of the Wynn family of Gwydir, who owned Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant and it appears that he was a fairly affluent yeoman. Tŷ Mawr Wybrnant is now owned by the National Trust.
William Morgan was educated by the Wynn family of Gwydir’s chaplain, who taught the family’s sons and some other pupils from the local community. It is possible that he attended the Westminster School, London for a time before going on to St John’s College, Cambridge. He graduated as a BA in 1568, an MA in 1571, a BTh in 1578 and a DTh in 1583. Morgan was a passionate theologian, a fact confirmed by his appointment as the university’s preacher in 1575.
William Morgan’s church career began while he was still a student at Cambridge. In 1572, he was appointed minister of Llanbadarn Fawr and this was followed with periods at Welshpool, Denbigh, Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, Llanfyllin and Pennant Melangell. His time at Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant was very troubled. Firstly, Morgan married Katherine ferch George, widow of Oliver Thomas, William Morgan’s predecessor at Llanrhaeadr and he also arranged a marriage between Robert Wynn of Gwydir and a wealthy heiress from the Llanrhaeadr area, at the expense of a local suitor. This enraged Efan Meredith, a member of the local gentry, and legal cases were brought against William Meredith and Efan Meredith. Eventually, the situation was resolved by Sir John Wynn of Gwydir’s intervention.
Nevertheless, William Morgan continued with his work of translating the Bible and he was highly commended for his conscientious service and for his generosity. The poets Siôn Tudur, Owain Gwynedd, Ieuan Tew and Siôn Mawddwy all sang his praises.
In 1595, William Morgan was appointed bishop of Llandâf and following the death of the bishop Hughes in 1601, he was appointed bishop of St Asaph.
In 1547, the Act of Uniformity was passed by Edward VI’s protectors (Edward was only nine years old when he became king in 1547) which insisted that all public services in England and Wales were to be held through the medium of English, rather than Latin or any other language. The Tudor family had Welsh roots, but as a royal dynasty, they believed in centralising power in terms of administration, religion and language. The act’s purpose was to root Protestantism, but it was fiercely opposed by speakers of the Cornish language and thousands of them were killed. Opposition on this scale didn’t occur in Wales, and it appeared that the Welsh language would soon deteriorate.
However, in 1563, Elizabeth I passed the Act for the Translating of the Bible and the Divine Service into the Welsh Tongue, ordering the Welsh translation of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh by 1567.
But why did Elizabeth I pass this act? Protestantism hadn’t taken root as successfully as was hoped in Wales, due to the perception among many Welsh people that Protestantism was a new heresy and an alien, English faith. The Welsh didn’t understand Latin services (Latin being the language of the Catholic faith) but they were, at least, used to the language. The English language, however, was a brand new concept. There was also comfort to be found in Catholic traditions and superstitions, as life was so fragile. Ensuring English security was also at the fore of Elizabeth I’s mind, as England’s enemies could attack England through Wales, by the same means as Henry Tudor on his way to the Battle of Bosworth, 1485. The Welsh Bible would also mean that the Welsh would be more supportive of the English crown, at a time when England was under increasing threat from Europe’s Catholic nations, e.g. the Spanish Armada of 1588. The Welsh Bible would be available alongside the English version, rather than instead of it, and the hope was that the Welsh would learn English and eventually abandon their native language.
Translating the Bible into Welsh was an important step as Welsh was the first European language, that wasn’t the language of the state, to become a medium of the scriptures following the Protestant Reformation.
William Morgan appears to have begun translating the Bible into Welsh sometime during 1569, during his time at Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant. He was assisted by the bishop of Bangor, Hugh Bellot and by his friends, Edmwnd Prys, Richard Vaughan and David Powel and other religious works, in various languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew and French) were also useful to Morgan. The Book of Common Prayer and the New Testament had already been translated into Welsh, by William Salesbury, in 1567.
At the end of 1587, Morgan produced a translation of the Old Testament (but not the Psalms) and a revision of Salesbury’s translation of the Psalms and the New Testament. William Morgan’s biblical knowledge and awareness, as well as his awareness and appreciation of the Welsh literary tradition is apparent in his work. Although the language used in the Welsh Bible differed from oral Welsh, the Bible had a wide vocabulary and exceptional style and was an important asset to the Welsh language, compared with the Gallic, Cornish and Gaelic languages which weren’t mediums of the scriptures. The Welsh were able to worship through the medium of their own language and this was an important factor in the survival of the Welsh language.
Traditionally, the poets were the guardians of the Welsh language, but since the poetic tradition in Wales was rapidly deteriorating, William Morgan’s Bible stepped into the breach. The Bible was an example of excellent literature with a style that reflected original Welsh texts, such as poetry, laws, letters and narrative. The Welsh Bible established the Welsh language as a language of learning and broadened the written scope of the language. It is therefore of little wonder that Welsh poets and humanists welcomed the translation. It took a year to publish William Morgan’s Bible and he spent this period in London, correcting the proofs.
Contemporary poets, such as Siôn Tudur sang the praises of William Morgan and his ability to make the language and style of the Bible accessible to all Welsh people and Morgan was also celebrated by Gwenallt, a C20 Welsh poet, for giving the Welsh language honour and status as a language of the scriptures.
In September, 1588, the Privy Council ordered for a copy of the Welsh Bible to be sent to every parish in Wales at a cost of £1 per copy.
Following William Morgan’s appointment as bishop of Llandâf in 1595, he and the humanist, John Davies, revised William’s Salisbury’s the Book of Common Prayer and the 1588 New Testament. The Book of Common Prayer was published in 1599 and it appears that this was a key step in the process of publishing the definitive version. William Morgan and John Davies’ revised New Testament was ready to be published in London in 1603, by the London Welshman, Thomas Salisbury. The work was, however, unfortunately lost during the great plague of 1603. The 1599 Book of Common Prayer was in fact, William Morgan’s final legacy. He died in 1604.
In 1620, Dr John Davies, Mallwyd and Richard Parry, bishop of St Asaph revised William Morgan’s Bible. This version was used in Welsh churches until 1988.