William Morgan and the Welsh Bible

In this modern age, we can often take things for granted. One of those things is how easily we can access information, particularly in our own languages, whatever that may be. In ages past, information written or printed in vernacular languages wasn’t always a given. Texts were mainly written in Latin or Greek, or possibly Hebrew. In terms of the language the Bible was written in, it was a mixture of all three of these languages. Church services and worship were also conducted in Latin, regardless of which country you lived in. However, with the advent of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the debate about whether it was necessary to use languages that every day people could understand was raging. This included whether or not it was worth translating the Bible into these languages. Whilst this post isn’t necessarily about English translations of the Bible, but of the Welsh, it is important to give a quick explanation of the early form of Bible translations and what led to the Welsh bible translated by William Morgan.

In terms of the Bible being translated into English, William Tyndale had made attempts in the 1520s and 1530s. At that time, it was illegal to translate biblical texts into English, so he had to go into exile to what is now modern-day Germany. It was also illegal to own a copy of these texts, so not many original examples survive.[1] Even though these attempts were not entirely successful in reaching England, although some were smuggled into the country, it would help to form Protestant ideas that would go on to influence later translators, who would revise Tyndale’s version once the English Bible was acceptable.

Portrait of William Morgan (1907), Wikimedia Commons

In 1534, under Henry VIII, Wales became joined with England under an Act of Union. This act purposefully refused to recognise Welsh as an official language and instead sought to destroy it. This is somewhat ironic really when Henry was descended from Welshmen. Under the new rules, Welsh was banned from being used in areas of law and administration, with English taking precedence.[2] Only the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were allowed to be used as well.[3] However, under his daughter, Elizabeth I, William Morgan, was asked to write a Welsh translation of the Bible, which was published in 1588. Elizabeth did try and keep religious toleration, so it is not entirely surprising she may have made this suggestion, although offering an edition in Welsh would have been.

When given this task, Morgan took inspiration from some Welsh translations from the previous few decades: a 1567 edition of the New Testament by William Salesbury, Richard Davies and Thomas Huet, and an edition of the Psalms (also by Salesbury and Davies) from the same year, which was used in the Book of Common Prayer.[4] Whilst working on the book, Morgan lodged with the Dean of Westminster, so he could be closer to the printers in case any correction or guidance was needed. This would have been essential as at that time, means of transport and correspondence were improved during Elizabeth’s reign, but not really very reliable. In terms of the translation process, Morgan would have had to have been on hand as those working in the printer’s wouldn’t have necessarily had previous experience in dealing with Welsh texts.[5] Both the Dean and John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury were a huge help during the translation process, which Morgan made reference to in his explanation about how his edition came to be.[6] In fact, Archbishop Whitgift paid the printing fees from his own private purse.[7]

Title Page of William Morgan’s Welsh Bible of 1588 © The National Library of Wales 2022

Once the Bible was finally printed, it would have transformed the way Welsh people worshipped as it would have meant their services could now be conducted in Welsh, rather than either English or Latin, as had gone before, and that the Welsh language was allowed to continue.[8] Initially, this would have been on a small scale as it has been estimated that 1,000 copies were produced, although only 24 are known to still survive.[9] Morgan wasn’t entirely pleased with how the Bible had been produced. He complained that they were made too large and would have been only practical during a service, rather than to be used at home, and that they were too expensive at £2, which is around £343 today.[10] There were also misprints too.

Regardless of what Morgan himself thought of the edition, it has been seen as the most important book in Welsh.[11] Not just because it helped to establish recognition for the Welsh language, but because of how it was used to improve the lives of ordinary Welshmen. In 1620, the Bishop of St Asaph, Richard Parry and Dr John Davies, worked on a revised edition of Morgan’s text. Whilst was meant to be a counterpart of the English King James Bible, it mainly sought to correct the misprints found in Morgan’s original and also added 2,000 new words.[12] Ten years later, in 1630, Morgan’s other complaints were addressed. A new smaller and more affordable edition was printed, meaning that it could be easily read from home.[13]

Statue of William Morgan with his Bible outside St Asaph’s Cathedral (2016), taken by Llywelyn200, Wikimedia Commons

So what impact did William Morgan’s Welsh Bible have? Since its original publication in 1588, it has been used by all denominations in Wales as the main edition of the Bible. It’s popularity only grew again in the eighteenth century when it was used by circulating school set up by Griffith Jones and Thomas Charles. The purpose of these schools was to teach both adults and children from underprivileged backgrounds how to read and write. It largely used Morgan’s Bible to do this.[14] As a result, Wales had a large literacy rate.[15] In fact, it’s popularity was maintained so much, new translations of the New Testament, Psalms and the complete Bible, were not printed until the end of the twentieth century, in 1975, 1979 and 1988 respectively.[16]

As with many things, the popularity and success of Morgan’s Welsh Bible were not made in his lifetime. He died in 1604, the year that King James first commissioned the English translation that would be named after him. All in all, I hope that he would be very proud of what he achieved, for it not only improved the lives of Welshmen for generations to come, but also helped to save the Welsh language too.


[1] British Library, ‘Tyndale’s New Testament 1526’, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/william-tyndales-new-testament

[2] National Trust, Bishop William Morgan, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ty-mawr-wybrnant/features/bishop-william-morgan

[3] The National Library of Wales, ‘Welsh Bible 1588’, https://www.library.wales/discover/digital-gallery/printed-material/1588-welsh-bible#?c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=-886%2C-1%2C4734%2C4026

[4] Oliver Currie, ‘The sixteenth-century Bible translations and the development of Welsh literary prose style’, Translation Studies, 9.2 (2016), p. 157

[5] Ibid, p. 118

[6] William Hughes, The Life and Times of Bishop William Morgan (Brighton: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1891), p. 121

[7] Ibid, p. 117

[8] Oliver Currie, ‘The sixteenth-century Bible translations’, pp. 152 and 154

[9] National Trust, Bishop William Morgan, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ty-mawr-wybrnant/features/bishop-william-morgan

[10] Rosemary Burton, ‘William Morgan and the Welsh Bible’, History Today, 38.5 (1988), https://www.historytoday.com/archive/william-morgan-and-welsh-bible

[11] William Hughes, The Life and Times of Bishop William Morgan, p. 130

[12] Timothy Cutts, ‘400th Anniversary of the 1620 Bible’, The National Library of Wales, 23 November 2020,  https://blog.library.wales/400th-anniversary-of-the-1620-bible/; John T. Kock, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia (ABC-CLIO, 2006), p. 210

[13] Timothy Cutts, ‘400th Anniversary of the 1620 Bible’

[14] John T. Kock, Celtic Culture, p. 210

[15] Ibid

[16] Oliver Currie, ‘The sixteenth-century Bible translations’, p. 153

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