Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) ruled Wales in the early 900s, one of the few Welsh kings to control the entire country. He maintained peace with Wessex, to the point of minting coins in the English city of Chester. His laws were codifications and a consolidation of the common law in Wales at the time (meaning he didn’t create them out of whole cloth), and provided the foundation for Welsh law until the Norman conquest, when many were abrogated by Edward I. A surviving manuscript (from the thirteenth century) is in the National Library of Wales. It was a ‘pocket’ book, designed for lawyers to carry around in their scrip, rather than left on a library shelf.
You can view it here: http://www.llgc.org.uk/?id=lawsofhyweldda
The laws are divisible into several categories:
Laws of the Court
These laws set down the rights of the king and rulers of Wales, their order of precedence, ranks, titles, and obligations. It introduces the concepts of insults and fines, according to whom an offence was given. The law used payment as a form of punishment, rather than death, dismemberment, etc., which the Normans instituted in England in 1066. In that respect, Welsh law was similar to Anglo-Saxon law and it is the system of Saxon and Welsh lawyers, infighting, and suing one another that provided the precedence for the modern English/American system, rather than the feudal Norman one.
Laws of the Country
This category was further divided into laws of women, land law, and surety and contracts. Women had more rights and were of higher status than in many European groups (e.g. Norman). For example, a woman was entitled to compensation if her husband beat her for anything other than: “giving away something which she was not entitled to give away, for being found with another man, or for wishing a blemish on her husband’s beard.” (the final article indicates cultural differences between then and now) She also had the right to divorce him under certain circumstances, including if he was unfaithful to her. http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/laws_hywel_dda.html
Hywel Dda laws
- Marriage was considered an agreement, not a holy sacrament.
- Divorce was permitted by common consent.
- There was no punishment for theft – if the sole purpose was to stay alive.
- Illegitimate children received the same rights as legitimate sons and daughters.
- You were allowed to pick up three things if you found them in the road – a horseshoe, a nail and a penny. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-18784782
Further laws include the consequences for homicide, theft, and fire (usually involving payments to the victim) and setting the ‘value’ of animals, both wild and tame, and for trees, equipment and parts of the human body. “The value of a part of the body was fixed, thus a person causing the king to lose an eye would pay the same as if he had caused a villein to lose an eye.” He would also have to pay sarhad, however, meaning “the payment that was due to a person in the event of an insult or injury, and this varied according to the status of the person concerned, for example the queen or the edling’s sarhad was one third that of the king.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyfraith_Hywel
Welsh law was far more humane than Norman law, which was undoubtedly the reason the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Pecham, told Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last Prince of Wales, that the laws were inspired by the devil. He was referring, in particular, to the Welsh law that allowed illegimitate sons to inherit land from their father, provided he acknowledged them.