Laws of Hywel Dda - Sarah Woodbury

Laws of Hywel Dda

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:

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.

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.

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.”

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.

13 Replies to “Laws of Hywel Dda”

  1. Note that Welsh customary law was still operative until the Laws in Wales Acts, 1535 and 1542, some three centuries after the conquest of Wales. The Normans were not very much concerned either in England or in Wales to impose their law on the conquered: rather, it was the English (and later the Welsh) who tended, given a choice, to prefer Norman law, with its modernized and efficient processes. For that matter, Norman/English law was itself based squarely on the customary law of Normandy; such institutions as the jury are entirely Norman in origin.

    1. Hmmm. I believe that is only true in part. For example, Welsh inheritance law was an anathema to the Normans (and the Church) and it was the first to go. Same with the rights of women, all of which were abrogated almost immediately after 1282. The same is true of the system of fines and the practice of bringing men to swear oaths as to the innocence of an accused man. Not to mention all criminal law.

      “Following Llywelyn’s death the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 introduced English criminal law into Wales: “in thefts, larcenies, burnings, murders, manslaughters and manifest and notorious robberies — we will that they shall use the laws of England”.[42] Nearly two hundred years after Welsh law ceased to be used for criminal cases, the poet Dafydd ab Edmwnd (fl. 1450–80) wrote an elegy for his friend, the harpist Siôn Eos, who had accidentally killed a man in a tavern brawl in Chirk. Siôn Eos was hanged, and Dafydd ab Edmwnd laments that he could not have been tried under the more humane Law of Hywel rather than “the law of London”.[43]

      Welsh law was still used for civil cases such as land inheritance, contracts, sureties and similar matters, though with changes, for example illegitimate sons could no longer claim part of the inheritance.[44] The Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 brought Wales entirely under English law; when the 1535 Act declares the intention utterly to extirpe alle and singular sinister usages and customs belonging to Wales, Welsh law was probably the main target.

      As to a jury trial, the Saxons did have a system of twelve men fact-gathering and deciding the fate of a criminal (not to mention, the ‘thing’), but the jury system as more recognizable to what we have today came into being under Henry II and was codified more clearly under King John.

  2. could you tell me how was welsh law different from English law in its approach to the maintenance of social stability.tHANKS

    1. Both sets of laws were aiming to maintain social stability, but the kind of social stability promoted by each set of laws was different. Wales wasn’t really a ‘feudal’ system (in the sense that the Normans brought feudalism to England). The Norman laws were designed to maintain the supremacy of the rulers–not that the Welsh rulers weren’t concerned about that–but there were mutual obligations among the Welsh that were absent in Norman law. One aspect of Welsh culture that informed Welsh law was that family/genealogy were VERY important to the Welsh. To the Normans, not so much. So the social order that Welsh law aimed to maintain involved family ties and smoothing out disputes among neighbors. This was totally different from what the Normans were trying to do, which was maintain control over a conquered population (the Saxons, and after 1282, the Welsh).

  3. could you tell me more about the difference between welsh medieval law and the anglo saxon law at the time please ? thank you

    1. Please keep in mind that Anglo-Saxon law didn’t necessarily come to an end in England with the coming of William the Norman in 1066, but it changed with a definitive Norman, as well as Christian, stamp. As with the Welsh, the conquered Anglo-Saxons were no more pleased to find themselves under the Normans than the Welsh were 200 years later.

      Norman law was based in feudalism and heavily influenced by the Church. Anglo-Saxon law had been developed over a long period of time and though influenced by Christianity in later centuries, was more egalitarian. It was based on a system of courts, the main one being the ‘hundred court’. “The hundred court met every four weeks, in the open if possible and usually at a prominent local landmark that gave its name to the hundred. The king’s reeve usually presided over the court. It had many functions, and was a mixture of parish council business meeting, planning enquiry, and magistrates’ court. . . .

      Edward the Elder decreed that the hundred courts were to judge the worthiness of every law-suit and to appoint a day for it to be heard and settled. They did not have to hear the case there and then. Above the hundred court was the shire court which met twice a year, usually about Easter and Michaelmas (29th September), and was presided over by the ealdorman, the bishop and the king’s senior reeve in the area, the shire-reeve (or sheriff), with all the major landowners in the shire, or their reeves, present. Law-suits made up only a small part of the shire court’s time, which was filled up with all the other business essential to the smooth running of the shire. Law-suits could be passed up to the shire court from the hundred court, though we are not sure why this would be necessary. Presumably, it would occur in cases where the hundred court was unable to reach a judgement, or where disputes crossed the boundary between two hundreds.”

      As to the specifics of the laws, compared to the laws in Wales, this following pages have extensive lists of what they actually entailed:

      In general, like in Wales, crimes were punishable by fines, more than death or dismemberment (hallmarks of Norman law). Similarly to Wales, women in Anglo-Saxon England had rights: “The Law of Cnut stated: “neither a widow nor a maiden is to be forced to marry a man whom she herself dislikes, nor to be given for money, unless he chooses to give anything of his own free will.” Cnut’s law also specified that if a woman’s husband died before they had any children, she was entitled to one-third of his land (called “dower,” under common English law,) plus her morgegifu (gifts at the time of marriage). Despite religious expectations, divorce laws were considered lax: Anglo-Saxon King Ecelbert passed specific laws that gave women the right to abandon a marriage if she found it “displeasing.””

      I think this needs to become a blog post!

  4. I find the differences between Welsh law and Norman law fascinating–especially in the hugely different treatment of women. And then of course Ellis Peters used the law about illegitimate sons being allowed to inherit to great effect in . . . was it Monk’s Hood?

    1. It was Monk’s Hood. I read it just the other day. It’s really interesting to think about how different England’s royalty would have been if illegitimate sons could inherit. Fewer queens, perhaps. More infighting as happened in Wales. Robert of Gloucester could have claimed the throne–and been a good king.

  5. Thank you very much for this, this is very interesting. However I am curious as to how the distinctive medieval welsh laws played a part in creating a distinct national idenitity for the welsh in the medieval ages? Would you happen to know this?
    Thank you Sarah

    1. Beverley Smith has a long discussion in his book about Llywelyn ap Gruffydd about how Llywelyn and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn were constantly disputing in the law courts over land issues. One of the big disagreements was WHICH law court controlled the Marche–English or Welsh–because the laws were quite different. I’m sure you could write a whole disseration on the subject of Welsh laws creating a distinctive Welsh identity–especially as the Catholic Church more and more began to rail against the Welsh laws as ‘barbaric’ (they didn’t think illegitimate sons should have the right to inherit and thought women had far too much freedom in Wales) and side with the English kings (Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was excommunicated twice). So . . . I definitely think it’s true. I think it’s one of those things that was part of Welsh culture that they didn’t have to think about until they were placed in a position where their laws were criticized and disparaged.

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