Slavery and Wales - Sarah Woodbury

Slavery and Wales

The title says Slavery ‘and’ Wales because the degree to which slavery existed in Wales is difficult to determine.  Without a doubt, many Welsh were forced into slavery–evidence points to Welsh captives on the continent of Europe as well as in Anglo-Saxon England.  St Patrick himself was Briton/Welsh (born 387 AD) and was captured by the Irish and made a slave.  The Celts were well-known slave-keepers, as were the Romans after them.  But were the Welsh themselves, after the Romans left?  Hard to imagine they weren’t when their neighbors all around were enslaving them.  But in all of the 767 pages of John Davies The History of Wales, he doesn’t mention slavery once.

However, Ron Wilcox writes in his book Between Romans and Normans:  “Living alongside the bondsmen were the slaves who worked as agricultural labourers or artisans. Most were born into slavery but it was possible to be condemned to slavery as a punishment. A slave could own property and save enough to buy his freedom but this was difficult for a family man since he would need to be able to free his dependants as well. Slavery lasted longer in Wales than elsewhere. In a landscape which required so much labour to wrest a living from it, there was need for intensive cultivation on those areas where it was possible to raise crops and this ensured the continuance of the system into the medieval period.”

David Mattingly, in his book, An Imperial Possession:  Britain in the Roman Empire writes:  “Roman Britain was a ‘slave-using society’, but not a fully ‘slave society’ in the sense the latter term can be applied to Roman Italy (where 10-25% of the population was of servile status) . . . Slavery operated in Britain in two ways.  Slaves were undoubtedly exported from Britain as part of the process of conquest and even at later times individuals were enslaved (or possible sold into slavery by impoverished families).  Many of these British slaves may have ended up being sold elsewhere, rather than within Britain . . .their availability and cost probably kept the proportion of enslaved to freeborn very low” (2007: 294).

In 2007, the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea put on an exhibition of Wales and Slavery to mark the anniversary of the abolishment of the slave trade in 1807.  Swansea was a center of copper production, used to make the shackles that bound the slaves.  Also on display, indicating the long history of slavery, was an Iron-Age four-person neck chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey.

For links to the later slave trade:

For a discussion of slavery in Europe:

The Catholic Church strongly forbade slavery, which is why it had all but died out by the 13th century in Europe (only to be revived again later, of course, under Protestantism).

The most telling evidence that slaves were an important part of Welsh society are the Laws of Hywel Dda.  In them, he lays out the laws pertaining to slaves.  Tim Clarkson writes, again extrapolating from other Celtic societies (thus his use of the word,  ‘probably’):

“In Wales, the most comprehensive legal code is known today as the Law of Hywel Dda, a text that, although much amended throughout the Middle Ages, originiated during the tenth-century reign of King Hywel and seems to have preserved archaic laws from still earlier times.  Like contemporary Ireland, early medieval Wales was essentially a tribal society, and its legal systems were founded on centuries of custom and tradition.  Close similarities therefore exist between the law codes of the two areas.  Just as the Irish grouped the unfree members of their society into various grades, so a similar grading process probably operated in Wales, at least for female slaves, who were graded according to the nature of their work.  A higher-grade slave woman was described as gweinyd-dol (servant) and was defined as [someone not engaged in agricultural labor].

“In Wales, slaves seem to have been afforded certain basic rights, rights that were denied to Ireland’s fuidhir.  Thus, a Welsh slave suffering insult or injury could claim sarhaed (compensation) in the same manner as a freeborn person, although, of course, the sarhaed for a slave was less than that for a free individual.  Another important right was that the slave was protected by law from being killed after a first offense of theft, although subsequent offenses were in some instances punishable by amputation of a limb . . . any freeman who made a slave pregnant was obliged by law to provide her lord with a woman to perform the slave’s duties until the child’s birth . . .

“Welsh law codes seemingly imply that slaves in early-medieval Celtic society had little freedom but few hardships and, being rather akin to serfs of a later period, were unlikely to suffere the severe and punitive conditions that were the norm for slaves in other cultures.”

4 Replies to “Slavery and Wales”

  1. Hi! I’ve been looking about the ‘net to piece together a puzzle. There’s a story out there online about one of the crazier coincidences in history, involving three separate shipwrecks on December 5 (1664, 1785 and 1860) at the same location off the coast of Wales, where only one survivor made it out. In each case, the survivor’s name was Hugh Williams. There’s a suggestion that Welsh slaves were collectively referred to as “Hugh Williams,” rather than by their individual names. If this is true, then the coincidence is less amazing perhaps (aside from the date). This is only to quell a piqued interest, nothing more. On a side note, my dad’s name is Hugh Williams, but there are no ships involved in his story. His father (Venerable, named after one of the various British Navy ships of that name) migrated to Australia from Wales.

    Curiousity is a funny thing. Thanks for your time!


    1. I have never heard that story. At the same time, given the tendency among the Welsh for lack of name diversity, it also wouldn’t surprise me. I’ll do some research and get back to you ….

  2. Living just a few miles from Juffereh, the ancestral home of Africa’s most famous slave, Kunte Kinte, the slave trade of the colonial period is one close to my heart.

    For a play in 2007 for the abolition commemoration I had cause to extensively research the subject and it was clear Wales had a not inconsiderable role, directly or indirectly, in the triangular trade. Liverpool and Bristol being so close to the main Wales-England crossing points being key factors.

    From memory I recall one of the major ironworks in Merthyr Tydfil was founded by a slave trader, and the slave-owner Richard Pennant built up his slate industry based on money from his plantations in the West Indies.

    Curiously the actual “ownership” of African slaves was almost unheard of within the British Isles during this period, despite Britain’s pivotal role in the transportation of slaves from British colonies to the Americas.

    The British were quite happy to exploit and abuse their own men, women and children in the Industrial Revolution rather than pay for imported workers.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Mark. That’s one of the things–few slaves in country, but happy to make money off selling them elsewhere.

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