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Laws of Hywel Dda

This illustrated 13th-century manuscript contains the system of native Welsh law in operation from the mid-900s to 1284, when the Statute of Rhuddlan brought Wales under English control. Some of the laws regarding women's rights seem quite liberal for their time

Detail of Laws of Hywel Dda, c.1250

Laws of Hywel Dda, c.1250
National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 28, ff.1v-2
By permission of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales

 

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Who was Hywel Dda?

Hywel Dda ('Hywel the Good', died 950) was a king in south-west Wales who is credited with the codification of native Welsh law. The earliest surviving manuscripts with the laws, such as this, date from the second quarter of the 13th century. Some of the laws are later additions or changes to Hywel's original, but scholars agree that a significant core of them must date back to his time.

Most of these books of laws are pocket size, designed to be carried about by lawyers. This manuscript is larger, perhaps designed for library use, probably written in south-west Wales in the mid-1200s. Its splendid illustrations, rare in a medieval Welsh manuscript, suggest that it was a presentation copy, perhaps for some ecclesiastical dignitary (it is written in Latin rather than Welsh).

It is also thought that this was the copy of the Welsh laws consulted by John Pecham, archbishop of Canterbury, 1279-94, when he sent his letter to Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282, denouncing the prince's morals and those of the Welsh, and in which he makes two references to the Laws of Hywel Dda.

What are the illustrations?

The illustrations are of two types: the king, his court and people; and birds, animals and items of legal value. The picture of the king on the page seen above is of much better quality than some of the other pictures, which look the clumsy work of a scribe rather than a professional artist. Certainly they seem to be drawn in the same ink as the text.

Apart from the ink, two main colours appear, green and red. The green is a surprise, as it was already out of date by the mid-1200s; blue would have been more usual.

What were Hywel's laws like?

The 13th-century version of the laws, which presumably reflect Hywel's to some extent, are divided into two categories: those relating to the king and his court, and those relating to 'the country', that is, everywhere else.

The death penalty was in force for only a few offences, such as robbery with force; usually the punishment was a fine. A table of compensation for various misdeeds is specified - fourpence for killing a cat old enough to hunt mice, for example.

Some of the provisions regarding women seem quite enlightened for the time. For instance, if a marriage broke up after seven years or more, the woman was entitled to half the joint property. An unfaithful husband had to pay his wife a fine of five shillings the first time and a pound the second time - respectively the equivalent of three weeks', and three months', wages for a craftsman.

On a landowner's death, his property would be divided up between all his sons, not only legitimate, but the illegitimate ones too. This provision greatly angered the church, and was one of the laws denounced by Pecham in his letter of 1282.

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