By tradition the Laws of Wales are seen as the work of Hywel Dda, the tenth century ruler and founder of Deheubarth who summoned the bishops and nobles of the country, together with representatives from each commote of Wales to meet at a place called Ty Gwyn ar Daf. There the assembly compliled and proclaimed what became known as Welsh Law. Even if tradition is correct, what happened was not the creation of some new body of law but rather a systemisation of existing legal customs that had developed over the previous centuries. The similarities that exist between, for example, Welsh Law and the law that applied in Strathclyde, show that some of the basic concepts must evolved soon after the departure of the Romans.
Forty-two law books have survived, thirty six of which are in Welsh and six are in Latin, the earliest of which dates from the twelfth century, all of which belong of one of three different recensions of the code, one for Deheubarth itself, another for Gwynedd, a third for south-east Wales. The Laws were clearly not of a static nature and were continually developing over the years.
What follows is therefore a brief summary of Welsh Law as was applied in Wales before the Edwardian conquest of the 1280's.
Crime and Punishment
There was no police force and no court system, even the kings took little interest in maintaining law and order as such. Instead crime was viewed as a dispute between two tribes, or more specifically between one cenedl, that is kindred or clan, and another. Central to this were notions of descent and kinship and the principle that wrongs were righted by the payment of restitution.
The Welsh Laws imposed two kinds of restitution
- the first was the galanas or blood price (compare the Anglo-Saxon wergild) the payment due for wrongful killing and
- sarhad or sometimes wynebwerth (literally worth of face) insult price the payment due for all other wrongs committed
In early medieval Wales payment was generally reckoned in terms of a number of head of cattle (early medieval Wales being essentially a non-monetary society).
The amount that was due depended on the braint or status of the person killed or wronged. Braint was almost entirely dependent on birth, the more illustrious your forefathers, the higher your status, the greater the wrong suffered and the higher the compensation due.
The payment itself was payable by the cenedl or kindred of the wrongdoer to the cenedl of the other party, in accordance with a set formula;
- the guilty person would pay one ninth
- their parents another ninth
- their brothers and sisters a further ninth
and so on and so far though cousins and second cousins and all the other members of the kindred to the fourth degree.
It was therefore extremely important to know your family history and to be able to recount your ancestry, as only thus was it possible to determine what your status was in the first place, and secondly to determine who was obliged to pay up if you committed a crime or determine your obligations to cough up if and when one of your relations transgressed.
This might all seem very complicated and no doubt it was, As one historian put it, "it is difficult to comprehend how, in an age which lacked computers, it was decided what sums were due from the various relations"1; but they managed it somehow.
Women and Marriage
Welsh Law viewed marriage as a contract rather than a sacrament and whilst a marriage in church was allocated a certain status, any form of union was regarded as marriage. The husband simply paid the anwobr a virginity fee, on behalf of his wife to whoever was her protector, paid the woman her cywyll, a sort of reward for the gift of herself. (If things were done properly that is, you could just run off together; that counted too.)
As marriage was simply a contractual arrangement, divorce
was also available, and if the separation took place within seven years, the wife was entitled to an agweddi
a sort of reverse dowry
, and after seven years she was entitled to half of her husband's property. Which sounds rather 'modern', although in practice it meant dividing up the bedclothes rather than the stock portfolio.
Another consequence of this broad view of marriage was that since, any relationship constituted a marriage, there was no concept of illegitimacy. As long as the child was recognised by the father, than they were his legitimate offspring and the exact nature of the relationship between father and mother was irrelevant.
This 'relaxed' attitude to matters sexual always scandalised the English who liked their Canon Law and even as late as the ninteenth century were getting hot under the collar about the 'immorality' of the Welsh. Old habits died hard, and the Welsh, irrespective of whatever religous enthusiasms they might have had, were never quite convinced of the necessity of a formal church wedding. It is exactly the same today; except these days the English are just the same so no one worries about it.
Land and inheritance
There was no individual ownership of land as such, all land was held in common ownership by the cenedl. Although strictly speaking it was the oldest generation, who composed the body of the priodwyr (or priodwr in the singular, literally priority holder), who held the land but only in trust for succeeding generations. They were not permitted to sale or otherwise alienate the land from the control of the cenedl.
The inheritance of land was determined by two things;
- the principle of cyfran or partible inheritance (compare with the Kentish gavelkind) that is, the provision that sons inherited equal shares of their father's land and,
- some pretty well defined rules about who inherited if there were no sons and setting out who has to be considered the nearest male relative. And it was always male relatives; women were not permitted to inherit land.
It was the elements of the Welsh Law relating to land that persisted the longest, being still used in the Welsh part of Wales right up until they were finally swept away by the Acts of Union 1536-1543. The rules were modified by Edward I in his Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 in that illegitimacy (as defined by Canon Law) now became a bar to inheritance and women were permitted to inherit on the failure of male heirs. But they otherwise continued much to the chagrin of certain of the Welsh gentry to whom the stipulations were a simply hindrance to their acquisition of land. They sought inventive methods of circumnavigating the restrictions of Welsh-style land ownership and became the most enthusiastic advocates and promoters of 'union'.
- 1 A History of Wales by John Davies (Allen Lane, 1993)
- 2 When was Wales? by Gwyn A Williams (Black Raven Press, 1985)
- 3 The Celts by Nora Chadwick (Penguin, 1997)
- 4 The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica