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  • Writer's pictureGraham Watkins

Hywel's Law

After the Romans departed, Wales split into small kingdoms. One of them was the kingdom of Seisyllwg. Ruled from Dinefwr (Llandeilo), Seisyllwg covered the Gower, parts of Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion. It was from Dinefwr that, in the 10th Century, Hywel ap Cadwell, one of the most influential Welsh rulers of Medieval Wales, would emerge. The young Hywel was intelligent with a gift for learning languages

Hywel ap Cadwell

and soon had a good knowledge of Welsh, English and Latin. Hywel’s father, Cadwell, had been installed as a puppet king by Rhodri the Great, King of Gwynedd. Being Rhodri’s vassal, with no legal claim to the throne, the question of succession was unclear when Hywel’s father died. Fortunately for his two sons, there were no other claimants and Hywel, together with his brother Clydog, inherited the kingdom which was then divided between them. Unusually, at a time when sibling brothers fought for thrones, the two brothers worked together and ruled jointly. Perhaps, realising that the brothers were in a weak position they paid homage to Edward the Elder, King of England.

One law, attributed to Hywel Dda, was the law of ‘Tŷ Un Nos’ which translates as ‘One Night House.’ According to Tŷ Un Nos, a squatter who built a house on unclaimed land between sunset and sunrise could declare themselves the owner and keep the house. For the claim to be legal the house had to have walls, a roof and smoke rising from its chimney before the sun came up.

In, AD 920, Clydog died, leaving his half of the kingdom to Hywel. After the death of his brother, Hywel married the orphaned daughter of King Llywarch of Dyfed. It was a strategic marriage and, since Llywarch was already dead and there were no male heirs, Hywel became King of Dyfed. The house of Dinefwr was growing and Hywel’s expanding kingdom became known as Deheubarth - literally ‘right hand part’. Hywel studied the laws of different lands, looking for guidance showing him how to manage his kingdom and in AD 928 he travelled to Rome, the first Welsh prince to make a pilgrimage. During the return journey, Hywel visited the English king, Athelstan, and began a friendly relationship that would later prove useful.

Welsh laws, first created by Druids, were memorised by the bards and handed down orally until the 10th Century when Hywel introduced the written rule of law to Wales.

In 942, Idwal Foel, King of Gwynedd, rebelled against the English crown and was killed in battle. According to Welsh custom Idwal’s crown should have passed to his sons but, with the agreement of the English, Hywel banished the sons and installed himself as king. Hywel’s kingdom, Deheubarth, now covered all of Wales except Morgannwg and Gwent. Amalgamating his kingdoms created a new problem for Hywel. The different kingdoms applied different rules and customs. There were few common laws. Having studied European and Islamic laws, Hywel realised that he needed a set of codified Welsh laws and summoned the intellectuals of Wales to gather at Ty Gwyn ar Daf in Carmarthenshire. When the meeting convened in about 945, Hywel commanded the assembled council to create and write down a standard set of laws by which Wales would be governed. The councillors, guided by the renowned clerk Blegywryd, worked diligently and produced a book of laws written in Welsh and Latin which was locked in Dinefwr Castle for safe keeping.

Being friendly with the English king enabled Hywel to use the English mint at Chester to produce his own silver pennies, the first recorded Welsh coinage.

Hywel's Law

The laws that Hywel created were unique to Wales. Unlike other countries of the time, the power of any Welsh king was limited and the rights of the people recognised. The new laws gave women rights. Women could divorce their husbands for adultery and, if the marriage had lasted for more than seven years, the wife was entitled to half the property. Punishments for crimes were standardised. Murderers were required to pay blood money to the victim’s family, rapists to pay compensation or, if the man had no money, have his testicles removed. Thieves, caught for the third time, could have their hand amputated unless the stolen goods were valued at more than 4 pence (1.5p) whereupon the robber might be hanged. Capital punishment was rare and most offences were dealt with by a fine or payment of compensation to the victim. Other parts of the law were designed to be more compassionate. A starving man that passed three towns without being given something to eat could not be prosecuted for stealing food. On another level, Hywel’s laws removed the right of nobles to trial by combat, regarding it as unfair.

The last known case, involving a land dispute that was tried under Hywel’s Welsh Law was in Carmarthen in 1540. Use of the laws continued unofficially in some parts of Wales until the 17th Century despite them being officially replaced by English law in 1536.

The new laws were implemented. Hywel became known as Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) and his laws as Hywel’s Laws. When he died the kingdoms were divided into three but his laws endured. Hywel’s Laws continued to be revised and improved but in 1081 Normans invaded Wales. The Normans brought English laws with them and, for the next four hundred years, Welsh legal matters were tested using either English or Welsh law, depending on who heard the case. Hywels Laws were finally abolished by Henry VIII.

According to Hywel’s new laws, prospective Judges had to be more than 25 years old, pass an exam to prove their understanding of Welsh Law and pay a fee of 24 pence (10p).

Ty Hywel

In 2006, the Government of Wales act returned to Wales the power to make Welsh Laws. The first Welsh Assembly debating chamber was in Ty Hywel, a building named in honour of Hywel the Good. Since then, a new, more modern debating chamber has been built and Ty Hywel has become part of the assembly offices. The historian David Jenkins described Hywel’s laws as, ‘compassionate and full of common sense’. It’s a fitting tribute to Hywel the Good a leader who considered what the people needed and took his role seriously.

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