Hywel Dda, translated as “Howell the Good”, ruled Deheubarth in 10th-century SW Wales and left a body of codified law which had centuries of influence.
Hywel Dda (Hywel ap Cadell), grandson of legendary Welsh king Rhodri Mawr, did not just inherit his title and epithet from his heroic family, but earned it through education, wise rule, expansion of his kingdom, diplomacy and setting down a thoughtful and fair-minded study of, and code of law.
Deheubarth and Hywel’s Rule
Hwyel was born around 880, the son of Cadell, who was himself the second son of Rhodri the Great, a king who had held most of what is modern-day Wales. Cadell had inherited Seisyllwg from his father, who had himself claimed it through marriage; per land inheritance tradition of that time, Rhodri’s mighty kingdom was shared between his three sons, and in turn, Cadell ap Rhodri gave Hywel rule over Dyfed, which they had conquered together. Hywel cemented his rule by marrying the heiress of Dyfed, Elen.
On Cadell’s death, Hywel also received his portion of Seisyllwg, which eventually became all his when his brother died young. The new kingdom, doubled in size, became known as “Deheubarth” (“South Part”). Hywel did not stop there, however; when his cousin Idwal, son of Anarawd ap Rhodri, died in battle, he took the kingdom of Gwynedd from Idwal’s sons and held it until his own death a few years later.
His accumulated lands eventually covered much of the same territory as his grandfather’s holdings, and in records of that time Hywel too is called “King of the Britons”.
The World Outside of Hywel’s Kingdom
Despite the still-popular stereotypical misconception of the “Dark Ages” as a time when Europeans huddled unwashed and illiterate in leaky huts, Hywel in particular was neither (the Celts actually had a near-fetish about cleanliness). He spoke his native language, of course, but was also well-versed in the Church’s Latin and his wary eastern neighbour’s Saxon-English.
Hywel is listed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as a “lesser king”, in comparison to Æthelstan of England. Despite the English opinion of his rank, he and Æthelstan seemed to have been of similar minds about rulership – both had relatively peaceful reigns, consolidating large amounts of territory, and had a mutual respect sufficient to allowing Hywel to mint his own coinage in Chester — the first Celtic coinage produced since pre-Roman tribal times.
The Norse raids along the Welsh coastline which had bedeviled both Rhodri Mawr and Anarawd ap Rhodri in Gwynedd did not happen during Hywel’s rule; he was helped in this partly by the Norse having been expelled from Dublin around the time of his birth, and having been prevented from settling in Great Britain by the various other princes on the island.
Hywel was even able to leave his kingdom for the length of time it took to make pilgrimage to Rome. The trip allowed him to examine other legal systems beyond the unwritten traditions of the Celtic tribes.
The Law in Hywel’s Name
In 945, the king summoned those well versed in the law to the White House on the River Taf, including a Master Blegywryd – one of the few names to survive the centuries. It was at this conference that Welsh laws of long-standing tradition were written down, some for the first time given the Celtic oral traditions of literature. Some of the laws appear to be adapted from Irish brehon law.
The body of the law was in two major sections: First, the law of the court, detailing the rights and duties of the king and queen and their court. The surviving copies of the laws from the 1300s have some variations in the law of the court depending on their regional origin.
The other section provided the law of the country which including some surprisingly enlightened (by modern standards) laws about how women should be regarded and treated. Welsh women under Hywel’s law were considerably better respected with more freedoms than the Saxon (and later Norman) women to the east.
There are extensive listings of what sort of payments must be made to right wrongs depending on the type and severity of offence; and laws of land inheritance and how land disputes might be settled. The value of various animals, trees and equipment is set with conditions for either enhancement or mitigation of the prices for replacement or settlement.
The Lasting Legacy of Hywel Dda
Although the laws in specific were diminished after Edward I of England’s conquests, and dismissed with the Acts of Union in the 1500s, they provided significant precedence for all those centuries and remain an important part of British (and therefore American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealander) legal history. Those who appear before a judge using a British-based system of law has good cause to be thankful to this Welsh king of whom they’ve likely never heard.
Evans, Gwynfor. Land of my fathers: 2000 years of Welsh history, paperback edition 1992
Various authors. Ancient Wales Studies
Lloyd, John Edward. A History of Wales from the Earliest Times to the Edwardian Conquest I, 1912