Tuesday 4 January 2011, 09:08
Wales is certainly not lacking when it comes to stories and tales of kings or great warriors. From the mythological heroes of the Mabinogion, where legend mixes easily with reality, to genuine historical figures like the Lord Rhys or Llywelyn the Great, there are so many to choose from. Yet one of the greatest is remembered, not so much for his prowess as a warrior but from the laws and statutes he commissioned and put into practice in a time of peace and security.
That man was Hywel Dda, Hywel the Good as he might be called in English. And it could be argued that his laws and reforms, laid down in the mid-10th century, have had more effect than those of any Welsh ruler, before or afterwards.
Hywel Dda was the son of Rhodri Mawr, another great Welsh prince who, during his period in power at the end of the ninth century, managed to unite large parts of the country under his dynamic and thrusting leadership. As a result of this the Saxon incursions into Wales were restricted for many years. While Rhodri's efforts kept the Norsemen at bay, the modern-day country of England began to take shape as the various kingdoms across Offa's Dyke gradually developed and merged into something like a unified state.
In Wales, it was a different matter. Everything was fine while Rhodri was alive but once he died, his lands were divided amongst his six sons, as custom demanded. Unable to stand alone, most of these Welsh territories or kingdoms soon declared homage to the English kings and, theoretically at least, the Welsh people became subjects of the English monarchy.
Hywel Dda became king of Seisyllwg - roughly speaking the modern day counties of Ceredigion and Carmarthen - in the year 900. Through a marriage alliance he quickly acquired the area known as Dyfed and this, along with his original possessions, created the kingdom of Deheubarth. Hywel did not stop there and, in time, seized Gwynedd and Powys so that until his death in 949 a huge portion of Wales was once more united under a single ruler.
With his kingdom secure from raiding Saxons - and from the power of England - Hywel set about reforming or at least codifying the customs and practices from the various regions of Wales and turning them into a single law. These were the famous Cyfraith Hywel Dda, the Laws of Hywel Dda.
The traditional story is that Hywel called representatives from all his cantrefs to a convention, held at one of his hunting lodges. This was Ty Gwyn in Whitland. The date of the meeting remains a little unclear although it probably took place over the Lent period sometime in the late 940s. The meeting lasted for six weeks while the laws were proposed, discussed and then set down. The old laws were studied, the useful ones retained and the inappropriate ones discarded. And, of course, new ones were written.
How true that story is, remains a matter of conjecture. The earliest existing copies of Hywel's Laws date from the twelfth century, 200 years later. They are copies of the original documents, 80 manuscripts in Latin and Welsh - and two of them, Gwentian Brut and Brut Ieuan, might even have been copied or written as late as the 18th century. Certainly all of the Laws, as they are seen today, contain additions made many years after Hywel's death.
Despite these reservations the Laws, as we know them, do contain much material that was written during Hywel's reign. And many of them are extremely enlightened. According to the Laws marriage was considered an agreement, not a holy sacrament and divorce was permitted by common consent. Precedence was to be given to a woman's claim in any case of rape.
There was to be no punishment for theft - provided the sole purpose of the offence was to stay alive. Under these Laws compensation for the victim was felt to be far more important than any possible or potential punishment of the offender. Illegitimate children received exactly the same rights as legitimate sons and daughters. There were many more, covering the whole range of Welsh life and society.
There is no doubt that the Laws of Hywel Dda were insightful and enlightened. Quite how much Hywel had to do with their compilation will never be known but he was a well-read and intelligent man and so it is quite likely that he had more than a little involvement. He was on good terms with Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex, and inspired by Alfred's example, Hywel had undertaken a pilgrimage to Rome long before he began codifying Welsh Laws. This was no petty Prince, concerned only with his own local glory. This was a man of vision and integrity.
After Hywel's death in 949 Wales quickly fell back into being a disparate and warring state, threatened by the growing power of the Saxons on the one hand and by the gathering might of England on the other. The one thing that did remain, however, was the series of Laws that the king had brought into use.
Hywel Dda's Laws were enforced in Wales for several centuries. Not until Henry VIII passed the Acts of Union in the 16th century did they finally disappear. They are remembered, now, as a series of legal documents that provided justice and compassion for all. Modern day enthusiasts or historians can visit the Hywel Dda Heritage Centre in Whitland where extracts and examples have been mounted on slate and stone. It is a fitting tribute for one of Wales' most renowned rulers.