Society in medieval Wales


In the year AD 1000, there was nowhere in Wales which could be considered to be urban. Over the following 300 years scores of towns were founded: Bala, established in 1309, was the last fling of Wales's medieval town creators.

Image: scene from Cosmeston Medieval Village in the Vale of Glamorgan (BBC)

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The Story of Wales
The Story of Wales

More information about: Society in medieval Wales

Although towns became central to the Welsh economy, townspeople could hardly have been more than 10 per cent of the total population. Cardiff, with perhaps 2,200 inhabitants in 1300, was almost certainly the country's largest town. With the population overwhelmingly rural, patterns of land tenure were central to the function of society.

Native Welsh society was divided into two broad classes - the free and the unfree. The free, the bonheddwyr (those with bon, or distinguished ancestry - compare gens in gentleman), were landowners because of their descent, and held land, often jointly, through a family group known as y gwely (literally meaning the bed).

The unfree, y taeogion or villeins, were allotted land by their lords to whom they paid renders in food and services. Early sources, in particular the archaic sections of the Welsh lawbooks, indicated the taeogion were the great majority, but by 1300 they had become a minority in most parts of Wales.

Legal status

The Law of Hywel Dda, modified over the centuries, remained the law of native Wales at least until the Norman conquest. It was based upon the concepts of descent and kinship. The relatives of a person causing death, injury or insult were obliged to compensate the relations of the person he had wronged.

For a bonheddwr, the size of the compensation or galanas depended on the distinction of his descent, while a taeog's galanas was paid to his lord. Compared with other European legal systems, Welsh law gave women a fairly high status, particularly with regard to the property of married women and their rights over their children.

Social change

Norman incursions introduced new social relationships. In places like the Vale of Glamorgan, the land was organised into a series of knights' fees, each capable of maintaining a mounted warrior and supported by a manorial system sustained by villeins who were often incomers.

The centuries after 1000 also saw changes in native Welsh society, particularly the growth of the concept that a crime is an offence against the ruler rather than against the kin, and the increasing replacement of renders of food and services by payments in money. The growth in the circulation of money indicated the growth of trade, a process which transformed traditional relationships.

With an improving climate and a developing economy, the population of Wales probably doubled between 1050 and 1300. The increase involved a more intense use of land, with extensive clearing of forests, the development of villages, the building of mills and the growth of a more sophisticated social structure.

Expansion reversed

The Welsh climate deteriorated after 1300. Wet summers, disease among domestic animals and soil exhaustion caused agricultural problems. By 1320, the population was in decline and would not return to the level of 1300 for another 250 years.

Then in 1349, appalling disaster struck. The Black Death - the plague carried by rat fleas - killed perhaps a third of the population. The epidemic struck again in 1361 and 1369.

The population collapse had far reaching consequences. The afflication led to morbid obsessions and millenarian hopes. Deaths among the taeogion created a demand for free labourers, thus undermining the differentiation between the free and the unfree.

Deaths among the boneddigion slowed and reversed the dividing up of their holdings. Many of them sought to hold their land according to English law, thus allowing them to bequeath their entire property to the eldest son, a process which encourages the growth of extensive landed estates. Distinction based on descent began to give way to distinction based on wealth.


A century after the Black Death, there were signs that the Welsh economy was recovering. A pattern of trade based on cattle and sheep became apparent, a pattern which would dominate the economy until the Industrial Revolution.

Drovers took cattle across Wales to the great fairs of the English cities, and cattle sales became the chief way of introducing ready money into the countryside. Fleeces were spun into yarn, and, with advent of fulling mills, woven into flannel and sold at the markets of the English border towns, Shrewsbury in particular.

With a reviving economy came better housing - the half-timbered buildings of the borderland, for example. By the early 16th century Wales had around 260,000 inhabitants, compared with perhaps 300,000 in 1300.