Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Hywel the Good Prince makes laws in Wales

When he got back from a pilgrimage to Rome, Hywel Dda decided that the one thing the Welsh needed more than anything else was a system of laws. So he gave them such a system.

Hywel gained his nickname of Dda, meaning ‘the Good’ rather late in life. Until then he had been just one of many petty princes in Wales, most of whom spent their time squabbling with each other and stealing each other’s cattle.

Hywel was appointed as Prince of Ceredigion and Deheubarth by his uncle, King Idwal of Gwynedd. No doubt Idwal wanted a reliable ally governing the rich pastures in the mountain lands of Ceredigion. The system worked well for some time, especially when the rulers of Powys became truculent. However, it was not long before Hywel began putting his own interests first.

In 918, just two years after taking power, Hywel made an alliance with Edward the Elder, King of England. The precise terms of the alliance are unclear, though Hywel acknowledged Edward as the superior ruler and promised to help him in certain ways. This probably did not impress Idwal who had just seen his father killed in a civil war fought over the question of friendship to England.

The alliance did, however, bring Ceredigion a degree of safety from attack. No Welsh prince wanted to attack an ally of their powerful eastern neighbour, England. Free to concentrate on his own affairs, Hywel toured the country settling disputes between his lords, and savagely enforcing his decisions. Having sorted out all the petty disputes over land, cattle and dowries, Hywel made certain of the friendship of his neighbouring princes.

Then in 928 Hywel announced he was going on a pilgrimage to Rome. This was an unusual step for a king. The journey was not unduly dangerous and was made by several noblemen and churchmen. However, it did involve a journey of many months. Hywel must have been confident none of his lords would rise in rebellion.

When Hywel returned to Wales he had seen much and learnt much. Instead of spending their time sorting out difficult disputes, the rulers of southern France and Italy had set up a system of laws. These gave judges guidance over what punishments to inflict on wrongdoers and what actions were, indeed, a crime. Hywel realised that if all the Welsh had a single set of laws, many of the disputes that led to wars could be resolved peacefully. He sent out messages to all his fellow princes inviting them and their lawyers to a meeting at Whitland on the Teifi. Hywel had a comfortable hunting lodge at Whitland where everyone could stay.

The princes came, though one or two maintained they only came to hear Hywel’s stories about Rome. The meeting at Whitland went on for weeks. The lawyers compared the law codes of all the different lands. Where the laws were identical, or similar, the lawyers agreed on a standard wording. But when the laws were quite different, the princes were brought in to argue the matter out.

Eventually a complete set of standard laws was produced. Copies of the laws were made and sent to all corners of Wales. They became known as the Laws of Hywel and were referred to in difficult cases up to 300 years later.

It was after these laws had been in force for some years that Hywel began to be called Dda - The Good. His laws led to many disputes being settled without recourse to fighting and warfare. Hywel used the moral authority this gave him to settle most princely squabbles. Eventually Hywel was so popular that he was virtual ruler of Powys and Gwynedd as well as his own lands.

In the years to come the Laws of Hywel Dda became a defining issue for the Welsh. Those lands which followed these laws were considered to be free of English influence and to be truly Welsh. Although the laws changed and were altered many times over the years, they remained the basis of a Welsh legal system for centuries. Without them it is likely that the Welsh would have continued to think of themselves as Breconmen or Powysmen rather than as Welsh.

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