Medieval Welsh Law (Cyfraith Hywel)

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be focusing on various digital projects and resources both old and new which incorporate data concerning one or more manuscripts from the Parker Library collection.

The first project is one that’s just gone live, Cyfraith Hywel (the Laws of Hywel Dda), a resource for the study of medieval Welsh law created by Dr Sara Elin Roberts and Bryn Jones. The system of Welsh law was distinct from English common law and from canon law. According to tradition, it was first codified in the reign of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) (ca. 880-950), described as ‘king of all Wales’ since he came to rule a large area of the country through conquest and marriage. In fact, although the law codes bear his name, there’s no real evidence to connect any particular text or section of Welsh law with Hywel Dda and none of the extant manuscript date from his reign.

Cyfraith Hywel lists 41 manuscripts, most in Welsh and some in Latin, the oldest of which date to the early or mid 13th century. Most of them are housed in the National Library of Wales, including one that was bought at auction last year, but one copy is held in the Parker Library. The manuscript history is a complex one with various redactions and sections, all of which are set out in the digital resource. Although the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 declared that English law was to be used instead of Welsh in criminal cases in Wales, Welsh law continued to be used in civil cases until the 1530s. The section illustrated below discusses the value of wild and tame animals for compensation purposes. The text carried on being copied and used, as the Parker Library copy of the Laws of Hywel Dda attests.

Laws of Hywel Dda (CCCC MS 454, f. 24v)
Laws of Hywel Dda (CCCC MS 454, f. 24v)

CCCC MS 454 is a Latin version of the text (Latin E) produced in the early fifteenth century in North Wales, probably in Denbighshire. It’s a small pocket-sized volume (17.5cm tall) and it seems likely that it was the working copy of a legal professional. Its flyleaves contain notes in Welsh and Latin about various cases including robbery and the circumstances for dissolving a marriage.

It might seem strange that a copy of a medieval Welsh law book would end up in the possession of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, in the 1560s. However, it must be remembered that Parker and his circle were extremely interested in Anglo-Saxon law, not just as antiquarians but in order to seek evidence of precedents for Reformation policies. It seems a similar intent fueled some of the sixteenth-century interest in the Laws of Hywel Dda, as Parker’s copy of the text makes clear.

Titlepage of Ban wedy i dynny (CCCC MS 4544, f. 1ar)
Titlepage of Ban wedy i dynny (CCCC MS 4544, f. 1ar)

Bound in at the front of the manuscript is a pamphlet printed in 1550 and entitled Ban wedy i dynny. This remarkable document is the one of the earliest Welsh publications of any kind, the first pamphlet to be printed in Welsh and the first bilingual Welsh-English publication. And its subject? An argument in favour of married priests, drawing on precedents that it claims are laid down in the Laws of Hywel Dda, with extensive quotation from the medieval text. Although the pamphlet is anonymous, it’s generally believed to have been written by William Salesbury, the great translator and Welsh Protestant humanist, editor of the first printed English-Welsh dictionary and Welsh New Testament. It’s been suggested that Salesbury himself might have sent the manuscript and the pamphlet to Parker. A volume of Parker’s correspondence in the library includes a letter from Salesbury dated 19 March 1565 which discusses the issue of clerical marriage and quotes a passage in Latin on the topic from another medieval Welsh source.

Letter from William Salesbury to Matthew Parker (CCCC MS 114, p. 491)
Letter from William Salesbury to Matthew Parker (CCCC MS 114, p. 491)


Robin Flower, ‘William Salesbury, Richard Davies and Archbishop Parker’, National Library of Wales Journal 2 (1941-42), 7-14.

Christine James ‘Ban wedy i dynny: Medieval Welsh Law and Early Protestant Propaganda’, Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 27 (1994), 61-86.

For a popular introduction to medieval Welsh law, see this BBC website article.

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