Wales' Hywel Dda "The Good"

HYWEL DDA - King of Wales
by Alison R. Harding

(d. 950)

He was generally called ‘Hywel the Good, son of Cadell, prince of all Wales’ and in ‘Brut y Tywysogion’ he is called ‘the head and cynosure of all the Britons.’ He is the only Welsh prince to have been called ‘the good.’ He was born towards the end of the 9th century, but the place of his birth is unknown.

His greatest achievement was to create the country’s first uniform legal system.

Cadell was one of the sons of Rhodri the Great, and his inheritance was the southern part of his father’s principality, namely Seisyllwg (Ceredigion and Ystrad Tywi). He bequeathed this to his two sons Hywel and Clydog, and on the later’s death in the year 920 Hywel took possession of the whole. He married Elen, daughter of Llywarch ap Hyfaidd of Dyfed, who brought him Dyfed (modern Pembrokeshire) as her dowry; for Llywarch was, in all probability, the last prince of Dyfed. The prince of Gwynedd was Idwal Foel who also probably ruled over Powys. Idwal was killed in battle with the English in the year 942 and, although he had sons, Hywel took possession of all his territory. He thus became ‘King of all Wales’ although Morgannwg (Glamorgan) and Gwent continued to have independent sovereigns.

Like his grandfather, Rhodri the Great, Hywel was given an epithet by a later generation.

Hywel the Good
[Hywel the Good]

He became known as Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), although it would be wrong to consider that goodness to be innocent and unblemished. In the age of Hywel, the essential attribute of a state builder was ruthlessness, an attribute which Hywel possessed, if it is true that it was he who ordered the killing of Llywarch of Dyfed, as some have claimed.

He succeeded throughout his life in maintaining peace with the English kings by submitting to them. In 918 he, Clydog his brother, and Idwal Foel did homage to Edward, son of Alfred the Great, and about 926 he and Owain of Gwent journeyed to Hereford to acknowledge the overlordship of Athelstan. His name is frequently mentioned in the English charters as a vassal king and there is little doubt that from time to time he visited the Wessex court. For all that, he was sufficiently independent to mint his own silver pennies and, as far as is known, is the only Welsh prince to have done this.

His pilgrimage to Rome in 928 was one of the outstanding incidents of his life. It has been suggested that in this respect he was only following Alfred’s example and it may well be that it was Alfred’s work in England which induced him to undertake his most important task, the codification of a jumble of laws and customs prevailing in his kingdom. There can be no doubt that he was confirmed in his resolution by what he had seen on his travels.

Although contemporary evidence is lacking, there is no reason to reject the tradition that Hywel was responsible for some of the consolidation of the Laws of Wales. Among Hywel’s contemporaries there were rulers who won fame as law-givers. The law was Hywel’s law, cyfraith Hywel; his name gave to the authority comparable with that given to the laws of Mercia by King Offa or the laws of Wessex by King Alfred.

It was probably the need to give cohesion to his different territories that prompted Hywel to codify the law. He was also successful in defending his territories, for there is no record that they were ravaged by the Vikings during his reign. Neither were they attacked by the English, Hywel adhered to his close relationship with England initiated by his father-in-law, Llywarch of Dyfed, yet it is unlikely that he relished the diminution in status and the heavy demands for tribute which resulted from his association with the kingdom of England. He recognised the facts of power - the power which in his lifetime extinguished the Brythonic kingdom of Cornwall and which brought about the death of his cousin, Idwal of Gwynedd.

The earliest extant manuscript of the ‘Laws of Hywel the Good’ dates from the last quarter of the 12th century, but all the manuscripts agree that the laws were framed by his command and under his authority. They agree, too, as to the method adopted by him for carrying out the undertaking, namely the summoning of six representatives from each commote in his principality to a great conference at ‘Ty Gwyn ar Daf in Dyfed,’ (later on, an abbey was to rise near the spot and the Welsh name for the village of Whitland is still ‘Yr Hen Dy Gwyn.’) This took place some time between 942 and 950; perhaps about 945.

We do not rightly know what were the contents of the book of the law as devised at the White House. In the 19th century Aneurin Owen discovered that the earliest manuscripts should be separated into three distinct ‘codes’ differing materially one from the other. Between the 10th and 12th centuries these differences grew, for the unity of Hywel’s kingdom did not survive his death in 950. It is considered that ‘Code of Dyfed’ (The Book of Blegywyrd according to the classification of A. W. Wade-Evans) is the one which has preserved most accurately the contents and the arrangement of the original.

This ‘code’ and some other manuscripts mention Blegywyrd as the man chosen by the king with ‘twelve of his wisest lieges to determine and expound to him and his kingdom the laws and customs in their perfection and as near as may be to the truth and justice.’ Moreover, it is said that the king commanded that ‘they be written in three parts: firstly, the law of his daily court; secondly the law of the land; and thirdly, the custom of each of them.’ Three ‘books’ of the law were to be made i.e. three copies: ‘one for his daily court wherever he should be; one for his court in Dynevor; and the third for the court at Aberffraw; so that the three parts of Wales, Gwynedd, Powys, and the South, should have the authority of the law constantly and readily at hand. And, following the advice of those wise men, some of the old laws were confirmed, some amended, while were repealed in their entirety and new laws’ substituted for them.’

Welsh Flag!

The excellence of these laws must be attributed to the wisdom and scholarship of Blegywyrd and his colleagues, but it is only fair to assume that the unification and orderly arrangement of the rules governing life in the different provinces which he had fused into one kingdom was Hywel’s own conception. His renown is based on his work as a legislator and it may safely be claimed that, more than anything else, Hywel’s law was responsible for the consciousness of national unity prevalent among the Welsh of the Middle Ages.

Hywel’s creation of the kingdom of Deheubarth, survived his death. In 950 it passed to his son Owain. Gwynedd and Powys returned to the line of Idwal ap Anarawd while Glamorgan continued to be subject to its own kings. Although the union between Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth was broken, Wales had only three kingdoms after 950, compared with over twice that number two centuries earlier.

Contributing writer: Alison R. Harding**
Cardiff, Wales.
Editor: Robert M. Gunn

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