Welsh History: A Sense of Wales

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The Laws of Hywel Dda

After Rhodri Mawr was killed in battle fighting an English army, his grandson, Hywel Dda (Howell the Good), was able to re-establish some sort of predominance among the various petty kingdoms of Wales. He wisely kept the peace with his English neighbors through a policy of conciliation in his long reign from 904 to 950 A.D.

The only Welsh king to have earned the title “The Good,” he is described in the great medieval history, The Brut Y Tywysogion (The Chronicle of the Princes) as “the chief and most praiseworthy of all the Britons” (cited in Stephens, Oxford Companion to the Literature of Wales, p. 278). During Hywel’s reign, Welsh law and literature was praised throughout Europe and, indeed, he is best remembered for his brilliant codification of Welsh law.

A systemization of the legal customs that had developed in his country over many centuries, called in Welsh “Cyfraith Hywel” (The Law of Hywel), this codification was far in advance of much English law. For one thing, it gave significant status to women. They were guaranteed certain rights that did not become part of the laws of England for over one thousand years. A woman had the right to seek compensation if struck by her spouse without cause; she could also receive up to one half the family property upon divorce.

Most significant was the fact that the majority of the surviving documents are in Welsh, with only a few in Latin -another sign of the legitimacy of the language. However, there was one great drawback.

The law known as “Gavelkind” specified that a father’s lands be divided among all his sons, rather than be given intact to the eldest son. This prevented the build up of a unified, powerful state such as took place in England, where gavelkind was not practiced and where the whole kingdom was inherited by a single heir, (primogeniture).

In the development of the Welsh nation, which Hywel seems to have kept free from the ravages of the Norsemen, his influence cannot be underestimated, yet even with all his statecraft, authority and fame, he could not succeed in creating a fully-united, independent state that would endure.

The Loss of Independence

In order to keep the peace throughout Wales, Hwyel had been forced to accept the position of sub-regulus – subservient to King Athelstan of Wessex, a Saxon king who reigned supreme in all Britain south of Scotland.

There is a great poem of lament, Armes Prydain (The Prophecy of Britain) which deals with the depiction of an alliance between the Celtic peoples of Britain and Brittany with the Norsemen of Dublin to overthrow the Saxon invaders of their islands and to restore the old kingdoms.

Probably composed by a monk in South Wales around 930, the poem expresses a deep sense of loss, perhaps irreversible. It deals with a prophecy built on false hopes, for the Saxon kingdoms under powerful rulers were far too thoroughly established in most of Britain by the beginning of the 10th Century.

At a site not yet properly identified, a battle was fought between King Athelstan and the Celtic alliance described in Armes Prydain. The alliance was completely routed by the Athelstan’s Saxon army. Despite the great victory of King Athelstan, Wales continued to exist as a political unity with or without its Celtic allies.

Gruffudd ap Llywelyn acceded to the throne of Gwynedd in 1039. Through military strength and political craftmanship, and certainly ruthlessness, he became overlord of the whole territory of Wales. In his brief rule from 1057-1063, Gruffudd’s fierce determination brought all the minor kingdoms of Wales under his control.

The euphoria experienced by the people of Wales lasted only for seven years, if indeed they ever realized their good fortune, for once again the dream of a strong, fully integrated kingdom, independent of the English monarch, disappeared with Gruffudd’s death.

This happened at a most inappropriate time — a new threat was looming on the horizon, and a new struggle was about to begin –the Normans were arriving on the Welsh borders in full force.

The Norman Influence

Almost immediately after his decisive victory over King Harold and the Saxon army, William of Normandy set about establishing a strong, centralized kingdom in England. To help govern Wales, he set up powerful, semi-independent earldoms on the borders — at Hereford, Shrewsbury, and Chester.

Huge, forbidding Norman Castles soon dotted much of the Welsh countryside — it is hardly possible to find a settlement of any size where they were not built. Even today, their massive piles dominate such centers of urban settlement as Cardigan, Pembroke, Brecon, Cardiff, Caerphilly, and many others. In each lordship, the Norman earl reigned as a minor king, the Lord of the Marches, usurping the powers previously enjoyed by the native Welsh rulers.

In Northwest Wales, however, under a few dynamic leaders, much of the area was gradually recovered from Norman rule. Thanks to the heroic efforts of such Welsh rulers as Owain Gwynedd and Madog ap Maredudd, the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys became re-established as major political units enjoying Welsh law.

In many parts of Wales, relationships between the two peoples were quite amicable at times, and for generations Norman and Welshman of the same relative social status would meet as equals, a situation practically unknown in England.

At the time that the Saxon language was quickly abolished from law and government in England, to be replaced by Latin or Norman French, the Welsh language flourished west of Offa’s Dyke as a medium of both institutions. The Norman overlords seem to have despised the Saxons whom they had so easily subdued, but they seemed to have had much more respect for the Welsh. The latter’s Cymric language was probably much more intelligible to them than that of the barbaric Saxon of the English.

The Flowering of Literature

The Norman presence was most felt in South Wales, as their many strongholds testify. Their presence there has been seen as bringing Wales out of its western-facing, introspective world and making it part of the Continent. The result was an explosion of literature that made it the envy of Europe. Their literature covered a wide area, including not only writings on history, but also on law, medicine and healing, geography, and the lives of the saints and theology.

The Mabinogion is perhaps Wales’s greatest contribution to European literature (though some reserve this honor for the work of poet Dafydd ap Gwilym). It is part and parcel of that glorious tradition of Welsh poetry that is so little known outside the borders of Wales itself.

Its wondrous tales may have been composed in the eleventh century involving figures from Celtic mythology. The title was first used by Lady Charlotte Guest in her remarkable translation published between 1838 and 1849. The texts are preserved in the White Book of Rhyderch (written in mid fourteenth century) and the Red Book of Hergest (written slightly later).

Welsh literary magic is continued in that other great contribution of Wales to the world — the body of literature known as Arthuriana.

As noted earlier, the name “Arthur” appears in an early Welsh poem Y Gododdin in which he is praised as a ruler of valour and ferocity. Perhaps the most authentic of the early Arthurian references is the Chronicle entry for the year 537 that briefly refers to the battle of Camlan in which Arthur and Medrawd were killed.

Arthuriana owes its greatest debt to the Norman-Welsh writer Geoffrey of Monmouth (c.1090- 1155), for his most important work, the Historia Regum Britanniae became the basis for a whole new and impressive European literature of Arthurian romance. In Geoffrey’s work, a wise, noble, and benevolent king is described as presiding over a chivalric court in a Golden Age of the British people that had existed before the arrival of the Saxons.

Geoffrey was born around the year 1090. In 1152 he became Bishop of St. Asaph in Clwyd. If not entirely historically accurate, his tales were of vital importance to a sense of national identity. They not only gave the Welsh people an account of a classical origin from Brutus of Troy, but also provided them with their long-lasting claim to the sovereignty of the whole island of Britain.

Other Welsh tales are found in the works of Geoffrey. One of these concerns Magnus Maximus (called in Welsh, Macsen) the Roman commander in Britain who was proclaimed Emperor by his soldiers in 383 and who took his army to Rome to dispossess the incumbent Gratian. He was eventually defeated and killed by Theodosius.

Of the Welsh, medieval French writer Chretien de Troyes wrote: “{they] are all, by nature wilder than the beasts of the field” (Le Roman de Perceval, cited in Stephens, A Most Peculiar People, p.6), yet the medieval French writer was indebted to Welsh sources for his own stirring tales of chivalry and romance.

These tales were certainly Celtic in origin, and many of the French versions have retained Welsh names for some of the characters that the Welsh tales have lost.

A century after Geoffrey, yet another Welsh scholar and cleric not only helped cement this foundation, but helped spread it further abroad. Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), one of the greatest Welsh writers in Latin, was born at Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire, around 1146.

Gerald served as administrator at St. David’s and clerk to the court of Henry II. He accompanied Prince John to Ireland and Archbishop Baldwin on his journey through Wales. His writings were prolific, but it is generally agreed that his most distinguished works are those dealing with Wales and Ireland, with his two books on his beloved Wales the most important: the Itinerarium Kambriae and the Descriptio Kambriae.

Giraldus wrote (of the Welsh) “If they would be inseparable, they would be insuperable,” in other words, unlike the English hirelings who fight for power or to procure gain or wealth, the Welsh patriots fight for their country.

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