Chapter 3


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A Unified People

During Hywel's reign at least, the major struggle was never within the borders of Wales, but continued against outside influences, especially English attempts at control. It is for his brilliant codification of Welsh law, however, not for any military prowess, that the Hywel is best remembered. Professor John Davies calls his set of laws among the most splendid creations of the culture of the Welsh. "For it contained proof, he writes, "not only of their identity, but also of their unity, and this is a point not to be overlooked by those who see the whole history of late medieval Wales as one of self-defeating internecine squabbles among minor princes and their offspring."

A systemization of the legal customs which had developed in his country over many centuries, Cyfraith Hywel (The Law of Hywel) was far in advance of much English law; for one thing, it gave significant status to women. For example, they were guaranteed certain property rights, which did not become part of the laws of England for over one thousand years. A woman also 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.

The primitive methods of proving guilt that were practiced in Anglo-Saxon England were also absent from the Law of Hywel. It was enlightened, too, in ways of dealing with execution and theft and in establishing the rights of an illegitimate son to claim his patrimony. 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 of the Cymry. There was one great drawback, however.

Though law as practiced in Wales was a most democratic judicial system, through the law known as Gavelkind, it specified that a father's lands be divided among all his sons, rather than be given intact to the eldest son. This led to unforeseen and tragic results for Wales, as it 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.

Administered throughout much of Wales until the 16th century, Cyfraith Hywel was finally replaced by the provisions of the Act of Union of 1536. In many areas, the Law of Hywel even survived the provisions of the infamous Statute of Rhuddlan of 1284 of Edward I that in many jurisdictions replaced Welsh procedures by English criminal law.

During Good King Hywel's reign, Welsh law and literature were praised throughout Europe. Hywel is known to have visited the Pope in Rome in 928, and coins were struck in Wales bearing his name. In the development of the nation, which he 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 his passing. After his death, the people of Wales once again to find themselves living in minor kingdoms under a succession of rulers vying for power and influence, with only a few notable exceptions.

In order to keep the peace throughout his lands, Hywel had been forced to accept the position of sub-regulus, subservient to King Athelstan of Wessex (left), a king who reigned supreme in all Britain south of Scotland. To many historians, it was this appeasement that led to the reaction manifested itself in the great poem of lament "Armes Prydain." The title of the poem translates as "The Prophecy of Britain" deals with the depiction of an alliance between the Celtic peoples of Britain and Brittany, along 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 -- the Saxons were far too thoroughly established in most of Britain by the beginning of the 10th century, and their powerful rulers had been consolidating their kingdoms.

The Welsh poem was written about the same time as the English "Answer," a boasting account in verse in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the rest of which is entirely in prose) of the Saxon victory at Brunanburgh, a site not yet properly identified, between King Athelstan and the Celtic alliance described in Armes Prydain. It is significant that the Celtic allies described in Armes Prydain are referred to as "Welshmen," yet the people of Wales itself were not ready for such an alliance and, if there were such a battle as Brunanburgh, they were not present.

Despite the great victory of King Athelstan, Wales continued to exist, with or without its Celtic allies. During the time that Wessex had risen to dominance in England, Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, acceding to the throne of Gwynedd in 1039, became overlord of the whole territory of Wales. Through military preparedness, clever alliances and political maneuvering, he was recognized throughout its borders.

Gruffudd's strength was his single-mindedness, perhaps his ruthlessness -- an enormous attribute in an age where the peace of Hywel's reign had been superseded by a century of lawlessness, intertribal warfare, petty princely squabbles and fratricide. In his brief and bloody rule from 1057-63, Gruffudd's fierce determination managed to bring all the kingdoms of Wales together under his control.

Alas, 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. Some say it was betrayal by his own men that led to his defeat by Harold of Wessex in 1063 (Harold himself being killed at Hastings three short years later). Gruffudd's death 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.

Chapter 4: Norman Wales
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