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Hywel Dda was the first in a long line of distinguished Welshmen to shape our social rules.Helen Morgan from Abergavenny Local History Society reports


The garden at Whitland which celebrates Hywel Dda’s laws

The garden at Whitland which celebrates Hywel Dda’s laws

Codes of behaviour and entitlement existed in Britain before the Romans, but it was Hywel Dda, King of Wales, who organised them into a coherent legal system. In the early 10th century,  he summoned representatives from across his kingdom to an assembly at Hendy Gwyn (Whitland) in Dyfed and divided the law into six separate divisions: family and kinship; crime; female freedoms; contracts; king’s status and property.

Most notably, marriage was an agreement; not  a holy sacrament. Divorce was permitted by common consent and Hywel is renowned for his enlightened attitude to women. Certainly they were free to come and go, but only men could inherit and sons were accepted into the family regardless of whether they were born in or out of wedlock — provided the father acknowledged him as his.

Lord Atkin of Aberdovey

Lord Atkin of Aberdovey

Two centuries later the Normans had spread across Britain, bringing their own laws. Along the border a pick-and-choose system arose depending on which suited the Marcher lords. Several centuries after that, the Welsh started heading to the Royal courts in London following Henry VII’s victory at Bosworth in 1485. Some became senior clerics, others were senior lawyers, advisers and diplomats. Thomas Cromwell’s mother, it seems, was a Welsh-speaking Williams. Blanche Parry, from Welsh-speaking Herefordshire, arrived at Henry VIII’s court with her aunt Lady Troy who was given the job of looking after the young children Edward and Elizabeth. In 1571, Huw Price from Brecon persuaded Queen  Elizabeth to found Jesus College, Oxford, primarily to educate young Welshmen to become lawyers and clergymen. Its alumni include Sir David William Evans, a Welsh rugby Blue who earned six caps (1889-91) before becoming director and legal adviser of the King Edward VII National Association for the Prevention and Treatment of Tuberculosis.

James Atkin, of Aberdovey, went to Christ Church in Brecon but won a scholarship to Magdalen rather than Jesus College. As a judge, he became known for his egalitarianism and distaste for sanctimonious posturing. In 1932 his judgment concerning the alleged ill effects from a bottle of ginger beer containing a dead snail established the modern law of negligence. Then there was the case when he addressed the court, quoting Humpty Dumpty.

Thomas Watkin’s talk of People and Places in Welsh legal history at the Borough Theatre on 30th April starts at 7.30pm. Non-members are welcome to join on the night.

Helen Morgan

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