Hywel Dda’s laws come home

Maredudd ap Huw explains why the National Library paid £541,250 for a piece of paper more than 600 years old

The sale of the ‘Boston manuscript’ of the Laws of Hywel Dda for £541,250 at Sotheby’s last month caused a stir in the usually sedate world of medieval Welsh history. It was bought by the National Library of Wales with a grant of £467,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Why did we buy it?

Welsh medieval manuscripts rarely appear on the open market, since most are now in public collections, mostly in the National Library of Wales. The importance of this manuscript lies in its context as one of a small number of working legal textbooks to have survived from 14th Century Wales.

It is a small parchment volume, written in Welsh, the main part dating from around 1350-1400. The standard of the script suggests that the manuscript is an ecclesiastical product. Its size and date also suggests that the volume would have been used for reference by an itinerant judge as he dispensed justice in a part of Wales. Since the text displays the so-called ‘Blegywryd form’ of the Welsh laws, it may be surmised that the manuscript derives from southern Wales, possibly from Dyfed. One scholar has suggested that the text and script show features associated with the scriptorium of Strata Florida, Ceredigion, which was also producing treasures such as the White Book of Rhydderch and the Hendregadredd Manuscript during the same century.

‘The Laws of Hywel Dda’ is a traditional term used for the native Welsh laws which survive in some 80 Welsh and Latin manuscripts of the period between the 13th and 18th Centuries. Named after the 10th Century King Hywel the Good, who traditionally convened a conference at Whitland to codify the Welsh laws, existing manuscripts attest to the active and organic use of Welsh laws in Wales between the 13th Century and Henry VIII’s Acts of Union. Although the Statute of Rhuddlan of 1284 imposed English criminal law on Wales, the Welsh laws continued to be used for civil cases in many areas until the annexation of Wales to England in 1536. Every law manuscript of this period is unique, attesting to everyday usage and adaptation in Welsh law courts.

The significance of acquiring the manuscript for the nation by the National Library is manifold. Readers of ClickonWales will be familiar with the new-found interest in the native Welsh laws, recently rekindled by First Minister Carwyn Jones’s announcement at a Legal Wales Conference in October 2011 that the Welsh Government were considering plans for a separate Welsh jurisdiction, distinct from England. The main office building of the National Assembly for Wales, Tŷ Hywel, is also named after the codifier of these native Welsh laws.

The vibrant field of Welsh legal history is served by two academic societies, members of whom would utilise this new resource as the basis of research and publication. They are the  Welsh Legal History Society and Seminar Cyfraith Hywel (The Laws of Hywel Seminar), the latter meeting twice a year in Aberystwyth to discuss matters relating to medieval Welsh law. Research theses on Welsh legal texts have been produced during recent years, together with monographs and published papers.

The National Library has already digitised two illustrated examples of Welsh laws, and they are freely available on its Digital Mirror, namely the 13th Century Latin text known as Peniarth MS 28, and the 14th Century Welsh text known as NLW MS 20143A.

The Library’s Education Service also makes extensive use of a fine facsimile of the above-mentioned Peniarth MS 28 as a teaching resource for outreach activities in primary and secondary schools all over Wales, one example being workshops held at Ysgol Morgan Llwyd, Wrexham in the first half of October, 2010, see here and here.

The manuscript will be exhibited at the National Library until 31 August. After this short display the Library will immediately begin conservation work as the Boston manuscript is not in perfect condition. Many leaves, and at least one complete gathering, were lost before the volume was re-bound in the USA during the 19th Century. The damage was largely done in the 18th or early 19th Centuries, probably just before, during or shortly after its transportation across the Atlantic. Fortunately, the original complete manuscript was copied by Moses Williams at the beginning of the 18th Century, and his copy (NLW Llansteffan MS 75) is also now held at the National Library of Wales.

Maredudd ap Huw is Manuscript Librarian at the National Library of Wales.

6 thoughts on “Hywel Dda’s laws come home

  1. Fantastic. Well done, National Library. And thank you for explaining the different time periods when our criminal and civil laws were still extant. I didn’t know of that difference. Perhaps Maredudd could advise on some good descriptive publications about our national laws? And was this exciting and important acquistion ever reported in the UK media, or elsewhere for that matter?

  2. Many congratulations to the National Library. We now need a massive educational programme, and not just in schools, to spread the word about Hywel Dda’s achievements. It would also be good to get some legal people from the mainland to view the manuscript. Then we may get media coverage from Amsterdam to Zurich.

  3. Fantastic – an engaging read Maredudd, thanks for providing links to the Welsh Legal History Society etc. Will try to get up to Aberystwyth to view before end of August.

    I too would like to know about any publications relating to Welsh Laws in the past. How would this book have survived after annexation in 1536? Would the new authorities be keen to get rid of any traces of the old Welsh laws, or would they have been a bit more lenient?

    (As far as reporting in the UK media, I think I recall a good article about it on Radio 4’s Today programme a few weeks back)

  4. Well done NLW!

    I would appreciate hearing more from Maredudd ap Huw about the travels of the Boston document. One source i read states that it was taken to the United States early in the 19th century before it came into the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Clearly someone cared enough about the book and its contents to keep it securely and to bequeath if to an august organization in Boston.

    As to the official fate of Welsh laws following the Acts of Union, I suspect that is was a case of file and forget.

  5. Where will you find good reliable information in English on the Welsh Laws? I would start with Thomas Charles-Edwards’ short volume in the Writers of Wales series, entitled The Welsh Laws (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1989), before moving on to Dafydd Jenkins’ volume in the Welsh Classics series, entitled Hywel Dda – The Law (Llandysul: Gwasg Gomer, 2000).
    After the Laws of Union, which made native Welsh law obsolete, texts became valued by a new generation of antiquaries: their practical usefulness as legal textbooks was replaced by their value as curious documents of Welsh history. We owe their survival to collectors such as Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt, and in the case of the Boston Manuscript, to William Phillips of Brecon.
    Until the end of August, you will be able to view the manuscript in the National Library’s Hengwrt gallery: the volume will then be the subject of a substantial programme of conservation, digitisation and analysis.

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