Lawyer who witnessed a nation on trial

Meic Stephens pays tribute to Dafydd Jenkin the major authority on the laws of the tenth Century Hywel Dda

Historians believe that Wales in the Dark Ages consisted of several warring kingdoms each of which had its own system of dispensing laws whose origins lay in some obscure tribal past before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the island of Britain. Tradition has it that these laws were brought together under the aegis of Hywel ap Cadell, or Hywel Dda, the only king of Wales to be given the epithet ‘Good’, at a convention held at Whitland around the middle of the 10th Century in what is now Carmarthenshire. The Law of Hywel Dda, a contemporary of Alfred of Wessex, whom he may have been emulating in this respect, survived the loss of Welsh political independence in 1282 and continued thereafter as what the Act of Union of 1536 called “the sinister usages and customs” of Wales.

Dafydd Jenkins, who died earlier this year aged 101, put together a composite text of the Law of Hywel Dda. A member of the Law Department at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, he traced manuscript sources dating from the early 13th Century and threw a great deal of light on the complexities of their language and meanings. As well as a number of studies in Welsh, he published the fruit of his research in Celtic Law Papers (1973), Hywel Dda and the Law of Medieval Wales (1985), and The Law of Hywel Dda (1986). With Morfydd E. Owen he edited The Welsh Law of Women (1980), a Festschrift presented to Professor Daniel A. Binchy. These books demonstrated that the Laws, as well as being one of the chief glories of medieval Wales, are also valuable material for students of social history, anthropology, jurisprudence and comparative law.

Bringing to this work the expertise of a professional lawyer, Dafydd Jenkins also made a lucid and, for the first time, an accurate translation of the texts which took into account the anonymous authorship and literary quality of medieval legal prose. He also pointed to the implications the Laws had for the literature of the period, notably the Welsh prose masterpiece known as The Mabinogion, through which Arthurian themes were taken into the literatures of Europe.

Above all, he demonstrated that one of the strongest features of the Welsh language was the technical vocabulary of the law-books, in particular its rich store of abstract nouns and its flexible syntax that was capable of expressing the most abstruse matters. The books, many of which were handed down from one generation of lawyers to the next, are an invaluable source of evidence about the nature of medieval Welsh society, from the king’s court through the professional classes of priest, physician and poet to the rules governing marriage, divorce, property, theft and murder. Foremost among the laws were perchentyaeth, based on an ancient principle to do with a man’s responsibilities towards his family, relatives and neighbours, and galanas, setting out the rules of redress for offences against the individual.

Dafydd Jenkins was born in London on St. David’s Day 1911 but brought up by Welsh-speaking parents from Cardiganshire, where he settled in 1938. After attending Merchant Taylors’ School, he read Natural Sciences and Law at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn in 1934 and was practising as a barrister on the South Wales circuit in Carmarthen at the time of ‘the Fire in Llŷn’ two years later.

The act of arson carried out by Saunders Lewis, D. J. Williams and Lewis Valentine, three leaders of the fledgeling Plaid Cymru, at Penrhos, near Pwllheli. It was a protest against the building of an RAF bombing school on the land of Penyberth, a house significant in the history of Welsh Recusancy. All constitutional means of preventing the development, including the unanimous support of all the Welsh MPs and County Councils, had failed. On the night of 8 September 1936 huts and building materials were set alight by the three Nationalists, after which they reported themselves to the police. Their trial at Caernarfon Assizes, at which the jury failed to reach a verdict, and their retrial at the Old Bailey, where they were convicted and sentenced to a term of imprisonment, caused outrage in Wales and was to have a profound and lasting influence on the country’s cultural and political ethos.

Although an active member of Plaid Cymru, Dafydd Jenkins was not directly involved in the incident at Penyberth but wrote an authoritative account of it in Tân yn Llŷn (1937), a book translated into English by Ann Corkett as A Nation on Trial (1998). He also worked unstintingly as Secretary of the National Language Petition of 1938 which, under the chairmanship of William George, Lloyd George’s brother, collected 400,000 signatures in support of a request to the British Government that Welsh be granted a measure of official status in the public life of its own country, a concession that was not wrung from it until 1967.

As a literary journalist between 1936 and 1942 Dafydd Jenkins was closely associated with the brothers Alun and Aneirin Talfan Davies in editing and publishing the magazine Heddiw (‘Today’). Intended to be a Welsh counterpart to English journals such as the New Statesman, the magazine was rather more literary and provided an important platform for writers of the day. It discussed Welsh Nationalism from a left-of-centre point of view and in its editorials took the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Both before and during the world war it devoted a great deal of space to pacifist arguments based on the Catholic concept of ‘the just war’ which was greatly agitating many intellectuals in Wales. Its overall stance was liberal and progressive.

For a while during the 1930s, as the right-wing Saunders Lewis tightened his grip on Plaid Cymru’s policies, Dafydd Jenkins grew ever more uncomfortable. He believed the Party should make a direct approach to Welsh Socialists whom he believed might respond to the case for national self-determination: “Wales cannot be won for Home Rule unless the Socialists of Wales are won over”, he wrote in The Welsh Nationalist. In response he was told (in an unsigned article almost certainly by Lewis) that his description of Party policy as “essentially socialist” was not correct because it was opposed to “centralised bureaucracy”. Nevertheless Jenkins remained a Plaid Cymru member and played an active role in its affairs in both Cardiganshire and nationally after the war when Lewis was replaced by a more democratically minded leader, Gwynfor Evans.

During World War II Dafydd Jenkins, a committed pacifist, registered as a conscientious objector on Christian grounds and was ordered to work on the land, his first experience of farming and his introduction to the tradition of agricultural co-operation which had long been practised in Cardiganshire. He was one of the contributors to a series of pamphlets published by Cymdeithas Heddychwyr Cymru, a Welsh equivalent of the Peace Pledge Union.

In the Parliament for Wales Campaign launched in 1951 on an all-party basis under the chairmanship of Megan Lloyd George, the Liberal MP for Anglesey, Dafydd Jenkins played a prominent part. A quarter of a million people declared themselves in favour of an elected, legislative Parliament. However, the initiative failed, largely because, of the 36 MPs representing constituencies in Wales, only six supported it, of whom five were Labour members in defiance of their Party’s policy, but partly because the British political system cannot be changed by petition alone.

An accomplished writer in both Welsh and English, Dafydd Jenkins won the Prose Medal at the National Eisteddfod in 1946 with a volume of literary criticism and published two books about Denmark and Sweden, where he was a frequent visitor. He also translated some of the stories of Kate Roberts, which appeared in 1946 as A Summer’s Day with a foreword by Storm Jameson. He also contributed a charming monograph on the life and work of D. J. Williams to the Writers of Wales series.

Among his many local initiatives was the creation of Cymdeithas Lyfrau Ceredigion, a book society which specialized in the publication of books of Cardiganshire interest. He was also a keen member of the Welsh Academy, the national association of writers in Wales, and was contributing vigorously to its journal, Taliesin, in his ninetieth year.

Dafydd Jenkins joined the staff of the Law Department at Aberystwyth in 1965 and held a personal Chair in Legal History and Welsh Law from 1975 until his retirement in 1978. For many years he was a leading member of the colloquia on Welsh medieval law held at the constituent Colleges of the University of Wales, and among his colleagues he was generally considered to be the doyen. A somewhat formal, perhaps shy man, without the homelier characteristics of many of his compatriots, he gave generously of his erudition to younger scholars working in the same field and found great satisfaction in their success.

Dafydd Jenkins, barrister and scholar, born London, 1 March 1911; Lecturer in Law at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, 1965-75, Professor of Legal History and Welsh Law, 1975-78 (and Emeritus); married Gwyneth Owen (one son); died Blaenpennal, Ceredigion, 5 May 2012.

Meic Stephens is a poet, author, Professor Emeritus, and journalist whose autobiography, Cofnodion, has been published this month. This obituary appeared originally in The Independent.

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