A Guide To Welsh Law

The medieval law of Wales, known as Cyfraith Hywel (Laws of Hywel), was the system of law practised in medieval Wales. It was a home-grown system, written by lawyers for lawyers. After the conquest of Wales in 1282, the Statute of Wales in 1284 stated that English criminal law was to be used instead of native Welsh law in the conquered territories, but large parts of Cyfraith Hywel continuted in use until it was abolished by Henry VIII's series of Laws in Wales Acts (also known as 'the Acts of Union') of 1535 and 1542.

The law is attributed to Hywel ap Cadell, or Hywel Dda ('Hywel the Good'), d. 950, and this connection is found in the prologues found in most law manuscripts. While the laws as they survive in the manuscripts today show some archaic elements in part, they cannot be proven to derive from an original created by Hywel ap Cadell.

Cyfraith Hywel is found in a large number of medieval manuscripts, which are lengthy books of law. The manuscripts are divided into subject-specific sections, and these include laws on various topics. Many manuscripts open with the Laws of Court, detailing the king's royal court and his officers, their duties, and their dues. Other topics include the Law of Women, on marriages and unions; Land Law, discussing the tenure of land; Suretyship, contract law; the Three Columns of Law which discuss homicide, theft, and arson; and various other topics including discussions of animals and their uses, farming, and agriculture.

Cyfraith Hywel was a compensation based system, and every person in the law had a life-value. There is a strong sense of mutual responsibility in the laws, and each person had to take responsibility for himself and his property, and pay compensation for any act which would cause injury or loss to another.

This website focuses on the Welsh law manuscripts, of which there are many, most in middle Welsh but some in Latin, and the earliest surviving Welsh manuscripts date to the mid thirteenth century. The textual history of the Welsh law manuscripts is complex, and the texts divide into different 'redactions' or groups of texts showing similarity in order and content. Aneurin Owen studied the laws and published his Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales in 1841. He was responsible for giving the manuscripts their sigla or letter-names, and naming the redactions after regions, but they are now better known as the Cyfnerth, Blegywryd, and Iorwerth redactions. The Latin texts form a separate group.

'By the Authority of the Devil': an introduction to the Welsh laws.

'The Significance of the Law of Hywel' by Dafydd Jenkins