6: The Laws of Howel
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The two ideas which ruled Wales were—the love of order and the love
of independence. The danger of the first is oppression; the dangers
of the other are anarchy and weakness. Wales was sometimes united,
under a Maelgwn or a Rhodri, and the princes obeyed them; oftener,
perhaps, the princes of the various parts ruled in their own way.
The internal life of Wales is best seen in the laws of Howel the
Good. Howel was the grandson of Rhodri; and, about 950, he called
four men from each district to Hendy Gwyn (Whitland) to state the
laws of the country. Twelve of the wisest put the law together; and
the most learned scribe in Wales wrote it.
It was thought that there should be one king over the whole people,
but it was very rarely that every part of Wales obeyed one king. The
country was divided into smaller kingdoms. In many ways Gwynedd was
the most powerful. It was very easy to defend; for it was made up of
the island of Mon (Anglesey), the promontory of Lleyn, and the
mountain mass of Snowdon. Its steep side was thus towards England,
and its cornlands and pastures on the further side. It was also the
home of the family of Cunedda, from Maelgwn to the last Llywelyn.
Powys was the Berwyn country. Ceredigion was the western slope of
the Plinlimmon range; the eastern slopes had many smaller, but very
warlike, districts. Deheubarth contained the pleasant glades and
great forests of the Towy country. Dyved was the peninsula to the
west; the southern slopes of the Beacons were Morgannwg and Gwent.
Howel the Good found that the laws of the various parts differed in
details, and he gave different versions to the north, the south-west,
and the south-east. But the law and life of the whole people, if we
only look at important features, are one. Several commotes made a
cantrev, many cantrevs made a kingdom, many kingdoms made Wales.
In each commote there were two kinds of people—the free or high-
born, and the low-born or serfs. These may have been the conquering
Celt and the conquered Iberian. It was very difficult for those in
the lower class to rise to the higher; but, after passing through the
storms of a thousand years, the old dark line of separation was quite
lost sight of.
The free family lived in a great house—in the hendre ("old
homestead") in winter, and in the mountain havoty ("summer house") in
summer. The sides of the house were made of giant forest trees,
their boughs meeting at the top and supporting the roof tree. The
fire burnt in the middle of the hall. Round the walls the family
beds were arranged. The family was governed by the head of the
household (penteulu), whose word was law.
The highest family in the land was that of the king. In his hall all
took their own places, his chief of the household, his priest, his
steward, his falconer, his judge, his bard, his chief huntsman, his
mediciner, and others. The chief royal residences were Aberffraw in
Mon, Mathraval in Powys, and Dynevor in Deheubarth.
Old Welsh law was very unlike the law we obey now. I cannot tell you
much about it in a short book like this, but it is worth noticing
that it was very humane. We do not get in it the savage and
vindictive punishments we get in some laws. I give you some extracts
from the old laws of the Welsh.
The king was to be honoured. According to the laws of Gwynedd, if
any one did violence in his presence he had to pay a great fine—a
hundred cows, and a white bull with red ears, for every cantrev the
king ruled; a rod of gold as long as the king himself, and as thick
as his little finger; and a plate of gold, as broad as the king's
face, and as thick as a ploughman's nail.
The judge, whether of the king's court or of the courts of his
subjects, was to be learned, just, and wise. Thus, according to the
laws of Dyved, was an inexperienced judge to be prepared for his
great office; he was to remain in the court in the king's company, to
listen to the pleas of judges who came from the country, to learn the
laws and customs that were in force, especially the three main
divisions of law, and the value of all tame animals, and of all wild
beasts and birds that were of use to men. He was to listen
especially to the difficult cases that were brought to the court, to
be solved by the wisdom of the king. When he had lived thus for a
year, he was to be brought to the church by the chaplain; and there,
over the relics and before the altar, he swore, in the presence of
the great officers of the king's court, that he would never knowingly
do injustice, for money or love or hate. He is then brought to the
king, and the officers tell the king that he has taken the solemn
oath. Then the king accepts him as a judge, and gives him his place.
When he leaves, the king gives him a golden chessboard, and the queen
gold rings, and these he is never to part with.
I will tell you about one other officer—the falconer. Falconry was
the favourite pastime of the kings and nobles of the time; indeed,
everybody found it very exciting to watch the long struggle in the
air between the trained falcon and its prey, as each bird tried every
skill of wing and talon that it knew. The falconer was to drink very
sparingly in the king's hall, for fear the falcons might suffer; and
his lodging was to be in the king's barn, not in the king's hall,
lest the smoke from the great fire-place should dim the falcon's
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