Church in Wales Canon Law: Cyfraith Hywel

On 10 July, it was reported that with the aid of the Heritage Lottery Funding, the Boston Medieval Manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda had been purchased by the National Library of Wales for £541,250.  Medieval Wales had its own code of law, Cyfraith Hywel, compiled by six men summoned by Hywel Dda, (Hywel (or Howell) the Good), who lived from about 880 to 950.  The Laws of Hywel Dda is the term used to describe this 10th century codification, of which the remaining 30 texts written in Latin and Welsh date from the 13th to 16th centuries.

The historical importance of the Boston Manuscript is that it is an early example, written in medieval Welsh and is likely to have been used by an itinerant judge in South Wales in the 14th century.  The National Library of Wales (NLW) notes:

‘Unlike most other Welsh medieval manuscripts, the Boston Manuscript has handwritten additions demonstrating its use as a working law text. It is much closer to the reality and practice of the law at the time . . . .’

It is believed to have been taken to America by Welsh settlers in the 1700s and donted to the Massachusetts Historical Society in the early 19th century.


Present differences in the law relating to the Church In Wales have been discussed in earlier posts, here and here, but the Medieval Welsh legislation including Laws of Hywel Dda  ceased to be effective following the ‘Act of Union’ – Laws in Wales Act 1535 (27 Henry VIII c.26) and Laws in Wales Act 1542 (34 & 35 Henry VIII c. 26).

In Essays in Canon Law: A Study of the Law of the Church in Wales, Ed. Norman Doe, (1992, University of Wales Press, Cardiff), Enid Roberts notes:

‘All versions [of the Laws of Hywel Dda] are a medley collection, consisting of a few customs that could have been obsolete even in Hywel’s time, some tenth-century practices, matters that had accumulated during the succeeding two or three centuries, and innovations possible from the actual date of writing’. 

Rather than the reported extracts of the law, [marriage an agreement, not a sacrament; divorce permitted by common consent; illegitimate children rights equal to legitimate sons and daughters], parallels of which may be found elsewhere, the interest in the Boston Manuscript is the appended glosses and their possible interpretation of these disparate provisions for practical application.

The manuscript will be available for public viewing from 23 July to 10 August, following which it will be rebound and digitised.  The NLW Press Release states:

‘This process should be complete by the end of 2012. The MSS will then be kept at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, alongside other manuscripts of its time and its facsimile and digital surrogates will be made wildly [?] available.’