The Full Measure of the Law

Remains of Whitland Abbey

A small town in Carmarthernshire is home to the original Welsh Assembly, which codified the ancient laws of the Britons.

Whitland Abbey, founded in Dyfed in 1140, probably took its name from the white robes worn by its Cistercian monks but a legend grew up that it was named after a hunting lodge built of white sticks by order of Howel, King of Dyfed, in the early tenth century. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII but its name passed on to the town of Whitland, while the legend of the White House survived in the history of Welsh jurisprudence.

Howel (to use the modern form of his name, though a more historically correct form is Hywel) spent the first two decades of the tenth century clustering together the kingdoms of south Wales through a combination of inheritance, marriage and beheadings. In 942, he conquered Gwynedd as well, thus bringing Wales the closest it has ever come to being a single kingdom. His importance was acknowledged by contemporary English kings, whose assemblies he attended and whose suzerainty he appears to have accepted (though this probably had more to do with being realistic about their respective military powers than with proto-unionism). After his death in 950, Howel’s mini-empire would fragment back into its constituent kingdoms but his real legacy was not his conquests but his laws.

During Lent one year, King Howel summoned representatives of the clergy and laity from all over Wales to the White House on the Tav. The assembly spent the whole penitential season in fasting and prayer and at Easter the most learned of them, led by Blegywryd, Archdeacon of Llandaff, codified the laws of Wales. At the King’s command, the laws were copied out into three books, of which one would remain in Dyfed, one in Gwynedd and one with the King wherever he happened to be.

Howel invested the laws with his own authority and pronounced a solemn curse on anyone who should infringe them and upon any judge who accepted office without being thoroughly versed in the content of the three volumes. Finally, a party consisting of the King, his princes, the Archdeacon and the Bishops of Saint David’s, Saint Asaph and Bangor travelled to Rome, where they had Pope Anastasius III confirm that the laws were consistent with Christianity. It was largely for his involvement in codifying the laws that he became known as “Hywel Dda”, Howel the Good.

Just as Howel’s hegemony over Wales would break down after his death, so too his laws would not remain unaltered. Over time, the laws in different areas were changed or updated, developing three distinct redactions, one from Gwynedd and two from south Wales. It is in manuscripts of these variations that the laws survive, though they all include the same preface explaining how Howel organized the original edition and there are sufficient similarities amongst all three to believe that they do indeed derive from a shared original.

Whether or not that original should really be attributed to Howel the Good is unknown. His only recorded pilgrimage to Rome was in 929, fifteen years after the death of Pope Anastasius and three years before Howel conquered Gwynedd. These discrepancies do not inspire confidence in the historical accuracy of the preface, so perhaps the convention at the White House is a legend, an example of the common habit of attributing all that is good in a society to one particularly well remembered hero (there was once a similar fashion for attributing jury trials to the genius of Alfred the Great).

Having said that, the legend does not claim that Howel was the inventor of these laws. He had them written down together in easily accessible format and ironed out their inconsistencies (which later generations would put back in) but their content, or so tradition claims, was far older than his time, dating back to before the Birth of Christ.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, the infamously and joyously untrustworthy author of The History of the Kings of Britain, names, among the rulers of this island from before the Romans came, Dunvallo Molmutius, a Latinization of the Welsh name Dyvnwal Moelmud, “Bald and Silent”. Geoffrey did not invent Dyvnwal, who appears as a name in royal Welsh genealogical manuscripts from the tenth century and one would certainly like to believe that some memory of the pre-historic chiefs of Ancient Britain had survived into Geoffrey’s narrative.

That would be too trusting but, for what little it is worth, Geoffrey’s account is that, at some time in the fifth century B.C., Gorboduc, King of Britain, went senile and his two sons, Ferrex and Porrex, disputed the succession. Porrex ambushed and killed his brother, who was their mother’s favourite, so she and her maidservants hacked Porrex to death in his bed. When Gorboduc died, five men claimed the crown and fought it out between them, until they were all defeated and slain one after another by Dyvnwal, son of the King of Cornwall. Once he had restored order to Britain, Dyvnwal made himself a new crown of gold and issued a code of laws, which Geoffrey facetious claimed was famous among the English in his own day (though this was the first any Englishman had ever heard of them).

Geoffrey’s imaginative example was followed at the turn of the eighteenth century by Edward Williams, poet, antiquarian and fraudster, who fabricated a corpus of faux ancient Welsh triads, including several claiming to represent Dyvnwal’s laws and had them published as authentic historical material. Even in a time of responsible scholarship, the urge for information about Britain’s ancient past was still strong enough to drive some to employ Geoffrey of Monmouth’s dubious research methods.

Not only was Williams’s work dishonest but it was also unnecessary. According to the Gwynedd redaction of the Laws of King Howel, Dyvnwal measured the length of Britain from Caithness to Penwith as nine hundred miles and devised a system of weights and measures that King Howel preserved intact. These, if there were any truth in the myth of Dyvnwal at all, would be the very oldest laws in Britain, dating far back into Celtic times.

To give a sample, Dyvnwal’s system of length measurements went as follows: Three barleycorns in an inch, three inches in a palm, three palms in a foot, three feet in a pace, three paces in a leap, three leaps in a land and a thousand lands in a mile. Therefore, Britain, according to King Dyvnwal, is six hundred and fifty six million, one hundred thousand barleycorns long. As far as the present author is aware, no one has ever tested this.

The English began encroaching on Wales, bottom up, from before the Norman Conquest but the one who usually gets the blame/credit for snuffing out the last of the Britons is Edward I, whose Statue of Rhuddlan in 1284 began the implementation of English common law in Wales. Other aspects of the Laws of Howel were chipped away by successive English statutes, culminating in the Laws in Wales Acts of 1535 and 1542, which gave Wales representation in the English Parliament at the price of being incorporated completely into the English legal system and the abolition of Welsh as an official language.

With these Acts, the last traces of the Laws of Howel the Good were swept away. With the Laws of Howel the Good were also swept away (or so legend would us believe), the weights and measures of King Dyvnwal Moelmud, the last of the laws of the Ancient Britons.


Photo credits: Remains of Whitland Abbey (Philip Halling) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Whitland Abbey (Alan Richards) / CC BY-SA 2.0