The grandson of Rhodri Mawr – the first of the rulers of Cymru to bring the many princedoms together to form one nation – Hywel Dda continued his grandfather’s effort with less bloodshed. One of his political decisions which brought the southern region within his control was to marry Elen, the daughter of the king of Penfro, bringing the whole of southwestern Cymru under his control.
The earliest coin of a king in Cymru bore the legend: Hywel Rex. He is best known as the ruler responsible for the earliest written code of Welsh laws. The Laws of Hywel Dda were first believed to have been codified during the reign of this powerful man. According to the historian, J. Goronwy Edwards, in his contribution to Wales Through the Ages, four points appear in the manuscripts containing these laws: 1) Hywel brought together all of the important clerics of the time and six men from each of the sub-divisions of the country – generally assumed to be in Arberth, near Caerfyrddin, where he held his court (llys); 2) this senedd studied and discussed all of the existing laws for 40 days; 3) changes and improvements were made; 4) the revised code of law was set in writing to be the authority throughout the country. Additional points appear in later manuscripts but these are not as well authenticated.
Among The Laws of Hywel Dda are eight that govern marriage. Many of these are in line with Celtic laws existing also in Iwerddon (Ireland). I have drawn on the laws governing women as background for my novel, Traitor’s Daughter, in which Heledd Bannawg is denied her right to wed as punishment for her father’s crimes.
Although women in Celtic societies enjoyed more freedom and independence than their Saxon sisters – they weren’t required to throw themselves on the funeral pyre of their mate nor condemned to death because they were raped – their testimony was not accepted in a court of law. They could own and distribute their own property; divorce was by mutual consent. “A woman is free to go where she likes, for there is no bondage for her save her amobr.”
Among Hywel’s other achievements were his treaties and alliances with his Saxon neighbors to the east. Throughout his reign, this kept Cymru from foreign domination. Like his grandfather, Rhodri Mawr, Hywel’s vision for his country was unification and constructive peace, placing Cymru on the international stage.
Hywel Dda was the last of the rulers of Cymru to bring so much of the country together. With his death, jealousies and petty squabbles left a legacy that opened the door for the Normans in the 11th Century and despite their origins, the Tudors of Penfro were the lasting stroke that drove Cymru into a binding association. However, no one among the Cymry signed the so-called “Act of Union” of the 16thC and its validity is therefore disputed.