Hywel the Good

By 950 A.D., Dinefwr was the principal court from which Hywel Dda, "The Good," ruled a large part of Wales including the southwest area known as Deheubarth. His great achievement was to create the country's first uniform legal system. Hywel shared with his brothers lands in Ceredigon and Ystrad Tywi after the death of their father, Cadell, about 909. He united their inheritance in 920, and acquired Gwynedd after the death of Idwal Foel in 942. He married Elen, daughter of Llywarch of Dyfed, and on Llywarch's death in 904 he took over the southern kingdom. In the perspective of the Dark Ages he was a powerful prince, and it may be that later generations borrowed his personal authority to buttress their own power.

Like his grandfather, Rhodri the Great, Hywel was given an epithet by a later generation. He became known as Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good), although it would be wrong to consider that goodness to be innocent and unblemished. In the age of Hywel, the essential attribute of a state builder was ruthlessness, an attribute which Hywel possessed, if it is true that it was he who ordered the killing of Llywarch of Dyfed, as some have claimed.

Although contemporary evidence is lacking, there is no reason to reject the tradition that Hywel was responsible for some of the consolidation of the Laws of Wales. Among Hywel's contemporaries there were rulers who won fame as law-givers. The law was Hywel's law, cyfraith Hywel; his name gave to the law an authority comparable with that given to the laws of Mercia by King Offa or the laws of Wessex (and a larger area of England) by King Alfred. He almost certainly knew of them; he was a regular visitor to the English court and in 928, when in the flower of his manhood, he went on pilgrimage to Rome. In later centuries it was claimed that he took copies of his laws to Rome, where they were blessed by the Pope. Tradition also provided details of the circumstances under which the laws were compiled and promulgated.

It was probably the need to give cohesion to his different territories that prompted Hywel to codify the law. He was also successful in defending his territories, for there is no record that they were ravaged by the Vikings during his reign. Neither were they attacked by the English. Hywel adhered to the close relationship with England initiated by his father-in-law, Llywarch of Dyfed, yet it is unlikely that he relished the diminution in status and the heavy demands for tribute which resulted from his association with the kingdom of England. He recognized the facts of power - the power which in his lifetime extinguished the Brythonic kingdom of Cornwall and which brought about the death of his cousin, Idwal of Gwynedd.

Hywel's creation of the kingdom of Deheubarth, survived his death. In 950 it passed to his son Owain. Gwynedd and Powys returned to the line of Idwal ap Anarawd while Glamorgan continued to be subject to its own kings. Although the union between Gwynedd, Powys and Deheubarth was broken, Wales had only three kingdoms after 950, compared with over twice that number two centuries earlier.


Hywel Dda (English: Hywel the Good) or Hywel ap Cadell (c.880 – 950) was a King of Deheubarth who eventually came to rule most of Wales. He became the sole king of Seisyllwg in 920 and shortly thereafter established Deheubarth, and proceeded to gain control over the entire country from Prestatyn to Pembroke. As a descendant of Rhodri Mawr through his father Cadell, Hywel was a member of the Dinefwr branch of the dynasty. He was recorded as King of the Britons in the Annales Cambriae and the Annals of Ulster.

Hywel is highly esteemed among other medieval Welsh rulers. His name is particularly linked with the codification of traditional Welsh law, which were thenceforth known as the Laws of Hywel Dda. The latter part of his name (Dda, lit. “Good”) refers to the fact that his laws were just and good. The historian Dafydd Jenkins sees in them compassion rather than punishment, plenty of common sense and recognition of the rights of women. Hywel Dda was a well-educated man even by modern standards, having a good knowledge of Welsh, Latin, and English.

The office building and original home of the National Assembly for Wales is named Tŷ Hywel (“Hywel House” or “Hywel's House”) in honour of Hywel Dda. The original Assembly chamber, now known as Siambr Hywel (“Hywel's Chamber”), is used for educational courses and for children and young people's debates.

Hywel was born around 880, the son of King Cadell of Seisyllwg. He had a brother, Clydog, who was probably the younger of the two. Hywel was later reputed to have married Elen, the supposed heiress of King Llywarch of Dyfed, which connection was subsequently used to justify his family's reign over that kingdom.

Hywel's father Cadell had been installed as King of Seisyllwg by his father, Rhodri the Great of Gwynedd, following the drowning of the last king in the traditional line, Gwgon, in 872. After Gwgon's death, Rhodri, husband to the dead king's sister Angharad, became steward of his kingdom. This gave Rhodri no standing to claim the kingship of Seisyllwg himself, but he was able to install his son Cadell as a subject king. Cadell died around 911, and his lands in Seisyllwg appears to have been divided between his two sons Hywel and Clydog.

Hywel probably already controlled Dyfed by the time he assumed his father's lands in Ceredigion. No king is recorded after the death of Llywarch in 904, and Hywel's marriage to Llywarch's only surviving heir probably ensured that the kingdom came into his hands. Hywel and Clydog seem to have ruled Seisyllwg together following their father's death and jointly submitted to Edward the Elder of England in 918.[5] However, Clydog died in 920, evidently leaving the whole realm to Hywel. Hywel soon joined Seisyllwg and Dyfed into a single realm known as Deheubarth.[5] This became the first significant event of his reign.

In 928 Hywel made a pilgrimage to Rome, becoming the first Welsh prince to undertake such a trip and return. Upon his return he forged very close relations with Athelstan of England. From the outset Athelstan's intention was to secure the submission of all other kings in Britain; unusually, Hywel embraced submission to England and used it to his advantage whenever possible. Later in his reign, he was able to leverage his close association with Athelstan and the English crown to great effect in his ambitions within Wales.

In 942 Hywel's cousin Idwal Foel, King of Gwynedd, determined to cast off English overlordship and took up arms against the new English king, Edmund. Idwal and his brother Elisedd were both killed in battle against Edwin's forces. By normal custom Idwal's crown should have passed to his sons, but Hywel intervened. He sent Iago and Ieuaf into exile and established himself as ruler over Gwynedd, which also likely placed him in control of the Kingdom of Powys, which was under the authority of Gwynedd. As such Hywel became king of nearly all of Wales except for Morgannwg and Gwent in the south.

Hywel's reign was a violent one, but he achieved an understanding with Athelstan of England whereby Athelstan and Hywel ruled part of Wales jointly. Such was the relationship between the neighbouring countries that Hywel was able to use Athelstan's mint at Chester to produce his own silver pennies.

Following Hywel's death, his kingdom was soon split into three. Gwynedd was reclaimed by the sons of Idwal Foel, while Deheubarth was divided between Hywel's sons.

Hywel’s name is associated with the laws of Medieval wales, which are commonly known as the Laws of Hywel Dda (Welsh: Cyfraith Hywel). None of the law manuscripts can be dated to Hywel’s time, but Hywel’s name is mentioned in the prologues to the laws. These describe how Hywel gathered expert lawyers and priests from each commote in Wales together in Tŷ Gwyn ar Daf (which is thought to have been close to Whitland, Carmarthenshire) in order to revise and codify the Laws of Wales. The story in the prologues lengthens with time, with more details in the later versions of the prologue. It seems highly unlikely that this meeting actually took place, with the purpose of the prologues being to emphasize the royal and Christian origin and background to the laws, and that in the face of criticism of the laws from outside Wales especially during John Peckham’s period as Archbishop of Canterbury. Nevertheless, his name continued to be associated with Welsh law which remained in active use throughout Wales until the appointed date of implementation of the Laws in Wales Acts 1535–1542 of Henry VIII of England who asserted his royal descent by blood-line from Rhodri Mawr via Hywel Dda.

Opinions vary as to the motives for Hywel's close association with the court of Athelstan. J.E. Lloyd claimed Hywel was an admirer of Wessex, while D.P. Kirby suggests that it may have been the action of a pragmatist who recognized the realities of power in mid-10th century Britain. It is notable that he gave one of his sons an Anglo-Saxon name, Edwin. His policies with regard to England were evidently not to the taste of all his subjects. Athelstan and Hywel had similar interests. They both developed a coinage; they both had a kingdom; both were attributed a Law book. Hywel was aware of the greater power and acceded to it.

A Welsh language poem entitled Armes Prydein, considered by Sir Ifor Williams to have been written in Deheubarth during Hywel's reign, called for the Welsh to join a confederation of all the non-English peoples of Britain and Ireland to fight the Saxons. The poem may be linked to the alliance of Norse and Celtic kingdoms which challenged Athelstan at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937. No Welsh forces joined this alliance, and this may well have been because of the influence of Hywel. On the other hand, neither did he send troops to support Athelstan.


Source: Wikipedia


Limited Edition print

Statue of Hywel Dda
at Cardiff City Hall


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