The Growth of Law in Medieval Wales, c.1100-c.1500

This is the second blog from Dr Roberts where she discusses her book The Growth of Law in Medieval Wales, c.1100-c.1500, published this month. In this blog Dr Roberts explores the study of Welsh laws in more detail and the work others have done in the field. Find the author’s first blog here.

My latest study of the Welsh lawtexts is, in many ways, a tribute to Aneurin Owen (1792-1851), the author of The Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales (Record Commission, 1841), the standard work on the Welsh laws for many years. While some aspects of Ancient Laws are problematic – mainly the division of the material and editorial decisions – the basic text still has its uses, and I have nothing but praise for Aneurin Owen’s incredible work, published 181 years ago.

The Welsh lawtexts are well-known for being a complicated field of study, with ‘one of the most com­plicated textual traditions known to any field of study’, according to Robin Chapman Stacey, herself a leading expert in the field.[1] There are 42 extant lengthy medieval manuscripts of the laws, with 40 of them being unique texts, not copies of other manuscripts. Owen himself struggled with his task and described the work as ‘a rather laborious and harassing occupation’. Aneurin Owen was the only son of the well-known Welsh antiquary and textual scholar William Owen Pughe, and as well as working on the Welsh laws and other texts, Aneurin Owen farmed in Denbighshire, and held posts such as assistant tithe commissioner, and commissioner for the enclosure of commonable lands. He was also heavily involved in the National Eisteddfod, including examining Welsh orthography. Impressive, for a man who only attended school for a short while and was mainly educated at home by his father, and only apparently started speaking Welsh fluently at the age of 27. 

It seems that his father was responsible for securing the work on the Ancient Laws for Aneurin and was heavily involved in the project. William Owen Pughe inherited the papers of John Humphreys Parry, a London Welshman and scholar like himself, but one who suffered financial difficulties and who died young following a brawl near the Prince of Wales tavern in Pentonville. This meant that there was a vacancy in the work of editing Welsh texts for a Record Commission project.

Ancient Laws, however, was not the first edition of the Welsh laws. That honour goes to Leges Wallicae in 1730, by William Wotton and Moses Williams. The latter was a Welsh cleric and scholar, but the work on the laws was started by William Wotton, and suggested by William Wake (Bishop of Lincoln, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1716) as a rehabilitation project for Wotton. Wotton (1666-1727) was a child prodigy and talented linguist, destined for a stellar career in the church. He had a living at Milton Keynes, but he had weaknesses: he was described as ‘a most excellent preacher, but a drunken whoring soul’. Following being caught by a cleric in a brothel in London – he explained his presence there as an attempt to pawn goods to pay his considerable debts – Wotton along with his wife and daughter flitted to Carmarthen, where he lived in disguise as Dr Edwards. He laboured on the Welsh laws there, but he suffered for his art – his health deteriorated, he was widowed, and he lost his daughter’s dowry in the South Sea Bubble: Leges Wallicae was published posthumously for Wotton, with his son-in-law assisting Moses Williams in getting the work to press.         

On the whole, the more recent editors of the Welsh laws have escaped the serious personal problems of the earliest editors, although mention should be made of the well-known politician J. Enoch Powell. Another talented linguist and scholar and child prodigy, a little-known fact is that Powell learnt middle Welsh in order to edit a Welsh law manuscript at Trinity College, Cambridge, and published it with Stephen J. Williams as Llyfr Blegywryd (1942), before leaving academia for politics.

Aneurin Owen succeeded in publishing Ancient Laws and keeping his reputation intact. He was married to Jane, and they had several children: William, named after his grandfather; Elen; Myvanwy; Ifor; Ithel; Meilir, and Iestyn who died as a baby. Unlike the children born before Pughe’s death, who were all given heroic Welsh names, their last two daughters were called Selina and Evadne. This may be a small act of rebellion as Aneurin had finally broken free of his father’s influence! Aneurin Owen died in 1851, a few days short of his 59th birthday.  

[For an excellent account of the highly entertaining tale of Wotton’s work on the Welsh laws and the creation of Leges Wallicae, see David Stoker, ‘William Wotton’s Exile and Redemption: An Account of the Genesis and Publication of Leges Wallicae, Welsh Book Studies 7, 7–106.]


[1] Robin Chapman Stacey, The Road to Judgment: From Custom to Court in Medieval Ireland and Wales (Philadelphia, 1994), 17.

This guest post was written by Sara Elin Roberts; a historian specialising in the law, literature and culture of Wales and the March from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. She has been working on medieval Welsh lawbooks for more than two decades.

The Growth of Law in Medieval Wales, c.1100-c.1500
By Sara Elin Roberts
9781783277261, Hardcover, £45.50/$64.35

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