Inventing a Seventh-Century Welsh Court

Or: Playing fast and Loose with the Laws of Court of Hywel Dda.

Hywel Dda (the Good) lived from 880-950 and the laws associated with his name were presumably written some time in the first half of the tenth century. However, the earliest versions of the laws that have survived date from the mid- to late thirteenth century. These laws are divided into two broad groupings, the Laws of Court and the Laws of the Land. (For a full text in translation see AKA Mary Jones, Celtic Literature Collective: http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/laws_hywel_dda.html )

The Laws of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good)

This blog is concerned with the Laws of Court. The Court in question is not a legal court (although it could be that), but rather two other things that are called court in English: both the king and his closest advisers/companions (courtiers) and the place where these people stay – the physical buildings. Both in Welsh are called the llys.

In 2000, the University of Wales Press published The Welsh King and his Court. This is a marvelous collection of information on the Laws of Court of Hywel Dda, edited by T.M. Charles-Edwards, Morfydd E. Owen and Paul Russell. It includes full translations of two versions of the Laws of Court, plus 20 or so essays by various scholars on aspects of the laws as they related to the various officers of the court: the captain of the warband, the court priest, chief huntsman and so on.

The basic assumption of virtually all of these essays is that the laws as we have them do not tell us about the Welsh courts in the time of Hywel Dda, but rather that they tell us about the Welsh courts in the 12th and 13th centuries. Nothing daunted, I am trying to put together at least a basic structure for the Welsh courts of the seventh century.

The multiple kingdoms of medieval Wales

The multiple kingdoms of medieval Wales

The book that I am currently writing (Sacrifice) is set in 635. Hywel Dda died in 950, 315 years later. Even this is a huge gap and we would expect enormous change during that period. But if the version of Hywel Dda’s laws that we have, actually mainly relates to the period 1150-1250 (very roughly), then we have a gap of 500 to 600 years. This would be the equivalent of trying to reconstruct conditions in 1500 or earlier from conditions now. Put like that, it sounds silly. But is it? Or can I glean at least some helpful information relevant to the seventh century from the Laws of Court of Hywel Dda?

Firstly, there are a few basic facts about the Welsh courts which I think are helpful in painting a picture. The courts were itinerant, even in the 13th century and certainly in the 7th. The basic logistics of food transport (not to mention the need to have access to the king for justice), meant that the king and his court traveled around the kingdom eating the local produce owed to them and supplementing that with the proceeds of hunting. Hunting was both entertainment and a source of food for members of the nobility and royal families throughout the medieval period, throughout Europe, although the food side of things was probably more important in the earlier centuries.

(For a medieval deerpark in north Wales see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-north-west-wales-23458968

Secondly, and more specific to Wales, the 13th century court seems to have had a set of buildings, a Llys, in each commote of the kingdom. (Medieval Wales was divided into Cantrefs – sort of like counties – and each cantref was divided into two or more commotes).

The Cantrefs of Medieval Wales

The Cantrefs of Medieval Wales

The Commotes of Medieval Wales

The Commotes of Medieval Wales

The buildings of the llys were normally constructed of timber, rather than stone and the range of buildings seems to have been fairly standard. At the core were a rectangular timber hall of cruck construction, with three pairs of crucks, and a separate chamber, where the king and queen slept. (For a recently discovered medieval cruck-framed building in Wales see: http://heritageofwalesnews.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/plas-tirion-old-house-yields-up-its) This basic idea would seem to be reasonable to project back to the seventh century. However, various versions of the laws of court add other buildings to the list, which may or may not have been a feature of every llys and may or may not have existed in earlier centuries. They include a foodhouse, stable, beer-house, barn, kiln, latrine, dormitory, kitchen, chapel, separate chamber for the queen, mead-cellar, gaol, gatehouse, bake-house, wash-house and smithy. All of these appear to have been separate buildings and while I will feel free to decide which structures from this list are a feature of any particular llys in my seventh-century story, it is quite clear that we are dealing with a collection of timber buildings within an enclosure with a gate and not a large building with rooms, let alone a castle.

Thirdly, the courts were places for public display, especially at the three major feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. The hall was a place for feasting, the giving of gifts and the display of hierarchy and ritual, whether in dress, or seating arrangements, or who got what sort of food and drink. All of this, I would suggest, is likely to have been as important in the seventh century as in the thirteenth.

The Laws of Court are justly famous for the listing of court officials and their various perquisites, but it is most unlikely that all of them (or their perks) would have been present in a seventh-century court. Their almost ritual number seems to have been 24, or perhaps 12 + 12, and they included the leader of the king’s warband, a steward, a chief huntsman, grooms, bards, a medic, a priest, a judge, a chamberlain and so on. Perhaps there is a hint as to which of the 24 officials date back to before the time of Hywel Dda in a very interesting exchange of clothing. The king was responsible for giving all the court officials outer woolen garments and the queen was responsible for giving them under linen garments but at the three festivals of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, the following ritual was enacted:

The King gave clothes to the Penteulu (the head of his warband)

The Penteulu gave clothes to the Steward

The Steward gave clothes to the Bard

The Bard gave clothes to the Doorkeeper

I don’t know; I am just guessing, but perhaps there is a clue here to the oldest court officials, the core of the court of even the most minor early-medieval Welsh king? A Penteulu in charge of his warband; a steward in charge of his household; a bard to sing about and to the king and the warband, keeper of stories, maker of myths; and a doorkeeper to regulate who could and who could not enter the court.

These are, I have decided, the officials that my seventh-century Welsh chieftains will all have, while the grander among them, including those who call themselves ‘king’, will also have a huntsman, a groom, a priest, a judge and a medic. If I want to make the number up to 12, I would go further down the 13th century lists of 24 and add a cook, a mead-brewer and a smith.

Appendix: An (amalgamated) list of Court Officers compiled from the various versions of the Welsh Laws of Court from Dafydd Jenkins, ‘Prolegomena to the Laws of the Court’, pp. 15-28 of The Welsh King and His Court.

1: Penteulu (Captain of Household); 2: Offeiriad (Priest of Household); 3: Distain (Steward); 4: Penhebogydd (Chief falconer); 5: Brawdwr Llys (Court judge); 6: Pengwastrawd (Chief groom); 7: Gwas Ystafell (Chamberlain); 8: Bardd Teulu (Bard of the household); 9: Gostegwr (Usher); 10: Pencynydd (Chief huntsman); 11: Meddydd (Mead-brewer); 12: Meddyg (Medic); 13: Trulliad (Butler); 14: Drysor (Doorkeeper); 15: Cog (Cook); 16: Canhwyllydd (Candleman); 17: Distain y Frenhines (Queen’s steward); 18: Offeiriad y Frenhines (Queen’s priest); 19: Pengwastrad y Frenhines (Queen’s chief groom); 20: Gwas Ystafell y Frenhines (Queen’s chamberlain); 21: LLawforwyn y Frenhines (Queen’s handmaid); 22: Drysor y Frenhines (Queen’s doorkeeper); 23: Cog y Frenhines (Queen’s cook); 24: Canhwyllydd y Frenhines (Queen’s candleman); plus the following, who perhaps made 24, before the queen’s officers were included, although some of them like the chief poet are not, actually, officers of the court: Gwastrad Afwyn (Groom of the rein); Troediog (Footholder); Maer Biswail (Dung maer); Rhingyll (serjeant); Porthor (Porter); Gwyliwr (Watchman); Cynutai (Fueller); Poburies (Bakeress); Gof Llys (Court smith); Pencerdd (Chief poet); Golchuries (Laundress).

 

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4 Responses to Inventing a Seventh-Century Welsh Court

  1. Marc Mazzone says:

    Interesting. I’ll keep my eye out for your book. This post is four years old, so I don’t know whether comments will matter to you, but your assumption seems to be that the older the court, the less complex its structure. That strikes me as a progressivist myth. Still, one useful way to look at Hywel Dda’s compilation is that it presents a theoretical ideal, rather than a more modern attempt at accuracy. You might consider that the greatest courts would have all this and more, while the officials of lesser courts, staffed with fewer people, might have to share responsibilities of those offices that could not be filled. Just some food for thought. 😊

    • Sally says:

      Interesting comment Marc, thank you. Food for thought indeed. You are correct that my general assumption is that seventh century courts were less complex in structure than those of Hywel Dda’s era. I have also generally assumed that they were smaller and that this applied to Anglo-Saxon as well as to British courts. Your comment has prompted me to ask myself why I have made this assumption. Not sure, is the answer, but it probably has something to do with other assumptions about agricultural productivity – how many unproductive mouths could be fed from specific landscapes.
      Thinking about this makes me realise that I have been making un-examined leaps in logic. We simply do not know enough about seventh century agriculture to justify such assumptions and there is also the basic point about war and peace. Seventh century raiding had the potential to deliver shiny things to warlords that they could dish out to their warriors, but seventh century raiding also meant burnt buildings and stolen livestock to the losers, impoverishing the victims and their lords.
      Book one of the Kith and Kin Trilogy – Death in Elmet – will be available on Kindle by about the end of October.

      • Marc Mazzone says:

        Sounds like a cool idea, I can’t wait! It’s such a crazy century; isn’t that the century of Gododdin? And Elmet is right in the center of it. I love the evocative sound of “yr Hen Ogledd.” I’ve been playing around with ideas of my own about Welsh courts from this period, and I’m looking forward to see what you’ve done with things like the difference between the Pencerdd and Bardd Teulu, the connections between court and religion, and the governing structure of the kingdom, especially the relationship between Brenin and Pencenedl! OCTOBER! 😊😊😊

  2. Sally says:

    There is more on this in book 2 of the Kith and Kin trilogy which is called Bloodprice. That will probably be out fairly early in 2018.
    Cheers
    Sally

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