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Hywel Dda

King of Wales

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Davies 1990; Walker 1990

y 950 A.D., Dinefwr was the principal court from which Hywel Dda, "The Good," (depicted in a 13th-century manuscript at right), 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.


Genealogy of Hywel Dda and the rulers of Deheubarth (see aso Gwynedd)

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