A Welsh text of the Laws of Hywel Dda

Reference: NLW MS 20143A

Manuscript NLW 20143A is the first manuscript of the laws of Hywel Dda in the Welsh language to be digitised by the National Library. The manuscript dates from the middle of the 14th century and, according to Daniel Huws, it was written in an Ecclesiastical Centre in South Wales. It includes many interesting illustrations, including a two-headed dragon, a mermaid and all kinds of animals. It is very unusual for a manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda, written in Welsh, to contain illustrations. This probably means that the manuscript’s illustrator was specially commissioned to prepare this copy for a very important person.

The Laws of Hywel Dda

The 'Laws of Hywel Dda' is the term applied to a system of native Welsh law named after Hywel Dda (died 950). He is credited with its codification. None of the surviving Welsh law manuscripts, however, are earlier than the second quarter of the 13th century. Although they contain a law that is of 12th and 13th century origin, scholars are agreed that these manuscripts contain a core of matter that is much earlier in date. Most of these books are small in size as is NLW MS 20143A (166 x 131 mm.). They were probably designed as 'pocket-books' to be carried about by lawyers rather than to be kept on library shelves.

The manuscript

The manuscript contains several interesting illustrations, many of them religious, including decorative letters and capital letters using the colours red and blue with a hint of green. The manuscript contains 115 folios made from parchment, and the wooden cover dates from the Middle Ages. The manuscript is fragile and a few of the folios have been repaired with stitching. As stated by Daniel Huws in The Welsh King and his Court, this is one of the few medieval Welsh manuscripts to retain a medieval, probably original binding structure.

The history of the manuscript

Between 17 November and 6 December 1698, the manuscript was copied for Edward Lhuyd (1659/60?–1709) by his assistant William Jones in the manuscript NLW 6209. In 1835 the manuscript was given to the Neath Philosophical & Antiquarian Society’s Library by the Dean of Llandaf, William Daniel Conybeare (1787-1857). The manuscript was bought by the National Library of Wales in 1969.

Further Reading

  • Aneurin Owen (ed.), Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, Cyf. I-II (1841)
  • Daniel Huws, 'Descriptions of the Welsh Manuscripts', pp. 415-424, in T.M. Charles- Edwards, Morfydd E. Owen & Paul Russell (ed.), The Welsh King and his Court (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000)
  • T.M. Charles- Edwards, Writers of Wales, The Welsh Laws (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1989)

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