Illegitimacy and the Medieval Laws of Hywel Dda

In my last post I introduce the argument that I put forward in my forthcoming article in Welsh History Review, which is that certain regions of Wales experienced significantly higher levels of illegitimacy in the early modern period in comparison to England, which can be attributed in part to premarital courtship rituals and differing marital customs. Since there was no room for it in the article I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss some possible origins for these different attitudes and practices in Wales, which were rooted in medieval laws.

Geoffrey Quaife has noted that in the seventeenth-century Somerset women pregnant with illegitimate children were frequently sent or escorted by their families across the Severn to deliver their children in Wales. Once they arrived, their reception was based on their apparent ability to support the child, or their intention to return home or remain, settle and potentially become a burden on the parish in which they gave birth. Wales was undoubtedly appealing to many from England desirous of anonymity and set on avoiding stigmatization at home, could the appeal have also been because of differing attitudes towards illegitimacy in Wales?

The simple fact that illegitimate children were recorded in Welsh parish registers suggests that illegitimacy was of some concern locally and therefore was not entirely condoned, but if illegitimacy was a more common occurrence it could possibly have been more accepted socially, even if not administratively.

If we look far enough back into the history of Wales, evidence of differing attitudes towards illegitimacy does exist. Until the Acts of Union in the early sixteenth-century Wales enjoyed its own legal system based on the medieval laws of Hywel Dda, and illegitimacy featured prominently in them. If you’re curious a manuscript of the Laws in Latin can be viewed online courtesy of the National Library of Wales.

Photo Credit: National Library of Wales

Photo Credit: National Library of Wales

Concerns about illegitimacy in England were based at least as much on economic anxieties as morality, due to the potential financial burden posed by illegitimate children. The laws of Hywel Dda likewise had provisions for children born out of wedlock that demonstrate economic concern:

if it happens that a person makes pregnant a woman of bush and brake, it is right for him to maintain the child for the law says that though she may lose the man it is not right for her to suffer want from him or because of him though she gets no benefit and therefore it is right for the man to rear the child.

The wording here is interesting, as it suggests a concern not only for the maintenance of a child, but also the welfare of the mother, as it was deemed unfair for her to suffer the financial burden of supporting an illegitimate child alone. Through maintaining an illegitimate child a father was in essence acknowledging the child as his own, effectively legitimizing his or her status.

The maintenance of illegitimate children was only one of the economic concerns surrounding illegitimacy addressed in the laws. Of far more concern were issues of inheritance. Under English common law, an illegitimate son would not automatically inherit property.  In church courts as early as the fourteenth century illegitimate children had no rights to inheritance at all.

In Wales, prior to the 1530s, the rights of inheritance for illegitimate sons were dramatically different. A father need only acknowledge a son as his own and the child would receive the same rights as a son born out of wedlock. According to the laws an illegitimate son who had been accepted by the father had equal rights to inheritance as an innate bonheddig, or son whose ancestry was known, however an illegitimate son who had been rejected by his father had no claim to patrilineal inheritance whatsoever.

Acceptance of an illegitimate son could occur in one of two ways. If a father provided for the rearing of his son for a year and a day without rejecting him, or if he accepted a son laid to him by the mother in a laying ceremony, the son officially became legitimate. To lay a son to a man the mother would bring the child to a church and swear to the identity of the father at the altar. As it was a form of oath, a woman could only lay a child once and only to one man. If the father accepted the son he was irrevocably and legitimately his. If a father denied his son he was forever illegitimate.

If an alleged father was deceased, a chief and six other members of his family could accept or deny a son in a similar laying ceremony, or if there was no chief twenty-one men of the father’s kindred could made the decision, the end result of which was permanent. If there was no unanimous consensus amongst the kindred, then the son was to be accepted as legitimate because of the possibility that those denying him did so for their own gain by preventing another person from inheriting a share of property that would otherwise go to them.

Most of the laws refer specifically to the rules of affiliation and inheritance for sons. Illegitimate daughters are mentioned in the laws with regard to inheritance, but only to state that a brother could deny his sister under certain circumstances. For instance, a son could not deny a daughter if there was evidence that his motives were based purely on greed and not actual affiliation.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the laws of women, but these pertain mostly to her marital rights, property and sarhaed or galanas, which were forms of compensation payable according to her status or the status of her husband in the event that she was the victim of insult, dishonour or crime. This includes her agweddi, which was a woman’s share of matrimonial property, and her amobr, which was a fee payable to a woman’s chief or kin made by a man upon the loss of her virginity, either within or outside of wedlock.

By 1700 the laws of Hywel Dda had officially been out of use for nearly 200 years, making it seem unlikely that any trace of them would remain in Welsh social life and customs. However, if we consider that it took the majority of the Welsh population roughly the same length of time to embrace the Protestant Reformation, it is possible that some of these traditions and attitudes might have lingered on well past the Acts of Union.

The consensus amongst historians is that much of Wales retained many of its pre-Reformation traditions until the rise of Non-Conformity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is attributed to the general appeal of, and familiarity with, older customs and rituals, and an inability to relate to anglicized scriptures and rituals.

It could therefore be argued that many Welsh communities were slow to let go of other rituals and values as well. This is by no means clear evidence of specific attitudes towards illegitimacy in Wales in the early modern period, and it is by no means proof of the holdover of medieval values. It does however suggest that there may be a historical precedent for different attitudes towards legitimacy in Wales, which may help explain attitudes in later centuries.

Further Reading

Dafydd Jenkins, ed., The Law of Hywel Dda: Law Texts of Medieval Wales (Llandysul, Gomer Press, 1986).

Alan Macfarlane, ‘Illegitimacy and illegitimates in English history’, in Laslett, Oosterveen, and Smith, eds. Bastardy and Its Comparative History [1] Laslett, Bastardy and its Comparative History.

G. R. Quaife, Wanton Wenches and Wayward Wives: Peasant and Illicit Sex in Early Seventeenth -century England (London: Croom Helm, 1979).

Glanmor Williams, Recovery Reorientation and Reformation Wales c.1415-1642 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

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One thought on “Illegitimacy and the Medieval Laws of Hywel Dda

  1. Pingback: All past posts are available on my new blog | And After That The Dark

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