Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Howel Dda

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HOWEL Dda, that is, Howel the Good (d. 950), the most famous of the early Welsh kings, was the son of Cadell, the son of Rhodri Mawr, through whom his pedigree was traced by a tenth-century writer up to Cunedda and thence to 'Anne, cousin of the Blessed Virgin' (pedigree of Owain ab Howel in Y Cymmrodor, ix. 169, from Harl. MS. 3859). His father, Cadell, died in 909 (Annales Cambria in Y Cymmrodor, ix. 167), whereupon he must have succeeded to his dominions. The late account is that Howel succeeded to Ceredigion,which was his father's portion, while his uncle Anarawd continued to rule over Wales as overking. This is likely enough, as Howel's immediate descendants are certainly found reigning in Ceredigion and Dyved. On Anarawd's death in 915 (ib. ix. 168) Howel, it is said, became king of Gwynedd, and therefore of all Wales (Gwentian Brut y Tywysogion, pp.17-21, Cambrian Archæological Association, 1863). But this cannot be proved, and Idwal, son of Anarawd, continued to reign as a king until his death in 943. The notion that Wales was regularly divided into three kingdoms, corresponding to the districts of Gwynedd, Powys, and Dyved, is only to be found in quite late writers. Howel is only one of many Welsh kings in contemporary or nearly contemporary sources.

Subject to Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred, in the early part of his reign, Howel became the direct subordinate of Edward the Elder on the death of the Lady of the Mercians, probably in 918 [see Ethelfleda]. Immediately afterwards Edward took possession of Mercia, whereupon the kings of the North Welsh, Howel, Clitaue or Clydog his brother, and Idwal his cousin, and all the North Welsh race, sought him to be their lord (Anglo-Saxon Chron. s.a. 922). Clitauc's death may have further strengthened Howel's position. Anyhow four years later Howel, king of the West Welsh, is the only Welsh prince mentioned among the princes ruled over by Æthelstan (ib. s.a. 926); and William of Malmesbury, in adopting this passage in his 'Chronicle,' describes this Howel as 'king of all the Welsh.' But West Wales more generally means Cornwall.

The reality of Howel's dependence is best attested by the large number of meetings of the witenagemot he attended, attesting charters along with the other magnates of the West-Saxon lords of Britain. He subscribed charters drawn up by the witan at the following dates all in the reign of Athelstan—21 July 931 (Kemble, Codex Diplomaticus, v. 199), 12 Nov. 931 (ib. ii. 173), 30 Aug. 932 (ib. v. 208), 15 Dec. 933 (ib. ii. 194), 28 May 934 (ib. ii. 196), 16 Dec. 934 (ib. v. 217), and 937 (ib. ii. 203); see also the charters, asterisked by Kemble, dated 17 June 930, 1 Jan. and 21 Dec. 935, ib. ii. 170, v. 222, ii. 203). Howel also attested charters drawn up by Eadred's wise men, dated 946 and 949 (ib. ii. 269, 292,296). He usually styles himself `Howel subregulus,' or `Huwal undercyning,' but in the later charters issued after the death of his cousin Idwal in 943, it is perhaps significant that he becomes 'Howel regulus,' and in the charter of 949 he is 'Howel rex.' Other Welsh reguli, such as Idwal and Morcant, also attested some of these charters. The tenth-century Welsh annalist and Simeon of Durham call him `rex Brittonum.'

The only other clearly attested fact in Howel's life is his pilgrimage to Rome in 928 (Annales Cambriæ in Y Cymmrodor, ix. 168). The later chroniclers put the death of his wife Elen in the same year. His death is assigned by the tenth-century chronicle to 950 (ib. ix. 169), with which Simeon of Durham (Mon. Hist. Brit. p.687), who fixes it in 951, is in practical agreement. The date given in the `Bruts,' 948, is plainly too early.

Howel was married to Elen, the daughter of Loumarc (d. 903), the son of Hymeid, who may perhaps be identified with the Hymeid, king of Dyved, who, in fear of Howel's uncles and father, became the vassal of King Alfred (Asser, Vita Ælfredi in Mon. Hist. Brit. p.488). Elen's pedigree is traced by the tenth-century annalist with the same particularity as that of her husband through Arthur up to Constantine the Great and his mother Helena, who is of course claimed as a Briton (Y Cymmrodor, ix. 171). Howel had several sons, who after his death fought fiercely with the sons of Idwal his cousin. Owain, the eldest son, was his successor, and it was during his reign that the genealogies and annals which are so valuable a source for Howel's history were drawn up. Howel's other sons were Dyvnwal, Rhodri, and Gwyn (Annales Cambriæ, called Etwin in Brut y Tywysogion).

Howel's chief fame is as a lawgiver, but the vast code of Welsh laws which goes by the name of the 'Laws of Howel the Good' only survives in manuscripts of comparatively late date. There are two Latin manuscripts, one at the British Museum of the thirteenth century (Cott. MS. Vesp. E. 11), and the other at Peniarth, of the twelfth century, while the earliest Welsh manuscript of the 'Black Book of Chirk,' also at Peniarth, is not earlier than 1200 (information kindly supplied by Mr. J. Gwenogvryn Evans, who is preparing an edition of the `Chirk Codex' and the oldest Latin manuscript). The prefaces contain an account of the circumstances under which the laws were drawn up. According to the oldest manuscript of the 'North Welsh Code,' Howel, 'seeing that the Welsh were perverting the laws,' summoned to him six men from each cymmwd of the Principality to the White House on the Tav (y Ty Gwyn ar Tav, probably Whitland in the modern Carmarthenshire), four laymen and two clerks, the latter to prevent the laymen from `ordaining anything contrary to holy scripture.' They met in Lent `because every one should be pure at that holy time.' These wise men carefully examined the old laws, rejected some, amended others, and enacted some new ones. Howel then promulgated the code they drew up, and he and the wise men pronounced the curse of all the Welsh on those who should not obey the laws, and on all judges who undertook judicial duties without knowing the three columns of law and the worth of tame and live animals, or on any lord who conferred office on such a judge. After this Howel went with the bishops of St. David's, St. Asaph, and Bangor, and some others to Rome, where the laws were read before the pope, who gave them his sanction. 'And from that time to the present the laws of Howel the Good are in force.' The 'Dimetian' and 'Gwentian' codes, the manuscripts of which are later, add a few additional particulars which are of less authority. Gwent was certainly no part of Howel's dominions.

The form in which the laws of Howel Dda now exist does not profess to preserve the shape which he gave them. In a few exceptional cases only is a law described as being the law as Howel established it (e.g. i. 122, 234, 240, 252, &c.) The 'Gwynedd Code' frequently refers to the amendments made by Bleddyn ab Cynvyn (i. 166, 252, 8vo ed.), who died in 1073, while the `Dyved Code' mentions changes brought about by the Lord Rhys ab Gruffydd ab Tewdwr (i. 574), who died in 1197. The laws manifestly contain much primitive custom which may be referred back to Howel's time or to an earlier date, but it is almost impossible to accurately determine the dates of the various enactments. Some of the details of court law show curious traces of 'early English influence, for example in such titles as 'edling' and 'edysteyn' (discthegn). Like all early codes it leaves the impression of greater system and method than could really have prevailed. The existing documents, and especially those of later date, were plainly drawn up by persons anxious to magnify the departed glory of their country, and to uphold the impossible theory of a definite organization of Wales into Gwynedd, Deheubarth, and Powys (e.g. i. 341), with the overlord at Aberffraw exacting tribute from the dependent kings, though himself dependent on the 'king of London'(i,235). The terminology of the laws is plainly late, for example terms like 'tewysauc'(prince) and 'tehuysokaet' (principality) are certainly post-Norman, as earlier Welsh rulers are described as kings. Neither would the Anglo-Saxon monarch be described as 'king of London' before the Conquest. And the systematic representation of the cymmwds points to the Norman inquests or even to the later aggregations of the shire representatives in parliament. Otherwise Howel the Good has the credit of anticipating the English House of Commons by more than three hundred years. But the 'laws of Howel' both deserve and require more minute critical analysis than they have hitherto received. As indicating the national legal system, they were clung to with great enthusiasm by the Welsh up to the time of the conquest of Gwynedd by Edward I. They were looked upon with no unnatural dislike by champions of more advanced legal ideas like Edward I and Archbishop Peckham, who regarded them as contrary to the Ten Commandments (Registrum Epist. J. Peckham, i. 77, ii. 474-5, Rolls Ser.) The Welsh traditional judgment on Howel was that he was 'the wisest and justest of all the Welsh princes. He loved peace and justice, and feared God, and governed conscientiously. He was greatly loved by all the Welsh and by many of the wise among the Saxons, and on that account was called Howel the Good' (Gwentian Brut, p. 25).

[The contemporary or nearly contemporary sources are the tenth-century Harleian Annales Cambriæ and genealogies, the Anglo-Saxon Chron., and the early English charters. The Harleian Chronicle is confused in the Rolls Series edition of Annales Cambriæ with other manuscripts of much later date. The genealogy of Howel is given in pref. p.x. But both chronicle and genealogies have been carefully edited by Mr. Egerton Phillimore in Y Cymmrodor, ix. 141-83, 1888. The extracts relative to Howel are also to be found in Owen's Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, i. xiv-xvi.The dates assigned in the text are the inferences of modern editors. Annales Cambriæ (Rolls edit.)gives the later Latin chronicles. See also Brut y Tywysogion (Rolls edit.), or better in J. Gwenogvryn Evans's carefully edited Red Book of Hergest, vol.ii.1890; the 'laws of Howel' were first printed from imperfect and late manuscripts by Dr. William Wotton in 1730 in folio, with the title 'Cyfreithjeu, seu Leges Wallicæ Ecclesiasticæ et Civiles Hoeli Boni et aliorum Principum, cum Interp. Lat.et notis et gloss.,'and in the third volume of the Myvyrian Archaiology of Wales, 1807. These editions have been superseded by Aneurin Owen's Ancient Laws and Institutes of Wales, with an English translation of the Welsh text,London,1841, Record Commission,1 vol.fol.or 2 vols. 8vo (the 8vo edition is here cited); the ecclesiastical part of the law has been printed from Owen's edition in Haddan and Stubbs's Councils and Eccles.Docs. i. 209-83; see also F. Walter's Das alte Wales. Hubert Lewis's Ancient Laws of Wales (1889) is a disappointing book.]

T. F. T.