Lot 23
  • 23

The Laws of Hywel Dda (King Howel the Good, c.880-950), in medieval Welsh, decorated manuscript on vellum [Wales (perhaps Brecon, South Wales), c.1350]

500,000 - 700,000 GBP
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  • paper and ink
99 vellum leaves (interleaved with sheets of paper replacing missing leaves, perhaps added in the eighteenth century), 98mm. by 50mm., vellum leaves paginated in an eighteenth-century hand: 3-14, 21-32, 41-2, 45-6, 49-96, 111-14, 119-26, 135-8, [143]-54, 171-[98] and thus wanting 2 leaves at front and a number of leaves throughout, 22-24 lines in dark brown ink in three early gothic hands resembling those of the thirteenth century but with orthographic features suggesting the mid-fourteenth, rubrics in red, one-line initials in red or green, larger initials in purple, green or red with elaborate scrolling penwork in red, numerous notes in an eighteenth-century hand regarding missing leaves (perhaps that of William Wotton, see below) with readings  "ex Codice item membranaceo in Bibliotheca Coll. Jesu"  (ie. Oxford, Jesus College MS.57, most probably through the samples printed by E. Lhuyd in Archaeologia Britannica, 1707), some initials cut away with losses of a few borders and some text in places (some repaired with modern vellum), paint from a few initials at end of volume having burnt through vellum, last page rubbed, some discolouration to edges throughout, else good and solid condition, in nineteenth-century American binding of dark blue morocco over pasteboards, gilt-tooled around edge of each board, rebacked with old spine laid on


An important tenth-century secular text in a language of extreme rarity. Aside from single-sheet charters, this is the first medieval manuscript in the Welsh language to appear on the market in almost a century; and is the earliest ever offered in public sale


(1) Almost certainly written by a professional scribe for a medieval Welsh lawyer, perhaps in Brecon, South Wales.

(2) William Philipps (1663-1721), barrister-at-law, alderman and Recorder for the town of Brecon: his signature at the end of the text on fol.198v. The antiquary, Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709), recorded in his Archaeologia Britannica in 1707 that this manuscript had been found in Brecon and was in the possession of Philipps. It was seen there early in 1721 by William Wotton (d.1727), the first editor and translator of the Welsh lawcodes, who incorporated its readings into his edition (see his "Codd. MSS. Notitiae" in Cyfreithjeu Hywel Dda; and his correspondance in Stoker, p.37). In Brecon, Philipps was remembered as having brought order to the "Town Coffers ... [and] other Ancient Records" in 1679, and was an avid collector of Roman antiquities from his estate at Llanfrynach (Hugh Thomas' An Essay Towards the History of Brecknockshire 1698, 1967, pp.21 and 45-7). He was survived only by his daughter Anne, who married William Scourfield of New Moat, Pembroke (held office as sheriff of Pembroke in 1699), and Philipps' library passed to them (cf. H.M. Vaughan, The Welsh Book-Plates in the Collection of Sir Evan Davies Jones, Bart., 1920, p.117).

The crucial question here is how and when this manuscript crossed the Atlantic to America. The Welsh played an important, yet largely uncelebrated part in the early history of the American colonies. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, with the growing need for skilled miners and slate workers, large Welsh speaking colonies were founded in Pennsylvania (named Cambria), Delaware, South Carolina and Massachusetts. The Welsh left a significant mark on politics (sixteen of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were of Welsh origin), education (both Elihu Yale, founder of Yale University, and M. Edwards, joint founder of Brown University, were of Welsh descent) and pioneering exploration (John Evans, a native Welshman, was the first non-Indian to explore the upper reaches of the Missouri in 1795, and his maps were later used by Lewis and Clarke; Merriwether Lewis himself of Welsh parentage).

Morris Scourfield was one of the first recorded purchasers of land for the Pennsylvania community, and was doubtless a close relative of William Philipps' heir: sharing both his rare name and coming from Narbeth, Pembrokeshire, some 8 miles south of New Moat (T.A. Glenn, Welsh Founders of Pennsylvania, 1911-13, p.226). He or another member of his family presumably carried the present manuscript to America, and certainly it was there when it was rebound in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Thus, this may be one of the first medieval manuscripts in America, rivalling even the Speculum Humanae Salvationis presented by Elihu Yale in 1714 to the university library which bears his name.

(3) Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, the current owners; their MS.5; most probably a gift in the nineteenth century: their old shelfmarks 'C.101.23', '10.13' and blank presentation label inside front board.

Catalogue Note


The Welsh language has a rich history stretching back to the period before the Roman occupation of Britain. It is the closest living descendent of the Celtic language Julius Caesar encountered when he invaded Britain in 55 and 54 BC. – the mother-tongue of Boudica/Boadicea, queen of the Iceni.

Manuscripts in Medieval Welsh are of near-legendary rarity. The first text in Welsh is the note commonly entitled Surexit, added c.800 to the St. Chad Gospels, closely followed by a single fragmentary tenth-century leaf with a computistical text (Cambridge University Library Add. MS 4543). Then there is nothing until the mid-thirteenth century. In fact, for the whole Middle Ages only 250 books or fragments of Welsh origin survive, of which only 80 contain any words of Welsh (Medieval Welsh Manuscripts, pp.3, 40 and 57-64).

Hywel Dda (c.880-950), king of Wales, was a contemporary of King Alfred the Great and close associate of King Athelstan (witnessing charters issued by that ruler and appearing as Eowel subregulus among the witnesses appended to the Will of Æthelgifu, sold in our rooms 10 December 1969, lot 29, now Scheide Library, Princeton). He began his reign as ruler of Deheubarth, in south-western Wales, and steadily expanded his control to include overlordship of almost all Welsh territories. Like Charlemagne in Europe and Alfred and his heirs in England, Hywel tried to underpin the unity of his conquests with social infrastructure, and he issued both this lawcode and the first Welsh coinage in over a thousand years. The laws were constructed partly from ancient Brehon law (a form of Celtic justice system shared with Ireland), and appear exceptionally liberal when compared with those of neighbouring societies. They focus on just restitution for crimes rather than violent punishments. Capital punishment was prescribed for only a tiny number of crimes, with murder usually dealt with by the payment of compensation to the victim's family, and no punishment for theft if the sole purpose of the offence was survival. They also take progressive standpoints in their treatment of women, especially in respect to divorce and division of property: a woman could just as easily divorce her husband as he could her, and a woman who found her husband in bed with another woman was entitled to a payment of six-score pence (ten shillings) for the first occasion, a pound the second, and could divorce him on the third.

It became the standard for Welsh law until Llywelyn ap Gruffydd's rebellion against English overlordship in 1282. Llywelyn wrote to King Edward I noting that "Each province under the empire of the lord King has its own laws and customs according to the peculiarities and uses of those parts where it is situated ... and this conduces rather to the glory of the Crown of the lord King than to its degradation. And so the Prince seeks that he may be able to have his own Welsh law". He was answered by John Peckham, archbishop of Canterbury, who denounced the laws of Hywel, stating his belief that they had been inspired by the devil. This heated exchange was followed by Llywelyn's murder, and the issuing of the infamous Statute of Wales in 1284. This punitive code permanently ended the independence of the region and subjugated it to English rule, replacing many areas of traditional Welsh law with their English counterparts. Surprisingly, almost all surviving copies of the laws of Hywel Dda date to this period of repression, when much of their content was outlawed and their existence politically sensitive at least. It is clear that in the years following 1282 the Laws of Hywel Dda came to be a crucial symbol of national identity in the face of English oppression, perhaps above any other Welsh text. In the late fifteenth century, the poet Dafydd ab Edmwnd (fl.1450–80) wrote an elegy for a friend who had accidentally killed a man in a pub-brawl in Chirk. His friend was tried under the "law of London" and hanged, and Dafydd laments his execution, noting that he would have survived if he had been tried under the more humane "Law of Hywel". Hywel and his lawcode have remained a powerful symbol of Welsh identity, and were the focus for an episode of the recent BBC television series 'The Story of Wales' (broadcast 1 March 2012).

Few important medieval vernacular languages are as elusive as Welsh. There have been several opportunities in the last century to acquire examples of Anglo-Saxon (and three appear in the accompanying Schøyen sale, cf. lots 26, 37 and 38 there), and perhaps the only language to rival Welsh in the rarity of obtainable medieval witnesses is Old Icelandic, which last appeared for sale in our rooms, 30 November 1965, in a mid-fourteenth-century copy of the Lives of the Apostles (Phillipps MS 10442, now Stofnun Árna Magnússonar, Reykjavik). The present manuscript is the first medieval manuscript in Welsh to come to the market since 1923. Lot 142 in the sale in our rooms on 5 February 1923, was a volume of Welsh poetry, written c.1400 (now in the National Library of Wales). Before that, there was only the fragment of a compendium of Welsh genealogies written in 1497, in the Meyrick sale in our rooms, 20 July 1871, lot 1390, later Quaritch cat.279 (1871) no.417 (now Manchester, John Rylands Library). The only private collectors to have owned a number of such manuscripts since the death of Robert Vaughan in 1667 (whose collection, the Hengwrt-Peniarth Library, came to be the nucleus of the National Library of Wales) were Sir Thomas Mostyn (d.1692, whose Welsh manuscripts were bought privately in 1918 and given to the National Library of Wales, including only 4 medieval examples in Welsh) and Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872, whose Welsh manuscripts were purchased directly from his heirs by Cardiff Public Library in 1896, including only 3 medieval examples in Welsh: Munby, Phillipps Studies 5, pp.31-32).

Of the 80 surviving medieval codices or fragments in Welsh, some two-thirds are now in the National Library of Wales, a further sixth in the British Library, and almost all others are in institutional ownership in the British Isles. The two exceptions are the present manuscript and the later and fragmentary prose-compendium of c.1400 (Philadelphia, Library Company, MS.8680).

Despite – perhaps even because of – its homely appearance, the present manuscript is a fine example of a medieval Welsh book – almost all of which are of similar diminutive size, and none of which except one has any illumination. It is by far the earliest such codex ever to be offered in public sale, and contains a fundamentally important secular text. It seems impossible that any such witness would ever again be allowed export from the United Kingdom, and so this must be the final appearance of this language on the open market.


E. Lhuyd, Archaeologia Britannica 1707, Preface and p.258 col.b; W. Wotton, Cyfreithjeu Hywel Dda ac eraill, seu Leges Wallicae Ecclesiasticae et Civiles Hoeli boni et Aliorum Walliae Principum 1730; T. Lewis in Hywel Dda: the millenary volume 1928, p.160, noting the present ms. (unseen by him) as the parent of NLW, Aberystwyth, Lanstephan Coll.75; S. de Ricci, Census of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the United States and Canada, 1935-40, p.938, no.5; M.E. Owen, 'Llawysgrif Gyfrithiol Goll', Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 22, 1966-68, pp.338-43; D. Huws, Medieval Welsh Manuscripts, 2000, p.41 and 59; D. N. Klausner, Wales, Records of Early English Drama, 2005, p.lxxxiv; D. Stoker, 'William Wotton's exile and redemption: an account of the genesis and publication of Leges Wallicae' in Y Llyfr yng Nghymru/Welsh Book Studies, 7, 2006, p.37 and n.105; the text of the manuscript has been published online as part of the Welsh Prose 1350-1425 project, available at: http://www.rhyddiaithganoloesol.caerdydd.ac.uk/en/project/