Economic and Social History Blog

Airport Book

Book of Hywel Dda

The original inhabitants of the British Isles were, by successive waves of invasion by Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, pushed slowly into what became the Welsh kingdom. Here they codified their laws and customs, many of which ran counter to those developing in England at the time. We can see this in the book of Hywel Dda (king of Wales 942-950), particularly in it’s section on the rights of women. The book details that women married for less than seven years who got divorced (which was permitted under various circumstances including three incidents of adultery by their husband) would retain their full dowry. After seven years this right disappeared but she would be entitled to half of their posessions; if they had sheep and pigs she got the sheep and he the pigs, but if they did not have both these were to be divided equally. She was entitled to all the milk pails bar one and all the dishes bar one (one being left in each case for her husband). Oddly she was to be given the upper-most part of the bed-clothes and he those worn underneath. If, however, he remarried he would return these to his ex-wife and if he had the cheek to lie with his new wife in them the new wife would be obligated to compensate the previous wife “for the affront”. Possibly most remarkably she retained custody of some of her children. She was to be granted one part of the children and the father two (she the middle and he the eldest and youngest). This document is a fascinating insight into the relatively strong position that Welsh women held in society of the time, with inheritance and divorce rights far stronger than we might suppose.

See: for the excerpts from the book of Hywel Dda

also for a fascinating further account of the role of women at this time