Over the next year we will certainly be hearing a lot about the Magna Carta as 2015 marks its 800th anniversary. It will be heralded as one of the most influential and groundbreaking documents ever written, a landmark moment in history as an English King signed away his own powers for the benefit of the people. Its doctrines are seen as influencing other totemic works such as the declaration of Independence, and its laws are seen as bringing previously unprecedented levels of justice to the people of England and Wales. This might well have been the case for the English; however it is a fact often ignored that the so called ‘barbaric’ Welsh living next door had been abiding by more progressive laws for centuries.
The laws of Hywel Dda (Hywel the Good) were introduced during the early 900’s, a couple of hundred years before the Magna Carta. His laws were incredibly enlightened for the time and provided the foundation for Welsh law until the Norman Conquest.
A prime example of these liberal regulations can be seen in the sections that refer to women. Whilst The Magna Carta dictates that “No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman, for the death of any other than her husband”. The laws of Hywel Dda maintained that divorce was permitted by common consent. It also stated that if a marriage broke up after seven years or more, the woman was entitled to half the joint property, and even declared that an unfaithful husband had to pay his wife a fine of five shillings for the first adulterous incident and a pound for the second one.
Many countries in this day and age could take lessons from the lenient and sympathetic approach shown to vagrants and poverty stricken individuals in 10th century Wales. A hungry man who had passed at least three towns without receiving a meal could not be punished for stealing food, a move which accepted the fact that poverty was not always the fault of the individual but the fault of the state.
The death penalty was rarely advocated in Hywel’s Wales and was in force for only a few offences. 800 years later 18th century Britain would have 220 crimes that were punishable by death with some as mundane as robbing a rabbit warren or cutting down a tree. In enlightened 10th Century Wales however, fines were preferred and a table of compensation was devised. For example the value of wild and tame gives the values of various animals:
‘The value of a cat, fourpence. The value of a kitten from the night it is born until it opens its eyes, a penny, and from then until it kills mice, two pence, and after it kills mice, four pence ...A guard dog, if it is killed more than nine paces from the door is not paid for. If it is killed within the nine paces, it is worth twenty-four.
Amazingly these values were also applied to humans and body parts. The value of a part of the body was fixed, thus a person causing the king to lose an eye would pay the same as if he had caused a layman to lose an eye. The idea that a king’s or Queen’s arm is equal to a peasant’s is a concept that many ardent royalist would struggle with even today.
So when you’re reading all the undeniably deserved celebrations surrounding the 800th birthday of the grand Magna Carta, please remember that in terms of the rights of citizens, the ‘unruly’ Celts might well have got there first!
By Owen Jones