Wales in the time of Prince Madoc – Women in Welsh Law

There can now doubting that 12th century Wales could be a turbulent and violent place, but it was also an era chock full of captivating characters, fascinating places and interesting events.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will pick different topics to write about. I hope you enjoy the articles and please check back frequently for new items – first up…

Women in Welsh Law

The position of women under Welsh law differed significantly to that of their Norman-English counterparts. A marriage for example, could be established in two basic ways.

The normal way was that the woman would be given to a man by her kin. The more unusual route was for the woman to elope with a man without the consent of her kin. In this case her kin could compel her to return, but only if she was still a virgin!

If the relationship lasted for seven years’ she had the same entitlements as would a woman wed the ‘normal’ way.

All this was in sharp contrast to Norman England across the border, where women had very little, if any say in who they married, and avoiding an unwelcome marriage proposal might well have necessitated joining a nunnery.

The advantages for Welsh woman didn’t end there…if a woman found her husband with another woman, she was entitled to a payment:

One hundred and twenty pence (i.e. half a pound) for the first time.

One pound for the second time; and on the third occasion she was entitled to divorce him.

Furthermore, if the husband had a concubine, the wife could strike her without having to pay any compensation, even if it resulted in the concubine’s death!

This again was in sharp contrast to Norman law, where a wife would be expected to meekly accept any adulterous behavior by her husband.

Under Welsh law, it was established that a woman could only be beaten by her husband for three things:

Giving away something which she was not entitled to give away.

Being found with another man.

For wishing a blemish on her husband’s beard. (Quite a topical one given the recent proliferation of beards in society!)

If he beat her for any other cause, she was entitled to a compensation payment.

Modern sensibilities might well baulk at the idea of the right of a husband to beat his wife for any reason being enshrined in law, but when you consider that in Norman England a wife would have be expected to passively accept an everyday beating with no complaint, and a Norman husband was cautioned by law not put out his wife’s eye or break her arm, but no other constraints were specified; there is certainly a solid argument that for the time period, Welsh law was remarkably enlightened.


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