Chapter 1: Wales in the Middle Ages
We are going back further than the Tudor period in this article to look at how the political and social structure of Wales worked both for and against Jasper Tudor, Earl of Pembroke in his support, first for the House of Lancaster, then for his own Tudor nephew, later Henry VII.
During the Middle Ages, Wales was not a single political state under one king as England became after the Norman conquest of 1066, but rather a fluctuating group of kingdoms, principalities and lordships.
The early Norman kings were not particularly interested in annexing Wales, but they wanted a route to Ireland along the south coast of Wales and a buffer zone along the border or ‘march’ with England. As the English crown did not have enough money or manpower to manage these areas, a type of landholding was developed called a Marcher Lordship. These were granted to senior Norman barons, who were then responsible for maintaining the border – in effect, any land they could win from the Welsh, belonged to them, but they owed allegiance to the King of England.
The area of Wales that did not fall under Norman control continued to be a group of principalities or lordships that sometimes converged under a strong leader, but, more often jostled amongst themselves for supremacy. There were various attempts under King John and Henry III to force the more powerful Welsh princes to accept English overlordship, but, until the time of Edward I (1239 – 1307) the relative strength of the Welsh and English within Wales fluctuated.
One of the aspects that weakened the ability of Wales to resist the English, was its system of inheritance of land. In England, the eldest son inherited everything, unless specific provisions were made for other children. Where there were no sons, female inheritance was recognised, initially with the oldest daughter taking all of the inheritance but later, with daughters being co-parcenors (splitting the inheritance). Illegitimate children had no rights of inheritance.
In Wales, the system was, in some ways, fairer – the land was divided between all of a man’s sons, even if they were illegitimate. Less fairly, women could not inherit land at all. The upshot of this structure (known in English law as 'gavelkind') was that it became difficult for a single individual to build up a coherent estate that he could pass on to one son.
Criminal law was different too. Under the laws codified by the 10th century king, Howel Dda (Howel the Good), and later developed by jurists, there were few crimes that attracted the death penalty (robbery with violence being one). Instead, a series of compensatory financial rules, known as ‘galanas’ or 'blood-money' in English was laid down, which made the relatives of the criminal responsible for compensating the victim’s family. Responsibility at differing rates stretched to the descendants of the 4x great-grandparents.This may explain the Welsh obsession with genealogy! Failure to pay the blood-money entitled the victim’s family to seek vengeance.
The rules on inheritance applied to land, rather than titles. The crowns of the various kingdoms – Gwynedd, Deheubarth and Powys being the main ones - descended to the eldest son, if he were of age (late twenties) and without any physical or mental disabilities. Of course, inheriting the crown, but with only part of the lands his father had held, made succeeding generations weaker. If the eldest son were not considered a competent inheritor, any of his brothers, uncles or cousins to the second degree could either be chosen as leader or, as frequently occurred, might snatch the crown.