I Want a Divorce: The Welsh Law of Women

The King’s Speech, the wildly successful historical film of 2010, tells the story of Edward VIII’s abdication in the 1930s and the accession to the British throne of his brother, King George VI (father to Queen Elizabeth II.) Central to the plot of the film is the stigma attached to Mrs. Wallis Simpson, whom Edward VIII wanted to marry and for whom he eventually abdicated. His actions were determined by the opinions of the British establishment, who believed that a twice-divorced American socialite was unsuitable both as the spouse to the head of the Church of England (which the King was), and as the Queen of Great Britain.

This taboo surrounding divorce and the divorcee persisted well into the 20th century,  and characterises the attitude of most mediaeval texts. For the most part, these attitudes are a result of the mediaeval Church’s efforts to gain a greater control over the practice of marriage, the ceremony for which could be as simple as taking a jump over a broomstick. As the Church pushed for society’s recognition of marriage as a sacrament, tolerance for divorces, annulments, and simple separations went down.

Not so in Wales! On the fringe of Britain, Wales preserved a distinctive set of laws and customs well into the Middle Ages, including a far more liberal policy towards divorce than that found elsewhere in Europe. These attitudes were a matter of disgust for the cleric Gerald of Wales, who wrote of the Welsh that “in most cases they will only marry a woman after living with her for some time, thus making sure that she will make a suitable wife…. They have long had the custom of buying young girls from their parents, with a penalty clause in case they run away, not in the first instance with a view to marriage, but just to live with them.” (Gerald, p.263.)

Some aspects of these practices are mentioned in the Welsh lawcode, although here they are presented with none of Gerald’s outrage. The buying and selling of girls that Gerald mentions actually reflects a complex type of dowry payment scheme, some of which went to the parents, some to the bride’s lord, and some into the joint assets of the couple. Similarly, the period of cohabitation which Gerald found so objectionable is presented, in the lawcode, more like a preliminary phase of the marriage than as ‘living in sin’. This phase usually lasted 7 years, and the length of the marriage determined what each party would be entitled to in the event of a divorce.

In all cases, a woman could expect to get away with the coverlet on the bed, as well as the flour, butter, and prepared meats in the kitchen and a range of domestic items from around the home. If the husband left his wife within 7 years, the wife was also entitled to her agweddi, an amount of money determined by her social status, from the couple’s joint assets. After 7 years, the assets would be halved equally. Perhaps more unexpectedly, there were three legally recognised causes for why a wife could leave her husband that involved no financial forfeiture on her part: neglect, leprosy, and, more comically, bad breath. (Llawysgrif Pomffred, pp.115-117).

The complexity of the Welsh Law of Women (of which I have presented only a small part) demonstrates the unexpected variety of mediaeval attitudes towards the most fundamental of relationships: that between a man, a woman, and their money.

Learn More:
Gerald of Wales, The Description of Wales, ed. and trans. Lewis Thorpe, (London, 1978).

The Welsh laws come from a variety of manuscripts. The one I have drawn from is Llawsgrif Pomffred: An Edition and Study of Peniarth MS259B, ed and trans. Sara Elin Roberts, (Leiden, 2011).

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