Medieval Landholding in Wales
Wales was a patchwork of kingdoms prior to its conquest by Edward I. So the laws governing land tenure were not exactly the same throughout Wales. Yet there was a common pattern. Like the rest of medieval Europe, Wales had adopted a feudal system. It supported the king and his household and provided him with fighting men. Thus each kingdom protected itself. Only ecclesiastical lands fell outside royal control.
The basic unit of administration was the tref. The word would be translated today as town, but we should picture it at that time as a rural area with scattered farmsteads and perhaps a hamlet. Only a royal tref would have a settlement substantial enough to count as a village. In theory 100 trefi made up a cantref (cant = 100). Half a cantref was a cymwd, Anglicised as commote. Defence and justice were organised through these larger units. By the time of the conquest of Wales, the commote was most important. The king would travel from one commote to another, overseeing his realm.
The lawbook of Iorwerth lays out the arrangement in Gwynedd - North Wales. In each commote two trefi were reserved for royal use. One was the royal hafod-tir (summer pasture). The other was the maerdref (reeve's tref), cultivated by bondsmen. Its produce supported the royal court (llys) when it stayed there. The remaining trefi were either free or unfree. The free trefi were held by families in return for military service and a food rent, later commuted to a payment. The unfree were held by bondsmen in return for food renders and manual labour on the king's demesnes.
In the trefi held by bond tenants, the land was shared out equally among all the adult males. In the free trefi the land was divided equally between male heirs, including acknowledged illegitimate sons. The land could not be sold, though it could be mortgaged under licence from the lord. The kindred held certain property in common, which could include a church and a mill.
Apart from those of the king, trefi were not usually held singly, but combined into a multiple estate, called a maenol or maenor.
Soon after the Norman conquest of England, Norman lords began to press into Wales. So a new system of land tenure entered Wales, based on the manor. Welsh kings regained much territory in 1136, but Edward I established English dominion over Wales in 1284. By that time the manorial system was established in the border country and along the southern coastal plains. The upland country of west, central and north Wales retained its Welsh system. Documents distinguished between land held by Welsh tenure (Welshry) and English tenure (Englishry), but the distinction gradually became blurred. The Welsh system of equally dividing estates between male heirs collapsed after about 1350.
- Edwards, N. (ed.), Landscape and Settlement in Medieval Wales (1997).
- Owen, D.H. (ed.), Settlement and Society in Wales (1989).
- Richards, M., Welsh Administrative and Territorial Units (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1969).
Primary sources in chronological order
- The Llandaff Charters ed. Wendy Davies (1979) appear to start from the 6th century.
- The Law of Hywel Dda: Law Texts from Medieval Wales, ed. and trans. Dafydd Jenkins (1986). Hywel Dda ruled almost all of Wales and is credited with codifying Welsh law c.940, though extant texts under his name start in the 13th century.
- The Domesday Book includes a survey of those Welsh lands conquered by Norman barons prior to 1086, but only certain lands on the Welsh borders are covered in detail.
- Gerald of Wales, Description of Wales, written 1183-5 gives the number of cantrefi in the various kingdoms of Wales.
- Llyfr Iorwerth: A critical text of the Venedotian code of Welsh mediaeval law, ed. A.R. William (reprinted 1979). The 13th-century lawbook of Iorwerth ap Madog.
- The survey of Wentwood 1271, published in O. Morgan and T. Wakeman, Notes on Wentwood, Castle Troggy and Llanvair Castle (1863).
- The Black Book of St David's ed. J.W. Willis-Bund (Cymmrodorion Record Series, no.5, 1902): A survey of the episcopal lands in 1326.
- Survey of the Honour of Denbigh, 1334, ed. P. Vinogradoff and F. Morgan (1914).
- The Red Book of Hergest, mostly written between 1382-1425, includes a list of the cantrefs and commotes of Wales, which is online.