Medieval Welsh manuscript to go for sale at auction

A 14th century manuscript containing the Laws of Hywel Dda is set to go up for auction next month, and is expected to sell for between £500,000-700,000.  Sotheby’s London will offer the medieval Welsh manuscript as part of its sale of Western Manuscripts and Miniatures to be held on Tuesday, 10th July 2012,.  It is the earliest manuscript of its kind ever offered in a public sale and the first medieval manuscript in Welsh to come to the market since 1923.

The Laws of Hywel Dda are attributed to Howel the Good, king of Wales (c.880-950). Partly derived from ancient Celtic and Irish justice systems, his laws are exceptionally liberal for their time: they focus on just restitution for crimes rather than violent punishments, and take progressive standpoints in their treatment of women, especially in respect to divorce and division of property. A woman could just as easily divorce her husband as he could her; and a woman who found her husband committing adultery was entitled to a payment of six-score pence (ten shillings) for the first occasion, a pound for the second, and could divorce him on the third.


The Laws of Hywel Dda came to be a crucial symbol of Welsh national identity, perhaps above any other Welsh text. It was the standard for Welsh law until Llywelyn ap Gruffyd’s rebellion against English overlordship in 1282; Llywelyn’s entreaty to King Edward I to maintain Welsh law was rebuffed by the archbishop of Canterbury, who believed that the laws had been inspired by the devil.

Dr. Tim Bolton, Sotheby’s Specialist in Western Manuscripts, told the BBC, “This is the text that goes to the heart of Welsh identity and I’m afraid, from my side and with some embarrassment, the somewhat stormy relationship with England in the Middle Ages.”


Remarkably, this manuscript survived in America, where large Welsh-speaking colonies were established in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The manuscript was the property of William Philipps (1663-1721), a barrister from Brecon, whose signature appears at the end of the volume, and most probably was carried to America by his immediate heirs. It was presented to the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, where it has since been kept.

This manuscript is one of only two medieval manuscripts in Welsh outside the UK, and is the earlier of the two. In fact, there are only 80 surviving medieval codices or fragments in Welsh, of which some two-thirds are now in the National Library of Wales, one-sixth in the British Library, and almost all others in institutional ownership in the British Isles. Thus, this is most probably the last appearance of a medieval manuscript in Welsh on the market.

Other works going for auction that day include individual pages or leaves from various manuscripts, other works, and even a Book of Hours from the the late 15th century that is expected to fetch between £20,000-30,000.

Click here to visit the Sotheby’s website

Sources: Sotheby’s, BBC