I'm always impressed by the depth of research and thought behind your
learned 'musings' and do find myself having to rethink issues because of
To be honest I can't recall my source for the Gavelkind entry on my Help
Page, it must be over 10 years old, but Philip Yorke's "The Royal Tribes of
Wales" is quoted all over the net, including, dare I say it, on wikipedia
Another admission is that I have sometimes, through lack of knowledge
mostly, failed to distinguish adequately between English and Welsh customs.
It certainly worries me to be included in the same breath as Iolo Morgannwg
So, a revision/update of my Help Page is clearly overdue.
May I use your contribution below as a basis for an early revisit to my
rather brief Gavelkind effort?
Genuki Wales http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/wal/
Help Page http://home.clara.net/tirbach/hicks.html
From: Theo & Anna Brueton
Sent: Sunday, August 28, 2011 11:46 AM
Subject: [Dyfed] Gavelkind and bonheddwr - musings on Welsh history
A problem for Welsh historians is the shortage of documentary sources (as
compared say with Engand) which demonstrate how our ancestors lived. A
of popular history is based on long-standing tradition rather than on
documented fact (or, in the case of Iolo Morgannwg, on invented sources).
Thus when using secondary sources such as Philip Yorke (1799) on
it's important to ask why is s/he saying this?
I'm not sure that Yorke (quoted by Gareth in his help pages and by yr
actually knew a great deal more about the operation of gavelkind than we
do. It seems to me that he was trying to use the custom to seek to
the differences in the standard of living in England and Wales in his
for those who styled themselves gentlemen.
In reading about gavelkind and land tenure I have found the following two
Gavelkind, at the time of its abolition by the Acts of Union, was
to be a very long-standing custom of inheritance among the Welsh, Irish -
and the people of Kent. (Surprisingly, though it was abolished in Wales
1536, this did not happen in Kent for another four centuries.) It seems
hardly possible that a custom should last so long if it was constantly
subject to the problems of subdivision described by Yorke. Nor have I
across it used as an explanation for the poverty of Kentish gentlemen!
are a number of possible ways in which gavelkind may have operated to
these problems; the following are a few:
in many cases the land was not actually subdivided, but male heirs
received an equivalent to their share in other assets. This might
the case where sons found occupations away from the land. There
references to the eldest son getting his father's horse and the
youngest the tyddyn
inheritance was not the only means of acquiring land - princes had
land they could grant as rewards to their supporters
waste land could be brought into cultivation
In the period leading up to the Act of Union, major events such as the
plague, which is thought to have killed a third of the population, and
Glyndwr wars must have caused major redistributions of land holdings. The
accession of the Tudors enriched many Welshmen who had supported their
cause. The dissolution of the monasteries, contemporary with the Acts of
Union, also made more land available to the laity. Moreover, gavelkind
not obtain in the whole of Wales; in the Englishries, for example,
primogeniture might be the rule. The upshot of all this is that there
many factors in addition to gavelkind which affected landholding and
was a probably great deal more variety in the size of estates than yr
implies in his statement that "It took untill the 18th Century before
were any large estates in Wales."
It seems to me that a more likely explanation of the poverty of the
"Welsh gentleman" is that "bonheddwr" was not exactly equivalent to
English "gentleman", but applied to a much wider section of the
The basic division of Welsh medieval society was into bonheddwr - the
and taogion - unfree, equivalent to English villeins. According to the
society.shtml , "Early sources, in particular the archaic sections of the
Welsh lawbooks, indicated the taeogion were the great majority, but by
they had become a minority in most parts of Wales." Inevitably if the
proportion of the population in Wales who are are "bonheddwr" is larger
the proportion of those who are "gentlemen" in England their average
landholding will be smaller, but that does not imply anything about the
distribution of size of holding.
In English law primogeniture does not override the wishes of someone who
leaves a will. It would be interesting to know whether many Welsh
in the period following the abolition of gavelkind nevertheless divided
their assets equally among their sons rather than leaving the major share
the eldest. I have a later example in my family, though it recognises
daughters as well as sons.
William Griffiths (d.1826) left to each of his younger children fifteen
pounds and a cow in calf. An older son who had already left home
Â£10, and the eldest, who had been supported through an extensive period
education, receved nothing. His wife took over the running of the rented
farm, which passed to the youngest son when she retired. In her will she
left a yearly income from the farm to each of the surviving children.
looks very much like an attempt to give each child an equal share of the
family assets, though whether this was motivated by an enduring belief in
the principles of gavelkind is impossible to say.
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