Medieval Landholding in Wales

Hywel Dda, King of most of Wales. (National Library of 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.


Primary sources in chronological order