As my wife and I walked across Wales this summer, we developed an inside joke that probably only a couple of historians on vacation could find quite as hilarious as we did. Whatever sight happened to be before us—whether an ancient, ruined castle, a range of green hills in the distance, or the ham and cheese sandwiches in our backpack—we described (in grandiloquent tones, often with one arm outstretched) in terms of the number three. Thus:
“Three are the delicious ales we have consumed this evening!”
“Three are the miles we walked totally off course earlier this afternoon!”
Forgive us. Like I said, we were on vacation, and we were overcome by mirth. We were also entertaining ourselves with a sly reference to an especially interesting—and revealing—feature of Welsh legal history.
As I mentioned in my last post, our walk followed two great long-distance trails. We began our journey on Offa’s Dyke Path, which runs 177 miles along the Welsh-English border, from Chepstow, a medieval port town in the south, to Prestatyn, a working-class seaside retreat in the north.
From a historical point of view, the path is exciting because it passes directly through a region of the country known as the Marches—the frontier. The Marches were the object of violent struggle for control for hundreds of years, first between the Britons and the invading Anglo-Saxons, then between the invading Normans and the Welsh, and finally between the Welsh and the English. The charming stone castles that dot the landscape are now filled with poetry and romance, but originally they were the medieval equivalent of the Green Zone in Iraq. They were administrative centers and military garrisons from which a foreign army projected its force.
Like many frontier regions today, legal clarity in the Marches was often in short supply. Who controlled what land? Whose courts would enforce which rules? What were the rules, anyway? As a result, legal historical records from the region are spiced with what from a safe distance are thrilling, colorful stories of lawlessness and banditry.
When I was teaching, I especially enjoyed working with my students to understand the case of Lady Jane Strange v. Kenaston to illustrate the situation. The case was brought to the Court of Star Chamber in 1508, when Wales was in a state of chaos caused in part by jurisdictional uncertainty.
In the case, Lady Jane Stanley—aka Joan le Strange, Ninth Baroness Strange of Knockin (yes, I fear so)—asked the court to subpoena one Humfrey Kenaston of Stokes. Kenaston was a first cousin once removed of “wild Humfrey” Kenaston, a local Robin Hood figure who, in the words of one scholar, indulged in various “acts of depredation upon the rich and whimsical generosity to the poor.”
According to Lady Jane, this cousin of wild Humfrey—who, judging by her account, was pretty wild himself—forced his way onto her estate in Ellesmere with over forty conspirators, armed to the teeth with bows, arrows, swords, and spears. He and his men then cut down and carried off eighty of Lady Jane’s “great oaks.” They also threatened her servants, putting them “in great fear and jeopardy of their lives.”
As Lady Jane explained in her petition, she would have brought her case against Kenaston in a local court rather than in Westminster, but the local court was in fact under her own authority—in essence, the court belonged to her—and it was unlikely she could enforce its judgment against the leader of the riotous local mob.
If you’d like to see a record from the case, substantially edited to make it more readable, click here. You can also consult the Publications of the Selden Society, Vol. 16, Select Cases Before the King’s Council in the Star Chamber, 1477-1509, p. 274-5.
Offa’s Dyke Path roughly follows the line of a much earlier marker of this contested, often lawless frontier: an extraordinary earthwork barrier—a wall—built in the late eighth century by King Offa of Mercia. The wall stretches for over 80 miles, and even today, after over 1100 years, it can still rise up to 12 feet high. I’ve posted an image of the dyke above, and two below:
What did it take to build such a wall? To provide a point of comparison, consider your own humble bathroom at home. If you have ever tried to replace loose tile in your shower, you know how difficult it is. A project you may have naively imagined would take a few hours in fact turned into a weeklong ordeal of cutting, shaping, grouting, and cursing.
Picture, then, a bathroom tiling project that’s over 80 miles long. And 12 feet high. And (if you include the ditch in front) 60 feet wide.
What it took to complete such a project was political authority—power. It required the ability to command a great many men for a common purpose. Offa’s Dyke is a monument to the consolidation of such political power in the kingdom of Mercia.
Like the other great kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, Mercia had grown from the Germanic tribal bands that crossed the North Sea in the early fifth century and engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the native Britons, pushing them to the west—where in time they became known as the Welsh. Over centuries, these Germanic tribes merged, expanded, and became more hierarchical. Their rulers, or kings, extended and deepened their power.
Offa’s Dyke dramatically marks this political development, and it points to a number of related Anglo-Saxon achievements from around the same historical period, such as the minting of gold and silver coins (take a look at this one in the British museum, with its fascinating inscription in Arabic).
Perhaps the greatest achievement of all that arose from the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon royal authority was the growth of Anglo-Saxon law: the proclamation of longstanding custom and the creation of new rules that would be enforced in the courts of ever-more-powerful kings. This law formed the substrate of the legal system that, in the wake of the Norman invasion of 1066, became the English common law.
I talk about this story in detail in my forthcoming book The Rule of the Clan, and I won’t go into here, except to say that as my wife and I walked along the Offa’s Dyke path, we were not only aware that we were striding atop a great monument to Anglo-Saxon royal power. More particularly, we thrilled to the fact that just to our east, on the right side of Offa’s wall, where the land was flat and fertile, was the far edge of a realm where, over a thousand years ago, our own legal system lay in embryo, waiting to be born.
Here I am, on top of the wall, cheesily trying to channel David Attenborough (don’t worry: my filmmaking and narrating skills will grow with time):
And on that—more next time.