This is a book about aristocratic power or lordship in the British Isles in the later Middle Ages. ‘Lordship’ as a concept is currently not a common term in English parlance, even in the writings of British medieval historians. This is surprising in at least two respects. First, ‘lordship’, dominium, was a key word in the political, social, and indeed academic vocabulary of medieval Europe. It was a ubiquitous and fundamental term, be it (for example) the lordship of God or of the lord king (dominus rex), the lordship of the abbot over his monks, or the legal power that a husband (seigneur) had over his wife. It was an elastic, protean word. It could refer to the area over which a lord exercised his dominion—be it a manor, a duchy, or even a kingdom; but it could also be used to characterize conceptually the nature of that authority. Contemporaries could likewise refer to ‘the law of lordship’ (ius dominii) as shorthand for the relationship between lord and dependant.1 Theologians and philosophers argued learnedly about the justification and credentials of secular lordship (de civili dominio). In short, it was an infinitely adaptable concept (and word) in the medieval construction of the ordering of human relationships and in the justification of the exercise of power at all levels of society. But it is not a term which has been much favoured in recent British medieval historiography.
It is different elsewhere. This brings us to the second element of surprise about the low profile of the word ‘lordship’ in British medieval historiography. On the continent, notably in France and Germany, ’seigneurie’ and ‘Herrschaft’ are central terms in historical explanations of the evolution of European society. Thus Marc Bloch in his pioneering chapter in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe vol. 1 (1941) asserted that ‘for more than a thousand years the seigneurie was one of the dominant institutions of western civilization.’2 More recently another distinguished French medieval historian, Robert Fossier, is, if anything, even more assertive: ‘the seigneurie’, he declares, was ‘the primary organism of
1 ‘'jure domini’ quoted in R. R. Davies, ‘Lordship or Colony?’ in The English in Medieval lreland, ed. J. F. Lydon (Dublin, 1984), 142—60, at p. 143.
2 M. Bloch, ‘The Rise of Dependent Cultivation and Seigniorial Institutions’, in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, vol. I, ed. M. M. Postan, 2nd edn. (Cambridge, 1966), 235—90, at p. 236. Two English historians who have placed ‘lordship’ at the centre of their discussions recently are R. H. Britnell, The Commercialisation of English Society, 1000—1500 (Cambridge, 1993) and, seminally, R. Faith, The English Peasantry and the Growth of Lordship (Leicester, 1997).
everyday life between the tenth and the eighteenth centuries’.3 Were we to ask for a definition of seigneurie yet another French historian (and a pupil of Bloch), Robert Boutruche, provides a categorical and serviceable answer: ‘Seigneurie is a power of command, constraint and exploitation. It is also the right to exercise such power.’4 Now it may well be objected that the term ‘lordship’ is a feeble and inadequate translation of the French seigneurie and the German Herrschaft. It also needs to be acknowledged that American historians—notably Frederic Cheyette and Thomas Bisson—have waged a campaign to move the concept of ‘lordship’ nearer to the centre of Anglophone historical discussions of the Middle Ages.5 But the relatively low profile of the term, and the concept, in British historiography calls for a short explanation, if only because it may serve to reveal some of the unspoken assumptions and priorities which underpin historical discourse in Britain. Three reasons at the very least suggest themselves.
First, it may well be that in the profile of the distribution of power, there was a real difference between Britain, or rather England, and its continental neighbours in the high and later Middles Ages. England, and to a much lesser degree Scotland, was a king-centred polity; the influence and power of the king penetrated into the crevices of social and political life, directly or indirectly, throughout the country. There were, of course, other nodal points of power; but they were ultimately construed, especially by royal lawyers and apologists, as dependent and contingent upon regal authority and permission. In such a world the language —at least the legal language —is not that of seigneurie or of haute justice but of quo warranto, liberties, franchises, even palatinates, in other words of a king-centred hierarchy of authority. Any analysis of power (and of its mediators and agents) in such a world starts, and not infrequently ends, with royal lordship. Such an approach works less successfully in Scotland (in spite of a tendency in some Scottish historiography to imitate the English ‘paradigm’). It is even less appropriate, indeed misleading, as a set of assumptions for understanding the nature of power in medieval Wales and Ireland, including those areas under English control.
A second, associated reason for the scant attention paid to lordship in British medieval historiography may well rest in the nature of the sources. Historians are much more in thrall to their sources than they often realize. Indeed, their dependence grows as the volume of surviving written sources increases, as it does in particular from the late twelfth century. No country has been blessed with such an exceptionally rich and unbroken series of archives as England. Many of those archives are ecclesiastical; others are seigniorial or urban. But far and away the richest collections of records are those of the king and his servants;
3 R. Fossier, ‘Seigneurs et Seigneuries au Moyen Age’, in Seigneurs et Seigneuries au Moyen Age (Actes de 117e congres des societes savant) (Paris, 1995), 9—20, at p. 9.
4 R. Boutruche, Seigneurie et Feodalite 2 vols. (Paris, 1959—1970), II, 83.
5 F. L. Cheyette (ed.), Lordship and Community in Medieval Europe: Selected Readings (Huntingdon, New York,1968); T. M. Bisson, ‘Medieval Lordship’, Speculum, 70 (1995), 743 — 59.
they are unparalleled in their volume and detail and many of them have been conveniently calendared or edited for historians. They are normally the most natural and rewarding point of entry for historical research, be it at national, regional, or local level. It is a situation without parallel in most continental countries; it bespeaks the power and penetration of kingship. But it is as well to remember that even in England such documents present a view of power and society as seen through royal spectacles. No one would deny the importance of that view; but in any balanced and rounded appreciation of the exercise of power in medieval society, it falls very far short of the whole truth. It is a partial view; its partiality can occasionally appear all the more disturbing since there is in general a huge imbalance in the quantity and even quality of royal and non-royal sources for the study of the exercise of power in medieval Britain. It is the royal sources which are best placed to set the agenda and shape the assumptions.
But there is at least one other reason why an analysis of lordship has not on the whole figured prominently in British academic historiography, especially in comparison with the way that the nature of seigneurie often dominates the serried ranks of great French provincial studies from at least the time of Georges Duby’s epoch-making study of the Maconnais (1953), or with the degree to which longterm analysis of the nature and manifestations of Herrschaft has been a leading preoccupation of medieval historians in Germany.6 The writings of historians are shaped not only, or indeed not mainly, by the sources on which they draw but by the organizing principles, metaphors, and explanatory frameworks which inform and structure their accounts. Such principles, metaphors, and frameworks are part of their inherited intellectual and indeed professional agenda. They may add to or even challenge part of such an agenda; but the agenda shapes the questions asked and the answers given to a far greater extent than is normally recognized. It is difficult to suppress the suspicion that English historiography has given priority to issues other than lordship, such as state- and nation-formation, constitutional and institutional development, political structures and friction, crown-magnate relationships, and so forth. The importance of these issues is not, of course, open to question; but it is at least arguable that a more nuanced understanding of the distribution of power in medieval society in the British Isles needs to pay more attention to the role of non-royal power alongside the undoubted strength and penetration of kingship. That is part of the aim of this book.
Power, of course, is exercised by a whole host of agents at every level of society. Next to the king, it was the greater lay aristocracy which was the
6 G. Duby, La Societe aux xie etxiie siecles dans la Region Maconnaise (Paris, 1953); O. Brunner, Land and Lordship: Structures of Governance in Medieval Austria (Philadelphia, 1984) in English translation with introduction by Howard Kaminsky and James Van Horn Melton. For comment see inter alia James Van Horn Melton, ‘From Folk History to Structural History: Otto Brunner (1898-1982) and the Radical Conservative Roots of German Social History’, in Paths of Continuity: Central European Historiography from the 1930s to the 1950s, ed. H. Lehmann and J. Van Horn Melton (Cambridge, 1994), 263-97.
major wielder of power, lordship, in medieval society, as indeed in the ancient regime world generally. Indeed one historian has shrewdly observed that medieval England—that prototype of strong national monarchy in the textbooks—can best be characterized as ‘an aristocracy which was kingship-focussed’.7 If that is indeed the case—as I believe it to be—then characterizing the nature of the lordship of this aristocracy may help to give us a more rounded understanding of the distribution and exercise of power—‘the power of command, constraint and exploitation’, in Boutruche’s phrase—in medieval society.
The aristocracy has often received a poor press from historians. This may be in part because, at least in Britain, its power was still so dominant socially and politically until the early twentieth century that it called for no explanation or analysis. Familiarity turned to contempt as the aristocracy came to be identified as privileged bulwarks standing in the way of political and social progress. They came to be branded historiographically and politically as ‘feudal reactionaries’; their opposition and privileges inhibited the development of strong kingship and centralized, unitary state power, so often characterized by historians as the beneficent goals of true political and social progress. It was little wonder that K. B. McFarlane in his epoch-making Ford Lectures in 1953 uttered his famous jibe that English historians had been ‘King’s Friends’ and, by implication, enemies or at least detractors of the aristocracy.8 He set out to redress the balance (building in part on the work of other scholars such as F. M. Stenton and Noel Denholm-Young for the pre-1300 period) and did so triumphantly. It is given to few scholars to transform the landscape of our understanding of a past society; Bruce McFarlane did so with regard to the later Middle Ages in England, specifically the role of the lay aristocracy in its society and polity.
Since McFarlane’s seminal work, the late medieval aristocracy of the British Isles can no longer claim to suffer from historiographical neglect. On the contrary it has been the subject of a great deal of high-quality work from a variety of angles—be they detailed studies of individual magnates such as Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke (d. 1324), Thomas, earl of Lancaster (d. 1322), or Henry of Grosmont, duke of Lancaster (d. 1361), or collective studies of great aristocratic families, such as the Staffords and the Percies.9 Detailed studies of various aspects of aristocratic life and power have proliferated, exploring such issues as the organization of aristocratic estates and households, the character and
7 D. A. L. Morgan, ‘The King’s Affinity in the Polity of Yorkist England’, TRHS, 5th ser., vol. 23 (1973), 1-25 at p. 1.
8 McFarlane, Nobility, 2.
9 The following studies, cited in chronological order of appearance, may serve as examples: J. M. W. Bean, The Estates of the Percy Family 1416—1537 (Oxford, 1958); K. A. Fowler, The King's Lieutenant: Henry of Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster 1310—1361 (London, 1969); J. R. Maddicott, Thomas of Lancaster 1307—22: A Study in the Reign of Edward II (Oxford, 1970); J. R. S. Phillips, Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, 1307—1324: Baronial Politics in the Reign of Edward II (Oxford, 1972); C. Rawcliffe, The Staffords: Earls of Stafford and Dukes of Buckingham 1394-1521 (Cambridge, 1978).
composition of aristocratic affinities and their role in the phenomenon known unhelpfully as ‘bastard feudalism’, the elaboration of legal devices to control the descent of aristocratic estates, and the role of aristocratic women, especially widows and heiresses. The power of the greater magnates in English local society has been brought under the searchlight of numerous county studies, which reveal its extent and limitations by locating it within a wide social context of the county community and by bringing into clearer focus the standing and connections of the ‘greater county gentry’.10 All in all, our understanding and knowledge of the later medieval aristocracy is much more thorough, complex, and nuanced than it once was. This is particularly true of later medieval England and is reflected in several notable recent attempts to provide a sophisticated overview of aristocratic power based on these detailed studies.11 Elsewhere in the British Isles, where the materials for such detailed studies are less ample, significant strides have also been made in studying the nature of aristocratic power in the March of Wales, Scotland, and English Ireland.12
This book builds on this remarkable historiographical achievement, as it does on an older antiquarian tradition of assembling details of the personal and family histories of the aristocracy—from the time of William Dugdale’s pioneering The Baronage of England (1675—6) to the invaluable The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland etc. (1910—59) and, most recently, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). But its focus is, in some respects, different. It does not attend at length to many of the issues which have, very properly, commanded the attention of historians, especially English historians, of late—issues such as the nature of ‘bastard feudal’ relationships, the role of the aristocracy in ‘county’ society, the definition of a hereditary parliamentary peerage, or crown-magnate relationships. It will no doubt touch on many of these issues; but its primary aim is to try to characterize and analyse the nature of aristocratic power generally. In short, it is an essay on the sociology of aristocratic lordship. Its approach is thematic and analytical. There is, of course, a price to be paid for such an approach (as for all historical approaches), especially in terms of overlooking the particular circumstances and contexts of individual aristocratic families and of
10 Notable examples, from a long list, are: N. Saul, Knights and Esquires: The Gloucestershire Gentry in the Fourteenth Century (Oxford, 1981); S. J. Payling, Political Society in Lancastrian England: The Greater Gentry of Nottinghamshire (Oxford, 1991); C. Carpenter, Locality and Polity: A Study of Warwickshire Landed Society c.1401—1499 (Cambridge, 1992).
11 There is an excellent recent overview, with exemplary bibliography, in C. Carpenter, ‘England: The Nobility and the Gentry’, in A Companion to Britain in the Later Middle Ages, ed. S. H. Rigby (Oxford, 2003), 261-92.
12 Amongrecentstudiesare: The Marcher Lordships of South Wales, 1415-1536:SelectDocuments, ed. T. B. Pugh (Cardiff, 1963); Davies, Lordship andSociety\ K. J. Stringer, Earl David of Huntingdon 1152—1219:A Study in Anglo-Scottish History (Edinburgh, 1985); Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland, ed. K. J. Stringer (Edinburgh, 1985); J. Wormald, Lords and Men in Scotland: Bonds of Manrent, 1442—1603 (Edinburgh, 1985); M. H. Brown, The Black Douglases: War and Lordship in Late Medieval Scotland, 1300—1455 (East Linton, 1998); R. Frame, English Lordship in Ireland 1318-61 (Oxford, 1981).
underestimating the possible changes in the character of aristocratic lordship over time. But this—so it seems to me—is a price worth paying in trying to take the subject forward at this particular historiographical juncture.
The word ‘lordship’, dominium, was still ubiquitous in the social and conceptual vocabulary of later medieval Europe. Its very imprecision was in this respect its strength. It may well be that its relative unpopularity in current British medieval historiography is explained in part by its elasticity and vagueness, indeed its ambiguity, as a term. But at least it helps us to construe medieval society in some degree on its own terms and through its own lenses. Reconstructing the assumptions and language of that thought-world may help the historian to avoid some of the traps that beset him when he uses the terminology, analogies, and metaphors of the modern world—including the burgeoning of uniform state institutions and notions of sovereignty, accountability, and delegation of power—to characterize a medieval world which was, arguably, much more plural and disordered in its assumptions about power. As Karl Leyser once shrewdly observed of medieval Germany; ‘there was a teeming welter of developing princely and aristocratic lordships, lay and clerical, a bewildering variety of substructures;. . . they did not possess any common underlying grid or shared development and relative uniformities.’13 That may not correspond to the situation in England (though the cultivated uniformity of English power structures is itself a historical mirage); but it may be a more appropriate point of departure for the characterization of lordship in the British Isles as a whole. Not the least of the advantages of the recent attempt to promote a comparative study of the medieval British Isles is that it serves to draw attention to the distinctiveness of medieval England, rather than regarding it as necessarily a norm or prototype. 14
Lordship, so we quoted Robert Boutruche above, ‘is a power of command, constraint and exploitation. It is also the right to exercise such power’.15 But the ways in which power manifests itself and exercises its command are not in the least uniform. They are as variable as are the whole host of chronological, geographical, economic, and social matrices in which they operate. They range from the kind of intensive lordship that a lord exercised over his household or a manorial seigneur over his serfs to what has been called the extensive, tributary lordship which bound lords and communities in large swathes of upland Britain. Thus the kind of precise, intrusive and richly documented lordship which the bishop of Winchester exercised on his great manor of Taunton (Somerset) is very different in kind and intensity from the lordship of the Campbell lords of
13 K. Leyser, ‘Frederick Barbarossa and the Hohenstaufen Polity’, Viator, 19 (1988), 153—76, quote at p. 157.
14 Superb examples of reading ‘behind’ the official government records to the realities of power on the ground are provided in Robin Frame, Ireland and Britain 1170—1450 (London, 1998) esp. the chapter ‘Power and society in the Lordship of Ireland, 1272—1377’, originally published in Past and Present, 76 (1977), 3—33.
15 Above, p. 2.
the western Highlands of Scotland or of the lords of the March over much of upland Wales. Yet our analysis of lordship needs to encompass the whole range of ways in which lordship, notably aristocratic lordship, manifested itself. We must not necessarily privilege the lowland, manorial lordship of southern and midland England simply because of its rich documentary detritus.
A sensitivity to the chronological and geographical varieties of lordship within the British Isles should also help us to focus on some of the long-term features of lordship as a way of structuring power in medieval society. We must not be constrained unduly or myopically by the confines of the late medieval documentary evidence. The roots of lordship lay deep in medieval society. In late medieval England many of those roots had been overlain (though not necessarily totally hidden) by the development of royal, governmental, and communal institutions; but their importance for a rounded understanding of the reach and texture of medieval lordship remains. Lordship, including non-royal lordship, was ultimately founded on the personal control of men, on a psychology of dependence and beholdenness which applied throughout medieval society. That is why the first act of lordship was to demand a visual oath of fealty (possibly accompanied by an act of homage) from those who entered into dependence. Personal dependence was primary. That is why the strength of lordship in much of highland Britain was measured in the number of men it could command—say 2,000—rather than in rent income or landed estate;16 that is why again the first act of a lord was to go on a ‘progress’ through his ‘country’ and to exact homage ‘with hands raised and joined unanimously’ from his dependants. 17 That is why they were, and were called, his ‘subjects’, not simply his ‘tenants’. 18 That is why when the bond of manrent emerged as part of the contractual world of fifteenth-century Scotland it was the bond between man and lord which was at its kernel. 19 It is a reminder to us that there were features about the character and assumptions of lordship which lie beyond the shallows of the documentary evidence, and beyond the world-view of royal sources.
The chronological bookends of the study are the years 1272 and 1422. The choice of period needs a word of explanation. Apart from the pleasing symmetry of a period of a century and a half, there are—it has to be admitted—very personal, even selfish, reasons for the choice. First, it is the period with which I am most familiar since my earliest studies over forty years ago (under the direction of K. B. McFarlane) of the lordship of the Bohun and Lancaster families in the March of Wales. The study of aristocratic lordship has by no means been my main
16 Thus when Walter Bower in his Scotichronicon (ed. D. E. R. Watt, et al. 9 vols. (Aberdeen, 1987—97), VIII, 260—1) compiled a list of Highland chiefs for 1429 he appended an estimate of their followers in this manner: Kenneth Mor, ‘dux duorum millium’.
17 See Davies, Lordship and Society, 132—3 and sources cited.
18 Thus the duke of Buckingham referred to ‘nos tenauntz et subgetz de nostre seigneurie de Brekenoc en Gales’, NLW, Peniarth MS. 280D, p. 15.
19 See Wormald’s outstanding and wide-ranging study, Lords and Men in Scotland.
scholarly preoccupation during my academic lifetime; but it has been an abiding interest, sufficiently so for me to consider trying to distil my understanding, imperfect as it is, of its nature. Second, there is the issue of manageability. Part of the appeal of king-centred English (or Scottish) history is that one can construct a single storyline around one king at a time. Twelfth-century historians had recognized how much of a boon this was: so it was that Henry of Huntingdon heaved a huge sigh of historiographical relief when the day arrived when England was under a single king.20Historical construction was thereby greatly simplified. The historian of the medieval aristocracy enjoys no such luxury. Rather is he confronted by the dilemmas of multiplicity of dealing (to take England’s case only) with some twenty earls and about sixty peerage families at any given time. The most favoured solution to this dilemma has been to opt for the detailed monographic study of a single magnate or an aristocratic family. The alternative is a broad-brush characterization of the aristocracy as a group, thereby permitting broad generalizations, sometimes garnished with individual examples. My own approach in the current work lies between these polarities. Its starting point is the careers, interests, and documents of individual magnates and their families, but its declared purpose is to distil this information to try to characterize the nature of aristocratic lordship generally. Such an exercise in characterization can only be attempted by a rather ruthless process of selection and organization; that alone makes the subject manageable.
There is a third, less selfish reason for choosing the period 1272—1422 as the focus of study. It is truly the first age of detailed documentation for the study of the medieval aristocracy, especially in England. It is neither the heroic nor the really formative age in the shaping of aristocratic power. That accolade must surely go—as continental historians have so rightly insisted—to the period 1000—1250.21 Pioneering studies of lordship in England in this period have been undertaken by a roll call of historians such as Sir Frank Stenton, S. F. C. Milsom, Sydney Painter, David Crouch, Diana Greenway, Barbara English, Judith Green, and others. In Scotland scholars such as Grant Simpson and Keith Stringer have likewise shown what rich insights into aristocratic power and affinities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries can be secured through the detailed analysis of the careers and charters of individual magnates. We appear to be presented with a paradox: in England, at least, the seigniorial world—if such it was—of F. M. Stenton’s First Century of English Feudalism or S. F. C. Milsom’s legal world22 seems to give way in the thirteenth century to a world much more dominated by monarchical structures, national identities, unitary governmental
20 Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. D. Greenway (Oxford, 1996), 264 (cum jam ad monarchiam Anglie pervenimus).
21 See especially the essays by Fossier and Contamine in Seigneurs et Seigneuries au Moyen Age (Actes de 117e congres des societes savant) (Paris, 1995).
22 F. M. Stenton, The First Century of English Feudalism, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1961); S. F. C. Milsom, The Legal Framework of English Feudalism (Cambridge, 1976).
institutions, a growing distinction between the sphere of ‘the public’ and ‘the private’, and what has been called the rise of the modern state. Why, therefore, deploy as a tool of analysis a term—lordship—which was apparently becoming increasingly outmoded?
A large part of the answer lies in the undoubted fact that the quality and quantity of documentation for the study of lordship in action grows by leaps and bounds after c.1250. Up to that point it is through charters—documents mainly concerned with the title to, and transfer of, land—that these studies have overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, viewed their subject. In this respect there is a quantum leap, especially in England, in the range and character of documentary sources for the study of aristocratic power from the mid to late thirteenth century onwards. Manorial accounts and surveys, household accounts, receivers’ accounts and valors, court rolls, registers ofcorrespondence, indentures of personal service, and muster lists now survive in considerable numbers. Their survival is indeed very patchy, especially as compared with royal archives, and very uneven as between the major aristocratic families. But they allow us to study lordship in detail and in action in a fashion that is not at all possible for earlier periods. This rich cache of sources continues after 1422; but some of them become increasingly stilted, even uninformative and new genres of evidence begin to accumulate.
Now that the chronological limitations of the book have been explained, it is equally important to note the selective group of lords who are chosen for analysis. One deliberate omission is the great ecclesiastical lords. There is, of course, no doubt that they were often drawn from the same social stock as their lay colleagues and exercised a range of powers of lordship which were very similar. Thus William Courtenay and Thomas Arundel, two successive archbishops of Canterbury 1381—96, 1396—7, and 1399 — 1414, were younger sons of notable comital families and fully familiar with the habits and priorities of the lay aristocracy. Nor would Abbot Clowne of St Mary’s, Leicester, or Abbot Thomas de la Mare of St Albans—both of whom have been memorably characterized in the chronicles of their abbeys—have felt in any way ill at ease in the company and conversation of earls and barons. There were around 1300 some fifteen bishops and thirty abbots and priors who had the same order of wealth and much the same powers of lordship as the major secular lords of England. None of this can be gainsaid; yet—issues of manageability apart—the differences between the ecclesiastical and lay aristocracy were profound, especially in terms of the themes of this book—be it in family policy and priorities, the institutional context in which they operated, their role in local and national politics, their social and military contacts, and so forth.
Even when the ecclesiastical lords have been excluded, there is the vexing question of how we define the lay aristocracy. ‘Aristocracy’ and ‘nobility’ are—at least in Britain—ill-defined and elastic terms; qualifying them as ‘greater’ or ‘higher’ still falls short of providing clarity of definition. ‘Nobility’ in particular
can be extended as a term to include arguably all members of ‘gentle’ society, at least those who adopted the style of ‘knight’ and family coats of arms. Arguably even more important is the undoubted fact that the powers of lordship exercised by lords, great and small, were broadly similar in character. Particularly is this true of the dozen or so elite gentry families so characteristic of many English shires and composing an intermediate group between the greater barons on the one hand and the manorial or parish gentry on the other. In certain respects it is the continuum in the exercise and character of lordship—from that of the greatest earl to the two- or three-manor county knight—which is one of the most distinctive features of medieval and early modern society. They were all lords, domini, seigneurs.
Indeed it can be argued that in aggregate terms it was the lesser lords rather than the great earls and barons who dominated the landscape of local society. The English evidence is particularly striking in this respect. J. M. W. Bean has pointed out that, of the seventeen counties for which comparison can be made based on the 1412 tax returns, in only four did the proportion of the landed values held by the peerage or higher aristocracy exceed 25 per cent; in none did it reach 30 per cent.23 Or to put it more positively, the great majority of gentle landowners held land with an annual return of £20—£39. Side by side with these bold statistical claims, we can place the series of country and family studies—of which those of Nigel Saul have been outstanding examples24 —which have greatly enhanced our understanding of the role of the greater gentry in the social and power structures of provincial England and, by extension, to some degree of the lairds of lowland Scotland, the second-rank families of English Ireland such as the Le Poers or the Roches, or even of the leaders of native society in highland Britain such as the uchelwyr of Wales. These men were no pawns; their power and standing were part of the matrix within which lordship, both aristocratic and royal, had to learn to operate. Not the least of the achievements of recent scholarship has been to show that even great magnates such as John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, found their power in the localities severely constrained by the existing distribution and ambitions of local lordship and families.25
All this is readily conceded; lordship spans the whole of the ruling class or classes of medieval society. It may have been displayed in all its finery and sophistication in the world of earls and barons; but in its fustian form it served equally well to describe the power of the countless lesser lords of the British Isles. Yet that is but one half of the argument. It is equally undoubtedly true that lordship was stratified in a clearly recognized hierarchical form. This was
23 J. M. W. Bean, ‘Landlords’, in The Agrarian History of England and Wales, III, 1348—1500, ed. E. Miller (Cambridge, 1991), 526 — 86, at p. 530.
24 N. Saul, Scenes from Provincial Life: Knightly Families in Sussex, 1280—1400 (Oxford, 1986); N. Saul, Death, Art, and Memory in Medieval England: The Cobham Family and their Monuments, 1300-1500 (Oxford, 1990).
25 S. K. Walker, The Lancastrian Affinity, 1361-99 (Oxford, 1990).
acknowledged in contemporary terminology—be it in titles (for example, duke, earl), forms of address, and clearly differentiated rates of pay for military service. However much the various ranks of domini were united by a common code of chivalry, knighthood, and gentility, they were under no illusions about the profound divisions in their ranks in terms of wealth, status, and political weight. Magna Carta c.14 in 1215 had acknowledged as much by its differentiation between those lords who were given the privilege of an individual summons to meet the king in ‘common council’ from those who had to make do with a general summons through the sheriff of their county. Already by the 1230s and the 1240s the notion of a ‘peerage’, an elite group of lords, was in circulation, and some of the earliest Rolls of Arms likewise identified the most prestigious families, about one hundred in number.26
This process of the definition of an elite of higher aristocrats—what K. B. McFarlane termed the ‘stratification of the nobility’27—gathered institutional pace in our period. Its most obvious expression was the growing definition of a hereditary parliamentary peerage. Whereas in the late thirteenth century the numbers of magnates who were summoned individually to parliament was still fluid and somewhat unpredictable, this increasingly ceased to be so as the fourteenth century progressed. Already by Edward Il’s reign the number of earls and barons receiving individual writs of summons to the English parliament was beginning to settle down at about sixty. No property qualification was laid down for the group—though a thousand marks of landed income was coming to be regarded as the territorial competence for an earl—but we would not be far wrong to suggest, with Barbara Harvey, that landed income of c.£400 per annum was the threshold.28 This, therefore, was the creme de la creme of the nobility; and they were aware, increasingly so, that they stood apart.
Stand apart, head and shoulders above the rest of gentle society, they most certainly did. That is why Rodney Hilton’s analogy of them as skyscrapers standing out from the plain of the other lords, local and regional, remains apposite. The figures that can be culled from the 1436 income tax returns make evident the huge economic gulf between the peerage and the gentry.29 Nor was it merely or even mainly a matter of income and statistics. The greater lords enjoyed a range of privileges to which few ordinary lords could aspire—such as
26 D. Crouch, The Image of Aristocracy in Britain, 1000—1300 (London, 1992),esp. 22—5, 105.
27 McFarlane, Nobility, 122 — 5.
28 B. Harvey, ‘The Aristocratic Consumer in England in the Long Thirteenth Century’, in Thirteenth Century England VI, ed. M. Prestwich, R. Britnell, and R. Frame (Woodbridge, 1997), 17-37.
29 R. H. Hilton, A Medieval Society: The West Midlands at the End of the Thirteenth Century (London, 1967). Hilton’s metaphor is an exact echo of that used by John Stafford, archbishop of Canterbury 1443 -51, who likened the nobility to mountains towering above the hills and plains of the lower classes—as quoted in G. L. Harriss, Shaping the Nation: England 1360—1461 (Oxford, 2005), 93. T. B. Pugh, ‘The Magnates, Knights and Gentry’, in Fifteenth-CenturyEngland, 1399—1509, ed. S. B. Chrimes, C. D. Ross and R. A. Griffiths (Manchester, 1972), 86-128.
the right to license markets and fairs in their own boroughs, the right to free warren on their demesnes, licences to empark their lands, and often extensive jurisdictional franchises. But it was perhaps above all their lifestyle and social circles which proclaimed their superiority and the distance between them and other wielders of lordship. They operated on a national, sometimes indeed an international, stage; they were the companions of kings and captains of their armies; the size and splendour of their households put them in a league apart, as did the size of their affinities and the tentacles of their influence and power; their marriage alliances to their social peers further promoted their apartness, while the wide distribution of their estates and residences—not infrequently extending into England, Wales, and Ireland—reaffirmed their national, as well as their local or even regional, standing.
Those who were not members of this magic circle fully recognized the superiority of the group and the due deference that was owed to it. Thus when Sir Hugh Hastings commissioned a brass in the late 1340s for his greater glory in the church of Elsing in Norfolk it was the king and great lords whom he had served who were commemorated —Edward III, the earls of Warwick and Pembroke, the Lords Stafford and Despenser among them.30 This was not mere flattery; rather was it a recognition that this was how the world of power was, and should be, constructed with lesser lords turning in the orbit of the greater ones and basking in their patronage. Much the same point is made even more vividly manifest in the famous, and highly revealing, set of windows at Etchingham in Sussex. The king and members of the royal family are given pride of place in the east window of the nave; they are flanked by the earls of England, probably all twelve of them; Sir William Etchingham relegated his knightly neighbours to the nave.31 Contemporaries, in short, would not have been surprised by the prominence we give to the great lords; it reflects their view of the world.
In this analysis of lordship there is a further reason for concentrating on the greater lords—indeed on a handful of them. It is quite simply that, on the whole, it is only for this group of lords that we have a range of documentary evidence on which to build a nuanced understanding of the exercise of lordship in the long fourteenth century. This is surely no accident. Rather it is that the sheer extent and complexity of their estates and households required them from a fairly early date to use written records to supervise and control their affairs.32 The historian is the beneficiary of this triumph of the written word in the seigniorial world, notably in the appearance of annual accounts. In fact such records as survive are only the
30 Discussed in Age of Chivalry, no. 678. See also M. Keen, Origins of the English Gentleman: Heraldry, Chivalry and Gentility in Medieval England, c.1300—c.1500 (Stroud, 2002), 52—4.
31 Fully discussed in Saul, Scenes from Provincial Life, ch. 5.
32 There are excellent introductions to seigniorial household and manorial accounts respectively in Household Accounts and P. D. A. Harvey, Manorial Records (revised edn., London, 1999).
tips of a much larger iceberg of lost documents. That is why the analysis in the chapters which follow relies heavily on a few relatively well-documented English aristocratic families—notably the Beauchamps, Bohuns, Fitzalans, Lancasters, Mortimers, and Staffords, supplemented occasionally from the archives of other families.33 The search of such records could no doubt have been greatly extended and deepened; but the sample is—it is hoped—sufficiently broad to allow us to characterize the main lineaments of aristocratic lordship in the fourteenth century.
Of the six major English families mentioned above, all held extensive lands in the March of Wales as well as in England; the Mortimers also had very extensive interests in Ireland. This directs us to another feature of this book which calls for explanation and defence, namely its ambition to draw on evidence for the study of aristocratic lordship from different parts of the British Isles. First, a disclaimer. The book has no pretensions whatsoever to make an original contribution to the study of aristocratic power in Scotland or English Ireland nor, frankly, are the surviving records—especially household and estate accounts—for these regions to be compared with those for England or even the March of Wales. Nor have I attempted to characterize the nature of noble power in the native ‘Celtic’ societies of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. Some excellent studies have been undertaken of late in this area; but these will only be drawn upon here to characterize how ‘English-style’ aristocratic lordship sought to adjust to the social landscape of ‘Celtic’ societies.З4 In other respects the patterns and dynamics of power, compounded by the very different and very inadequate range of sources, do not lend themselves to meaningful comparison with ‘English-style’ aristocratic lordship or its terminology.
Nevertheless there are good reasons (other than the pursuit of current historiographical fashion) for extending the scope of this study beyond the confines of England. We should observe, first, that the great lords of England, the March of Wales, and English Ireland were, in many respects, members of a single club, bound by ties of marriage, sociability, territorial ambition, and service.35 A handful of illustrative examples may drive home the point. Territorially, the landed interests of William de Valence (d. 1296), half-brother of King Henry III, are indicative: he held Goodrich Castle (Herefordshire), estates in twelve English counties (especially in southern England), a share of the lordship of Pembroke
33 I have also had the advantage of consulting K. B. McFarlane’s transcripts of seigniorial documents in Magdalen College, Oxford. Where I cite from these transcripts the reference is preceded by an asterisk *.
34 A notable study is K. Simms, From Kings to Warlords: The Changing Structure of Gaelic Ireland in the Later Middle Ages (Woodbridge, 1987).
35 R. Frame, ‘Aristocracies and the Political Configuration of the British Isles’ in his, Ireland and Britain, 1170—1450, ch. IX.
in west Wales, and the lordship of Wexford in south-east Ireland. The marriage alliances of Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster (d. 1326), whom we will meet below, likewise illustrate the ecumenical links of these great magnates. Of five of his daughters, he married one to an English earl, another to a Scottish earl, and a further three to major Anglo-Irish earls. Earl Richard’s military career likewise underlines the fact that the stage on which these leading families conducted their public careers was a British or even a European one: he was summoned to take troops to Wales, Scotland, and Gascony just as his contemporary, John fitz Thomas, served in Flanders and Scotland.36 Ultimately the focal point of the world of these men—where their fortunes were made and unmade—was the court of the king of England. It was he who could even instruct them whom to marry and it was from the ranks of leading English magnates that they chose their sureties when faced with political disaster. Whatever the differences in the landscape of power, there was a continuum in their aristocratic world which our historical analysis should serve to respect.
Scotland was different: the pattern ofits great provincial earldoms and lordships was, in many respects, quite distinct from that of England and the evolution of notions of peerage did not march in step with the English story.37 More important, Scottish aristocracy had its own focal point—socially, militarily, and institutionally—in the court and power of the king of Scots. It was a much smaller and much less tightly textured circle of power than that of the English, Marcher, and Anglo-Irish world; but it was at least a separate orbit. Yet the Scottish experience should not lie altogether outwith the scope of this analysis. Recent studies (especially by Keith Stringer) have emphasized that a not inconsiderable number of Scottish lords held estates in England or in Ulster, at least until the breach inaugurated by the Wars of Independence in 1296. The continuum and contrasts in the exercise of lordship across national boundaries—as was vividly shown in Stringer’s analysis of the lordship of Earl David of Huntingdon in the English east Midlands and Garioch (Scotland)—in themselves provide a valuable insight into the varying character of aristocratic power.38
This is, indeed, ultimately the defence for casting our net widely in the British Isles in pursuit of our characterization of aristocratic lordship. There is, of course, no doubt that the quality and quantity of historical evidence for the study of aristocratic power 1272—1422 is infinitely superior for England than for any other part of the British Isles. But it is evidence of a particular kind—mainly
36 ODNB, sub ‘Burgh, Richard de’; ‘Fitzgerald, John fitz Thomas’.
37 Alexander Grant has published a series of fundamental studies of the later medieval Scottish aristocracy, including ‘Earls and Earldoms in Late Medieval Scotland, c.1310—1460’, in Essays Presented to Michael Roberts, ed. J. Bossy and P. Jupp (Belfast, 1976), 24—40; ‘The Development of the Scottish Peerage’, SHR, 57 (1978), 1—27.
38 See in general the excellent maps in Atlas of Scottish History to 1707, ed. P. G. B. McNeill and H. L. MacQueen (Edinburgh, 1996). For Stringer’s studies see above, n. 12.
of lowland, manor-centred lordship, an aristocratic power already substantially fossilized in its forms and, crucially, operating within a framework of strong and intrusive royal control and within complex societies in terms of the distribution of social, jurisdictional, and political power. It is an image of aristocratic lordship which is reflected likewise in other parts, especially anglicized parts, of the lowland British Isles—be it in the lowlands of Glamorgan, Gwent, and Pembroke in Wales, in the rich valleys of south-east Ireland or of Meath, and in tracts of lowland southern and eastern Scotland. But it is an image which needs to be supplemented by considering the character of lordship in upland regions of the British Isles, including much of the north of England, and in areas where non-English societies preserved the forms and organization of native lordship, and where powers ofdirect royal intervention and control were limited. Not only does this alternative image help to give geographical nuance to our portrait of aristocratic lordship in the British Isles, it also extends greatly our understanding of the range and character of lordship itself. It helps us to recognize what a protean and flexible institution aristocratic lordship was.
It is the nature of the power exercised by this elite group which is primarily the subject of this current study. Lordship, particularly that of great lords, was ultimately more than exploitation or power, even if it was most certainly that also. Its legitimacy derived from its claim that it afforded maintenance and protection, ‘good lordship’ as it would be known in later medieval centuries. It was a reminder that there was a mutuality at the heart of lordship and a set of social obligations which both parties were expected to observe. We may cite an example of such mutuality, and of its limits, from the north-east March of Wales. Thomas of Lancaster (d. 1322), the most powerful aristocratic lord of his day, sent a letter to the men of the lordship of Bromfield and Yale around 1318 promising to be ‘a good lord to them’; but, with his usual gruffness, there was a sting in the tail of his offer: ‘he has sworn that he will have them one way or another.’ The community sized up the threat realistically. They calculated, rightly, that their current lord, John de Warenne, earl of Surrey (d. 1347), was no match for Lancaster in ‘power’; but they also added, revealingly, that they would ‘be ready with their bodies to maintain his honour, if they but have a leader who might defend them’.39 They were fully apprised of the dynamics and duties of lordship and dependence alike. Glanvill in his treatise on the laws of England was eloquent on that score c.1180: ‘What the man owes to the lord because of his homage is also owed by the lord to his man because of lordship, except for deference alone.’40 Much of this mutuality may have been ironed out in England, especially lowland England, by the institutionalization and territorialization of
39 Cal. Anc. Pets., no. 8829.
40 Glanvill, Tractatus de Legibus et Consuetudinibus Regni Anglie, ed. G. D. G. Hall (London, 1993), 107 (9.4) [Prof. Davies’s translation].
the obligations of dependence and by the common wash of royal institutions and claims; but elsewhere in the British Isles the patriarchal, personal, and protection features were still evident and operative. We need to try to capture some of these features as we seek to trace the varying contours and practice of lordship across the face of the late medieval British Isles. We are so used to assessing power and its effectiveness in governmental, bureaucratic, economic, and narrowly political terms that we are in danger of overlooking—or underestimating—the range of attributes and claims which lay at the heart of medieval lordship. These attributes and claims are not itemized in the charters, accounts, and registers of lordship even in the later Middle Ages; but they form the foundations on which the whole edifice of lordship—including ultimately royal lordship—was founded. Three of them in particular may be briefly identified.
Lordship was part of the natural order of the universe. The lordship of men on earth corresponded to that of the Lord God. Its legitimacy was not normally open to doubt. English kings, and historians, may have made a great deal of the phrase ‘by the grace of God’ in their formal titles; but since all the powers that be are ultimately ordained by God, that same grace was the source likewise of aristocratic lordship, indeed of all lordship (as theologians such as John Wycliff never tired of declaring). This was not merely a matter of schoolmen’s talk. Rather was it the way in which the proper ordering of the world and society was interpreted. The values of this world were manifested—in a fashion which it is very difficult for the modern mind to grasp—in the exalted position accorded to those who, literally and metaphorically, lorded over it. What great lords expected ultimately was nothing less than worship, precisely what the believer owed to the Lord God. The hugely inflated formulae of address—both of letters issued by them and petitions addressed to them—open a window onto this world. ‘Ryght high and mighty prynce and my right good lord’ is how the earl of Oxford addressed the powerful duke of Norfolk; more modestly Edward Despenser, lord of Glamorgan, was ‘illustrious and magnificent lord’.41 The habit had also caught on in Scotland, as the letters to the members of the Douglas family amply illustrate: ‘most excellent and most dread lord, James earl of Douglas’ is one example of the fashion.42 We can dismiss such hyperbolic formulae as part of the inevitable inflation of language; but we would be wrong to do so. Not only do the formulae reflect the self-image of the aristocrats themselves (or their chancery clerks); they also remind us that the world of lordship was founded on a defiantly hierarchical world order. Lordship was not only a matter of power, land, and income; it was also based on a particular view of the social and political order.
41 The Paston Letters, 1422—1509, ed. J. Gairdner, 3 vols. (London, 1910), I, 143; ‘Private Indentures’, no. 57.
42 For this and other examples see Mort. Reg., II, nos. 109, 129, 180, 220.
The other side of the coin to ‘worship’ was ‘deference’. The vocabulary of subordination echoes throughout the documents: ‘honour’, ‘reverence’, ‘right’, ‘obedience’, ‘humility’.43 So does the vocabulary of obedience, even at the higher echelons of social dependence. ‘I will do in all and singular’, said an Irish chieftain as he submitted in 1394, ‘that which a good and faithful liegeman ought to do and is bound to do to his natural liege lord’.44 Again we can dismiss such phraseology as conventional flattery. But not only does it pervade medieval sources—from feudal charters to manorial formulae and indentures of retinue—it also opens a window on the, often unspoken, set of assumptions which shaped all relationships of dependence. The return on ‘worship’ was ‘good lordship’, ‘bone seigneurie , ‘la meilleure seigneurie et bienveillaunce’.45 And, as the duke of Norfolk said in a famous letter, the goodness or ‘power’ of the lordship he exercised in his ‘schir’ operated ‘at all tymes . . . thowh our persone be not dayly her’.46 This was the framework within which all lordship ultimately brought its authority to bear on society. We must not lose sight of this framework as we attend to the particularities and details of aristocratic lordship in action.
Finally the term ‘lordship’ reminds us of the open-ended and multifaceted nature of the exercise of power in the Middle Ages. Historians have divided their current analysis of power into compartments—social, political, economic, and so forth; they have drawn a sharp division between so-called ‘public’ and ‘private’ power; they have arranged their scheme of power within clear-cut institutional and governmental frameworks. In so far as the concept of ‘lordship’ has survived this assault, it has been largely reduced to a rent-collecting lordship, stripped of its social, judicial, or political overtones. Such was not medieval lordship. The great F. W. Maitland knew as much: ‘Personal, tenurial, justiciary threads are woven into a web that bewilders us.’47 Some of those threads became disentangled in the central—later Middle Ages as kingdoms and states began to appropriate them to themselves. But for the most part ‘lordship’—including nonroyal lordship (so consistently underrated by English medieval historians)—still operated across large swathes of the lives of those who lived—as individuals and communities—under its authority. ‘Medieval terminology’, so asserted Otto Brunner, ‘. . . made no distinction between public and private lordship, but knew only diverse kinds of lordship, rulership, justice and authority’.48
43 For an outstanding exposition of the language of dependence, service, and lordship in the fifteenth century, see R. Horrox, Richard III: A Study in Service (Cambridge, 1989), ch. 1.
44 E. Curtis, Richard II in Ireland, 1394—5 (Oxford, 1927), 151.
45 Such phraseology abounds in the letters and petitions assembled in Anglo-Norman Letters and Petitions, ed. M. D. Legge (Oxford, 1941).
46 Gairdner (ed.), Paston Letters, I, 230.
47 F. W. Maitland, Domesday Book and Beyond: Three Essays in the Early History of England, foreword by J. C. Holt (Cambridge, 1987), 339.
48 Brunner, Land and Lordship, 202.
Such a claim—based as it was on German and Austrian evidence—may seem exaggerated; but when we recall that at least the Marcher lords of Wales talked of themselves as ‘royal lords’ enjoying ‘royal lordship’ or when a shrewd Tudor commentator referred to them as the ‘soveraigne governors of their tenantes and people’, we are at least reminded that our danger is to underrate the ambit and manifold activities of medieval lordship.49 It is the intention of the chapters which follow to try to capture some of the whole variety of ways in which aristocratic lordship impinged on society in the British Isles in the later Middle Ages.
For secular lordship in the medieval West, S. Reynolds, ‘Secular Power and Authority in the Middle Ages’, in Power and Authority in the Middle Ages: Essays in Memory of Rees Davies, ed. H. Pryce and J. Watts (Oxford, 2007), 11—22. A study of its ‘golden age’ is D. Crouch, The Birth of Nobility: Constructing Aristocracy in England and France, 900—1300 (Harlow, 2005).
For lordship in late medieval France (and Burgundy), P. Contamine, La Noblesse au Royaume de France de Philippe le Bel a Louis XII. Essai de Synthese (Paris, 1997). C. Allmand (ed.), War, Government and Power in Late Medieval France (Liverpool, 2000) contains relevant essays by K. Daly, ‘ ‘‘Centre’’, ‘‘Power’’ and ‘‘Periphery’’ in Late Medieval France’, G. Small, ‘Centre and Periphery in Late Medieval France: Tournai, 1384—1477’, and G. Prosser, ‘ ‘‘Decayed Feudalism’’ and ‘‘Royal Clienteles’’: Royal Office and Magnate Service in the Fifteenth Century’. In D. Potter (ed.), France in the Later Middle Ages (Oxford, 2002) see G. Small, ‘The Crown and the Provinces in the Fifteenth Century’ and G. Prosser, ‘The Later Medieval French Noblesse’.
For a British Isles perspective on lordship, P. Morgan, ‘Ranks of Society’, in The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, ed. R. Griffiths (Oxford, 2003) and B. Smith, ‘Lordship in the British Isles c.1320—c.1360: The Ebb Tide of the English Empire?’, in Power and Authority in the Middle Ages. Essays in Memory of Rees Davies, ed. H. Pryce and J. Watts (Oxford, 2007). For England, S. Walker, Political Culture in Later Medieval England (Manchester, 2006), especially the essays in part 1, ‘Lordship and Service’; C. Dyer, ‘The Ineffectiveness of Lordship in England, 1200—1400’, in Rodney Hilton’s Middle Ages: An Exploration of Historical Themes, ed. C. Dyer, P. Coss, and C. Wickham. Past and Present Supplement 2 (Oxford, 2007). For the exercise of lordship on the lands of the bishopric of Winchester, The Winchester Pipe Rolls and Medieval English
49 Quotations and sources in Davies, Lordship and Society, 217, 222.
Society, ed. R. Britnell (Woodbridge, 2003). For the lordship of the Campbells, S. Boardman, The Campbells, 1250—1513 (Edinburgh, 2006). Important essay collections for Scotland and Ireland are The Exercise of Power in Medieval Scotland, c.1200—1500, ed. S. Boardman and A. Ross (Dublin, 2003) and Lordship in Medieval Ireland: Image and Reality, ed. L. Doran and J. Lyttleton (Dublin, 2008).