09.05.09, Prestwich, ed., Liberties and Identities

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Elizabeth Ewan

The Medieval Review baj9928.0905.009


Prestwich, Michael (ed.). Liberties and Identities in the Medieval British Isles. Regions and Regionalism in History. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2008. Pp. viii, 225. ISBN: 978-1-84383-374-1.

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Ewan
University of Guelph

With the recent interest in British historiography in the concept of the medieval state, a collection devoted to liberties, which by definition were supposedly outside the control of the crown, might seem at odds with the general trend. However, as the editor and the authors of the individual essays in Liberties and Identities in the Medieval British Isles demonstrate very effectively, liberties, franchises and regalities had a crucial role to play in the functioning of the medieval state. They need to be seen as integral to society and not as a sign of the failure of the state. For the most part liberties worked in cooperation with royal power rather than outside and apart from it, although the extent of that cooperation could vary from place to place, with the crown holding the ultimate sanction of forfeiture. Most of the essays suggest that government was mediated through the regions, rather than being imposed by the centre.

A map near the beginning of the volume (6) dramatically illustrates how much of the land of medieval England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales was included in the various liberties of the British Isles by c. 1250. Indeed, it suggests that in some ways it was the south east of England with its relative lack of such jurisdictions which was the exception rather than the rule, a point made in Keith Stringer's overview essay, "States, liberties and communities in medieval Britain and Ireland." The volume as a whole covers all parts of the British Isles. Partly due to the collection's origin as a colloquium held by a research project on liberties in Northeast England, however, the focus tends to be on the Anglo-Scottish border lands, with one essay on the Welsh Marches and one on the Irish liberties. One feature which emerges is the difference in the functioning of liberties in the different parts of the British Isles. Alexander Grant, for example, argues that Scotland was "overwhelmingly a land of franchises--perhaps more so than anywhere else in Western Europe" (161). Perhaps the exceptional nature of Scotland is reflected in the length of his essay, by far the longest in the book! Those familiar with Grant's earlier work in this area should note that this essay is the result of further research on this topic since then and updates some of his earlier points.

Several interesting themes emerge from the various essays. In line with recent debates in British history, a central concern is the issue of community and identity. To what extent did the inhabitants of liberties identify with their local lord and lordship rather than the king and kingdom? In Scotland, as Grant points out, the seigneurial courts were the courts of first instance for the majority of Scots and would be their main contact with government. On the other hand, Beth Hartland, in her examination of the Irish liberties in Edward I's reign, suggests that in the particular conditions of Ireland, the liberty was not necessarily the primary focus of loyalty and identity, either for the inhabitants or their lords.

One important point which emerges from this collection is that each liberty was unique so that questions of identity were bound to vary. This is brought out especially in Max Lieberman's essay "Striving for Marcher Liberties: The Corbets of Caus in the Thirteenth Century" which examines a variety of factors, including geographical location, the enmity of the king and the ethnic makeup of the inhabitants, to explain the varying fortunes of the liberties of Clun, Oswestry and Caus in the Welsh Borders. Grant's essay on Scotland also demonstrates the different ways in which liberties could emerge at different times. As Stringer points out, acknowledging the work of R.R. Davies on the topic, the medieval state was less uniform than might seem at first glance, and historians need to examine the complexity of its power structures.

The role of law in shaping community and identity within the liberties and the way in which liberties maintained public order is emphasized in several essays, including Cynthia Neville's examination of "Arbitration and Anglo-Scottish Border Law in the Later Middle Ages." She argues, indeed, that it was the particular character of these laws, developed to deal with ongoing warfare in the region, which set the border areas apart from their neighbours. She emphasises especially the importance and widespread use of arbitration at all levels, with its speed and flexibility making it suitable to war conditions, as well as allowing for cross-border settlements. The enforcement of law in an area which suffered ongoing warfare is also a focus of Henry Summerson's essay, "Peacekeepers and Lawbreakers in Medieval Northumberland, c.1200-c.1500" which examines an area traditionally seen as exceptionally lawless. Summerson argues in fact that public order did not collapse in this region; in many respects attitudes towards crime and disorder and the particular use of the law by jurors were remarkably similar to those identified by historians for other more settled regions of England. In Caus in the Welsh Marches, on the other hand, the use of English courts by the Corbets was one of the factors which weakened their claims to the privileges of a liberty. Law could be used as a force of exclusion as well as cohesion, especially in Wales and Ireland.

The impact of war between Scotland and England on the lords and inhabitants of the liberties is a theme of many of the essays, including those by Neville and Summerson, and the discussions of Norhamshire by M.L. Holford and of Tynedale and Redesdale by Claire Etty. Holford examines the competing claims of royal and episcopal power over the liberty and the growth of royal power and connections in a time of war in the first half of the fourteenth century. The essay demonstrates the complexity of the question of identity, with some leaders of local Norhamshire society becoming increasingly integrated into the wider realm through royal service, but at the same time the continued use of episcopal courts of its lord, the Bishop of Durham, by the inhabitants within the liberty. Holford points out that the Bishop himself saw himself as the king's minister and therefore part of the wider body politic. Etty's essay also shows the interaction of crown and liberty, examining the relationship of royal officers with the leading families or 'surnames' of Tynedale and Redesdale. Her essay demonstrates how relations between crown and liberty could change over time; the increasing appointment of strangers rather than local families to royal office in the north and east marches in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, led to growing negative perceptions of the surnames as "alien." One issue which many of the authors face is the difficulty of looking at events from the perspective of the liberty, when the survival of local records is much poorer than the survival of those from central government.

The question of war is also examined by Michael Prestwich who questions the traditional view that liberties were established by the crown primarily for military purposes, especially on the Welsh March and the north of England. He points out that only Durham was exempt from military service, with royal commissions of array raising troops in liberties as they did in other parts of England. However, military service, although undertaken on behalf of the king, did tend to reinforce bonds of identity as the men of a liberty would serve as a unit under their own lord. Military service is also a theme examined by Melanie Devine in her study of 'The Lordship of Richmond in the Later Middle Ages' which emphasizes the continuation of feudal relationships in Richmond, even in an age more commonly associated with bastard feudalism.

This collection invites historians to "address more systematically how far it is appropriate to speak of centralised states within the British archipelago" (15). Grant argues for Scotland, for example, that the unity of the realm was strengthened rather than weakened by the crown's lack of interference in local affairs and that the two- part public-private structure of government survived there until the fifteenth century. Stringer points out that in England, the Quo Warranto proceedings of Edward I might suggest a hardening of royal attitudes towards the independent privileges of liberties, but asks how effective was this in practice? The crown did not have the resources to assert its authority everywhere, even if it so desired. In Ireland, for example, royal power was not necessarily seen as the best answer to disorder in the unsettled parts of the country; Hartland sees conflict with the lords of the liberties coming more from the administration based in Dublin than from the crown. In demonstrating the complexity of medieval government and suggesting that the centralised state is not necessarily the most advanced form of political development, the contributors to this volume have made a major contribution to the ongoing debates about the nature of the medieval polity in the British Isles.

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Author Biography

Elizabeth Ewan

University of Guelph