09.07.10, Holden, Lords of the Central Marches

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Kathleen Thompson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0907.010


Holden, Brock W.. Lords of the Central Marches: English Aristocracy and the Frontier Society, 1087-1265. Oxford Historical Monographs. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008. Pp. xvii, 280. ISBN: 978-0-19-954857-6.

Reviewed by:
Kathleen Thompson
University of Sheffield

There is one castle in Herefordshire for every nine square miles. This is a happy state of affairs for the local tourist industry, anxious to encourage visitors to what is one of the quietest and least industrialised of all the English counties, but it is also a powerful reminder of the medieval history of the area to which Brock Holden has devoted his attention. Dr Holden apologises for the "rather awkward geographic labels" that he has chosen to use, but it is often hard to find appropriate names for the zones of instability that lay along borders in the Middle Ages and the concept of a march would have been familiar during that period throughout Western Europe. This is a study that puts its focus on borders, as many have in recent years, for as frontiers were becoming more porous all over Europe, we became interested in how our ancestors had handled the interaction between peoples in marginal zones.

The book is structured in eight chapters. The introduction expresses the author's intention to identify the challenges that led to the development of Marcher society and to show how Marcher lords dealt with those challenges. To illuminate Marcher lordship and how it changed over time, he examines five families: Braose, Clifford, Lacy, Monmouth and Mortimer. None was a great baron in 1086 by Corbett's definition, though they are among some of the most well-known families of English history. Chapter 1 describes the Formation of the Frontier between 1086 and 1166 and is followed by thematic considerations of Lords and Honours; the Knightly Class; and the Role of Royal Government. A more chronological treatment is adopted for chapters 6 and 7: the region in respectively the reigns of Richard I and John, 1189-1216 and Henry III, 1216-46. The eighth chapter is a conclusion.

The book is nicely produced and easy to read. The footnotes are clear and the bibliography is thorough. An index is provided, though a decision seems to have been taken to exclude most women's names, so one looks in vain for help in finding references to the Sibyls, Berthas and Matildas, whose inheritances were an important factor in the marriage strategies described in the book. There are seven genealogies and it might have been helpful to have had an eighth, outlining the family of the Welsh Prince Llywelyn, since Welsh names are often difficult for non-Welsh-speakers. The genealogies demonstrate the "drift" that is common in printed genealogies, where descenders slip away from the individuals they were intended for and point to marriage symbols (see particularly the last generation of Baskerville daughters) and, in the case of the Mortimer genealogy, to a wife, Agatha de Ferrers, rather than her husband, Hugh Mortimer.

Brock Holden sees Marcher lordship as a construct with diverse meanings over time (3). The lordships had been "organized first and foremost with military concerns in mind" (86). As the Welsh, heedless of the change at the top of English society, continued their struggle to recover what they had lost to their English neighbours in conflicts protracted over generations, Norman kings encouraged generally Norman, though sometimes Breton lords, to expand from Herefordshire, particularly towards Brecon. During the twelfth century both the lords and their knightly tenants sought to develop their estates, both in Herefordshire and in the new lordships in Wales, yet the costly military imperative remained. Knight service still had to be performed, castles still had to be guarded, and even more castles were built in the early thirteenth century as the Welsh united under their Prince, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth. Whether they were for defence or display, the multiplicity of castles in Herefordshire, which is such an attractive feature of today's landscape, contributed to increasing indebtedness and, the author suggests, led to reduced religious patronage among the lords and knights of the Marches.

In the early part of the period covered in this book, royal influence on the March was limited to the occasional high-profile intervention with varying degrees of success: Henry I was usually successful, but Stephen, for example, was not. Under Henry II the grip of royal government was extended throughout Herefordshire and the new legal developments had the effect of hardening the contrast between Herefordshire and the March that lay beyond it, where the king had less influence. Marcher lordship, which had originally received royal encouragement, now came to be characterised in contrast to royal power, if not outright opposition. The "liberties" of Marcher lordship, for example, emerged in response to the extension of royal justice in neighbouring Herefordshire and, when Henry II came to an accommodation with the Welsh leader, the Lord Rhys, the Marcher lords were left with no outlet for expansion. The Marcher lords were further alienated by King John's policy of active intervention in the Marches and the shocking story of his treatment of the Braose family is well-known to students of his reign. Brock Holden thoughtfully re-examines this incident, linking it to the king's seizure of Lacy lands to indicate John's desire to be master in his own backyard. Where John was heavy- handed and interventionist, the government of Henry III was weakened by civil war and the Welsh grew in confidence and unity under Llywelyn, but Henry did succeed in placing his own men, such as Hubert de Burgh, in the region. The Marcher lords came to rely on the king's power as only his resources were sufficient to resist the increasing power of the Welsh and the rebellion of Richard Marshal failed to attract much support in the March. As he reaches the end of his period of study Holden notes that "it is ironic...that the increasing cost of holding their own against the Welsh, expressed in their new masonry fortifications and the resulting debt, ultimately brought many Marcher lords more firmly under the control of the Crown" (217).

This is a thoughtful and thorough work which engages with all the relevant contemporary debates and builds on the work of Rees Davies, Robin Frame and Robert Bartlett. It places the central Marches of Wales within the context of the new British history, looking at the history of the peoples of the Atlantic Archipelago against a background of the aristocratic diaspora from the north of France. Its preoccupation is with the aristocracy, but it also takes into account recent work on knightly society, for as the author observes, "in hierarchical societies elites matter". In its use of a case study approach, taking a few aristocratic and knightly families and following their histories throughout the period, it is a useful antidote to rather tired institutional approaches that have concentrated on the honour court and the development of the common law. It is on occasion repetitive and its author openly admits that its findings are sometimes "utterly typical" of other parts of England, but it is helpful to have a reconsideration of this particular area in the light of the major historical advances of the past twenty years.

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Author Biography

Kathleen Thompson

University of Sheffield