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15.11.06, Pollock, Scotland, England and France after the Loss of Normandy

The Medieval Review

15.11.06, Pollock, Scotland, England and France after the Loss of Normandy

Historians have long considered King John's loss of Normandy to Philip II of France in 1204 as an event of major significance, in the contexts of both Anglo-French relations and the internal development of the British polity. Until the opening years of the thirteenth century the Angevin rulers of England drew considerable revenues from the duchy and its strategic location dictated the course of much of the kingdom's diplomacy. Recent scholarship on the period representing the two or three generations preceding 1204 has demonstrated the strength of the social and tenurial ties that bound noble landholders on either side of the Channel and has shown that despite the challenges of serving two royal masters, many aristocrats succeeded in building vast lordships and vaster fortunes in the two realms. According to this scholarship the events of 1204 proved nothing short of disastrous, for Philip's seizure of Normandy spelled the end of the possibility of dual allegiance. Some families managed to ride out the storm by dividing their landed assets among two or more branches of their kindred, allotting lands won in the heyday of the post-Conquest period in England to one branch and ancestral territories in Normandy, Maine, and Anjou to another. Others proved unable to effect such satisfactory estate planning, especially those whose lands were of particular importance to Philip II in his designs to consolidate royal power in northern France. For most historians the consequences of the events of 1204 were momentous for other reasons as well: simply put, the loss of Normandy signaled the end of English dominance on the continent, a prelude to the eventual abandonment in 1259 of all English claims to French territories and, perhaps most significantly, a reorientation of English royal power within the British Isles.

Melissa Pollock's study of the aristocracy is based on a general acknowledgment of all three of these propositions, but it draws also on the perspective of the "new" British history in seeking to understand how the events of 1204 changed the relationship between the English crown and the satellite realms of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. In her study the landholding aristocrats of Scotland acquire the status of chief players in the development of political relations among the four British realms during the century between 1204 and 1296. The kingdom of the Scots became for refugees from Normandy a land of promise where families ousted from their continental holdings might recoup their fortunes, a place of refuge for men who had fallen from grace at the court of the king of England and a secure base from which to establish new political, economic, and personal connections with Ireland and Wales. Pollock's study, based on her 2006 University of St Andrews PhD dissertation, provides a wealth of information about dozens of different families. Her focus on the role of the aristocracy of the northern kingdom on the thirteenth-century political stage is sure to win admirers from among historians of Scotland and Europe more generally, but ultimately her book makes for a challenging and unsatisfying read.

Pollock begins her study by arguing that scholarly interest in the events of 1204 has to date concentrated almost exclusively on an examination of shifts in Anglo-French relations following the loss of Normandy, with scant attention paid to the equally significant changes that occurred in the relationship between Scotland and France. The genesis of the "Auld Alliance" of 1295, she suggests, lies firmly in an "Auld Amitie" that had its roots in 1204, but also in the disastrous reign of King John (1198-1216) in England. John's failure to hold Normandy led French aristocrats who had to date prospered there to cast their eyes northward in search of new landed wealth; in the Scotland of King William I (1154-1214) they found opportunities not only to acquire new land, but also to forge countless new dynastic ties with noblemen who had migrated there in the twelfth century. King John's thoughtless alienation of virtually all his subjects inevitably cast these nouveaux riches in the role of natural allies of the Scottish king in the latter's own contentious relations with the English crown. The geographical extent of the tenurial, social, and familial ties of leading aristocrats such as William de Briouze, Hugh de Lacy, and, a little later, the heirs of William Marshal, meant that opposition to the English king acquired pan-British dimensions, and in order to safeguard their wealth and interests the tenants, friends, and relations of men such as the Morevilles, Beaumonts, Mauvoisins, Comyns, Lacys, and Montforts in Ireland and Wales joined tenants, friends, and relations in Scotland to oppose King John. More significantly still for the future, John's naked aggression against the Scottish crown drove these aristocrats almost to a man into a natural alliance with John's avowed enemy, Philip Augustus of France. The "protective bonds" (50) thus established survived well beyond the baronial revolt of 1215; so, too, did they outlast even the brief periods when the English and Scottish kings were ostensibly at peace, notably during the reigns of Henry III (1216-72) and Alexander II (1214-49), the successors of John and of William I.

Pollock makes a series of convincing arguments for understanding how fraught relations between England and France in the thirteenth century had important political repercussions in the shaping of Scottish foreign policy. Another aim of her work is to demonstrate how political rapprochement between Scotland and France, had equally important consequences in shaping the aristocracy of the northern realm. William I's marriage in 1186 to Ermengarde, daughter of Richard of Beaumont viscount of Beaumont-sur-Sarthe, Maine, although regarded by many of his subjects as disparaging, marked the beginning of a long tradition of intermarriage between royal and noble families in the two realms. Both William's son and his grandson would later choose French women as second wives (each in the hope of securing direct heirs that a first English wife had failed to provide). Just as the loss of Normandy in 1204 changed the tenurial landscapes of England, France, and Scotland, so did it alter the tenor of the aristocratic marriage market. After 1186, and even more markedly after Philip II's seizure of Normandy in 1204, French landholders sought to reconstitute lost cross-Channel lordships by replacing the estates they had once held in England with new lands in Scotland (and, in some cases further afield in Ireland and, less frequently, in Wales). In the early years of the thirteenth century the newly forged friendship between the Scottish and French crowns facilitated the forging of fruitful dynastic links with a vast network of great French families. Pollock shows that the region of Picardy, which boasted ancient (if wholly mythical) connections with members of the Scottish royal family, offered especially rich soil for the cultivation of new tenurial, spiritual, and familial ties in this period, connections that were given meaningful expression both in the establishment of ties between northern French religious houses and Scottish daughter houses and in the heyday of the crusading movement. The links forged between French and Scottish society in the first half of the thirteenth century, she argues, were neither as numerous nor as intimate after 1250, largely because the long reign of Alexander III (1249-86) saw generally good relations between Scotland and England. Yet these connections were never entirely severed, and they stood the Scots in good stead in the 1290s, when Edward I renewed English efforts to establish dominion over the smaller kingdom to its north.

Pollock's book leaves little reason to question the central role that the landholding aristocracy of Scotland played in thirteenth-century Anglo-French politics. Scholars will find in this book a useful follow-up to the late Geoffrey Barrow's monumental study of the Scottish aristocracy of the generation after 1066 [1]; it reviews in considerable detail the later medieval history of hundreds of noble families whose dynastic roots lay in the period that Barrow studied so capably. Unfortunately, Pollock does not demonstrate here any of that great scholar's ability to master the demands of the prosopographical genre and this book is not an easy or a pleasant read. Pollock's analysis of significant developments in the cultural, artistic, literary, and intellectual histories of the century between 1204 and 1296 is minimal. Only once, in a discussion of the endowments of northern French and Scottish religious houses, does she venture beyond a bald recital of betrothals, marriages, births, and baptisms in one family or another. She has nothing to say, for example, about the ways in which material artefacts such as seals and other heraldic devices (all of which survive in abundance) offer valuable testimonials to the close personal ties that she posits between individuals and their extended families. Works of literature (especially romances), intellectual currents in philosophy and theology, and styles of manuscript illumination, all of which are known to have circulated in abundance in thirteenth-century France, must have traveled to Scotland in the wake of the noble men and women who moved so freely between the realms, yet Pollock makes no effort to assess or evaluate how these kinds of historical evidence amplify or challenge her findings. This is a real pity. While Pollock's book will probably become a useful reference for scholars interested in identifying the origins of thirteenth-century English, Scottish, and French aristocrats, it offers little of real substance to current understandings of the elite culture of this same period.



1. G.W.S. Barrow, The Anglo-Norman Era in Scottish History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980).