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23.02.05 Frame, Plantagenet Ireland

23.02.05 Frame, Plantagenet Ireland

It would be difficult to overstate the significance of Robin Frame’s work on medieval Ireland. [1] Over the last 50 years, he has transformed understanding of the English communities of medieval Ireland and how the lordship itself should be understood as a colony which was very much connected with a wider Plantagenet world. Frame has emphasized and, when necessary, reemphasized that the medieval lordship cannot be seen as a barbarous land beset by wildness and warfare, which English institutions and Englishness itself failed to tame. Instead, the lordship must be understood with reference to its own political structures, especially its patterns of aristocratic lordship, and its own multiplicities of culture, tradition, and organisation.

This volume collects fifteen essays. They span broad summaries of Frame’s understanding of Plantagenet Ireland and more specific pieces of empirical research filled with fascinating details. Most of these essays have been published before--the earliest date to the 1970s, but most postdate the publication of another collection, Ireland and Britain, 1170-1450, in 1998. Chapter 12 (“The Justiciarship of Ralph Ufford: Warfare and Politics in Fourteenth-Century Ireland”) has been revised extensively, but the text of the other reprinted contributions remains substantively the same. Much of the revision more generally has taken the form of updating the references to reflect new editions, new resources, and new research into Plantagenet Ireland, such as CIRCLE: A Calendar of Irish Chancery Letters, c.1244-1509, edited by Peter Crooks and hosted online. That such editions and resources have multiplied over the last half century is, in itself, a testament to the interest Frame has inspired in the topics of governance and politics in the lordship.

Of the fifteen essays, five are previously unpublished, and this review will provide more detail on these. After a brief introduction (15-19) outlining the scope and contents of the volume, chapter 1 (“Ireland within the Plantagenet Orbit”) acts both as a new reflection on the themes of government, politics, and society in Ireland which have occupied Frame for decades and as an introduction for the closer studies which follow. It is the longest chapter in the volume (occupying just under forty pages) and covers a great deal of ground with clarity and ease. Beginning with the assertion of Henry II’s authority over the settler aristocracy in 1171-1172, it surveys, in turn, the constitutional, political, and cultural implications of Ireland’s assimilation into Plantagenet rule as they were experienced over the following four centuries, setting each within the wider trajectory of the expansion and contraction of English-held territory within Ireland over time. Notably, despite this contraction Frame concludes that the “Irish Sea still linked two ‘English’ worlds” at the end of the Middle Ages.

This is not, of course, to say that medieval Ireland comprised anything like a “little England over the sea.” Most fundamentally, the English lordship did not in practice encompass the island of Ireland. Chapter 2 (“Ireland after 1169: Barriers to Acculturation on an English Edge”) explores a series of obstacles to integration between Gaelic Irish and English after 1166 which arose from the fact, “blindingly obvious” (64) but here understood in interesting and insightful ways, that Ireland was a partially conquered land. This prevented, by and large, the Gaelic aristocracy from being formally incorporated into the English nobility in Ireland but, despite all official prescriptions, cultural assimilation on the ground was extensive. The following chapter (“Historians, Aristocrats and Plantagenet Ireland, 1200-1360”) views the historiography surrounding the magnates of the lordship whose landholdings, connections, and Englishness were so central in maintaining English authority within the lordship. The hostility often traditionally displayed towards these lords by historians on both sides of the Irish Sea--although not G. H. Orpen--is explained and contextualised. Frame then contrasts this older perspective with a more recent emphasis on the enduring connections between the aristocracy of Ireland and English political society fostered by continuing engagement with the courts of the Plantagenet kings, and the importance of the Irish lords in the governance of the lordship itself. We should try to understand these lords, Frame urges, by removing as far as possible the modern equation of order with royal government and anarchy with aristocratic lordship.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 explore various aspects of the institutional framework of rule in Plantagenet Ireland. Chapter 4 (“Lordship and Liberties in Ireland and Wales, c.1170-c.1360”) adopts a comparative angle to draw attention to the apparently incongruous position of the jurisdictional liberties held by various magnates in Ireland. Although further away from Westminster, the timing of the conquest of Ireland and the extensive direct involvement of the kings of England in these conquests meant that the lords of aristocratic liberties in Ireland enjoyed a lesser degree of autonomy than those of the Welsh March. The following chapter (“Exporting State and Nation: Being English in Medieval Ireland”) focuses on Englishness in Ireland. It links the English state--limited in ways, but much “more than an empty shell” (119)--with the emergence of a distinct identity in the fourteenth century. The atmosphere of threat and anxiety which enveloped the borders of English Ireland in the fourteenth century made declarations of Englishness all the more desirable and this fostered a distinctive Englishness which enabled them to identify as English but also allowed them to ward off overbearing English officials. Chapter 6 (“The Immediate Effect and Interpretation of the 1331 Ordinance Una et eadem lex: Some New Evidence”) provides a short, closely focused study of the order that both English and Irish people should be administered under one law proclaimed in 1331. Frame analyses and prints two court records which prove that the 1331 enactment must have been well known in the Irish legal profession, at least in the early 1330s, and that it did open up some of the protections of English law to those born in Ireland without the necessity of a special, individual grant of privilege. Chapter 7 (“Kingship at a Distance: Did the Absence of the Plantagenet Kings from Ireland Matter?”) adopts a broader focus and draws Part I of the book to a close. Plantagenet kings very rarely visited Ireland--none did so between 1210 and 1394--and have often been condemned for neglecting to do so. Here, Frame rejects a teleology looking for the decline of English interests, and English interest, in medieval Ireland and instead suggests that there was little expectation that kings should visit all of their dominions regularly. And, in line with chapter 5, he points to the continuing prevalence of both royal institutions in the lordship and personal connections between England and Ireland as factors which, in some ways, reduced the need for his personal presence. Where the absence of successive kings was probably most significant was in removing the possibilities for Gaelic lords for interactions with the kings of England.

Part II of the book focuses more particularly on the late Middle Ages, traditionally understood as a period of decline and retreat in which English Ireland effectively shrank in the face of renewed Gaelic incursions and English indifference. These essays are unified by the desire to modify this narrative. Frame does not question that the territorial extent of direct English governance lessened from the late fourteenth century. He does, though, effectively question the assumption that this amounted to a wholescale collapse of English authority. In a lengthy, and new, chapter 8 (163-199) (“Devolution or Decomposition? Interactions of Government and Society in an Age of ‘Decline’”) Frame interrogates the use of the word “decline” as an automatic descriptor for the history of the late medieval lordship and finds it wanting. It fails to account for the flexibility and adaptability of English governance when “Government, as so often on the outskirts of medieval polities, was shading off into diplomacy” (185). Chapter 9 (“Rediscovering Medieval Ireland: Irish Chancery Rolls and the Historian”) was initially published to accompany the launching of a CIRCLE, a major project which reconstructed and calendared, as far as possible, the records of the Irish chancery. It is more narrowly focused than chapter 8, but accompanies its predecessor by providing a guide as to how wider conclusions on the actual distribution of power and influence in medieval Ireland might in practice be reached by using records with both industry and imagination. Chapter 10 (“G. O. Sayles and the ‘Institutional Turn’ in the Historiography of the Lordship of Ireland”) examines the contribution of a historian, G. O. Sayles, who, often in collaboration with H. G. Richardson, did make much use of government records. This is entertaining as well as insightful, and dwells on the huge contribution made by Sayles in furthering knowledge of English institutions in medieval Ireland before gently noting the limitations of what was, at times, an excessively institutional approach to the lordship.

Chapters 11, 12, and 13 together examine the rule of three English governors in the lordship in the mid-fourteenth century, Anthony Lucy (in office 1331-1332), Ralph Ufford (1344-1346), and Thomas Rokeby (1349-1355, 1356-1357). These studies are detailed and informative and are unified, since all examine how the insertion of English officials to the most powerful office in the colonial lordship actually worked. All three men were faced with the problem of Gaelic incursions, particularly in Leinster. Lucy and Ufford attempted to rule with the aid of large sticks, and this prompted serious tensions within local aristocratic society as the earl of Desmond, among others, reacted against perceived intrusions into his rights. Rokeby, in contrast, ruled at a time when tensions between the English earls in Ireland and the English crown were calmer, and this enabled him to organise parliamentary funding for the defence of Plantagenet Ireland and to launch campaigns not just in Leinster but in Munster. There are interesting contrasts here with chapter 7, since the desire for the justiciar to rule over the collective magnates of Plantagenet Ireland without dispensing undue favour on one faction was not, it appears, easily squared with the fact that the justiciar was himself a magnate or a knight, not a king. The final two chapters take a regional approach. Chapter 14 (“Two Kings in Leinster: The Crown and the MacMurroughs in the Fourteenth Century”) examines how the royal government negotiated the position of the heads of the MacMurrough dynasty, whose local power was integral to governance but whose claims to be kings of Leinster grated uneasily with the attitudes of English officials. Similarly, chapter 15 “Lordship beyond the Pale: Munster in the Later Middle Ages” moves beyond the assumption that royal governance had to be administered closely in line with English practices in order to achieve its ends by highlighting the viability of, and the benefits of, a looser assemblage of rule. Authority was most effectively maintained when it was mediated through both defined and informal relationships and power structures, including the heartlands of the earldoms of Ormond and Desmond.

It is not easy to find fault with this collection. Despite one or two slips, the text has been produced to a high standard by Four Courts. [2] The index is detailed and useful. The individual chapters all, in their own ways, bear the hallmarks of Frame’s scholarship, whether that be the ability to range across time and space to provide insightful syntheses, or to use a mastery of the surviving evidence to explain a particular topic (see, for example, chapter 6). If there is a criticism of this collection it is simply that it is a collection of essays rather than a cohesive whole, and at times the transition from one topic to another can require a conscious process of reorientation by readers. But that would be an unjust criticism of the book, given its purpose. Frame himself suggests: “Many--perhaps most--readers will dip into individual chapters rather than making their way through the entire book” (19). Most of those who read this collection will not be reviewers, and so Frame may well, of course, be right. If they are going to pick and choose, I would urge those interested in governance and politics in the pre-modern world generally to read chapters 1, 7, and 8, where the themes of interaction between local conditions and expectations and colonial governments are brought out in broad and sweeping ways. I would, however, encourage those interested in late medieval Ireland, in late medieval Britain, or in both, to try and take the time to read this book as a whole, rather than a collection of individual studies. It is when placed within the trajectory of Frame’s work more generally that this collection of essays can be properly understood and read with most profit. Reading this collection as complementary to, say, Frame’s monographic treatment of the mid-fourteenth century lordship (1982), or his panoramic view of politics and society across the insular world between 1100 and 1400 (1990), provides insight not just into the aspects of the history of the English colony in medieval Ireland directly engaged here but also into the evolution and contribution of the leading historian of medieval Ireland for the last half century. [3] Frame has excelled in bringing together pieces of evidence from a wide range of repositories and volumes to underpin his conclusions: the publication of this collection as a collection aids a similar process of scavenging to be done by those who wish to understand the lordship itself through Frame’s oeuvre. It is thus valuable for the purpose it fulfils as well as the scholarship it collects.

Naturally, some of Frame’s own interpretations have been updated or adapted--twice the Frame of 2022 is at pains to complicate what he now regards as the overly sweeping statement that the lordship amounted to a “patchwork of lordships” made by the Frame of 1977 (e.g., 179). Overall, however, it is striking how consistent and durable Frame’s work has been over the decades. This is because Frame has offered a perspective of the lordship which accounts for its contradictions, political varieties, changing fortunes, and particularities, as well as its wider relationships with, and significance within, the outside world. To my mind, Frame’s desire to account not just for institutions and constitutions but for power, influence and identity bears some comparisons with the work of K. B. McFarlane (discussed briefly by Frame at 234) which has also proved to be of enduring value. Like McFarlane, Frame has sought to understand an aristocratic society in a way that does not categorise lordship as an inherently negative, disordering force and central government as an inherently legitimate, ordering one. Frame’s work has taught that the preconceptions of Order, Control and Government that dominated the historiography of English Ireland for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provide an inadequate lens through which to view the history of the lordship itself. As Frame himself suggests, here and elsewhere, such conclusions are hardly limited to medieval Ireland. The task of historians of Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages, including those primarily working on England (such as this reviewer), is to continue to build on the foundations laid by Frame among others by continuing to explore the interrelationship between medieval governments and societies in a way that accounts for historical diversity and rejects overarching unifying narratives, which come bundled up with modern preconceptions. This collection is most valuable in helping us to survey those foundations and think about how they can be built upon in the future, both by Frame himself and by those trying to follow in his footsteps.



1. See, for example, Peter Crooks, “‘Framing’ the Anglo-Norman Invasion: Robin Frame on Medieval Irish History and Why it Matters,” History Ireland 20 (2012): 16-17.

2. Unfortunately “Plantagenet” is rendered “Plantaganet” on the book’s spine, although not elsewhere in the volume.

3. As well as his collected 1998 essays mentioned above, see English Lordship in Ireland, 1318-1361 (1982), The Political Development of the British Isles, 1100-1400 (1990), and Colonial Ireland, 1169-1369 (first published 1981; reissued 2012).