Franchises north of the Border: Baronies and regalities in medieval Scotland
By Alexander Grant
Liberties and Identities in Medieval British Isles, edited by Michael Prestwich (Boydell, 2008)
Introduction: Scottish franchises – especially the late medieval regalities, equivalent to English palatinates – have not had a good press from past historians. The common attitude is neatly caught in two statements from the 1950s: William Croft Dickinson (author of what is still the main institutional study of the subject) declared in 1952 that in late medieval Scotland ‘franchisal privileges grew, flourished and were assumed unchecked’, while in 1958 Peter McIntyre wrote (in the standard Introduction to Scottish Legal History) that the lords of regality ‘used the privileges they wrested from the weak kings of 14th century Scotland to establish an alternative system of government’. But that generation of historians developed their ideas within the crown-focused traditions of pre-1960s medieval English historiography, so it is hardly surprising that they had an anti-franchisal stance worthy (ironically in a Scottish context) of Edward I and his centralising lawyers.
However, at about the same time as Dickinson and McIntyre were writing, Joseph R. Strayer (whose ideas started with France rather than England) was developing a very different line, presented in two seminal, though neglected, essays on feudalism. His basic argument was that the concept of feudalism should be understood ‘to mean a type of government which was conspicuous in Western Europe from about 900 to 1300 and which was marked by the division of political power among many lords and by the tendency to treat political power as a private possession’. While the issue of feudalism can be set aside here, the main point is that the private exercise of public power by great lords was entirely normal across Western Europe between the tenth and the thirteenth centuries, and indeed was the defining feature of political society during that era. This came about because originally,
There was no possibility of establishing a centralized, bureaucratic administration; no ruler had enough money to pay and supervise local officials. Therefore, local administration and justice, which is the essential work of any government, had to be left to the leading men in each district, that is, the lords.
Although this passage refers to the earlier part of Strayer’s period, in Scotland the generally low level of crown revenue means that it applies throughout the Middle Ages. Hence, following Strayer, there is no need for the traditional censoriousness about private seigniorial rights of public government (which, technically, survived until the ‘Heritable Jurisdictions Act’ of 1747); they were always fundamental to how the kingdom was run.