The practice of Irish kingship in the Central Middle Ages

The practice of Irish kingship in the Central Middle Ages

By Mark Joseph Zumbuhl

PhD Dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2005

Abstract: The institution of kingship was a fundamental feature of medieval Irish society; if we can better understand kingship, we can similarly gain a greater appreciation of the distinctive features of that society. This thesis investigates the practices of Irish kings and dynasties in the Central Middle Ages (roughly, the ninth to twelfth centuries) as represented by the sources. Several kingdoms and dynasties of medieval Ireland are closely studied with reference to different aspects of royal practice. There are two particular elements of this methodology. The first is to trace the practices employed by the kings of those dynasties over time; this gives us a greater sense of how kingship changed through the centuries, and enables us to move away from the static and synchronic models of kingship which have informed much previous scholarship. The second is to focus closely on these kingdoms so that we may gain a better sense of regional variation within Ireland. The investigation proceeds with the belief that Irish conditions may be better understood by reference to parallels drawn from the wider European context.

This thesis demonstrates that the nature of Irish kingship and the practices of its kings are more sophisticated and varied matters than has been realised. The ‘dynamic’ model of kingship is validated, but it has become clear that we must allow for a greater degree of variation in the strategies and styles of Irish royal practice, both regionally, and as time progressed. Many features were common to the whole Irish polity; this is not surprising, for pre-Norman Ireland, as mediated to us through the sources, appears to possess a remarkably uniform culture. However, in different ways, the ruling dynasties of Mide, Ailech, Munster, Bréifne and Osraige innovated and contributed to the development of Irish royal practices, and arguably to the nature of Irish kingship itself. The thesis also re-examines the arguments which have been advanced that the nature of kingship had profoundly changed by ca 1200.

The sources of the eleventh and twelfth centuries certainly allow us to discern a considerable extension in the powers of the greatest overkings. These sources also record for the first time a number of practices which hitherto had not been noticed; however, the extent to which such practices were new features of the period is difficult to determine. The proposition that local kings suffered a drastic decline in status (as opposed to power) in the same period is reappraised, and found to receive little support from the contemporary sources, principally the chronicles. The thesis demonstrates that overall, we must think of Irish kingship as a dynamic institution, but one in which many different kings and dynasties, were significant, rather than the select few which have received the most scholarly attention. The medieval Irish polity was more complex, but therefore more interesting.

Click here to read this article from the University of Glasgow

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