The Earls of Strathearn from the twelfth to the mid fourteenth century, with an edition of their written acts
By Cynthia J. Neville
PhD Dissertation, University of Aberdeen, 1983
Abstract: The following thesis examines in some detail the social and political history of the earls and the earldom of Strathearn from the late 1120s to the mid-fourteenth century. It begins with a survey of the historical geography of the region, which includes a brief examination of agricultural zones, an account of the road systems which traversed medieval Strathearn, and a more detailed study of human settlement in the earidom. The distribution of farms and ‘touns’ which are documented in contemporary source material is analysed, and there are proposed a number of sites upon which fortified residences or castles belonging to the earls may have been erected.
An account of the lives and careers of the eight men who are known to have held the title of earl during the years c.1128 – c.1350 reveals two distinct periods in Strathearn history. The first includes the rules of the four earliest known earls: Malise I, Ferteth, Gilbert and Robert, from around 1128 to the year 1244. Generally, these four earls are sparsely documented in public record, and this paucity of written evidence conveys the impression that, as late as the middle of the thirteenth century, Strathearn had not been greatly influenced by the significant political, and especially cultural, changes which had occurred in Scotland in the one hundred years after the accession of King David I. These earls became involved only distantly with the king’s circle of familiares and, as a result, with the public affairs of the country. The private record which has survived from their period (and which dates no earlier than the 1190s) clearly indicates that Malise I, Ferteth, Gilbert and Robert were more deeply concerned with the administration of their own territories than with their role in the governance of Scotland. Under a thin veneer of conformity to the newer feudal customs and practices prevalent in large parts of the realm, they managed to preserve in their earldom much that was Celtic and native. The key terms with regard to this first period of Strathearn history are ‘traditionalism’ and ‘conservatism’.
A comparable account of the lives and careers of the last four native earls, Malise II, Malise III, Malise IV and Malise V, whose rules spanned the years 1245 – c.1350, reveals that, during this ‘second period’, the determined insularity of the earlier earls was consciously abandoned. Malise II and his successors became actively involved in the political events of the later thirteenth century and, as a consequence, were inextricably caught up in the struggles with England .which constitute such vital aspects of Scottish history from 1249 onwards. A study of the careers of the later earls indicates that they were motivated and driven by the same factors which shaped the lives of most of their fellow barons, native or Anglo-Norman.
These two distinct periods of Strathearn history are evident not only in the earls’ activities in Scotland at large, but also at a more local level. The organization of the household and retinue of each man is examined in some detail in this thesis. Evidence for Malise I and Ferteth is not forthcoming, but there has survived much material from the time of Gilbert (1171-1223) and Robert (1223-45). The household of the former in particular shows an interesting association of traditional Celtic officials, and ministers whose duties were more closely modelled on the royal example. Some of these offices – such as that of the steward – were hereditary. More important, the majority of the positions of responsibility in the household were filled by men whose origins were not Anglo-Norman, but Celtic and native.