By Peter Crooks
PhD Dissertation, University of Dublin, 2007
Abstract: This thesis offers a reappraisal of noble power and political culture in the English colony in Ireland in the late middle ages. It seeks to move beyond narrowly-conceived studies of the colony’s chief governors and institutional apparatus, which remain historiographical staples for this period. Implicit in such writings is the assumption that a firm central authority provided by the king was preferable to ‘unruly’ aristocratic power. This thesis is an attempt to interrogate that assumption by closely examining one ‘negative’ trait particularly associated with the English lords of late medieval Ireland: factionalism.
The prevalence of conflict in this period may at first invite pessimism; but by broadening the scope of the discussion, the thesis seeks to show that ‘lordship’ as exercised in English Ireland had much in common with societies in neighbouring Britain and beyond. A general review of these issues (Part I), serves as a prelude to a discussion of factionalism in a more confined period, 1361– 1423 (Parts II–IV). The thesis traces the course of a prolonged dispute between two of the most powerful noble houses in Ireland: the Butler earls of Ormond and the Geraldine earls of Desmond. By the 1420s, the Butlers and Geraldines had reached a temporary détente, but the thesis examines the origins of a second protracted struggle involving the Butlers, this time with relative newcomers to Ireland, the Talbot family (later earls of Shrewsbury and Waterford).
It is argued that the discords between these nobles cannot be explained simply by the ebbing power of the central government and the entrenchment of local lordship. Indeed, the English crown and its representatives in Ireland frequently aggravated noble conflicts. Moreover, the extent to which conflicts were bloody has been greatly exaggerated. Faction fights, far from indicating weakness at the centre, were in fact often conducted through the institutions of the central government. Consequently, ‘factionalism’ can serve as a conceptual key to open up a number of themes of more general significance, including the relationship between the resident nobles and the Dublin government; the interdependence of colonial and curial politics; the flexibility of the colonial identity; the sophistication of political culture; and the relationship between magnate ambitions and the broader concerns of the political community of the colony. Physical conflict did, of course, occur. Yet it is suggested that, here too, the picture is rather more complex than historians have allowed. The English nobles of Ireland had mechanisms for regulating their private affairs, such as arbitration, compensation and marriage settlements. These means of dispute settlement spun an intricate web of social affiliations that helped propel antagonists towards peace. Finally, by taking the discussion up to the year 1423, the thesis hopes to expose continuities in noble actions and attitudes across the chronological threshold of 1399, and demonstrate that the factional struggles of the Yorkist and Tudor periods in Ireland need to be placed in a continuum that extends back to the later fourteenth century.