By Tim Thornton
Scottish Historical Review, Vol.77:1 (1998)
Abstract: Although Scottish during much of the medieval era, the Isle of Man was under British control during the late medieval and early modern historical period. However, the association between England and the island was not close. London did not exert much influence over Manx political affairs. The fact that the island functioned largely as a self-governing entity supports the theory espoused by various scholars that the British authorities adopted a gradual, decentralized approach to governing newly acquired territories.
Introduction: One of the major trends in Western European historiography in the last twenty years has been a fascination with territorial expansion and with the consolidation of the nascent national states of the late medieval and early modern period. Writers have attempted to examine the methods by which autonomous territories were progressively brought under central control and integrated with core territories, and by which conquered territories were divorced from their old allegiance and brought under the control of the conquering power. Interest in this process has grown in step with the realisation that it was far from the straightforward absorption once imagined. This has stemmed in large part from the general realisation of the 1960s and 1970s that local political society was more independent and less responsive to central direction than high-political history had previously assumed.
The consequence of such work has been to emphasise that the processes of conquest, coalescence and integration were slow ones, cautiously entered upon and enacted by both central and local elites. An important example of this approach is the volume Conquest and Coalescence, edited by Mark Greengrass and published in 1991. In his introduction, Greengrass emphasised ‘how cautious and prudent Europe’s statemakers often were, how dominated by the historical logic of the state tradition of the past in their own regions, even when faced with fortuitous and manifestly opportune circumstances in which to increase their authority and impose their will. Christian Desplat, for example, described how in the seventeenth century ‘the [French] monarchy displayed considerable flexibility in its attitude towards the Estates of Beam and, although it reduced its power, it did so without fuss … it would be wrong to imagine that the relationships between local and central authority were always bound to conflict.’
Recent work on the late medieval and early modern kingdom of Scotland has played a part in this trend. Much work, for example, has been done on the increasing influence exercised by the Scottish crown over the Highland region and the Lordship of the Isles. A variety of models have emerged, from an interpretation which focuses on the slow erosion of social isolation and rebellious oppositionism, to Alexander Grant’s argument that the Lordship was the subject of interacting but contradictory centripetal and centrifugal forces, until destroyed through the confiscation of privileges at the end of the fifteenth century.