The making of a frontier society: northeastern Wales between the Norman and Edwardian conquests

The making of a frontier society: northeastern Wales between the Norman and Edwardian conquests

By Alexis Miller

M.A. Thesis, University of Missouri–Columbia 2011

Abstract: In the last thirty years the field of frontier studies has shifted away from viewing frontiers as fortress lines to studying them as zones of cultural interaction. Northeastern Wales, on the periphery of English territory, exemplifies the concept of a borderland or frontier because of its geographical isolation and history as a wasteland. Some aspects of life in the region remained firmly Welsh, such as the rural agricultural and pastoral communities organized around Welsh clan groups. Religious life, however, quickly became dominated by the English church hierarchy in Canterbury. Northeastern Wales, therefore, was a place where new Anglo-Norman institutions combined with traditional rural Welsh settlement patterns and a mixed Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, and Welsh population. The result was a zone of cultural interaction, continuity, and change.


Introduction: I began this work with a question; the entirely normal way to approach a work of history. Over the last year and a half that question has expanded and contracted and changed so much that at times it felt as if I was searching for the answer to something else entirely. And yet, in the end I came back to my question: I wanted to know how people interacted along the Celtic borders of Anglo-Norman England. Writing a regional study of northeastern Wales from the the late eleventh to the late thirteenth centuries was not how I intended to answer this question. My first thought was to look comparatively at Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; a project entirely too big for a Master’s thesis and one that has already been done by a number of historians, including the most recent master of medieval Welsh history, R. R. Davies. A study of the interactions of England and Wales in the border zone of the Welsh March is also a large undertaking, and again the focus of recent scholarship, particularly by Max Liebermann. To make the study I wanted, I needed a smaller area and a question beyond a broad discussion of interaction. I found both while reading a passage written by Hugh the Chanter for the archbishopric of York in the early twelfth century. In narrating a jurisdictional dispute between the archbishops of York and Canterbury, Hugh mentioned an unnamed bishopric in northeastern Wales, located between the Welsh diocese of Bangor and the English diocese of Chester, which, “is now vacant, owing to the desolation of the country and the rudeness of the inhabitants.” I was intrigued; I wanted to know more about this desolate place, I wanted to know who lived there and why or why not. So, I researched the history of the diocese, St. Asaph. And I studied the people who lived in northeastern Wales, which the Welsh called the Perfeddwlad and the English the Four Cantrefs. I studied where the inhabitants came from, how they lived and, if possible, who they were. I learned about the geography and the differences between uplands and lowlands and the medieval cultural perceptions of pastoralism. I learned the names of towns and mapped settlement patterns and studied forms of land tenure. Much of the actual data forms the appendix at the end of this work. By collecting demographic and affiliation data on the different inhabited locations in northeastern Wales, I was able to see patterns in how the Anglo-Normans, the English, and the Welsh developed and maintained communities.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Missouri

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