FEUDALISM (Medieval Ireland)

Feudalism is a term used by many historians to describe the operation of medieval society. The word derives from the Latin feodem, which can be translated as fief or fee, the unit of land granted by a lord to a subordinate (vassal) in return for aid and military service. No such term was in use in the Middle Ages, the concept of feudal tenure being devised in the sixteenth century by French legal historians. The term gained currency in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, particularly with the political ideas of Baron de Montequieu (1689-1755), who described it in terms of a breakdown of royal authority and a resultant "feudal anarchy."

The classic twentieth-century description is that of Marc Bloch (1886-1944), whose hugely influential Feudal Society was published in French in 1939-1940 and appeared in English in 1961. Bloch’s formulation was extremely broad, but it was so by necessity since it was an attempt to distill centuries of European civilization into a few brief lines:

A subject peasantry; widespread use of the service tenement (i.e., the fief) instead of a salary … ; the supremacy of a class of specialized warriors; ties of obedience and protection which bind man to man … ; fragmentation of authority—leading inevitably to disorder; and in the midst of all this, the survival of other forms of association, family and State . . . —such then, seem to be the fundamental features of European feudalism.

Since the 1970s, feudalism has come under sustained attack from historians. It is depicted, correctly, as a construct that postdates the medieval period. This in itself is not necessarily a problem; worse is the fact that the term is so all-encompassing that it seems to have almost no utility. Some have argued that it can still be useful if it is only used to describe the legal relationship between lord and vassal and the services that were owed in return for tenure of land. This, too, is much disputed. The mercurial nature of feudalism is well demonstrated by the contrast between traditional interpretations in mainland Europe and in Britain. The distinctive feature of feudalism for European historians is the fragmentation of royal authority—the so-called feudal anarchy of Montesquieu—whereas for British historians its essence is strong royal power and a precisely calculated hierarchy of land holders, the "feudal pyramid" familiar from schooldays.

Feudalism in Ireland

Feudalism is commonly thought of as coming to England with the Norman conquest of 1066 and being extended to Ireland with the Anglo-Norman invasion of the late 1160s. It is increasingly apparent, however, that early medieval Gaelic society was not so isolated from the European mainstream. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries continued contact with the continent ensured that Irish kings acted like feudal lords, albeit under the broad definition. By the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion, Ireland was moving toward a strong central kingship, and it is likely that this would increasingly have conformed to feudal fashions.

With the influx of Anglo-Normans came the precociously developed institutions and system of government of England. Ireland provided a clean slate for settlement (much as England had in 1066), which meant that the hierarchy of land tenure could be precisely defined, exceptionally so by European standards. If these institutions are thought of as feudalism in the narrow sense, then it arrived with the Anglo-Normans.

The entire story of the invasion is described in the sources in expressly feudal terms. When Diarmait Mac Murchada applied to King Henry II of England for military aid to reconquer his kingdom of Leinster, the chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis states that he did homage and fealty to the English king, the feudal ceremony in which one became the vassal of a lord, in return for which the lord was obliged to provide protection. Diarmait’s own exhortation for men to come to his aid includes the promise: "Whoever shall wish for soil or sod, Richly shall I enfeoff them."

This undertaking is found in the French poem known as the Song of Dermot and the Earl, composed shortly after the invasion. It therefore gives us an Anglo-Norman rather than an Irish view of Diarmait’s intentions. It is clear, however, that the poem’s Francophone audience comprehended the settlement of Ireland in what we would call feudal terminology. To enfeoff, or to invest someone with a piece of land— a feodem (fief)—is the core of the feudal relationship.

At the pinnacle of the hierarchy was the king of England, who, as lord of Ireland, apportioned lands to his "tenants-in-chief," those who held directly of the crown. The military service that the holder owed was specified: Leinster was held for one hundred knights’ fees, Meath for fifty, and so on. The lord of each area then set about subdividing his territory among his followers, a process known as "subinfeudation." The intention was to provide an army that could rapidly be summoned by the king or, more usually, the chief governor. Except for the fact that the church in Ireland did not have to provide military service for its lands, feudal obligations in Ireland were much the same as in England. The king had the right to take what are termed the "feudal incidents" of wardship, marriage, and relief. His tenants owed forty days of personal knight service annually, although in practice this was soon commuted to a money payment called scutage (shield money), which in Ireland was known as royal service. Scutage survived longer and was levied more frequently in Ireland than in England; there were, for instance, nine scutages in the troubled decade 12691279. With tenure of land came jurisdiction and the right to hold a court, although the king was the ultimate provider of justice and serious criminal cases were reserved to his judges.

In the first century after the invasion, some Irish lords made genuine efforts to adapt to the invaders’ institutions in the hope that it would give them security of tenure. Cathal Crobderg Ua Conchobair (d. 1224), king of Connacht, sought and eventually received a charter for Connacht, which he held "during his good service." His son Feidlim (d. 1265) served Henry III on his campaign in Wales in 1245. The invaders were, however, prepared to use any pretext to expropriate the Gaelic lords. Equally it is likely that the wide kin groups of Gaelic Ireland did not support such feudal notions as primogeniture. The feudal experiment of the Ua Conchobair kings proved in the end to be a negative experience and one that bred acrimony and distrust.

Bastard Feudalism

It should be remembered that Ireland’s incorporation into the feudal system occurred extremely late in the development of feudalism as a whole. Almost from its inception, therefore, the new lordship displayed signs of what historians have labeled "bastard feudalism." If any term has generated more debate than feudalism among historians of recent decades, it is surely its supposedly illegitimate successor. Bastard feudalism, so-named in the late nineteenth century, refers to a relationship between lord and man based on money pensions and a written contract rather than land. An older school of historians dated this "perversion" of the feudal system to the reign of King Edward III and the start of the Hundred Years War in the fourteenth century. They blamed it for disorder, violence, and, most extravagantly, for the Wars of the Roses (1455-1485). The Irish evidence supports more recent scholarship that has pushed the chronology further back until we must question if there was ever a purely feudal age. It seems likely that in Ireland, from the moment of English involvement, the clear feudal hierarchy was supplemented by less well-defined expediencies. The lord of Leinster, William Marshal (d. 1219), brought his bastard feudal affinity with him to Ireland in the early 1200s. Indeed, a society like Ireland, where warfare was endemic, was ideally suited to such developments. Lords on the frontiers required their own private armies if they were to hold on to their conquests. Edward I exploited this to the full in the late 1290s when he contracted armies from Ireland to serve in his attempted conquest of Scotland. So valued were these levies that the "Red earl" of Ulster was able to negotiate with the king for the highest pay awarded any earl in the campaign.

A related factor immediately apparent in Ireland and traditionally associated with the "decline" of feudalism is the growth of liberty jurisdiction, under which lords were given powers akin to those of the king within a specific region that had its own administration and courts. At the time of the initial invasion, Leinster, Meath, and Ulster were all created as liberties, and from the fourteenth century the earls of Kildare, Ormond, and Desmond all personally controlled liberties. These liberties are traditionally seen as encouraging factionalism between "over-mighty" subjects. However, given the weakness of royal government in Ireland, it was quite possibly the creation of paid private armies and the power conferred by liberties that ensured the endurance of English control over much of the country.

These are subjects that have been largely neglected since A. J. Otway-Ruthven first examined feudal institutions in Ireland in the 1950s, and the time is ripe to bring current research on late medieval society into an Irish context. The importance of doing so may lie in the fact that so-called bastard feudal connections straddle the two cultures of medieval Ireland. The Gaelic lords may have rejected what we think of as classic feudalism, but the student of bastard feudalism would find the private armies of Gaelic lords, particularly the mercenary galloglass who dominate the military history of the late medieval lordship, surprisingly familiar. From the second half of the fourteenth century onward, the records of the earls of Kildare and Ormond are littered with agreements of retinue between Anglo-Irish and Gaelic lords. Testament to the success of the system is its endurance to the end of the medieval period. The power network of the earls of Kildare— which criss-crossed the cultural frontier—was a challenge to the authority of the Tudor monarchy and provoked a show of unprecedented strength by Henry VIII to bring it down.

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