Wednesday, 7 April 2021

The English Isles

Inevitably, I have been reading again, and the current set of blog posts are an attempt to catch up. This one should be skipped by wargamers with no interest in the history behind the games, particularly pertaining to the British Isles. Nevertheless, I found it interesting, so much so that I have brought (but not read) the previous book in the conference series.

The book in question is this:

Duffy, S., & Foran, S. (Eds.). (2013). The English Isles: Cultural Transmission and Political Conflict in Britain and Ireland 1100-1500. Dublin: Four Courts.

I can feel the interest plummeting already, of course. This is an edited book of papers from a conference about what happened to the British Isles after the Norman Conquest of England. That is, how did the Anglo-Normans push out into Wales, Scotland and Ireland?

As any wargamer knows, I suspect, the Anglo-Normans did invade Wales and Ireland, albeit at different times and with different results. One of the interesting arguments in the book is that while we might expect some cultural imperialism from the Normans, lording it over their Celtic foes when defeated, in fact there is evidence that the flow was two way. Instead of the Norman overlords replacing local Celtic saints in Wales, for example (J. R. Davies’ article, the second chapter), the dedications of the churches remained more or less the same. Granted new foundations might be named after acceptable Roman saints (those accredited by Rome, I mean) as might new settlements, but the Celtic saints, or those deriving from Anglo-Saxon influence were kept on. Cultural transmission was two way.

Again, on the transmission front, Anglo-Norman lords could and did marry the daughters of local worthies. This seems to have been the case in Wales but rather less in Ireland. This process, essentially producing Anglo-Norman-Walsh children led to a ‘both and’ sort of culture rather than the replacement of one by the other. In Ireland the Anglo-Normans tended to remain within their own system and not take local for wives, but there were some who did and there were also Irish lords who became ‘anglicized’, that is, they adopted some aspects of Anglo-Norman culture. This was not done just because the Anglo-Normans were the winners – they were not.

What seems to have happened is that the Irish took what seemed to be useful to them and used it. Thus they could pick up ‘Norman’ weaponry and use it. F. V. Veach notes that just using a Norman sword does not make you Anglo-Irish. There is a slightly amusing (serious history does not go in for many jokes) where three daughters of an Irish lord who sued in 1260 for possession of their father’s land under English law, because Irish law did not allow for an inheritance to be passed through the female line. Firstly, they must have obtained the right to use English law (which was not a given). Secondly, another interesting point arises, in that English law only recognised the rights of the youngest daughter because the other two were born before the parents were betrothed. Neither Canon nor Irish law recognised a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children, it seems, but English law did.

Scotland, of course, followed a different path. While there were a lot of invasions, arguments and a few battles between the Anglo-Norman state (later England) and Scotland, the Scots did their own bit of acculturation by importing a few bits of Norman culture – such as abbeys, which did a great deal to anglicise or, perhaps more strictly, Europeanise, the Scottish polity and nobility. While the north and west were still Gaelic, the south and east became more like England, as did the reach of the writ of the king. Of course, the kings of Scotland could still cause trouble for the English and, for the matter of that, the Irish as well. In some senses the Scots traded cultural assimilation of an increase in royal power.

There are some interesting suggestions in the book David Broun suggests that, perhaps, for a brief moment the English monarch could have established a sort of ‘high-kingship’ over the whole set of British Isles. This foundered, it seems, on the issue of the Scottish monarch’s homage for Scotland. Often Scottish kings held land in England for which homage was, of course, required, but that was not the issue. Henry III was wise enough not to press the issue, but Edward I of course did, to the extremes. Scottish social, legal and cultural convergence with England, due to the influence of the church and kings, did not make Scotland a second England, nor did it unite the two realms, at least until the accession of James VI and I in 1603. Scotland had a core area in the south-east, as did England. While England had much greater resources, they were never sufficient to conquer Scotland. Scotland stayed different, if only in the existence of the Celtic fringes which gave shelter to fugitives and freedom fighters from English conquest of the core areas.

One of the things to emerge from the book, and a few other bits of reading I have done, is the fluidity of movement between the west of Scotland and Ireland. The final chapter of the book discusses the Lordship of the Isles, which was suppressed in 1493. Was the Lord of the Isles practically an independent monarch? Did some of them aspire to be so, and did they intervene in Ireland to gain the resources to keep the Isles independent? Furthermore, they had a good go at becoming Earls of Ross, which landed them in the centre of a lot of Scottish politics and conflict. The answers are unproven; there is too little contemporary evidence around, it seems to be able to tell. Most of what was written about the rituals of the Lordship of the Isles (which would allow a determination of these sorts of aspirations) is early modern, and thus seems to be based on a little fact, and a lot of wishful thinking.

So, a fascinating book for those among us who read history, as opposed to campaign and battle reports. But even so, there are a few hints and interesting wargame campaigns: the Lordship of the Isles, the invasions of Ireland, multiple Welsh revolts and so on. The possibilities are endless.


  1. Very interesting. The Lord of the Isles section reminds me a lot of the McDonnell's ancestry - that's worth a look in itself, and outlines the degree of movement and trade between Scotland and Ireland across centuries.
    Also interesting to note the Irish detail - I had it in my head that the Normans were 'Hibernicised' largely - and I do seem to remember a connection with 'Strongbow' in the 11th century (maybe?).
    Most Irish castles are born of Norman (dare I say) 'colonialism'.
    'Hibernicisation' seems to thrive century after century - first Norman, then Old English (which is where Tyrconnel and his ilk come from in the C17th). Clearly, it must be Irish women at work ;) (I know I succumbed to one LOL).

    And if the Normans are descended from Vikings..then...wait, another rabbit hole...

    1. Yes, the Lord of the Isles is interesting, but I admit to a lack of facility with Gaelic names, so I find it darn confusing...
      I think it is a matter of degree of Hibernicisation. All sorts of currents are present, but I think that, in general, the Norman nobility who crossed the Irish Sea became the Anglo-Irish, owning the lands and intermarrying with other Anglo-Irish. They seem to have been identifiable as such in the C16 & 17. It is a matter in part of culture - you could marry a nice Irish lady but remain culturally Anglo-Irish (and call your children Anglo-Norman rather than Irish names).
      Yes, the castles are Norman colonialisation, but then so are the castles in England, The role, meaning and symbolism of the castle are a topic in themselves. Even the location of them is contested..
      Perhaps we should simply regard the whole era from 792 - 1085 and beyond an extended Viking civil war...

    2. Ohhhh - an 'extended Viking civil war'. Now there's a premise for a book sir!

    3. Well, the Normans did attempt to take over the known world - France, England, Italy, Antioch... If they hadn't have fought amongst themselves they might have been dangerous.

  2. Interesting choice of title.

    1. I think it references a historiographical debate about the extent of Anglicisation across the British Isles as a geographical entity. The answer seems to be 'not as much as you might have thought'.