Peter James Crooks, Factionalism and noble power in English Ireland, c 1361 1423, Trinity College Dublin, 2007
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:
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.
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