Seminar: The Kingdom That Could Have Been.

Today I attended a thought-provoking seminar on the mysterious topic ‘1185: The English Perspective,’ given by Dr. Stephen Church of the University of East Anglia. If your response to his title was to rack your brains for the significant events of this less than well known year, then never fear! I too had little idea what kind of seminar I was walking into. Dr. Church’s paper dealt, in fact, with the arrival of the Angevin prince John (later the King John immortalised in the Robin Hood legends) in Ireland, and the even more specific concern of exactly what it was his contemporaries imagined he was doing there.

Manuscript portrait of Henry II. (Wikimedia Commons)

The involvement of the English kings in Ireland began under John’s father Henry II, many of whose nobles embroiled themselves in the island’s affairs for their own personal gain. This private enterprise was, for the most part, sanctioned by the English crown, so long as it was understood that the king would have the final, overriding stake in the rule of Ireland should it become Norman. Thus, while he sought a papal bull (or declaration) allowing the English throne freedom of action in Ireland in the 1150s, his plans were not overly tarnished by a rather equivocal response, since Ireland remained peripheral to his main concerns.

As time went on and the question of the succession of his sons became more pressing, however, Ireland developed in Henry’s mind as a suitable territory for his  fourth son, John. Other options had included the throne of Jerusalem or marriage to an heiress in southern France but Ireland, along with several territories in Cornwall, was also a serious contender.

To this end, Henry II declared John the King of Ireland in 1177, when he was still quite young, positioning him for the time when he would be old enough to claim his inheritance. His kingdom, however, was entirely notional. Ireland in the 12th century possessed a large number of petty kings, as well as an Irish High King, and much of the island therefore remained outside of Henry II’s control. Declaring John King of Ireland, therefore, was more an expression of intent to rule than a reflection of political realities.

Henry II and Family

A genealogical diagramme of Henry II and his children, including John (far right.) (Wikimedia Commons)

So far so good, in terms of our historical understanding. As Dr. Church pointed out in his seminar, however, why did Henry II go to such lengths to prepare an Irish Kingdom for his son if, when John came of age, he was styled dominus, rather than rex, hiberniae –that is, Lord of Ireland, rather than King?

A later 15th century portrait of the Empress Mathilda, Henry II's mother and aspiring ruler of England. (Wikimedia Commons)

Most historians have chosen to interpret dominus as rather an un-word, so flexible in mediaeval society that it deserves no special note. There are a few instances, however, where it takes on a very specific and intriguing meaning. Two generations previously, England had been wracked by a violent succession crisis, as King Stephen battled for the throne against Geoffrey of Anjou and his wife Mathilda (daughter of Henry I and mother of Henry II.)

Mathilda’s position in this struggle was strongest in 1141, when her forces captured and imprisoned Stephen. Interestingly, it is in this year, and those immediately following, that Mathilda took on the title domina, or Lady of the English. What Dr. Church argues is that this usage expressed a very specific position, in which an aspiring ruler had the support of the political community, but had not been crowned. Because the coronation had not occurred, she could not use the title regina (queen), so domina was used as a way to demarcate her status as presumptive ruler.

What does this suggest about John and his potential kingdom? Dr. Church argues that John’s title dominus was entirely in keeping with his status as presumptive king of Ireland. If his time in his country had not been so disastrous, he may well have been crowned. His father Henry II did in fact secure a crown for the purpose from the Pope–made of peacock feathers, apparently–but by the time of its arrival the political moment had passed.

John went on to claim the throne of England, and significant problems in his ancestral lands of Normandy probably forced the question of Ireland from his mind. Whatever the reason, he remained Lord of Ireland, rather than its King. In the following century, this concept of the ‘Lordship of Ireland’ would dominate the way that historians (both mediaeval and modern) construed the relationship between Ireland and England. When the term was born, however, it may have been nothing more than an intermediate stop on the way to a kingdom that never was.

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2 thoughts on “Seminar: The Kingdom That Could Have Been.

  1. It strikes me to wonder, something I should have wondered before but am only now made to think by the proximity of your post about the Mercian revivalists, whether Matilda’s title at least carried any recollection of the two ‘ladies of the Mercians’, Æthelflæd daughter of King Alfred of Wessex and her daughter Ælfwynn. It doesn’t really need to, though; Queen Edith of England, Edward the Confessor’s widow, was called domina (interestingly, largely in sources written by Englishmen) after her brother King Harold II was replaced by William the Conqueror, and I’m sure she wasn’t the last; Dr Church would know that better than me! She of course had been queen, but could no longer so be called I suppose. Either way, there’s pedigree for that title, but whether its implications would have been power, rather than standing, for twelfth-century hearers, I’m really not sure.

    • Aethelflaed at least did come up, as it happens, and the idea was floated that there could be some undercurrent of exceptional circumstances behind the title, with women claiming kingly prerogatives. Queen Edith did not come up, but there was a second example of the male form dominus used by John’s brother Richard, when he was out of the country before his coronation–it appears in a charter. An interesting comparison could be the adoption/adaptation of the title Lord of the Isles by the Scottish kings, but our resident expert for that was unfortunately not in attendance.

      I think the most interesting thing about Dr. Church’s paper was the possibilities he raised, since he himself was giving it as a first airing of ideas, to stimulate discussion, rather than as a finished draft. It certainly gives a different perspective on John, to imagine him ending up as King of Ireland, or maybe Jerusalem, rather than England!

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