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.
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.
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?
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.