13th Conference 1970

The 13th Conference of the Scottish Medievalists was held at Abbotsford House, University of St Andrews, 10-11 January 1970. Minutes Secretary John M. Simpson.

13th Conference

Extract from the invitation letter for the 13th Conference: ‘For those members who recall the cold days of the 1965 Conference there it should be pointed out that the hall is now centrally heated’.

3 p.m. DISCUSSION SESSION. Chairman: Dr. G.G. Simpson.

The discussion on Baronial Families from the 12th to early 15th centuries was introduced by the chairman, Mr. Stringer and Mr. Grant. The Chairmen conveyed Mr. Stell’s apologies for absence to the meeting: the chairman was to read Mr. Stell’s notes.

The chairman explained that at Easter 1969 some mediaevalists in Scotland had formed a baronial research group. One of their aims was to question the general view of the baronage as having been of bad moral character and a scourge of society. Members of the group were individually working on several, though not all, of the major baronial families. Some of the studies were primarily of one region, and some involved Scotland and England. Others dealt with aspects of social structure and with the ‘social psychology’ of the baronage, involving topics like the survival of homage, knighthood, chivalry and military organisation.

Mr. Stringer spoke of the colonisation of the north east of Scotland by lay tenants from outwith the area. Most came in under William the Lion, and they settled in five main areas A round Inverness, in the Laigh of Moray, in mid-Aberdeenshire, in the Mearns, and in mid-Angus and Gowrie. Most were Anglo-Normans, but there were Flemings and men of English and possibly of Lowland Scottish origin. Many who came had a close Northumberland or Huntingdon connection, and these particular Anglo-Scottish bonds wore thus constantly renewed by land settlement and marriage alliance; as well as by church patronage.

These movements might reflect a dissatisfaction with the areas from which they had come, shown for instance, by younger sons. But evidence was hard to come by, and it was very desirable that comparative work should be done on the similar migrations to Wales and Ireland. The settlement process may not always have been easy, with thanes, outside Mar and Buchan, possibly displaced in a ‘tenurial revolution’. But intermarriage often preserved some sort of tenurial continuity. It is possible that the form of the documents suggests a greater conformity with usages further south than is the case. Further south there wore too many mesne tenants, but the north east was an area of compact, well defined fiefs, Where as a rule a tenant was the tenant of one lord only. This helped to safeguard royal interests in the north.

The chairman then read Mr. Stell’s notes on the Balliols. Starting relatively late, the Balliols had by inheritance and by good royal and other connections built up an imposing basis of family power by the 1290s. But their possessions were never as extensive as those of the Bruces or Comyns, and they retained a close connection with the English crown and a continued interest in lower Picardy: in the last respect 1204 brought about no severance between their British and their continental interests. They illustrate Powicke’s assertion that distinctions of status among the upper ranks of the baronage are not clear-cut, since the Balliols, though not Earls, were clearly a very powerful family.

Mr. Grant drew a detailed statistical picture of the composition of the baronage in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Although there was a considerable turnover of baronies, aided by marriage, purchase and gift, many new barons were from the cadet branches of existing families, and overall the baronage gave an impression of greater stability than that of England. There were very powerful, middling and lesser families, with the Stewarts, Douglases’ and Lindsays dominating the picture. Until the mid-fifteenth century baronies were usually compact, very frequently corresponding to the parish unit, and having the same name. Even in unions of baronies, the units’ remained distinct. The Scottish baronage had the same attitudes to land-holding as those of other European countries. Conveyancing procedures however were simpler than those of England. Though use of the feudal host might cease, many attitudes thereafter still remained ‘feudal’.

c.4.45 p.m. In the continued discussion on baronial families, the chairman posed several questions: do charters by their nature conceal the particular usages of Scotland, since the clerks had been trained in a common Anglo-Norman tradition? How far was there a static entity to be labelled ‘Scottish feudalism’, and was it possible to look at various aspects such as lordship in order to destroy this static picture? How far did it make sense to label Scottish society as ‘feudal’ at any period, and how far should links such as those of kinship be stressed?

Mrs. Brown argued that the lord-man relationship was always wider than could be defined in strictly ‘feudal’ terms. Professor Barrow thought that it was possible to suggest that ties of kinship were relatively less important in the twelfth end thirteenth centuries than in the period immediately before and after. Mr. Grant showed how, with the introduction of feudal tenures, thanages might be converted or broken up. Mr. Cant stressed the financial rather than military connotations of knight service: Dr. Murray showed that sixteenth century crown feus insisted on military service. Dr. Watt pursued the themes of patronage and kinship in the twelfth century. Mr. Webster raised the question whether holding royal office made men’s fortunes in Scotland as it did in England. Mr. Grant suggested that the magnates were not activated solely by self-interest, but were happier when it was possible for them to give support to the crown.

9.00 p.m. Slides were shown by members who had attended the Shetland Quincentenary Historical Congress in August 1969.