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Frontiers and power in the early Tudor state.

Tudor monarchs could do anything -- or could they? Steven Ellis examines what happened when wishes and commands from the centre had to be executed in practice in the remoter parts of the kingdom.

In May 1534 Henry VIII began a major overhaul of Tudor provinicial government which lasted throughout the 1530s. He replaced the key officials in charge of the more remote provinces by other, more trusted men, and he later reorganised the provincial councils and other administrative structures for these regions. In Ireland the Earl of Kildare was dismissed as governor and replaced by a military captain, Sir William Skeffington; in the north, Lord Dacre was removed from the wardenship of the west marches towards Scotland and replaced by the Earl of Cumberland; and in Wales Bishop Rowland Lee replaced Bishop Vesey of Exeter as president - all in the same month. Dacre and Kildare indeed found themselves charged with treason, allegedly because of their contacts with the king's Scottish and Irish enemies.

The overall thrust of the changes was to centralise control and to bring administrative structures for the peripheries' more into line with the arrangements for the government of lowland England, the `core' region of the Tudor state. From the perspectives of the Tudor court and the 'central government' based in London, it no doubt made considerable sense to extend the effective and highly centralised system of government devised for lowland England to outlying parts. And historians of differing sympathies have generally approved these reforms as bringing about a greater degree of uniformity and integration in the Tudor state.

Yet the debate about the effectiveness of Tudor government and the changing role of the Tudor nobility has not so far taken much account of the impact of change as seen in the borderlands or marches. How heavy was the price paid there for centralisation and uniformity? The attempted assimilation of its government to that in lowland England, where conditions were quite exceptional and uniquely favourable to royal authority, was certainly not the unqualified blessing it seemed in London - hence the major rebellions in Ireland in 1534-35 and in the north in 1536-37. The problem was not uniformity and centralisation per se, but the assumptions which came with it. Tudor officials sometimes seemed to think, for instance, that England was an island - Shakespeare's `scept'red isle' - so that no special arrangements were needed for the defence of the long landed frontiers which formed the northern and western boundaries of the Tudor state. The crown had no standing army, but the marches had hitherto protected lowland England from the mere Irish and Welsh to the west and Scots enemies to the north. The Tudors aimed at a greater diffusion of power in the provinces, curbing overmighty subjects, replacing the feudal liberties and marcher lordships of the borderlands with English-style shires governed through substantial county gentry, and intervening to support the merchant oligarchies of the towns against outside interference.

But marcher society was quite unlike the heavily manorialised English lowlands. The borderlands were predominantly upland, pastoral regions far from London, with a sparser, more turbulent, lineage society, and a powerful territorial nobility, with compact lordships and a warlike tenantry. Distance and geography hindered central control; quarter sessions were not always held because there were few substantial gentry to put on the peace commissions; and there existed few major towns to act as a counterweight to magnate power. Thus the overall thrust of early Tudor policy - greatly accelerated by the changes of the 1530s - placed great strains on relations between the crown and the border communities. In particular, it created considerable difficulties for the traditional leaders of these communities, the nobility, as they tried to respond to the conflicting demands of the crown and the reality of marcher conditions.

Historians have long agreed that the Tudors were not averse to noble power as such. They continued to rely on the nobility to supervise local government as the natural leaders of local society. Yet the kind of noble power which most effectively addressed border conditions as shaped by early Tudor policy - strong marcher lordship geared to defence - increasingly conflicted with the sort of aristocratic values which the Tudors wished to promote. Basically, the Tudors wanted what historians have called a `service nobility' - a subservient, loyalist nobility, which was dependent on the crown for fees and office, and which divided its time between great state occasions at court or in Parliament and the local supervision and enforcement of royal policy from its country houses in the provinces.

Unfortunately for the Tudors, however, a service nobility of the kind which developed in the more peaceful conditions of lowland England lacked the power to maintain good rule in the marches. And the territorial magnates who alone possessed the manraed (the men a lord could call on in wartime) to discharge effectively the key border offices were increasingly distrusted by the Tudors because of their ability to use their power and influence in other, less acceptable ways. Some nobles, like the 7th Earl of Ormond (1477-1515) or the 4th Earl of Shrewsbury (1473-1538) tried to respond positively to the new Tudor demands. But in his absence at court, Ormond's estates in Tipperary and Kilkenny were destroyed by Gaelic raids, and Shrewsbury's lordship of Wexford was so persistently neglected that the king eventually confiscated it.

At the other end of the spectrum, Robert, 5th Lord Ogle (1530/32-1545) simply ignored the court: he never attended Parliament, but served the king all his life on the borders, and in 1545 died of wounds sustained in battle. Thus the 1530s witnessed something of a crisis of marcher lordship as ruling magnates like Dacre and Kildare found it impossible to reconcile their position to these conflicting sets of demands.

Traditional `Westminster-centred' scholarship has by and large ignored the plight of Tudor marcher lords, though the work of Mervyn James offers some valuable insights. There has been some discussion of differences between the new Tudor service nobility and traditional territorial magnates, but it reflects too easily contemporary Tudor assumptions that the `normalisation' of border rule and the reduction in the powers of the marcher lords should lead automatically to the growth of a more ordered 'civil' society there. The fact is, however, that marcher society was a function of the survival until 1603 of the English state's long landed frontiers; and the kind of marcher lordship which aroused Tudor suspicions of `overmighty subjects' reflected the sort of society in which the nobility was obliged to operate.

This point can be established from a consideration of the careers of the two magnates whose fall in 1534 epitomised the crisis facing the nobility. The careers of the 8th and 9th Earls of Kildare (1478-1513; 1513-34) who dominated the governorship of Ireland from 1478 to 1534 have hardly been considered by Tudor historians, presumably because like most of the peers of Ireland they lacked an English title. And exclusion of the Irish peerage - almost all of them marcher lords - allows a major figure like Thomas, 3rd Lord Dacre of the North (1485-1525), warden of the west marches for forty years and usually warden-general for the last fourteen, to be dismissed as a feudal anachronism whose fall in 1525 marked the end of the age of the medieval robber baron' and 'a major triumph for [Cardinal] Wolsey's policy of [law] enforcement' through Star Chamber.

The reality, however, was that before 1461 the Dacres and Fitzgeralds had both been minor peerage families, of purely local significance, who were deliberately built up by the crown as ruling magnates. The Dacre patrimony consisted chiefly of border manors in two north Cumberland baronies (Burgh and Gilsland) which were regularly wasted by war with the Scots. For the income tax of 1436, Dacre had been rated as among the poorest of the baronage, worth a mere 320[pounds] per annum; but after the death in 1487 of another northern peer, Lord Greystoke, Lord Thomas was gradually allowed to secure the whole Greystoke inheritance by an advantageous marriage to Elizabeth Greystoke. When Dacre died in 1525 his landed possessions were worth over 1,500[pounds] net per annum, and as warden-general he had enjoyed an annual salary of 433[pounds] 6s. 8d.

The rise of the Leinster Fitzgeralds was equally spectacular. When Thomas Fitzgerald was recognised as 7th earl in 1454, his wasted inheritance was worth no more than 250[pounds] a year, mainly from lands in Co. Kildare, with a secondary cluster of manors in Co. Limerick. Earl Thomas increased this significantly by recovering family lands which had been reconquered by the Gaelic Irish, but the financial basis of Kildare power was a succession of grants to the Fitzgeralds of royal manors and lordships, the result in part of astute marriages by the 8th and 9th earls into the royal family. The Irish grants alone were worth 350IR[pounds] a year, with a further 100IR[pounds] worth of lands in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, and Norfolk. By 1534 Gerald, 9th Earl of Kildare's landed possessions were worth around 1,586[pounds] a year, and his income comfortably exceeded 42,000IR[pounds] (2,000 marks sterling) a year.

Historians sometimes draw up tables which appear to indicate the relative importance of individual nobles on the basis of their income. These tables relegate most of the northern peers to the second division, and exclude almost all the Irish peers on the grounds that they held insufficient property on the mainland. If, however, a combined table of the Tudor nobility were drawn up, instead of dividing them along nationalist lines, both Dacre and Kildare would reach the Tudor top ten under Henry VIII. But landed income is a very crude guide to the relative power of Tudor nobles and the extent of their landed possessions. Rents per acre in the pastoral uplands were generally far less than in lowland England, and even where the land was suitable for tillage the more turbulent border conditions were a severe disincentive because, unlike cattle and sheep, crops could not be driven from the path of impending raids. The estate-management policies of marcher lords like Dacre and Kildare were thus geared chiefly towards military considerations rather than the maximisation of profits.

Undefended marchlands were worthless: they needed castles and tenants to protect them. This meant that border lords and gentry continued to live in castles and peles rather than the country houses now favoured by southerners. Thomas, Lord Dacre spent much of his income on building small castles at Drumburgh, Rockcliffe and Askerton to protect his estates and on strengthening those at Naworth and Kirkoswald, all in Cumberland. He normally resided in the marches, at Naworth, Kirkoswald or Carlisle, although as warden-general after 1511 he lived at Harbottle or Morpeth in the middle marches, and left his son, William, or his brother, Sir Christopher, as his deputy in the west. He was also a member of the king's council, but rarely attended council meetings or Parliament. Traditionally, individual members of the northern nobility were excused attendance at Parliament in wartime so that they could be available for border defence.

Kildare's initial response to a summons to court was often also that he could not be spared, since his presence was necessary for ireland's defence - as the king's council there or the lords of Parliament would certify. When not on campaign, Kildare usually resided at his chief castle of Maynooth, from where he could ride to Dublin for council meetings. Among his more substantial building projects were the castles of Powerscourt, Clonmore, Castledermot and Lea which, together with Maynooth, ringed his chief possessions in Co. Kildare. Similarly, both lords attracted tenants to settle on wastelands by offering holdings at low rents in return for military service. Dacre instructed his estate officials in 1536 to let any vacant holdings to good archers, even if this meant a lower entry fine; and his tenants were generally bound by their tenures to maintain horse and harness and to take part in raids against the Scots.

In Ireland, Kildare's tenants were also bound to accompany their lord on hostings against the Irish, and many holdings were let rent-free in return for defending particular marches. In both regions the lords attracted to their estates large numbers of Scots and Irish respectively who were 'sworn English' and given tenements in more exposed districts like Bewcastledale or Offaly where Englishmen were afraid to live for fear of the wild Irish or Scots enemies nearby. Reputedly, Lord Dacre `may at all tymes with little charge have 4 or 5,000 men off his owne' to resist invasion, and at the siege of Dublin in 1534 the rebel army raised by Kildare was 15,000 strong.

The military character of marcher lordship reflected the political instability of the English borderlands, but it was greatly accentuated by early Tudor policy. During the Wars of the Roses, the private armies built up by Richard, Duke of York as lieutenant of ireland and Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury as warden of the west marches from the inflated stipends they received enabled them to challenge the crown. The crown's response after 1471 was to ensure that these offices presented no threat to the dynasty. They were entrusted to less powerful lords and the salaries attached to them were reduced sharply, to around an eighth of the previous levels. This greatly reduced the threat to the dynasty from pretenders like Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck.

In Ireland, moreover, fortunes of war had removed from the political stage the great houses which had dominated the viceroyalty under the Lancastrians - Richard of York, the Talbots and, until 1515, the Butlers. In the north, the Percies and the senior branch of the Nevilles remained available, but until the mid-1520s they were deliberately excluded from office by a suspicious king. Yet as the threat to the dynasty declined, so also did the rule and defence of the marches. The king's officers were forced to develop an alternative means of defence, since they now lacked the funds to maintain retinues and fee the leading gentry as formerly. indeed in the far north, where the Scots proved a much more formidable adversary than Irish chiefs, the marches were greatly weakened and local government virtually collapsed, to be replaced by feuds and compositions for murder.

One reason why the Dacres and Fitzgeralds had such a monopoly of these border offices was that very few nobles could afford to discharge them and defend the marches with the reduced resources now available. Dacre and Kildare both established new systems of defence in their respective marches by exploiting the extensive military powers inherent in their offices to build up the military levels of preparation of their own estates. The link between `public' and private' was most obvious in the clause in successive commissions to Kildare as governor grapting him any crown lands he could recover from the Gaelic Irish. But both lords were given control of actual crown lands in the areas of their jurisdiction and the leading of the king's tenants during their tenure of office, and they integrated them into the one defensive system.

In the marches, a major weakness of the `normal' English system of government was the juridical division between lordship of land and lordship of men. Territorial magnates had compact holdings of land, but seigneurial authority over tenants was (in theory at least) heavily circumscribed by royal authority over subjects. When real peace was a rarity and frequent war followed uneasy truces, absentee lordship was a major liability, and the crown was the worst offender. The key to the defence of the English west march was the most northerly, royal barony of Liddel, with its castle known as Liddel Strength built on a cliff commanding the river crossing 160 feet below. The barony had once been worth 295[pounds] per annum, but after 1296 it became a war zone, nominally in crown hands. The burden of defence fell on the lords of the small barony of Levington immediately to the south, and on the Dacre baronies of Burgh and Gilsland. But Levington was in turn partitioned between six co-heiresses and passed to absentee lords who lacked the resources to defend it. Thus border defence was thoroughly undermined. By 1485 much of the region, including large parts of Gilsland, had long been uninhabited wasteland. The abeyance in the earldom of Kildare after 1432 had an equally disastrous impact on the English Pale in Ireland.

Lord Dacre's extended tenure of the wardenship enabled him gradually to patch up this hole in border defence, even though he could not afford a garrison to plug the gap. He gradually bought up freeholds in the strategically important border manors north of Carlisle. These wastelands could be purchased cheaply, but once they were tenanted and defended, Dacre's purchases in north Cumberland yielded over 130[pounds] a year in rent, even though their main value was strategic and the military service owed by the tenants. Commenting on the sale of his lands there to Dacre, Sir John Stapleton observed that 'he dwelt at London so farre from his land & that his tenauntes could haue no socoure of hym'.

The kind of overlapping, official and personal responsibilities inherent in this situation are well illustrated by arrangements in the crown outpost of Bewcastle. Bewcastledale had a separate royal keeper, based in the castle there, who was responsible to the warden; but quite bizarrely, its feudal overlordship pertained to the Dacre barony of Burgh, even though it was geographically separate and lay between Gilsland and the border. For almost forty years (1493-1530) the keeper was Sir John Musgrave, knight for the king's body, and his son Thomas, but since the Musgraves were Dacre followers, the conflicting demands of the situation were amicably resolved by having all the inhabitants (including Dacre's tenants) do suit at Dacre's court of Askerton in Gitsland, and by giving Dacre the rule of the Bewcastlemen under their keeper.

Dacre also worked in other ways to build up his control of the marches. Actual war with Scotland was not the only cause of disorder. To the east of Gitsland, in the Northumberland highlands, lived the quasi-independent border surnames or clans of Tynedale and Redesdale. Like the Scottish surnames, they got their living largely by reiving and robbery among the wealthier and `more civil' lowland communities - 'the king's true subjects'. The same was true in Ireland, where Kildare had to control the English marcher lineages of Wicklow and Westmeath, and also in the Welsh marches. As wardens, the Percies had traditionally solved this problem by retaining the leading gentry, both those of the highlands who maintained the thieves, and the low-land gentry who suffered at their hands. in 1489 the 4th Earl of Northumberland was spending 42 per cent of his income on maintaining a large following of county gentry.

Dacre, by contrast, spent very little on feeing the leading gentry, even after 1511 when he reluctantly assumed responsibility for the east and middle marches. There were indeed relatively few substantial gentry families in Cumberland, and since their lands were mostly in the west and south they would have been little help to him in controlling the surnames. Instead, and especially as warden-general, he built up a following among the humbler border squires who kept thieves, and even among the thieves themselves. Indeed, `bearinge of theaves' was a principal reason for his disgrace in 1525. Like Gaelic chiefs, the surname captains and headsmen were sometimes forced to surrender leading clansmen as pledges for good conduct - in effect, they were told to direct their activities northwards. Yet Tynedale and Redesdale could each raise around 500 men for military exploits, so Dacre had a considerable force available at virtually no cost to harass the Scots - so long as the marches remained disturbed and worthwhile preys presented themselves in Scotland.

The other main way of defending the marches without a garrison was by building up cross-border ties. In 1534 William, 4th Lord Dacre (1525-63) was tried for treason on a charge of holding secret meetings with Scots enemies in wartime and making 'a wicked and treacherous agreement' with Lords Maxwell and Buccleuch and the Scots of Liddesdale for mutual immunity from raids and invasions for the lands and tenants of either party. Dacre was extremely fortunate to escape when his peers decided that the charges were malicious, since it was no defence to say that the meetings and agreements had served the English interest. in fact, the charges broadly correspond with Dacre's known cross-border contacts before the war. Nor is this surprising, because after 1452 none of the Scottish border lords had the power and possessions of a Percy or a Dacre, and lacking the support of their central government they were anxious for some private understanding to safeguard their estates. By early Tudor times, moreover, attempts to conquer Scotland were a distant memory, and Henry VIII could generally rely on the support of one or two of the Scottish nobility in each of his wars with Scotland.

Cross-border ties were facilitated by the region's common culture and the similarity of administrative institutions on both sides of a border line which, despite many disputes about debatable lands and outposts like Berwick, was increasingly seen as fixed. In Ireland, however, the gulf between English civility and Irish savagery proved harder to bridge. There was a remarkable coincidence of geographical, cultural and political boundaries between the English-speaking arable low-lands of the Pale and the Gaelic pastoral uplands and boglands of the Irishry. Yet in Ireland, where power was more decentralised and the marches more fluid, crossborder ties were more thoroughgoing. Intermarriage between the English and Gaelic aristocracies was a very common means of stabilising the marches - in the Anglo-Sottish marches it was restricted to the lower orders - and even English magnates like Kildare married their daughters to prominent Gaelic chiefs. Yet the corollary was that successive Earls of Kildare were able to bring unprecedented pressure to bear on the weak and divided Gaelic chieftaincies, so that the English Pale expanded significantly during the Kildare ascendancy. As with Lord Dacre, however, Henry VIII grew increasingly suspicious of the earl's links with Gaelic Ireland and the frequent complaints that his deputy was maintaining English rebels and Irish enemies against the king's true subjects. Thus in both borderlands the new system of defences, though much cheaper, had considerable shortcomings in terms of order and good government.

In the short term, however, Henry VII's overriding concern was that the arrangements for the borderlands should present no threat to the crown. Once he was assured of this and had sorted out his initially difficult relations with Kildare, he showed more interest in restoring the crown's finances than in promoting good rule in the marches. Thus from 1496 the English exchequer was absolved from all responsibility for Ireland's defence; while in the north the king even resorted to farming the shrievalties. He also accepted Dacre's offer to assume responsibility for Carlisle, thus saving the cost of a garrison.

In the 1520s, however, as Henry VIII's attention shifted from war against France to the need for internal reconstruction, he began to take more interest in border rule. But the demands he made of his officers there were a good deal less realistic. The king was no more willing to pay for an effective system of administration and defences than his father had been, but Dacre and Kildare were nonetheless charged with failing to maintain good rule and dismissed. Their successors, however, immediately ran into the problem of how to deploy, respectively, the Dacre and Fitzgerald manraed, still essential for border defence, when neither lord, now had any incentive to co-operate. And by then both nobles had exploited their extended occupation of key border offices to build up their local connexion and influence, so that they were less dependent on royal support.

For his part, the king apparently assumed that individual magnates were expendable, and that these border offices could be exercised equally well by other nobles simply by issuing them with the king's commission. Thus when, after a reconnaissance in force by the Earl of Surrey, Henry appointed Piers Butler, Earl of ormond, as deputy of ireland in 1522 on the same terms as Kildare had enjoyed, Ormond quickly discovered that he lacked a sufficient following in the Pale for its defence, and the resultant feud between Butler and Fitzgerald retainers led to violent disorders throughout the lordship. The same happened in the west marches in 1525, when Henry Lord Clifford was promoted Earl of Cumberland - a very provocative title considering he had little land in the county - and appointed warden in place of Dacre. Serious disputes arose concerning the custody of Carlisle Castle, farms of crown land which were traditionally associated with the wardenry, and arrangements for Bewcastle's defence; and the marches were disturbed by feuds between Clifford and Dacre followers.

Cumberland proved no more capable of ruling the west marches from Skipton Castle than Ormond could the Pale from Kilkenny Castle. In both cases, the king was forced to back down within two years, and the old order was temporarily restored. The basis of trust between king and magnate, and between the respective lords and their retainers, was not so soon restored, however, although the system's effective operation depended on this. And both Cumberland and Ormond found themselves pressed into service again - with even less happy results - after the traditional ruling magnates had been restored, and again found wanting.

The increasingly strained relations between king and magnate and the charged atmosphere at court during the Reformation crisis led to the events of May 1534. Henry suspected that disaffected nobles were actually plotting against him, and he lashed out against the two magnates he suspected might be his most dangerous opponents. In Kildare's case, the earl's mishandling sparked off a major rebellion which took fourteen months and cost 40,000[pounds] to suppress. Dacre was found not guilty at his trial, but nonetheless paid an enormous fine of 10,000[pounds] and his disgrace meant that he too was unusable as warden for the rest of the reign.

In the 1490s `riottes and insurrections' provoked by disagreements between Lord Dacre and Sir Christopher Moresby forced the king's council to intervene, because 'the kinges strength in the counte of Cumberland dependith in effect oonly betwixt thaym too, and also remembryng the great unstabilnes of the peax' with Scotland. Similarly, the king's council in Ireland observed in 1523 that 'the quietie and restfullnes' of the king's subjects there 'standith in the unitie and concord of the noblis', particularly the Earls of Kildare and Ormond. Thus the king's decision in the 1530s to appoint `mean men' to rule the borders - Skeffington in Ireland, Sir Thomas Wharton in the north-west - was really an admission of failure. By curbing magnate power, Henry VIII was in effect reducing the capacity of royal government there. Unable to rely on the defensive system built up by Kildare and Dacre respectively, or to deploy their manraed effectively, the new order proved both more costly and less effective in defending the borders.

After Henry's death, the 4th Lord Dacre was quietly reappointed warden of the west marches. The problem of the north was eventually solved, not by a policy of centralisation and uniformity, but by improved Anglo-Scottish relations and then the dynastic union of 1603, which eliminated the need for a defensive frontier. 1603 also saw the dismantling of the state's western frontier, with the completion of the Tudor conquest. In the interim, however, Tudor policies for the reduction of ireland had proved so disastrous that their legacy continues to sour Anglo-Irish relations to the present day.

The disgrace of the two magnates does not, of itself, amount to a crisis of the aristocracy. Yet Henry VIII's relations with other long-established territorial magnates - the Percies, Staffords and Courtenays - were also problematic. The fall of Dacre and Kildare was thus more than an isolated incident. In discharging these key provincial offices, the nobility was increasingly caught between the changing demands of service to the local community and the revised expectations of crown and court, although all marcher lords faced these choices to a greater or lesser degree. They could not afford to spend long periods at court without neglecting the defence of their estates, but the king seemed increasingly distrustful of nobles who reflected most effectively traditional aristocratic values of strong resident lordship and extended military and political service to the crown. The price of centralisation and uniformity was thus heavy: the demise of the marcher lords was closely linked to complaints about 'the decay of the borders' and the marked decline in English military preparedness which characterised the mid-Tudor period. And the marches were not a marginal addition to the Tudor state; in 1534 they covered half its geographical area and constituted a central aspect of its defences. Thus, while the growing influence of the Tudor court and of the politics of faction may provide a key to developments in lowland England, their impact elsewhere was less decisive and less fortunate. Lowland England was no more then the Tudor state than is modern England now the British state.

FOR FURTHER READING: S. G. Ellis, Tudor Frontiers and Noble Power: the Making of the British State (Oxford University Press, 1995); idem et S. Barber (ed.), Conquest and union: fashioning a British state, 1485-1725 (Longman, 1995); R. Bartlett and A. MacKay (ed.), Medieval frontier societies (Oxford University Press, 1989); M. james, Society, politics and culture: studies in early modern England (Cambridge University Press, 1986).

Steven Ellis is Associate Professor of History at University College, Galway and author of Tudor Ireland: crown, community and the conflict of cultures, 1470-1603 (Longman, 1985). His two books listed above will both be published in June 1995.
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Author:Ellis, Steven
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Date:Apr 1, 1995
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