The Plantagenet Empire, 1259-1453
Tuesday 15th – Friday 18th July, 2014
Harlaxton Manor, Harlaxton, Lincolnshire
Symposium Report by Mark Arvanigian
This year’s Symposium was focused on ‘The Plantagenet Empire’, in all its many facets. The organizers, and particularly its three main conveners, are to be congratulated on two fronts, namely, for organizing a conference that was uniquely valuable for specialists, and for fostering an atmosphere of great conviviality, where conversations begun in sessions could comfortably continue long after. Because there are no overlapping sessions at Harlaxton, there seemed always to be productive discussions happening ex camera, either during one of the many sociable breaks during the proceedings or else during the evenings.
Impossible though it is to sum up all the papers here, a few themes and approaches seemed to emerge as the conference progressed. At the outset the three conveners – Mark Ormrod, Peter Crooks and David Green – made full use of their time in the opening session by framing some of the issues that would subsequently be discussed during the week in their conceptual and historiographical framework. Theirs was the task of considering the overarching themes and context for a proposed ‘Plantagenet Empire’. Was the king of England just that in the first instance, or did he conceive of himself as an emperor over far-flung dominions, either within the British Isles or on the Continent? How did this ‘empire’ help to shape identities, attitudes, institutions or government? How might the various ‘provinces’ or constituents of such an empire have experienced rule, or lordship? What about individual figures, great and humble? In what way was the very concept of imperium critical to understanding the Plantagenet case? Was this indeed an empire at all, in either the ancient or the contemporary sense?
Other speakers certainly were also willing to engage with these larger conceptual notions. Jean Philippe Genet and Len Scales, for example, approached the question of a ‘Plantagenet Empire’ in quite different ways. Genet argued from the character of the term ‘empire’ itself, wondering whether the term was a meaningful one in this context and considered the exemplars available to English kings. In a rather forceful defense of the notion, his paper provocatively asked that we follow the logic still further, and consider whether the English king should even be considered an emperor over his English dominions. By contrast, Len Scales explored the imperial question via the example of Germany, comparing not only its institutions but also, more subtly, its theoretical and intellectual underpinnings, for comparison with the English case. His conclusions – that ‘empire’ was essentially a classical notion and that while flexible, was nonetheless far more applicable to the German case than the English one – seemed to diminish the prospects even for the existence of a Plantagenet Empire at least in the fullest sense. However, Craig Taylor’s discussion of the treatment of Henry V by writers on both sides of the Channel seemed to revive the possibility somewhat. He argued that French writers of the period viewed Henry V as a foreign (and potentially ‘imperial’) conqueror, while their English counterparts favored arguments emphasizing his ‘native’ right to rule,by way of the Valois succession, rather than his right by conquest – his ‘imperial’ right. The fascinating implication is that the English, for reasons of royal legitimacy, were hesitant to press (or at least publicize) Henry’s full imperial credentials in the context of what would become the Dual Monarchy.
Did this internal inconsistency in defining empire have implications elsewhere? How did more modest figures experience political life within the Plantagenet dominions? We were reminded throughout the conference that regional circumstances were critical to the shaping of perspective when it came to the imperial experience. Ireland was of particular concern to many scholars, perhaps because of the tremendous scholarly interest in British political development, building on the influential work of Robin Frame and Rees Davies in this area. Several papers considered the English imperial role within the British Isles, and all were careful to reinforce the iron law of local diversity. Some of these were biographical. Brendan Smith and Michael Bennett considered the individual casesof Roger Mortimer, earl of March, and John Stewart, a knight of recent Scots decent now in service to the English king, respectively. Both came away with the impression that their men moved extremely well throughout the empire’s dominions, in Mortimer’s case even adopting the local customs of an Irish lord while serving the English king – operating locally and thinking ‘globally’, as it were.
Anne Curry and Joel Rosenthal, who considered the baillis of Lancastrian Normandy and Edward III’s bishops, respectively, put the prosopographical approach to fascinating use. Both studies were engaged very much with the nuts and bolts of empire, namely its key administrative and diplomatic positions. Concluding that the baillis were usually older men of proven ability and French speakers, to boot, Anne Curry’s study demonstrated the existence of a strong Plantagenet preference for good and stable government for their French possessions. She emphasized that while these postings were by no means apolitical in nature, a study of their appointees bespoke of competence and stability. The baillis were generally older men of some standing at home, secure in their own positions there but clearly adept at royal service abroad; many had done so prior, and were fluent French speakers. Rosenthal, too, in his study of Edward’s bishops, felt that it was this very stability, here through long-lived bishops, which actually prevented Edward III from more quickly populating the English Episcopacy with royal servants who might prove more useful in, and be more sympathetic to, his overseas ambitions. Edward would eventually achieve this, largely through his own longevity, though Rosenthal seemed to hint that by that time, the more successful and productive (early) part of Edward’s career was far in the past, especially with respect to his Continental aspirations – the very stuff of a Plantagenet Empire.
By week’s end, the nature and extent of the Plantagenet Empire had taken on a new focus, the result of the many fascinating presentations exploring its nuances and particulars. In that sense, the Symposium’s final session was also quite noteworthy, in that it allowed proceedings to end as they began: in discussion of the larger conceptual questions, which were taken up by the two concluding papers of the conference by Michael Brown and John Watts. These two papers not only built upon the questions raised initially by the conveners, but also commented upon the implications of the week’s work, and considered the Plantagenet Empire in light of the papers we had just heard. In all, the Symposium represented an unusually satisfying week, highlighted by a fine collection papers and great discussions, all taking place in enviable surroundings.
California State University
Visit to Harlaxton Church, Tuesday 15th July
Visit to Tattershall Church and Castle, Thursday, 17th July
Evening Reception, Thursday 17th July
The 2015 Harlaxton Symposium