Power: 1066-1300



Celtic pre-Norman Developments

It must be first noted that many of the diagnostic features of “feudalism” were evolving independently in some Celtic kingships before the arrival of the Normans. For example, by the 12th century in Ireland, many kingdoms were no longer fully functional tuatha: the former kings were reduced in title to “lord” (corresponding to Gaelic terms tigerna and toísech (-dútchais)) and subject to overkings who were directly granting lands to clients that had been seized from adversaries. Irish kings were able to draw more resources for more sustained, destructive, coordinated warfare over wider ranges and building defensive earthworks. They were also directly enacting laws, raising taxes from multiple kingdoms, and using written charters to endow church lands.

Similarly in Scotland, the Anglo-Norman settlement intensified trends already underway: an English-speaking population in the south-east was already established and growing, permanent settlements which traded internationally were of increasing economic importance, church institutions were in the process of being reformed by mainstream, European religious orders, and the Scottish Crown had long been trying to monopolize power and downgrade regional leaders and national rivals.

While such institutional features were evolving along similar lines, they were, to this point, under the control and for the benefit of the native leadership of these Celtic communities.

Classic “Feudal” Features

Previous generations of historians tended to simplify “feudalism” to imply a uniform set of prescribed cultural, economic and political norms. In fact, behind fixed feudal terms and conventions in Europe lay a diverse set of social structures and practices. This was true for Scotland as well, as native traditions could be expressed in terms of “feudal” concepts.

The main difference between pre-existing trends within Celtic communities and those imposed by Anglo-Normans was that the latter were used for their own benefit and to secure their grip over Celtic communities. The principles and practices associated with feudal society, as introduced by the Normans, can be generalized as follows:

  • The king is the absolute owner of all land and directly appoints the holders of all offices
  • The “commendation” ceremony: the king accepts a vassal with an act of homage and oath of fealty (absolute loyalty and submission to his superiority)
  • The king grants land charters to vassals
  • Vassals must provide military services to the king
  • Lords (under the king) are invested with estates and power over an unfree population on those estates
  • Primogeniture (first male heir inherits office, no subdivision of property to other sons)
  • Military strongholds are ruled by knights to enforce king’s rule
  • The king grants economic privileges and duties to boroughs (aka “burghs” in Scotland) to create an economic infrastructure controlled by the king which produces income for him

Under the feudal arrangement, although the king was the absolute overlord of all his people, his rule still required careful diplomacy with lower tiers of society in order for maintain effective rule:

The basis of this model was the economic relationship between ruler and subjects, a relationship which could only work with the explicit consent of the noblemen or barons who formed the class of vassals immediately below the king. To achieve and sustain this hegemonic consensus (in Antonio Gramsci’s sense of the term), to maintain the feudal contract between lord and vassal, the king had to engage, as far as possible, in processes of consultation, negotiation, and compromise. (Fulton, “The Mabinogi”)


Part of the secret of the Norman’s success in securing the lands that they conquered on a long-term basis was the defensive structures that they built and occupied, typically referred to as the motte and bailey castle. The first step was the building of a mote: a tall mound of dirt, from eight to fourteen metres in height, with steep sides which could not be climbed.

On top of the mote they built the keep: a wooden palisade (thick defensive fence), which had holes for surveillance and weapons, and a wooden tower (see right). They dug a deep and wide ditch which enclosed not just the mote but also a courtyard, called the “bailey,” which provided safe quarters for military forces and equipment. A drawbridge which could be raised or lowered controlled access from the outside to the inside of the structure.

The famous “Bayeux Tapestry,” a long piece of embroidered cloth providing a visual depiction of the story of the rise of the Normans, their invasion of England and their victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, depicts the building of a mote and keep (see above).

About 600 motte-and-bailey structures of earth and wood were built during the initial phase of the Anglo-Norman conquest of Wales. King Edward I of England embarked on a program of building enhanced fortifications in Wales in 1277 in his efforts to conquer Wales; after crushing Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in 1282 he created a ring of stone castles to maintain control and remind the Welsh of their subjugation by the English. In Ireland, the first motte-and-bailey constructions were replaced with stone and outer walls after about the year 1200.

It was not long before native Celtic lords learnt from and imitated the techniques of the Anglo-Normans: the first Welsh-built castle was in existence by 1116, after which it seems to have become increasingly common. These were initially motte-and-bailey constructions but were made of dressed stone by the end of the 12th century. Some fortified residences may have been built in Ireland as early as 1125, though they may have been made of wood rather than stone. A few Irish chieftains also showed precocious interest in imitating the fortifications of the Anglo-Norman invaders in Ireland: Ruaidrí Ó Conchobair seems to have built a stone castle in 1161 and Toirdhealbhach Ó Briain built a stone castle at Ennis in Co. Clare 1283 x 1306. These were the exceptions, however, until the later 14th century.

Class Discussion

Read the description of Norman settlement and fortification in Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh §3. What strategies are described for how the Anglo-Normans built a physical stronghold and how they created a military force? Why might this have been effective?

Institutional Reforms

During the 12th century, the English state was becoming more intrusive in the lives of its subjects and subject kingdoms: the mere offering of tribute to a superior power was no long considered sufficient. The strict hierarchy from king to vassals to officials was no longer merely a matter of authority, but came to be implemented as a direct imposition of English institutions, people, and language at all levels. In other words, rather than simply passing money up the chain of rank to indicate symbolic loyalty to the king, the entire infrastructure was injected with officials and norms which deferred to English superiority.

Conquest, submission and tributes were no longer adequate: governmental control from, and answerability to, Westminster became increasingly necessary and involved transplanting the assumptions, language and institutions of the English state to the Celtic lands. […] The best guarantee of administrative conformity (and of political loyalty) was to reserve the key offices in these dependent areas for those well-versed in the habits and methods of the English state: so it was that either immigrant settlers or seconded personnel from England monopolised almost all of the key offices of English rule in Ireland or Wales and, briefly, Scotland. (Davies, “The English State.”)

Native religious centres established in the early medieval period in Celtic communities had tended to continue to be run by hereditary clerics who, belonging to the local region and aristocracy, were strongly supportive of the local cultural traditions and literature. This began to change, sometimes radically, in the 12th century as the monastic orders of the continent were invited to establish new centres, often under the patronage of Anglo-Norman incomers. Augustinians, Benedictines, Cistercians, Premonstratensians, and others increased the status of their élite patrons, projected their authority into new realms, and confirmed their interest in keeping up with developments in European Christendom. It also had the consequence of demoting the prestige of native saints and traditions, introducing alien clergy with negative views of local culture, and strengthening the power and authority of central authorities.


During the 13th century, the rulers of Gwynedd transformed the economy, military features, and social capacities of the kingdom by adapting many features learned from the Marcher lords: they erected stone fortifications in strategic locations, built siege engines and catapults, and equipped knights for carefully planned combat. They also created a bureaucratic infrastructure crewed by administrators, clerics and lawmen who managed internal affairs and carried the diplomatic mission of their rulers to other leaders.10 The house of Gwynedd essentially adopted the new feudal mentality, positioning themselves below the English Crown but in charge of the “lesser” Welsh nobles, resigning to a downgrade of status and autonomy in the process.

Law and National Unity

Although the Laws of Hywel Dda were established by the king of that name in the 10th century, they did not remain static: the lawmen who were responsible for maintaining the practice of Welsh law and the tracts describing it were increasingly refashioning the laws to cement the notion of a united Welsh people with a single legal system under the authority of the rulers of Gwynedd at their court at Aberffraw.

The importance of law to a society’s identity and its association with the sovereignty of a nation is well represented in the protests of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd against the attempts of King Edward I of England to impose English law on Wales:

Each province under the empire of the lord king has its own laws and customs according to the peculiarities and uses of those parts where it is situated, as do the Gascons in Gascony, the Scots in Scotland, the Irish in Ireland and the English in England; and this conduces rather to the glory of the Crown of the lord king than to its degradation. And so the Prince seeks that he may be able to have his own Welsh law.

The English Archbishop Peckham seems to have examined a manuscript of Welsh law held in Canterbury and assessed its equal provisions for all sons, even “illegitimate” ones, immoral. When he was engaged in negotiations between Llywelyn and Edward I, he proclaimed Welsh law to be inspired by the devil. For his part, Llywelyn responded that

We fight because we are forced to fight, for we, and all Wales, are oppressed, subjugated, despoiled, reduced to servitude by the royal officers and bailiffs so that we feel, and have often so protested to the King, that we are left without any remedy.

Class Discussion

How does Vita Griffini Filii Conani §1 legitimate Gruffydd ap Cynan as a rightful ruler? Why might this be necessary?


Pan-Gaelic Mercenary Warriors

Professional mercenary warriors recruited from the west of Scotland must have been operating in Ireland by the mid-1100s, although there was not yet a special name for them.

The use of such troops is evidence in the career of Muircheartach Mac Lochlainn, overking of the northern Uí Néill, who began to vie for the high-kingship of Ireland in 1149. He seems to have made a substantial payment to the Gall-Ghàidheil of Dublin in 1154 to ensure their clientage and military allegiance. He called upon their services later that same year when Toirdhealbhach Ó Conchobhair, king of Connacht, refused to recognize Muircheartach as high-king. Muircheartach responded by summoning his new vassals, who, according to Irish annals, enlisted “the fleet of the Gall-Ghàidheil of Arran, Kintyre, Man, and other Scottish territories, under the command of MacScelling.” According to a later source, MacScelling was the name of one of the sons of Somerled (Somhairle), the ruler of Argyll.

Ruaidrí Ó Conchobair, king of Connacht, also recruited mercenaries from the west of Scotland (the western Highlands and Hebrides) on a massive scale as a response to the Anglo-Norman invasion. Ruaidrí refused to surrender to the English king and in 1173 attempted to muster the forces of all of the Gaelic leaders in the north, including men from the Hebrides. The description that Gerald de Barri (of Wales) gave of the army of Áskell in 1171 probably provides an accurate depiction of such forces and their accoutrements:

They were warlike figures, clad in mail in every part of their body after the Danish manner. Some wore long coats of mail, others iron plates skilfully knitted together, and they had round red shields protected by iron round the edge. (Expugnatio Hibernica)

Ruaidrí’s efforts did not succeed in holding back the Anglo-Normans entirely, but his sons continued these links with Gall-Ghàidheil mercenaries: his son Toirdhealbhach gave his daughter in marriage to Maol Muire of the Clann Suibhne (MacSweenys) of Kintyre, a mercenary warrior kindred, no doubt to secure their military services; his son Diarmait attempted to seize the kingship of Connacht in 1221 by employing Hebridean warriors.

It is very likely that King Hákon of Norway was invited by Aodh Ó Conchobair of Connacht in 1263 to assist him in ejecting the Anglo-Norman invaders. As a contemporary document states it:

messages reached [King Hákon] from Ireland, to the effect that the Irish offered to place themselves in his power, if he would rid them of the trouble to which English men had subjected them; because [the English] had then occupied all the best places by the sea [; …] the Irish offered to maintain his whole army, until he freed them from the power of English men.

The first recorded use of the term gall-óglach to refer to a warrior from Gaelic Scotland (especially the Western Isles) occurs in the Irish annals in an entry for the year 1290. Toirdhealbhach Ó Domhnaill attempted, in that year, to capture the kingship of Tír Chonaill from his brother Aodh by means of gall-óglaich, especially those drawn from his mother’s people, the Clan Donald of Scotland.

The gall-óglaich would have not been able to realize their full military potential without the marine technology which moved them quickly across the spans of the Irish Sea and the North Sea. The earliest representation of the late Norse sea galley in the Irish Sea context was engraved on the Hedin cross on the Isle of Man, sometime between the 11th and 13th century (see above). The ships of the communities of Gaelic Scotland were directly descended from the Viking sea galleys; these vessels were small and light enough to be carried by their crew, as the Hebridean warriors sailing in King Hákon’s fleet did in 1263; there are at least 12 places in Scotland and two in Ireland whose name Tairbeart (usually anglicized as “Tarbert”) signifies a short crossing over land suitable for portage.


The Old Irish law tracts mention the general practice of billeting (providing lodging and meals) in Gaelic society, such as when churchmen were on the road, and it was this social duty that rulers extended to their tenantry to provide for their mercenary troops. As mercenary troops became an increasingly important military resource, larger in number and more active across the country, so did the obligation of billeting them become more burdensome for the tenantry.

We have already seen that hosting (summoning military forces) was a traditional form of labour service which subjects (or subject territories) owed to kings. As military services became professionalized during this time period, mercenaries came to be rewarded by the payment of fees. This more formal arrangement allowed leaders to make more rigorous demands from their military forces, such as summoning troops without restrictions and waging wars on campaigns that extended as long as six months at a time.

As always, the changes in styles of settlements, especially those associated with the élite, indicate social changes. No further ringforts were built after AD 1000, even though some continued to have some function and occupants. The new houses were built of stone or turf and were rectangular in shape. The scattered clusters of settlements, once sparsely distributed across the countryside, had by the late 11th century become attracted to larger, undefended proto-urban villages. These changes may indicate that power was becoming increasingly concentrated into the hands of fewer élite who drew their dependents and unfree labour to settle around them.

Class Discussion

Read Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh §1-2. What hierarchical ordering of Gaelic society does this describe (how did it work)? What does this say about the challenges within Gaelic society in countering the Anglo-Norman conquest?

What does Tribes and Customs of Hy-Many say about the duties assigned to specific kin-groups within the kingdom of the Uí Maine?

What does Genealogies, Tribes and Customs of Hy Fiachrach say about how kingly inauguration symbolized the role and authority of the poet and church, in relation to one another?

Rulership in Scotland

Social structures in Scottish Gaeldom went through a great deal of change and reorganization from the 11th to 13th century as aspects of feudalism were incorporated (or modified for incorporation) into Gaelic society. It is during this era that Highland “clan society” began to emerge.

The royal house of Scotland committed itself to primogeniture in the thirteenth century, but succession to a male other than the oldest son continued in at least some clans into the seventeenth century. A clan council, consisting of the fine (the leaders) of the most important kin-groups, was usually involved in the election of the successor.

Even under “Celtic tanistry,” successors tended to be the sons or close relative of the previous ruler, as one needed to be close to the centres of power to draw upon the necessary wealth, military backing, and expertise to succeed. A nobleman who had a large following of dependents could make a better case, with or without a show of force, than one without such support. It became common practice in the Highlands for the oldest son of a chieftain to take over running the daily affairs of the clan once he married.

The last Scottish king inaugurated according to Gaelic custom was King Alexander III, crowned at Scone on 13 July 1249 (see above). The moot-hill and the Stone of Destiny seem to have played prominent parts in that ceremony; a Gaelic-speaking seanchaidh addressed the king in Gaelic, Beannachd Dhé, Rí Alban “The blessing of God, O King of Scotland,” and recited his pedigree back to Gaidheal Glas and Scota, daughter of Pharaoh. The presentation of the sword of state to the king concluded the event.

It is notable that these practices continued into this period, which suggests that key members of the kingdom still expected the king to be endorsed by Gaelic traditions of kingship and statehood in order to be seen as legitimate, despite the ascendancy of the Anglo-Norman order.

Scottish Law

There are fragments of laws (incorrectly26) entitled Leges inter Brettos et Scottos “Laws of the Britons and Scots” which date to the reign of King David I of Scotland (1124-53) which have the appearance of a stage of hybridization between older Celtic law systems and feudal society. These laws were explicitly banned by Edward I when he dominated Scotland.

The earliest manuscript to survive in Scotland in which Gaelic is written is the Book of Deer. The main body of the manuscript contains the four Gospels, written in Latin in the 10th century, as well as an abbreviated liturgical text for priests to use while visiting the sick. This liturgy is very similar to those from Ireland, demonstrating the connection between the Irish and Scottish churches into this period.

There are also seven legalistic notes in Gaelic written in the margins of the document, probably by five different hands in the early 12th century. One of these relays a legend about the founding of the monastery of Deer, while most of the others are essentially property records and early forms of land charters. These attest to the Gaelic names of landowners and other élite in the north-east of Scotland (what is now Buchan) and a variety of Gaelic titles and professions, including mormaer (earl), toísech (head of kindred), brithem (judge), and fer léginn (learned man). This offers some testimony to the political offices and mechanisms for government in Scotland at this time, but unraveling their origins (in the Pictish or Gaelic past) and specific duties and privileges has proved difficult.

Class Discussion

What do the title and content of the surviving parts of Leges inter Brettos et Scottos “Laws of the Britons and Scots” tell us about pre-existing Celtic laws (Goidelic and Brittonic) in Scottish communities before the era of King David? What do these laws say about social rank and the status of women in relation to men?


Bannerman, Beatons.

— “The King’s Poet.”

— “Lordship.”

Boardman, “The Campbells.”

— and Ross, The Exercise.

Broun, “The property records.”

Caldwell, “Having the right kit.”

Carr, “Teulu.”

Charles-Edwards, The Welsh laws.

Clancy, “Kingmaking.”

Davies, “The English State.”

Duffy, “The prehistory.”

Fleming, “Lords.”

Forsyth, Broun and Clancy, “The property records.”

Jenkins, A Concise History.

Loeber, “An Architectural History.”

MacDonald, “Manx Sea Power.”

Moody and Martin, The Course.

Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland.

— “Writing.”

Ó Maolalaigh, “The property records.”

Ommer, “Primitive accumulation.”

Seebohm, Tribal Custom.

Sellar, “Celtic Law.”

Simms, “Gaelic Military History.”

Woolf, From Pictland.