Power: 1300-1500


Wales: Social Structures

The unfree population (often referred to as “bondsmen”) were probably hit harder by the Black Death than the upper classes, but after the plague subsided many of those who survived fled from their masters for a new life, leaving landholdings vacant and fields to return to the wild. This unrestrained movement of labour undermined the webs of kinship that was part of the old feudal order; in its place a new social order began to emerge that was more individualistic, mobile, and financially-minded. The death of massive numbers of the labour pool created “breathing room” for women, who jockeyed for positions once exclusively held by men.

Although the independent native Welsh princes had been effectively wiped out by the end of the 13th century, an upper-class Welsh squirearchy (uchelwyr) survived who were often landowners, holders of public office (lawyers, judges, administrators and churchmen), or military officers. These families attempted to raise their standing by claiming and working abandoned farmlands and chasing opportunities in boroughs as well as by making strategic marriage alliances. Men of this class were expected to be educated and cultured, and many were fluent speakers of Welsh, Latin, English and French. Welsh society expected them to cultivate an interest in the Welsh language and literature and their ancestry (legal privileges in Welsh law were derived from ancestors), and to demonstrate their grace and grandeur by the provision of hospitality.

Some of the Marcher Lords encouraged and even required that the population under their control continued to observe elements of the Laws of Hywel Dda because the lords figured out how to turn it to their advantage. They claimed for themselves the payments and penalties that vassals were to pay their lords on the death of a tenant, the marriage of a vassal’s daughter, the penalties paid when a legal case was settled, and so on. Of greatest interest, and advantage, were the clauses that caused land to revert to the ownership of a vassal’s lord, such as when he died without any male heirs.

Despite such limited allowances, King Edward I’s conquest of Wales ensured the steady erosion of Welsh Law and the advance of English law. Unlike Celtic law systems, which view people within their larger kinship network, English law reduced subjects to single individuals. This furthered the slow but steady effect of undermining the centrality of the bonds of kinship. These trends were reinforced by the imposition of an pervasive money economy on all social strata throughout the country. Taxes went up drastically under the post-Conquest regime, with the lower classes paying a disproportionate amount of the burden.

Elements among the bonheddwyr [freemen] succeeded in profiting from the new order, but the social subjection of the classes beneath them was reinforced by their subjection as members of a defeated ethnic group. (Davies, A History)

Gaeldom: Social Structures

As in most other societies, kinship was the original organizing principle of Celtic societies. We have already seen that the bonds of kinship were supplemented from very early times by other social mechanisms and legal arrangements, most notably marriage and fosterage. These arrangements which supplement and imitate blood relationships are called fictive kinship. By this period new forms of fictive kinship were being devised in Gaelic societies to allow new kin-groups to be joined as followers of a ruler or allow them to break off and become more independent. Biological relationships did not by any means determine or exclude the range of bonds and arrangements that drew people together.


Some of the problems of the English colony in Ireland were blamed on “degeneracy”: that is, the colonists were supposedly “tainted” by Irish Gaelic culture and language. References to “degenerates” appear as early as 1297, when the Irish parliament began to craft legislation against the loss of English colonists to Gaelic culture. This assimilation is not surprising, given that many Anglo-Norman lords, as well as colonists of lesser stature, had married Irish wives almost immediately upon landing in Ireland. Their children were exposed to both the Anglo-Norman culture and language of the settler population and the language and customs of Irish society around them, but would have been increasingly influenced by the latter. The most elaborate and articulate attempt to impose apartheid on the English colony in Ireland, and prevent the Gaelicization of English colonies, was the Statutes of Kilkenny, written in 1366.

Although English law was enforced in the Pale, the English authorities, however much they condemned Irish (aka “brehon”) law, conceded to its use by and within Gaelic Irish communities. The descendants of Anglo-Norman colonists began using Irish law themselves in the first quarter of the 14th century. In fact, by c.1432 some Anglo-Irish lords were beginning to employ brehon judges to administer legal affairs. The Statutes of Kilkenny prohibited the exercise of Irish law, but such pronouncements were meaningless where Gaelic power and norms prevailed.

The new form of fictive kinship which developed in Gaelic Ireland by the 14th century was known as gossiprid. “Gossiprid was essentially a pledge of fraternal association between a lord who thereby gained service, and his client who received protection, patronage and, again, preferential treatment of his suits in court” (Fitzsimons, “Fosterage”).
It was essentially a contract which could be witnessed publicly or privately with various obligations from both sides. The English authorities condemned gossiprid because it interfered with the undivided loyalty the English King demanded from his subjects. It was explicitly prohibited in the Statutes of Kilkenny but seems to have been practiced to the end of the 16th century.

The revival of Gaelic culture and leadership during this time period was successful enough to allow some older customs and symbols to be revitalized. We know that aspects of the rituals of kingship – such as the installation of the new ruler at a sacred site, the bestowal of the rod of kingship, and the imbibing of a ceremonial drink of kingship from a special vessel – were practiced during this period. Ironically, in fact, one of the Gaelic kingdoms to fare best during the 14th century was that in Carlow and north Wexford, ruled by Caomhanach kings who were directly descended from Diarmait Mac Murchada, the man who ushered in the invasion of the Anglo-Normans in the first place. As part of their kingship ritual, the new king drank out of “Kavanagh Charter Horn” (shown above). This was originally fashioned from an elephant tusk in the 13th century and was ornamented in this form during the reign of Art Mór Mac Murchada (†1416).

The MacLeods of Dunvegan have a very similar inaugural drinking horn (above) which may date from the same time period.

Class Discussion

How do the Statutes of Kilkenny attempt to define and maintain a system of apartheid in Ireland? What social mechanisms and practices does it mention specifically and what are special about these?


There was no single, unified “clan system” in the Scottish Highlands: the social structures and mechanisms in Scottish Gaeldom were constantly adapting to changing conditions and opportunities in different regions in different ways under different leaders. While some aspects of clan life were directly descended from older Celtic practices, others were the result of borrowing or adapting feudal practices.

Kinship was the organizing principle of Highland clan society, but in reality not everyone in the same clan was related. As an anonymous, late seventeenth-century document informs us, “They reckon him to be their chief, whom they choose for their patron: tho he be not of their name.” This reality of clans whose membership was in constant flux contradicts the common assumption that all members of a clan were descended from a common ancestor.

Indeed, by the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries blood kinship was no longer the principal organising feature of clan society but rather one of a number of factors which contributed to the formation of clannish relationships. (Cathcart, Kinship)

Marriage is a nearly universal means of uniting kin-groups and was particularly important as a political arrangement at the upper echelons of Gaelic society; the lower orders enjoyed much more freedom of choice in marriage partners because the political implications were less important. Marriage was one of the ways in which clans sought to gain wealth and territory, and such wealth could be lost when a daughter left her kin-group, given the dowry that accompanied her.

The bond of manrent was a new form of fictive kinship, which became increasingly common from the fifteenth century on. Manrent was a form of clientage in which a man (sometimes as a representative of his kin-group) entered into a formal contract with a superior chieftain or regional lord (very similar to Irish gossiprid). The dependent offered his loyalty and services (and that of his clan if he was a chieftain) to a more powerful lord in exchange for the latter’s protection and leadership. The prevalence of manrent contracts illustrates that kinship by itself was insufficient to maintain the social order of clanship.

Lesser kindreds who were taken under the protection of a greater lord could benefit from the security provided by a more effective corporate body. This was particularly important to kindreds who wished to assert a degree of independence from their former superiors, or who had hostile relations with more powerful neighbours. The superior lord, on the other hand, could use his new dependents to extend his influence and further his ambition in new territories.

Not only poets, but lawyers, medics, musicians and other professionals who had been educated in Ireland were brought by Clan Donald to Scotland for employment within the Lordship of the Isles. Judges operating under the Gaelic law system were appointed to specific territories and produced legal documents, such as charters. Such legal professions survived in the Hebrides as late as the seventeenth century. The Lords of the Isles sustained the traditional Gaelic legal order, which contributed to the stability and peace of their reign, as recalled nostalgically later in the Sleat history of the MacDonalds:

There was a judge in every Isle for the discussion of all controversies, who had lands from Macdonald for their trouble, and likewise the eleventh part of every action decided. But there might be still an appeal to the Council of the Isles.

Some men who received formal Gaelic education under the patronage of Clan Donald found employment elsewhere in Gaelic Scotland outside of the Lordship, and even in the Lowlands or royal court.

The use of charters to grant land formally found widespread acceptance amongst the upper echelons of Gaelic society by the fifteenth century; even the Lords of the Isles used charters during their reign. Most of the charters that survive from the Lordship were written in Latin, although there is one example written in Gaelic in 1408.

During this time period, only the most powerful, defiant or desperate of clans dared to continue occupying lands granted by the king (or regional lords) to other chieftains. Charters granting land and stating reciprocal obligations were in the interests of both the ruling élite and their subordinates because they explicitly stated the terms under which land was granted, decreasing the threat that a chieftain (or his heir) would dispossess tenants in favour of others at a whim.

Warfare and Mercenaries

The endemic warfare in Ireland between Anglo-Norman lords, Gaelic Irish lords, and the English authorities ensured a constant demand for the services of the gall-óglaich. As we’ve seen already, this profession originated amongst the Gall-Ghàidheil of the Hebrides, but by the sixteenth century many of the warriors were recruited from the Gaelic population of Ireland itself, and even many of the leaders of the troops were from Irish families. Regardless, a strong association between the gall-óglaich and Gaelic Scotland was retained in popular memory.

By the beginning of the 14th century, warriors of Gaelic Scotland wore “aketons” as their fighting dress: hard padded coats of leather or deer-skin, quilted vertically, which went down to the knee, fitted with a metal or mail collar. A coat of chain mail may have occasionally worn over this. This protective uniform was fairly light, warm, and water-proof, making it very appropriate for sea-faring warriors. Many of the stone burial markers of West Highland warriors engraved during this era depict them wearing the aketon (see above).

The weapon most strongly associated with warriors on the West Highland stone sculpture of this era is the sword. As high-quality blades were usually manufactured elsewhere and imported to Gaelic Scotland, swords were expensive and probably only owned by the top élite before the 16th century. Swords were used for stabbing as well as slashing. The earliest surviving representation of the two-handed “claymore” (from Gaelic claidheamh mór “great sword”) comes from a stone sculpture of 1539 in Oronsay Priory (in the Inner Hebrides).

Naval fleets enabled the chieftains of the western Highlands and Hebrides to maintained their military supremacy. The Gaelic sea galley was called a birlinn in Gaelic by the 17th century and were commonly depicted on West Highland stone sculpture from the 14th to 16th centuries. The ability to use oars as well as sails gave the birlinn maximum navigational flexibility. As the hull did not extend deeply into the water, it could be taken into shallow waters and be dragged directly onto shore and into small holding ponds; they could probably out maneuver larger and less sleek vessels.

Another key virtue of these ships was their ability to transport large numbers of men and cargo, especially the plunder taken home after a successful campaign. A report written in 1615 to the Scottish Privy Council describes two kinds of vessels: the galley (long), containing from 18 to 24 oars, and the birlinn, containing from 12 to 18 oars; each oar was rowed by three men.


The vast majority of human societies live in structures not meant to be long-lived or permanent, but to be rebuilt or renewed from time to time. Although the Anglo-Normans atypical in their building in stone, not least for its strength for military garrisons, temporary structures were still used in much of medieval Europe. Architectural styles and trends began to change throughout the British Isles during this era, however.


Gerald de Barri (of Wales) remarked in the 12th century that the Welsh still lived in non- permanent structures of woven wattles and timber, but Welsh architecture went through a dramatic transformation during the 15th century. While wood was still the preferred material, the structures were built to last, and indeed, some have survived to the present. Carpenters working with wood were seen as producing a more refined product than those working in stone, and with the era of military conflict at an end, the need for fortification was no longer a priority.

As we might expect, the Welsh revolution in architecture began c.1400 at the high end of the social spectrum, in the royal homes of the Marcher Lords and religious centres; it was imitated in the halls of the Welsh gentry by c.1450; and trickled down to the more modest halls of the peasantry c.1500.

Welsh noble residences were often situated on a prominence (such as a hillside) for maximum visibility and effect; the grazing of livestock on nearby hills also provided practical reasons for such locations. The timber arch which went from the ground to the pinnacle of the roof – called in English a “cruck-truss” – was an imitation of the Gothic stone archway in wood.

The floor plan of these residences was designed to guide the visitor along a path which conveyed the identity and noble status of the owner. After coming into the entrance at the lower end of the hall, the visitor would be in a small anteroom where he would have to
turn and behold the full length of the hall before proceeding, gazing past the decorated walls, pillars, and tresses of the dwelling to the seat of the owner at the far end. In some of the richer residences, s/he might pass by a richly carved wooden screen making some visual statement about the nobility and hospitality of the owner.

A fire was kept burning perpetually in the open hearth, which also featured iron firedogs (which held the burning wood) and cooking implements, such as a cooking pot. A beautifully carved truss hung down from the centre-point of the hall. The seat and table of the owner sat at the upper (far) end of the hall, often elevated to emphasize his high social status and position. Bright, colourful tapestries hung on the walls of wealthy residences. Tables and chairs were carefully arranged around the hall during feasts marking such occasions as Christian holidays and weddings. A noble family was expected to demonstrate and share their wealth in the form of feasts and displays of hospitality, such as such noble residences allowed; withholding generosity provoked the disapproval and satire of the poets, which would bring the family to shame and a loss of social credibility.

The poets who praised who praised the noble families and their residences made frequent comparisons between the ornamental craft of the carpenter and that of the poet – high praise indeed, coming from a professional poet! In fact, good carpenters were in such high demand that Welsh gentry composed poems (or commissioned their composition) in order to flatter the artisans into contracts.


The history and archaeology of Gaelic architecture is still imperfectly understood, so much is left to guesswork. As Gaelic lords of Ireland began to regain some of their former lands, resources and status, so did they have greater access to funds to build complex, fortified, permanent residences and a greater need to have the practical and symbolic functions that such habitations provide.

During the 14th century, some Gaelic lords came to occupy the stone castles that had been originally built by the Anglo-Normans. By the third quarter of the 14th century, native Gaelic lords entered a new, prolific phase of designing and constructing their own fortified residences (Dún Guaire in Co. Galway above).

The primary purpose of the castles built by the native Irish lords was the security of the élite leaders of Gaelic society. Castle often took advantage of features of the landscape and aided in the control of strategically important pathways, built along shorelines, on islands, or next to tracks through bog lands. Many are located nearby religious houses. There are regional differences in the styles of these residences and there seem to be connections between chiefly architecture and that of the religious orders.

Class Discussion

Compare the descriptions of great houses in “Do tógbhadh meirge Murchaidh” §36-49 and Llys Owain Glyndwr: How do the poets represent the houses to convey the social prestige, political power and literary patronage of their respective owners? What is similar or different about the social lives as represented in the poems?


Caldwell, “Having the right kit.”

Campbell, A Collection.

Cathcart, Kinship.

Davies, A History.

Fitzsimons, “Fosterage.”

Jenkins, A Concise History.

Loeber, “An Architectural History.”

Macinnes, Clanship.

MacPhail, Highland Papers.

Munro, “The Lordship.”

Nicholls, Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland.

— “Scottish mercenary kindreds.”

Patterson, Cattle-Lords.

Suggett, “Poets and Carpenters.”

Thomson, “Gaelic Learned Orders.”