Eliza Hartrich (University of East Anglia) – Municipal Registers in Late Medieval Ireland: Constitutional Culture and Colonial Power

Texte de la conmmunication présentée par Eliza Hartrich le 13 juin 2019 à Aix-en-Provence, lors du colloque La voix des assemblées – Quelle démocratie urbaine au travers des registres de délibérations ?

Ce travail est présenté par l’auteure sous sa forme initiale (draft version for consultation)

While those present in this room have done much already to further the study of municipal registers of deliberations in medieval and early modern Europe, the records of one corner of Europe remain curiously neglected: Ireland.  Today, I shall offer a brief overview of three surviving examples from medieval Ireland of municipal documents primarily concerned with recording aspects of business transacted before urban councils and assemblies: the Assembly Rolls of Dublin, Great Parchment Book of Waterford, and Statute Book of Galway. The Dublin Assembly Rolls are the only record among these four that would be termed a ‘council register’ in the traditional sense (i.e., a contemporary and consecutive record of goings-on in an assembly of citizens), but the others contain evidence that registers of matters discussed in urban assemblies of council activity were produced in other fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Irish towns but that these registers were abridged in the sixteenth century with excerpts incorporated into the more miscellaneous records surviving today.  Through comparing these aspects of Irish urban registers to registers of council deliberations from towns in medieval England, I shall suggest that urban registers in late medieval and early modern Ireland were curated documents (both at the time they were initially written, and by later civic governments) to an unusual extent.  These deliberate processes of inclusion, omission, and redrafting—in which disagreement and deliberation were mostly kept off the official record—reflect the fact that Irish urban records were not solely ‘practical’ documents, but were a means by which an unstable urban elite of English settlers in Irish towns preserved their ‘English’ cultural identity at time when that identity was often challenged.

The history of late medieval Ireland is EXTREMELY complicated, so I shall take a few moments at the beginning of this paper to describe the English settlement of Ireland in the twelfth century, the origins of Irish urban government, and the co-existence of ‘imperial’ English and ‘native’ Gaelic power in Ireland during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The study of urban institutions and documentary culture in late medieval Ireland is inevitably tied up with the study of colonialism and identity.  As Robert Bartlett wrote in his 1993 book The Making of Europe, in Ireland ‘urbanization and anglicization accompanied one another’.[1]  Anglo-Norman nobles came to Ireland from England in 1169 and began acquiring territory. They were followed in 1171 by the English king, Henry II, and over the course of the 1170s, the English Crown claimed the island of Ireland as a lordship under its jurisdiction, although in fact the areas of the island under its physical control were concentrated on the East Coast of Ireland.  The West Coast remained ruled by the ‘native Irish’ (or Gaelic) chieftains.  There were certainly already towns in Ireland (in the sense of commercial exchange centres) when the Anglo-Norman nobles and English kings arrived.  The English Crown, however, introduced to Irish towns in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries the mechanisms of civic government that characterised urban life in England and across much of continental Europe.  Urban citizenship as a collection of defined legal and economic privileges, conveyed by royal charter, came to Ireland as a direct result of English conquest.  Charters stipulated that Irish towns were to follow the laws observed by the town of Breteuil in Normandy and Bristol in England; these transferable privileges and customs allowed for burgeoning municipal government and associational culture in Ireland, with towns like Dublin and Waterford acquiring mayors, assemblies, and guilds.  The hope was that merchants, artisans, and peasants from England would migrate to Ireland and settle in towns in order to take advantage of the economic and political liberties accorded to urban citizens; the apparatuses of municipal government and citizenship were meant to encourage ‘bottom-up’ colonisation through settlement.[2]  Those who were taking up citizenship of Irish towns in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and forming their first urban governments were immigrants from England (and often from English towns), rather than the Gaelic Irish.  Urban citizenship, municipal government, and ‘Englishness’ went hand-in-hand; throughout the centuries that followed the English invasion of 1169-71 urban governments created ordinances mandating that those who became citizens must be descended from the English and must eschew Gaelic customs.  Participation in urban life was reserved for those who were English by ancestry and habits. Therefore, any aspect of urban government must be viewed with an eye to the cultural politics of empire, as municipal administration was an externally-imposed tool for cementing the power of colonial settlers.  

By the fifteenth century, however, the situation in Ireland had changed.  The invasion of Ireland by Edward Bruce in the early fourteenth century and the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century had decimated the English population of Ireland and made English investment in the island less attractive.  As a result, Gaelic chieftains took back large swathes of Ireland from the English Crown; although the English kings claimed lordship over all of Ireland, by the fifteenth century they held real authority only in very small areas, often centred on towns.  Meanwhile, Gaelic Irish were migrating to towns in large numbers and, at the same time, and the descendants of English settlers (often described by historians as the ‘Anglo-Irish’) spoke the Gaelic language as well as (or perhaps better than) they spoke English or French and often dressed in Gaelic mantles or partook in traditional Gaelic games like hurling. These concurrent developments in the fourteenth and, especially, fifteenth centuries are often termed the ‘Gaelicisation’ of Ireland.  While the Anglo-Irish elites who governed Irish towns regarded themselves as culturally English and as representatives of English royal power in Ireland, by the fifteenth century those living in the English ‘metropole’ were beginning to question whether Anglo-Irish civic governments were really so different from the allegedly ‘savage’ Gaelic Irish they excluded from municipal affairs.  In England itself, the word ‘Irish’ was used as a term of abuse to describe BOTH the ‘native’ Gaelic Irish and the Anglo-Irish descendants of English settlers, and both municipal governments like Bristol and the English parliament sought to limits the rights of both groups to trade and travel within England.

It is within this context that we must evaluate Irish urban registers of assembly proceedings, and I shall argue that in Irish towns these documents served a symbolic purpose of re-affirming the English cultural identity of Anglo-Irish civic elites as much as they served a practical one of keeping track of municipal affairs.  I should make clear that the types of registers I am discussing are quite different from those produced in later medieval Italy or France. They tended to record decisions made by larger assemblies meeting a few times a year, rather than discussions occurring within smaller, more elite councils on a weekly basis.  Also, with the notable exception of Dublin, the Irish ‘council registers’ do not fulfill the description of registers outlined by Lorraine Attreed for medieval English towns and cited by Graeme Small in his discussion of French towns: namely, other than Dublin’s Assembly Rolls, Irish urban records are not ‘spontaneous continuous records kept by a town clerk as events occurred’, but are copies of documents that were edited and reconstituted into a single volume at a later date.[3]  

The one example of Irish urban recordkeeping that fits (to some degree) the continental European model of a ‘council register’ are the Dublin Assembly Rolls.  Begun in 1447, these documents recorded business transacted before the Dublin common assembly soon after the assembly had met, with records kept continuously in this manner well into the sixteenth century.  This assembly consisted of the larger ‘common’ councils of 48 and 96 citizens, and it congregated four times a year to approve decisions of particular importance to the city.  The rolls do NOT cover business transacted before the more elite council of 24 jures that met weekly with the mayor of Dublin to make judgments on misdemeanours and to decide matters of civic policy that had a more pressing time frame.  The Dublin Assembly rolls begin in Latin in 1447, but from 1452 entries are recorded almost exclusively in the English language.

In creating a register of assembly proceedings to more miscellaneous memoranda books AND in recording assembly business in English rather than Latin, the Dublin civic government was fitting into similar patterns to those exhibited by the towns of ‘mainland’ England.  Continuous records of proceedings before large assemblies of citizens began to be kept in London in 1416, in Norwich in roll form from 1413 and in book form from 1436, and in Sandwich from 1431; all of these records, though, were written in Latin rather than English.  The ‘Old Black Book’ that kept accounts of assembly meetings in the Kentish town of Sandwich features its first English entry in 1451 (the year before Dublin).[4]  Other English towns around the mid-fifteenth century kept records of more select councils of aldermen, rather than of larger, less frequent civic assemblies. Early examples of this sub-genre of the council register come principally from Yorkshire: Beverley’s Minute-Book for the 12 governors of the town begins in 1436, Hull’s Bench Book for meetings of the 8 aldermen begins in 1445, and York’s House Books for meetings of the councils of 12 and 24 begins in 1461.  While the Beverley minute-book is written mostly in Latin, the Hull bench book and York house books are predominantly in English.  Dublin’s assembly rolls starting in 1447 fit neatly within these trends; they are roughly similar in content (with material pertaining to meetings of large assemblies of citizens) to the Norwich assembly proceedings beginning in 1436 and the Sandwich Black Book beginning in 1431, and adopt English as the language of record at a similar time (1452) to Sandwich (1451) and Hull (1445).  

There is, however, one key difference between the Dublin Assembly Rolls and the English urban registers created around the same period: namely, the way in which discord within the urban community appears in the records.  Norwich’s council proceedings include many references to the internal dispute between members of Norwich’s civic elite in 1433-1443, which resulted in the suspension of Norwich’s liberties on two occasions within that period and the appointment of royal wardens to replace the mayor.   The records of Sandwich’s common assembly (the Old Black Book) freely discuss the conflict between Mayor Henry Greneshild and several prominent jurats in the 1460s, during which two different mayors were imprisoned.  The Hull Bench Book, York House Books, and Beverley Minute-Book are littered with entries regarding subversive speech uttered against mayors, aldermen, and governors, as well as references to the outbreak and suppression of riots.  The Dublin assembly rolls reveal no signs of any similar contention between residents of the city.  There are no instances in the rolls of men or women being punished for verbally abusing civic officials, and no mention of any kind of riot or revolt against urban authority.  We have some hints of discontent, as when in January 1464 arbitration was required in a dispute between John Eustace and Philip Bermingham to determine who should be recorder (or chief legal adviser) to the city.[5]  Such incidents, however, hardly compare to the riots and sedition typically found in urban records from other parts of Europe.  

Conversely, the items that appear with great frequency on the Dublin assembly rolls are ordinances limiting the involvement of the Gaelic Irish in Dublin civic life, as well as contentions between the Dublin civic government and external bodies (very often in the person of merchants from English towns).  Fairly typical among entries in the Dublin assembly roll was the 24 June 1454 ordinance requiring that ‘al maner of men of Iryshe blode and women, that is to sayn Iryssh nonnys, Iryssh clerkys, and Irysh jornaymen, Iryshe prentesys, Iryssh servants, and Iryssh begeris, men, women, and children’ who had not been living in Dublin for at least 12 years should be forced to leave the city within 4 weeks on pain of imprisonment and forfeiture of goods.  In the same ordinance, men of English descent in Dublin were also forbidden from taking on Irish servants or apprentices on pain of a 40s. fine.[6]  In 1466, the assembly rolls record that fines were to be paid by all men who wore the Gaelic-style heavy mantle rather than the short English cloak, and the same fine for women who whore Gaelic-style saffron kerchiefs.[7]

Relations between the city of Dublin and merchants from English towns are also discussed at some length.  Most notable are several entries in the assembly rolls for in 1460 and 1466 pertaining to attempts by merchants of the English towns of London, Coventry and Chester to exclude the Anglo-Irish merchants from importing goods into England.[8]

The picture that emerges, then, is of a Dublin civic government anxious to ensure that residents of English towns let the Anglo-Irish urban elite of Dublin continue their trading ventures, and part of their response to these anxieties may well have been the bevy of ordinances in the assembly rolls preserving the cultural ‘Englishness’ of the Dublin citizenry and restricting the rights of the Gaelic Irish within the city.  The fact that the Dublin assembly rolls feature far less reference to internal discord than to comparable English urban records may also indicate that the Dublin civic authorities were particularly careful to project an image of trustworthiness and unity through their records.  The records may not have been seen by a large audience, but they could be used to re-inforce the identity of a Dublin civic elite as a culturally ‘English’, powerful, and eminently capable governing unit at a time when their authority was being questioned by residents of the English metropole.  Here, internal discord is omitted from the written records or minimised, and decisions stressing the continuance of ‘English’ cultural practices among the Dublin civic elite are recorded frequently and with care, perhaps with an eye to constructing an ‘English’ self-image for the citizens of Dublin. The assembly rolls would be an ideal vehicle through which to do so; the very creation of a continuous record of assembly proceedings illustrated that the Dublin citizenry was aware of similar record-keeping trends occurring among English civic governments, and thus still a part of a cultural ‘English’ urban world.  The fact that the Dublin assembly rolls are recorded in English (rather than Latin or French) from 1452 is also significant; this coincides roughly to the introduction of English in Hull and Sandwich’s civic records in 1445 and 1451, respectively, and actually pre-dates the use of vernacular English in the records of most towns in ENGLAND.  In using the English language for their assembly rolls from a relatively early date, Dublin was demonstrating not only its continuing familiarity with urban culture in England, but also highlighted that the elite residents of Dublin could still read and write fluently in English even though they perhaps spoke Gaelic as their first language.  

I shall now address, much more briefly, some of the other surviving urban records pertaining to late medieval Ireland.  As I mentioned earlier, the Dublin assembly rolls are the only medieval Irish records that could be termed a ‘register of deliberations’; for no other Irish town do we have a continuous, contemporaneous record dedicated solely to business transacted before a council or assembly.  The Great Parchment Book of Waterford and Statute Book of Galway, however, MAY suggest that now-lost continuous records of assembly proceedings WERE kept in these towns during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but survive now only in abridged and edited versions in early modern municipal memoranda books.

The Great Parchment Book from the Irish town of Waterford is a large volume containing miscellaneous material compiled gradually throughout the late fifteenth to seventeenth centuries.  Among the civic records included are the ‘Liber Primus’, which lists in chronological order the acts and statutes made by the Dernhundred assembly of Waterford; the list was compiled and written out in one hand around the year 1525, but covers assemblies from 1366 to 1513, and the material becomes fuller from the 1450s onwards.  This is a case in which a sixteenth-century compiler is clearly working from an earlier set of medieval documents that has since been lost.  All the acts are written in English, although it is unclear if the sixteenth-century copyist was translating Latin or French originals from the fourteenth and fifteenth century into English or if he was copying English originals.  The entries for each year typically begin ‘In the same day and year’, without actually naming the day on which the assembly was held, suggesting that there is a dating clause or an earlier entry for that particular assembly which is missing; evidently, the original medieval document contained entries and information for these particular assemblies that the sixteenth-century compiler chose not to include in the Great Parchment Book.  This would suggest that the sixteenth-century compiler was working from a much larger medieval document listing a greater variety of acts put before Waterford’s assembly, and that he was cherrypicking only the most ‘important’ items to include in the Great Parchment Book. These entries tend to be ordinances requiring that citizens of Waterford do not sue one another in external law courts, and ordinances limiting Gaelic Irish influence in the city; typical is a 1465 ordinance requiring that ‘no manere of man of Irishe reule & governance’ be admitted as a citizen of Waterford, even if he married the widow or daughter of a citizen.[9]

The town of Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, has far sparser records pertaining to the medieval period, but these suggest that Galway was pursuing similar strategies in urban recordkeeping to Waterford.  The Galway Statute Book contains enactments made at assemblies of the mayor, council, and commons of Galway; they are arranged in a (mostly) chronological order, with each year beginning with the name of the mayor, bailiffs, and masters of the town, followed by a numbered list of ordinances passed in assemblies occurring in that year.  The Statute Book was written at some point in the mid-sixteenth century, but the entries begin in 1485.  A few sections are in Latin, but the vast majority of the book is written in English.  As with the Waterford Great Parchment Book, the ordinances in the Galway Statute Book tend to revolve around citizens of Galway not suing one another in external legal courts AND around the treatment of the Gaelic Irish.  One of the earliest entries, dated to November 1485, is an enactment by the Galway assembly that no resident of the town should sell property within Galway to an Irishman without first receiving permission from the council.[10]  As with Waterford, it may well be the case that a sixteenth-century compiler has extracted entries from a much fuller fifteenth-century register of assembly proceedings, which has now been lost.

What should we conclude from all this?  The first, and most obvious, point is that Irish towns did, indeed, have registers of assembly proceedings, and these emerged at a similar time to those in English towns and transitioned from being written in Latin to vernacular English at around the same time that the this shift occurred in urban records for English towns.  The mid-fifteenth century seems to be a key point for the emergence of English-language assembly proceedings in both England AND Ireland, in spite of the fact that relations between English and Irish towns during this period were strained.  Moreover, it is very probable that historians have underestimated the extent to which registers of assembly proceedings were kept in medieval Irish towns, since the evidence of extracts from ‘lost’ medieval registers in early modern memoranda books has not been sufficiently considered.  Irish towns, far from lagging behind English towns in the creation of assembly registers, were operating at the same pace as places like Norwich and York, or even a few steps ahead.  

 What distinguishes Irish municipal registers from their English counterparts, however, is a much more conscious process of identity construction.  The Dublin assembly proceedings avoid mentioning any dissension within the civic elite, and clearly early modern residents of Waterford and Galway carefully pruned their medieval records to present a more sanitised abridgement.  It is also notable that the 16th-century Irish practice of taking extracts from late medieval registers of assembly proceedings and creating a neatly numbered list of enactments is less commonly seen in English towns of the same period. Civic elites in English towns like Hull and Norwich saw little need to copy, edit, and re-fashion medieval assembly proceedings into a slimmed-down book of ordinances; it was not viewed as worthwhile to manipulate their content.  Anglo-Irish urban elites, however, needed to prove to the English Crown, ordinary citizens, and (perhaps most importantly) to themselves that they were responsible stewards of English government in Ireland rather and had not ‘gone native’; this incentive was already present in the fifteenth century, but only increased in the sixteenth century as Catholic urban elites were confronted by a new wave of Protestant settlers from England and Scotland.  It is, then, unsurprising that sixteenth-century Anglo-Irish urban elites took the trouble to re-fashion medieval records of assembly proceedings in a fashion that would emphasise this cultural ‘Englishness’ even more and cut out extraneous, more practical material.

Unlike registers of council proceedings found in France or in Italian city-states, records of Irish assembly proceedings rarely include debates over the formation of policy.  The Irish records are not evidence of the formation of a deliberative or democratic urban culture in late medieval Irish towns, nor are they purely practical documents aimed at recording measures taken by Irish urban elites to clean out ditches or determine which amounts individual citizens should pay in tax.  What the assembly proceedings of late medieval Irish towns demonstrate is that this genre of urban record—the ‘register’ of assembly or council proceedings—assumed different functions and meanings according to the needs of the society that adopted it.  And, in Ireland, those needs were very different from in England, France, Italian city-states, or Iberia.  Late medieval assembly proceedings for Irish towns, in their original or in their abridged early modern copies, were geared towards asserting the continued cultural ‘Englishness’ and political trustworthiness of embattled Anglo-Irish urban elites in a world where the English Crown was increasingly abdicating responsibility for protecting the interests of those descended from the settlers of England’s ‘first colony’.


[1]R. Bartlett, The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change 950-1350(London, 1993), p. 181.

[2]Ibid., pp. 170-2.

[3]Quotation from YHB, I, xiii, cited in Small, ‘Municipal Registers’, p. 39.

[4]KHLC, Sa/AC 1, Old Black Book, f. 193.

[5]CARD, I, 315.

[6]Ibid., I, 280-1.

[7]Ibid., I, 326.

[8]Ibid., I, 305-7, 322.

[9]GPB, p. 84.

[10]HMC 10threport, appendix part 5, p. 385.


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