Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: July 2009

10 - Nobility and identity in medieval Britain and Ireland: The de Vescy family, c. 1120–1314


As Rees Davies has re-emphasized, ‘the length of the Matter of England needs to be balanced in some degree by the breadth of the Matter of Britain’. But as its leading exponents also readily admit, ‘British history’ rarely lends itself to neat conceptual frameworks; and for the medievalist it is often unusually difficult to devise serviceable organizing principles. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries our terms of reference seem to lie conveniently to hand in the apparently remorseless growth of the English state, in its deliberate cultivation of an intensified sense of English political and cultural individuality, and in the supposed ‘unity’ of baronial society in Britain and Ireland. Yet we must remind ourselves once again that, however passionately the Westminster-centred government believed otherwise, defining the contours of power and identity in these islands was not solely its prerogative. This chapter is about the experience of belonging to a baronial family whose territories ultimately spread from England into Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It is concerned with how its members reacted to their varied surroundings and sought to defend and promote their interests; with their loyalties, priorities and values; and with the complexities and contradictions of their identity and self-image. Its main purpose, however, is to contribute to the discourse of ‘British history’ through an attempt, as Sir Frank Stenton once put it, ‘to penetrate behind the abstraction to the individual’.