Late-medieval Ireland was a contested space. Irish kings, their people and the settler English communities across the island clashed. Colonial power and Irish authority were in a constant state of tension, but they also mingled in a world of intermarriage and shared legal rights and customs. Faced with entangled community relations, English rulers needed diplomacy alongside military might. They could insist on the subject status of Irish kings but often did not have the authority to make it a reality. Diplomatic agreements reveal something of the influence, political aspirations and voices of the colonised. Many have survived in a variety of forms; these are now being translated into English and made available alongside digitised images on the Virtual Record Treasury.
The greatest archival windfall of such agreements between English royal power and Gaelic Irish leaders comes from the expedition of King Richard II to Ireland in 1394/5 when eighty Irish kings submitted to him. These included most of the most influential community leaders across Gaelic Ireland, notably Brian Ó Briain of Thomond, Niall Óg Ó Néill and his father Niall Mór of Ulster, Toirdelbach Ó Conchobhair Donn of Connacht and Art Mac Murchadha Caomhánach of Leinster.
These fascinating records survive as original instruments legally witnessed by a notary public and as copies of these instruments made for Richard’s treasury, together with related correspondence. They provide us with richly detailed insights into the diplomatic process. They show, for example, the variety of settings across Ireland in which diplomatic meetings took place and whether Richard was personally involved. The negotiating voices on both sides are clear from the oaths taken in Irish and translated by interpreters for the king. They also show the influence of the Church, the language of submission and what the king of England would accept as a sufficient statement of subservience and loyalty. Finally, they record the rituals involved in late medieval diplomacy, such as the knighting by Richard of some leaders who submitted in person, acknowledging their status within western European chivalric culture.
As we move into the fifteenth century, there are major clusters of surviving agreements, usually from moments of political significance or crisis within the English colony in Ireland. These borrow from and build upon Richard’s diplomacy. For example, in 1402, Henry IV’s son Thomas of Lancaster was lord lieutenant of Ireland and negotiated with Donnchadh Ó Broin and others. In the mid-1440s, at the height of the feud between the leading dynasties of English Ireland, the Talbots and the Butler earls of Ormond, John Talbot made agreements in his role as lieutenant with significant Irish kings. In 1449, Richard, duke of York, who would later be a claimant for the English throne, gathered together many of the English of Ireland alongside the Irish kings in a series of indentures.