This experimental web site is under construction and may change form and content as the project develops. Its purpose is to evaluate mechanisms for converting large bodies of academic text into an acceptable Web format. The project utilises as raw material a substantial piece of academic research completed in the late 1960s which is largely unsuitable for conventional publication. This research is now substantially out of date, but it may provide some material of interest to current scholars working on the medieval gentry.

When Helen Cam produced her biographical account of thirteenth century Cambridgeshire sheriffs she had little difficulty in defining her subjects according to the standards which were expected in the Provisions of Oxford of 1258 and the Articuli Super Cartas of 1301. They were, of course, loyal people, substantial men, holders of land. [1] In the context of mid thirteenth century politics and late twentieth century scepticism, it is legitimate now to ask how loyal, how substantial, and, what kind of land ? Presumably the answers were self evident in the thirteenth century but the quality of these people seems less clear from a distance of seven centuries. Such questions attracted potential answers. Some ten years after Miss Cam's article in 1924 a Miss Fletcher, later Mrs Bassett, presented a thesis on the biographical backgrounds of the knights of the shire returned to parliament from Bedfordshire during the middle ages. This study, later published by the Bedfordshire Record Society, [2] consists of a series of short biographies accompanied by a brief introduction in which the features of the group as a whole are discussed. Mrs Bassett did not, however, attempt to compare her parliamentary representatives with other knights resident in Bedfordshire during the same period. There is, in short, no control group against whom the parliamentary knights can be measured. Her conclusions are, in consequence, disappointing;

the majority of men returned were, as far as can be ascertained, of sober years, and all of them had some definite territorial connection with the county....they were chosen as county representatives rather because they were landowners in the county than for any personal importance they may have had. [3]

Behind both of these studies lay G.T. Lapsley's seminal article on the knights of the shire returned to parliament in the reign of Edward II, and even closer behind Mrs Bassett's thesis lay Lapsley's other major article on the nature and identity of Bracton's mysterious buzones. [4] In these articles Lapsley set out both the objectives and the methods which might be applied to a study of the thirteenth and fourteenth century gentry. Lapsley, however, was less concerned with the social structure of the gentry than with their political affinities, and since he found the evidence for political connections rather tenuous his final conclusions were largely negative. Nevertheless he helped to identify, if not define, a ruling group within the county court, and by doing so invited further questions about the social and political structure of the gentry as a whole. Between 1919 and 1934, then, the need for some form of study of the gentry had been appreciated, and possible approaches to the problem had been suggested. In addition to Mrs Bassett's thesis in 1934, both C.H. Hunter Blair, and J.H. Hornyold-Strickland had produced comparable, but not comparative, biographies of the medieval members of parliament for Northumberland and Lancashire respectively, and in the same vein, and at approximately the same time Katherine Wood-Legh contributed two general studies of the representatives of the counties in the parliaments of Edward III. [5]

Such studies as these were apparently suspended by the Second World War, and, whilst interesting in themselves, they must be seen as part of a general investigation into the structure and organisation of medieval English parliaments. The questions raised by these historians proved less appealing to post war historians. F.M. Powicke, writing in 1953, set out a new series of coordinates for future studies of the medieval gentry;

we still know too little about the distribution of local groups {of knights} and the relations between them and the very important knights of the king's household, or the growing professional classes of lay estate agents, monastic stewards and the like. [6]

Twelve years later much the same cry was taken up by N. Denholm Young;

much has been written about the administrative functions of the medieval sheriff, and the personnel of 'the commons' has been analysed in regard to their other administrative functions and their attendance in Parliament. But for the period 1272 to 1310 not much has been said about the social status of these men, how far the categories of knights of the shire and sheriff overlapped, or how many of the members of parliament were active knights and how many professional administrators. [7]

The line of investigation which runs from Lapsley in 1919 to Denholm Young in 1965 is essentially 'sociological' in approach in the sense that it attempts to illuminate changes in constitutional form and structure, especially parliament, in terms of social or economic change. Most of the contributors to this line of argument tend to use the terms knight and gentry interchangeably, although Denholm Young was clearly aware that the concepts associated with the knight were open to a variety of possible interpretations. An earlier and alternative line of investigation focussing more clearly on conventional concepts of the characteristics of knighthood arose from the antiquarian histories of the English counties which began in the late eighteenth century with works like Philip Morant's History of Essexpublished in 1768, runs through J.H. Round's studies of medieval families , [8] and continues in part in the Victoria County Histories, and in the publications of most county record and antiquarian societies. The objectives here are openly genealogical and consist largely in the construction of pedigrees for local nobility or in tracing the descent and division of estates and lordships through the various families by whom they were held. Such studies necessarily utilise material and techniques which could equally well be applied to the analysis of social structure and administrative responsibility. In another important study of thirteenth century government and society Helen Cam pointed to the overlap between the two approaches:

If local government is the subject, and the period is feudal, the inquirer is in the thick of a forest of family trees before he can well help it... to establish a family descent may be an indispensable preliminary for clearing up some legal, political or sociological problem. [9]

By the late sixties Denholm Young had shifted the ground plan of the lesser aristocracy by attempting to apply the tools of the herald and genealogist to the wider problem of the social structure of what he now openly called 'the gentry' [10] but he restricted his study to the gentry in the fourteenth century, by which time sufficient documentary evidence exists to allow for more substantive conclusions. On the other hand the quality and nature of the documentation points the researcher back along the line of genealogy and descent, augmented by evidence of economic status and social milieu.

All of the approaches considered so far share one common characteristic. They are all limited and specific in intention, investigating aspects of 'the gentry' as a means to the solution of other problems, The genealogists thus study knights to establish titles and descents, Lapsley's followers studied only the parliamentary knights, and their approach may well owe more to Sir Lewis Namier than to Lapsley himself. [11] Similarly the economic activities of the gentry have for many years attracted economic historians, but only as a factor in a wider study of medieval landed estates, whilst political historians like R.F. Treharne recognised the political significance of the gentry, but rarely considered them as a social class. [12] The questions formulated by Powicke and Denholm Young, the most perceptive of the early observers of the medieval gentry, demanded a more synthetic approach, bringing together the attitudes and techniques of various related disciplines. Seen in retrospect there are two central problems.

The first follows from the constitutional question, that is the identification of the ruling clique within a given county as an aspect of the history of local and central government . If such a clique existed, how was it selected, and how did it differ from other knights, or groups of knights, also active in, or associated with, that county? Seen from this perspective the parliamentary knights merely provide a starting point for a much wider survey and analysis of the overall structure of the medieval gentry.

The second problem is concerned with an understanding of the changing concepts and characteristics of nobility in the middle ages and especially with the assimilation of the traditional qualities of knighthood to the higher aristocracy, leading to a stratification of the knight class which allowed for a variety of qualities which might constitute a knight.

In general the direction of historical research into this problem has followed the second path, looking at the development of the knight class as a whole with special emphasis on the military, chivalric and aristocratic connotations of knighthood and the social milieu of the county community based, usually, on detailed examination of exceptionally well documented families who may, or may not, be typical of the generality of county knights. The principal contemporary exponents of this inductive approach are Peter Coss and Nigel Saul, both of whom, though ostensibly interested in the whole spectrum of knighthood, gravitate inexorably towards the fourteenth century for their richest sources and skate circumspectly round the murky period of the late thirteenth century where the boundaries between knights and gentry are harder to discern. [13]

The reasons for this are not hard to find. The first path, involving the deductive study of entire social groups rather than well documented examples, what would now be fashionably described as 'prosopographical' history, is very difficult to sustain and does not produce either rapid or particularly convincing results. In the first place, as Lapsley observed as long ago as 1919, the material consists of scattered references to obscure persons, and it only becomes illuminating by accumulation,or, as Peter Coss succinctly observed we are dealing with men whose biographies are often very stark ,and, as the present study, reveals sometimes extremely boring. [14] Lapsley himself demonstrated how much could be gleaned from even limited sources, but the wastage rate in terms of useful information extracted from voluminous scrutiny of unindexed original sources is very high.

Secondly, when seen in the context of wider sources the degree of accumulation possible in individual cases becomes both gross and at the same time totally fragmentary. Gaps in the evidence for individuals might be offset by extending the scope of the sample to take in as many cases as possible in order to widen the statistical base but this is feasible only if the sample is clearly defined from the outset. If it is expanded dynamically as the research proceeds then the researcher must return each time to square one and revisit sources already studied. In practice this is not feasible within any realistic timescale.

Thirdly, the potential scope for creating a prosopographical sample could be formidable. In a crucial article on knights in the thirteenth century [15] Denholm Young suggests that the England of Edward I might produce something in the order of 500 fighting knights, 1250 'actual' knights, and 3000 potential knights. A slightly earlier lists of potential knights drawn up for the period 1266-1322 includes something in the order of 6000 names, [16] corresponding to some 5000 fees owing military service. Even if a general study was restricted to known armigerous knights in the reign of Eward I, the list would amount to nearly 1000 names, [17] so to construct the starkest of comparative biographies for the knights in the shortest of these lists would be a formidable task, a lifetime's work. It would also be misleading because it would select knights according to very specific military criteria which might not be typical of Denholm Young's hypothetical 'potential knights' whose identity is the main target for investigation. The deductive, or prosopograhical, approach may become feasible only if reduced to a study of probable knights within one county and over a relatively restricted period but even here the construction of a viable sample or list to test against the evidence is not easy.

The research on which this present study is based was carried out in the mid sixties and could be regarded as the tail end of the Lapsley, Cam and Denholm Young era rooted in constitutional and parliamentary rather than economic or social history. It is, therefore, a blast from a historiographical past which may be of interest now because some of its findings have subsequently been assumed by more recent historians, and because it casts a flicker of light into a curiously stygian aspect of the late thirteenth century.

The study has three primary objectives.

The first is to attempt to identify and define the ruling elite, the buzones, within the gentry of one county, in this case Essex, during the reign of Edward I.

Secondly that ruling elite, or caucus, is considered in relation both to the parliamentary knights returned from Essex during the period in question, and to other knights resident in, or associated with, Essex who were in theory available for parliamentary and administrative duties. In the sixties this might have been described as an attempt at sociometric analysis of the structure of the knight class to determine whether there was a significant distinction between knights and gentry and in particular between those who served in local government, Bracton's Buzones,and those who chose other paths. Because of the limited nature of the documentation available and the need for parity in the use of comparable sources the analysis is limited to the more obvious, and obtainable, characteristics of the knight/gentry class. This would include their activities as landholders, their work in local and central government, and in parliamentary representation, and their service as soldiers. These characteristics provide the crude components of social status and social or functional differentiation within the knight class and they also constitute the major chapter headings in this book. They largely fail to provide satisfactory solutions to more obscure questions, such as the significance of personal ambitions and practical interests for which it is necessary to extrapolate from the special cases studied by others currently working in this field.

Thirdly, like Lapsley's original work in 1919, this study is explicity experimental and, like all experiments, it is capable of producing negative results. Negative results are generally accepted to have a value in natural sciences, if only to eliminate possibilities, but are harder to justify in history. One should not always expect confident answers for, where little is knowable, knowing what is not may be better than knowing nothing at all. Since the experiment is restricted to only one generation in one county the results obtained cannot be offered as evidence of any national pattern, though they may provide a model for future experiments.

The overall technique adopted is inevitably that of simple accumulation of evidence which is examined by a progressively tightening focus. Each chapter begins with a wide view of the easily comparable data and gradually reduces the depth of field until comparisons dissolve into individual cases. Two further problems should be mentioned.

Firstly the accumulation of fragmented minutiae about obscure men raises series risks of unverifiable inaccuracies which should be acknowledged at the outset. This is especially the case with common medieval surnames for different families which cannot be tied directly into the context of the study and common Christian names in different generations of the same family. Where a serious doubt exists the evidence is either discounted, or qualified in the text.

Secondly, this kind of general and essentially eclectic study necessarily ranges over a wide variety of aspects of social, economic, political and constitutional history which may be controversial in their own right but touch only peripherally on the central theme of this work. The relevance of the development of the knight class and the emergence of what we choose to call a gentry will be considered in the first chapter as an introduction to the historical background and significance of the medieval gentry as a whole.

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