What is a Manor?

Keegan (2005)perhaps provides the simplest definition of a manor, as a territorial block from which agricultural surpluses could be produced.

These surpluses were utilised to support military or feudal service that the manorial lord owed the monarch in return for the tenure of the lands attached to the manor. He goes on to state that by the 13th century AD the surpluses generated from some of these manors were considerable, leading to a burgeoning overseas export trade. Such production also bolstered internal trade within Ireland, contributing to the formation of market towns which absorbed agricultural surpluses and in turn generated more wealth for manorial lords through the taxation of markets and the collection of burgage rents.

In addition to its function as economic production units, the manor performed an important social function. Empey (1982) states that the manor was not part of the social system - it was the social system. O'Keefe (2000) notes that it was a, 'self-regulating vehicle', with much of the internal regulation came from the manorial court based at the manorial caput.

Importantly, Keegan (2005) notes that the Anglo-Norman Lordship of Ireland was not a completely consolidated geographical area within which manorial control was absolute. Frame (1977) states that the Lordship of Ireland was characterised by a patchwork of smaller lordships under Anglo-Norman control, with areas under Gaelic Irish control scattered throughout. The manorial system directly affected those who lived under it, but its economic and social influence extended into those Gaelic Irish controlled areas outside its formal sphere of influence.

The physical archaeology of manorial settlement encompasses many well defined archaeological site types including mottes, ringworks, masonry castles, churches, moated sites and towns/boroughs. Less well defined elements such as plough headlands and relic field systems also form part of the site types within manorial settlement. A manor is therefore not just one archaeological site, but a number of different settlement components which interact within a defined area.

The known medieval settlement archaeology of the Anglo-Norman Lordship of Ireland reflects the complexity of the manorial system as a whole, as well as the idiosyncrasies of individual manors within the wider system. The fortunes of an individual manor were determined by many factors including environmental and political change, and the entrepreneurial capability of the manorial lord.

The Manor of Bray

During the 13th century AD the manor of Bray would develop into a supra manor, referred to as an honor, which acted not only as the head of the barony of Bray, but the administrative centre for de Ridelesford lands on the east coast of the Anglo Norman Lordship of Ireland. However, in 1280 AD, Christiana de Marisco, grand daughter of the original de Ridelesford grantee of the area, surrendered her Irish estates in return for equivalent lands in England. This was the high water mark of influence for the manor of Bray, but by no means the end of the story. 

The manor of Bray would continue to survive on the increasingly unstable frontier of the Anglo Norman Lordship of Ireland, known as the Margery or March. Davies (2007, 43) notes that -

"...by the end of the fourteenth century, the people of Bray had spent over a hundred years intermittently fearful of attack and  hearing of the counter attacks, some successful, some not so, launched by government forces..."

In 1401 AD occupants of the manor must have watched in horror as a major force of O'Byrnes clashed with an army formed from the citizenry of Dublin and the Walshes of Carrickmines. The battle was fought on the fringes of Little Bray, at a place christened the Bloody Banks.

How the business of manorial life continued during such continued disturbances is a matter of debate, but Bray remained an important muster point for government forces as the Tudor 'reconquest' developed during the early 16th century AD.

How did the Manor of Bray function?

As noted above the material composition of a manor can be composed of various different archaeological features and sites, and the success of the construct could be influenced as much by external environmental and political features as by the entrepreneurial capability of the manorial lord.  However, the material composition of a manor are just one element of how this extraordinary system developed, evolved and survived on what would become the southern March of the Anglo Norman Lordship of Ireland.

Whilst archaeological and documentary sources may provide us with important insights into the material culture of how the manorial system works, it is only by populating the manor that we can hope to gain a closer understanding of life within its bounds. As Le Roy Ladurie (2005, xi) wrote in his monumental work Montaillou, his plan was to write of his village 'not a total or comprehensive treatment, for totality is a quality we can never attain, but a structural and complex  one nonetheless'.

Realising the limitations of our penetration into the manorial system is a simple, and yet fundamental starting point for work such as this. The Medieval Bray Project research is designed to tease out those peculiarities that marked out the manor of Bray, both external and internal in nature, and to plot the influence that this manorial complex had on the wider region throughout its long history. 

Beyond the Manor of Bray

Investigating how the Manor of Bray functioned, both as an agricultural production unit contributing to feudalism, and as a social mechanism maintaining the same system, has considerable implications in our understanding of the regional and national phenomenon of manorialism. The seminal work on the subject has to be 2005 publication 'The Manor in Medieval and Early Modern Ireland' (Lyttleton and O'Keeffe eds.), at the very least for Brian Graham's foreword which called for a more robust understanding of manorial systems, and the evolution of works which did not necessarily reference the pioneering works of the 1970s and 1980s. Once the latter had occurred, those foundation studies could be properly appreciated within a 'history of the historiography of the manor in medieval and early medieval Ireland'.

In terms regional context we are fortunate that the publication above included a paper by Brian Shanahan, 'The Manor in east county Wicklow', although he does not include Bray in this study. Particularly interesting is his discussion of the castles and moated sites in his study area -

      '...the moated site in Ireland is generally held to be a feature of dispersed settlement often located in peripheral areas of the Anglo-Norman lordship and dating to the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries (Barry 2000). By contrast many of the moated sites in the study area are located in central locations adjacent to churches...The moated sites of Wicklow may, then, have been an attempt by free tenants to emulate the building fashions embodied in the larger quadrangular stone castles of thirteenth and fourteenth-century date...' (145)

This extract is only one window into the evolving historical and archaeological discussion into monument types in Ireland, and an illustration of the implications for manorial studies in highlighting the complex social processes that informed on their construction.