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Friends in high places – Dublin’s medieval oligarchs

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I spent several hours in the national archives today waiting for a lost file to be found. The tantilisingly named file that I felt was worth the wait, proved to be just that – tantilisingly named, it’s contents were remarkably boring.

However with time to kill waiting for the file to be found I whiled away the hours sifting through calendars of memoranda rolls. These are collections of translated medieval legal documents that survived the four courts fire of 1922 that destroyed most medieval. The memoranda rolls are the opposite of the file that I had come to the archives for. While they sound remarkably boring in name, they are fascinating to read. Among the documents I came across was a section of the will of Robert de Bree a very wealthy and prominent Dublin merchant from the early 14th century. De Bree’s will gives us a good snapshot of how medieval Dublin’s oligarchy of powerful merchant families functioned in the early 14th century.

mercaderesMedieval Dublin was what could be described best as an oligarchy. True enough there were elected mayors and bailiffs but power tended to concentrate within a small group of merchant families and in the early 14th century the de Bree’s were at the centre of this oligarchy.

Robert died in 1305 leaving his widow Maud with five surviving children. His son Robert and daughter Johanna had predeceased him so his daughters Loretta, Elena, Dionisia, Mathilda (or Maud) and an unnamed youngest child benefited from his estate. While the will leaves land and money to these women it is the mention of their marriages which is perhaps tells us most. They are just one case of how merchant’s in Dublin intermarried, forming alliances which allowed them dominate the city and maintain wealth within a small group of people.

Loretta de Bree married Robert de Nottingham one the most prominent Dubliners in the first quarter of the 14th century. A merchant he was the mayor between 1309-1310, 1314-1315, 1316 – 1319 and 1320-1322. Her sister Elena married a man called Robert Ruton about whom nothing is known. Dionisia married Wolfran de Bristol, from the prominent Dublin merchant family of the same name whose (presumably) father William had been mayor in the 1290s. Finally Mathilda married Robert Thursteyn from another prominent merchant family. Robert amongst other things worked as a royal purveyor something that may explain his assassination in Dublin 1313 at the hands of Thomas le Whyte and several accomplices, two of whom survived the subsequent hanging!

While the de Bree daughters were married to powerful individuals, their mother Maud was by no means left in the shade. After her husband’s death she was remarried to a man called Geoffrey de Morton, a rich merchant who had moved to Dublin in the 1290s. Geoffrey and Maud had a least one child Alice.

Geoffrey de Morton was one of Dublin’s more famous mayors who was imprisoned during his tenure (1303-1304) for resisting royal officials. He then became notoriously corrupt in later years when he used public taxes to renovate his house.

The de Bree/de Morton faction continued to expand its influence when Maud and Geoffrey’s daughter Alice, married John le Graunsete. While John never held office in the city he was one of Dublin’s most distinguished sons becoming a significant figure both in Ireland and England.

Having friends in such high places this extended family group benefited from such extensive political connections. In 1317 during one of the Robert of Nottingham’s many spells of mayor he allowed Alice de Morton and her husband John de Graunsete retain properties that had been paid for from Geoffrey de Morton’s corrupt practices.

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