By the late 13th century medieval Dublin had reached its zenith. Having benefited from over a century of trade, it was unquestionably the primary settlement in Ireland. While not the biggest walled town – it was surpassed by Drogheda and New Ross – its sprawling suburbs made it the most populous settlement with ten to fifteen thousand people living along the banks of the Liffey. Although it was the centre of Norman colonial administration, containing the exchequer buildings, it was not the busiest port, as judging from customs receipts, by the late 13th century this honour fell to New Ross.
While economically the wider Anglo-Norman colony reached its zenith between 1292-4, when the exchequer was returning around £9,000 per year, colonial society was already in decline. While Dublin was protected by the Vale of Dublin to its south and medieval county of Kildare to its west, and the Lordships of Meath and Trim to the north, in the far south west the Gaelic Irish were beginning to reconquer Norman territory.
Famine also began taking its toll as Ireland suffered serious food shortages in 1295, and again in 1308. These crises obviously had an economic impact reflected in the fall in exchequer receipts from the previous year by 1306-07 to £58931 – a fall of over 33% since the early 1290s. Worse was to come. As we shall see, from 1315 – 18 the worst famine in medieval history swept across north-western Europe; an apocalyptic event which coincided with the equally catastrophic Bruce invasion of Ireland.
By 1308 Dublin itself was directly feeling the pinch. The Vale of Dublin no longer provided protection to the city on its southern flank. Indeed scarcely one hundred metres from the city walls at the exchequer buildings on the corner of George’s Street and Exchequer Street, valuables had to be taken inside the city each night for fear of Gaelic attack2. While external tensions in wider society placed massive military, economic, and social pressures on the city, to the extent that it would threaten medieval Dublin’s very existence, within the city itself the population was far from unified.
When we speak of medieval Dublin this gives the impression there was one type of Dubliner, but just like their 21st century counterparts, the medieval population of Dublin did not all suffer the effects of these years of crisis in the same way. While they may have walked the same streets, medieval Dubliners experienced their city in very different ways, as evidenced in the lives of William Douce and Adam son of Philip, whose lives were briefly intertwined in the winter of 1317 – 18.
William Douce was born sometime in the late 13th century. Dublin is unlikely to have been his birthplace as there is no mention of his family residing in the city. Little is known about his early life, but by the early 14th century he was operating as a merchant in Dublin.
First mentioned in the city in a court case in 13053, through the early years of the new century Douce appeared in court several times, frequently seeking to have debts owed to him repaid. Later in 1305 in another court case where John de Moreuill owed him twenty marks, he was for the first time referred to as a citizen of the city4, a privilege which may have been bestowed on him in that year. In 1306 he was working on behalf of the influential noble Piers de Bermingham, Lord of Tethmoy. Working as an agent for powerful nobles was something many wealthy successful merchants did and in 1306 de Bermingham was at the height of his power5.
In the second decade of the 14th century the crisis enveloping Ireland gathered pace when the Bruce invasion and a coinciding famine devastated the island between 1315-18. This was followed by an economic depression caused by a cattle murrain leaving a country absolutely devastated in the mid 1320s. Despite these chaotic conditions, William Douce endured and became one of the key citizens of the city.
Although he successfully sought an exemption from public office in 13166, which was granted in 13277, he served as mayor of the city for two years in the early 1320s and then again in 1330-31. As well as success in the municipal politics of the city he was also successful in business. He owned several pieces of property in the city and in the suburbs; in 1336 he is listed as owning property outside the Newgate which would be the modern Thomas Street area8.
When he died, sometime before December 13439, his life in Dublin had been a success; having arrived in the city in the late 1290s or early 1300s, he had become a successful city merchant and on two occasions held the highest political office in the city.
While William was a success, life for many Dubliners in this period was not so fortunate. Indeed they lived in a city far from Douce’s experiences. While they walked the same streets as historical figures, the lives of the poor are very difficult to chart historically; little is recorded, but from what we do know they often struggled to survive. We get the glimpse of one such person though, when his life briefly crossed that of William Douce in late 1317 or early 1318. This man is known to us only as ‘Adam son of Philip’. He seems to have been a pauper, as in 1318 the only historical reference to his wealth stated he had ‘no chattels and no free land‘.
For people such as Adam, life in Dublin in the early 14th century was incredibly difficult; they frequently lived close to death. By the time the Bruce invasion was launched in 1315, Dublin had been burned in 1304, ravaged by a famine in 1308-10, and was on the eve of another famine which would be far worse than anything experienced to date.
It was people like Adam son of Philip who were the ones who would suffer in these years of famine. During the famine of 1308 -1310, a crannoc* of wheat had started at the normal price of four shillings per crannoc10 in 1308. By mid October 1310, it had soared to sixteen shillings a crannoc 11 and then by February 1311 it had reached twenty shillings a crannoc12. As prices rose in Dublin, people did not suffer equally.
The rich, men like William Douce, could afford the increased prices as the price of bread, the staple of the medieval diet, rose with the price of flour. This rise did not necessarily impact the wealthy; the rich could survive such famines often with little direct effect. In England, studies on the famine of 1315 – 1318 have revealed that monks at the wealthy religious centres of Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Durham Cathedral Priory continued to eat as normal, as they could afford to pay the increasing food prices13 Poor people like Adam son of Philip could be drive them to extreme measures in periods of food shortages. In 1295 cannibalism14 was reported in Dublin during food shortages.
Worse still the on-going war between the Bruces and the Anglo Norman barons in Ireland had made life for people like Adam son of Philip even harder. By early 1317 much of the land north of the city had already been devastated, not by Bruce’s forces but by the Anglo Norman armies who were raised in Ireland to fight the Scots.
It was only in February 1317 that the Bruce brothers, Edward, and the King of Scotland Robert, finally reached Dublin. While a direct attack on the city was averted, nevertheless around seventy to eighty per cent of the city was destroyed in a desperate but successful defence of the city. In order to stave off a Bruce attack the townspeople burned the southern suburbs of the city to prevent them giving cover to an assault on the city walls.
While this damage to city was valued at around £10,000, a staggering amount for the period, for Adam son of Philip this destruction increased his misery. The overcrowding in what houses remained must have been chronic. It was in this context that the lives of Adam son of Philip and William Douce were briefly intertwined.
In late 1317 or early 1318, Adam ‘secretly entered a house on Winetavern Street in Dublin and stole a box which contained four marks’ which was a very substantial sum of money. The house belonged to William Douce. Unfortunately for Adam son of Philip he was caught and taken before a court. Arriving in court he was not faced with what might be termed an impartial jury. On the jury were several members of the Taverner family and Nicolas Comyn, who like William Douce, were members of powerful families in the city. Unsurprisingly they had little compassion for the plight of the poor in such desperate times. Adam son of Philip with no property was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging for his robbery15.
On an unknown date after February 24th, 1318 Adam son of Philip was brought to one of the gibbets outside of Dublin and hanged, becoming just one of the numerous Dubliners hanged for similar crimes. Adam son of Philip’s life could not have been more different than William Douce. While the court that condemned Adam to death noted he had ‘no chattels and no free land’, William Douce participated in civic and economic life in Dublin until his death twenty five years later.
Theft by the poor of medieval Dublin was by no means limited just to years of crisis; even in the best of times the very poor always struggled to survive and were forced to take the risks associated with theft. For this they were frequently executed. For most we have little idea of the context or personal hardships they faced. In 1317-18 we get a unique chance to see the background to the crisis faced by one Dubliner – Adam son of Philip giving us a chance to see specific tensions in medieval Dublin.
The conflict between the rich and poor fought out in burglaries, courts and ultimately on the city gibbets were only one of numerous tensions that strained life in late medieval Dublin which are so often forgotten by historians. In truth this article could have been a many headed hydra looking at the experiences of women, the gaelic Irish and indeed even the nobility, who had to be banned from holding parliament in the city in 1320. They all shared a similar space, but each a very different experience. Medieval Dublin was at the very least a tale of two cities.
1 The Enrolled Account of Alexander Bicknor, Treasurer of Ireland, 1308-14 Analecta Hibernica, No. 30 (1982) p. 13
2Law and disorder in the 13th century Ireland: the Dublin parliament of 1297 p. 23
3Cal. Jus. Rolls. Vol II p. 22
4Cal. Jus. Rolls. Vol II p. 167
5Cal. Jus. Rolls. Vol II p. 246
6Irish Material in the Class of Ancient Petitions Analecta Hibernica, No. 34 (1987), p. 36
7 Cal Patent Rolls ED III Vol I, p. 128
8Cal. Anc. Doc. Dub. , p. 121
9 http://chancery.tcd.ie/document/close/17-edward-iii/45) accessed on May 3rd
*A crannoc was a unit of measurement common in medieval Ireland.
10Cal. Jus. Rolls Vol III, p. 53
11Cal. Jus. Rolls Vol III, p. 53 160 the price is listed as eight shillings for half a crannoc.
12Cal. Jus. Rolls Vol III, p. 176 (although it’s not entirely clear, a similar price is reflected in The Book of Howth 1310)
13The Crisis of the Fourteenth Century Reassessed: Between Ecology and Institutions – Evidence
from England (1310-1350) http://eh.net/eha/system/files/Slavin.pdf , p. 2
14 Some Unpublished Texts from the Black Book of Christ Church, Dublin Analecta Hibernica, No. 16 (Mar., 1946), p p. 296
15Plea Roll 119 NAI KB 2/12, page 84