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Level 5

5AAH1056 The First English Empire? The Peoples of Britain and Ireland, 1050–1350

Credit value: 15
Module convenor/tutorDr Simon Parsons
Teaching pattern: 10 x 2-hour seminar (weekly)
Availability: Please see module list for relevant year
Assessment: 1 x 1,500 word formative essay, 1 x 3,000 word essay (100%)

Assessment pre 2019/20: 2 x essay of 2,500 words (50% each)

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand: there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years.

In 1998, the late Professor Sir R.R. Davies gave a series of lectures in Oxford in which he examined the relationship between England, the British Isles and Ireland during the central Middle Ages.  In 2000, these lectures were published as The First English Empire. They set out an exciting narrative of the growing imperial dominance exercised by the kingdom and kingship of the English over the British and Irish archipelago, a dominance that almost created a unitary kingdom of Britain and parts of Ireland under the English king, Edward I (1272-1307). This module seeks to answer this key question: were Britain and Ireland ruled as part of an English Empire in the Middle Ages? What were the supports of English dominance, whether political, military, symbolic or mythological?  Why were the Irish, Welsh and Scots seen as barbaric, whereas the English saw themselves as ‘civilised’? We will also be looking at limits to the ‘First English Empire’, in particular, the growing cultural confidence of expressions of Welsh, Irish and Scottish identity and how these may have limited the success of the first English imperial project. This module will be of interest to anyone who wishes to understand why the relations between the four peoples of Britain and Ireland can be so fraught and full of tension.

Provisional teaching plan

  1. The First English Empire? The man and the book.
  2. Island Mythologies
  3. Domination
  4. Aristocratic Endeavours
  5. Imperial Attitudes
  6. Nations, Peoples, Identities
  7. An outsider looks in? Gerald of Wales on the Irish and the Welsh
  8. Conquest
  9. Narratives of Resistance
  10. Summing up: alternative orbits of power
Suggested introductory reading

This is suggested reading and purchase of these texts is not mandatory.

There is no formal expectation that students should start the course having read any of the below; nonetheless, so doing would be helpful.

R.R. Davies, The First English Empire: Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343 (Oxford, 2000). – the book which explains the module.

R.R. Davies, Domination and Conquest: The Experience of Ireland, Scotland and Wales 1100-1300 (Cambridge, 1990). – an earlier manifestation of Davies’s ideas – more traditionally political.

R.R. Davies, ‘The Peoples of Britain and Ireland 1100-1400’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th ser. 4-7 (1994-7) – Davies’s lecture series which he gave as President of the Royal Historical Society.


S. Duffy and S. Foran (eds), The English Isles: Cultural Transmission and Political Conflict in Britain and Ireland 1100–1500 (Dublin, 2013) – an edited collection of essays, devoted to examining and critiquing Davies’s The First English Empire.


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