Laudabiliter: a new interpretation by Professor Anne Duggan

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 3 (May/Jun 2005), News, Volume 13

Historically there are many reasons for the forgery or falsification of a document. A major incentive for such a practice occurs when a powerful nation invades a weaker one without obvious justification. A classic example in our times was the document released by the British government in February 2003, Iraq—its infrastructure of concealment, deception and intimidation. This was subsequently shown, by its use of crude copying and pasting, to be not the work of their own intelligence-gathering but rather that of a Californian Ph.D student, distorted to suit the argument for war.
For centuries a debate has taken place over a document that similarly justified an invasion of one country by another, in this case the establishment of a lordship in Ireland by King Henry II of England. The document in question is the notorious Laudabiliter, whose name is taken from its opening word and which purports to be a letter from Pope Adrian IV to King Henry, written in 1155, giving approval to the king’s plan to invade Ireland.
Professor Anne Duggan of King’s College, London, has been studying this document for several years, and she was recently in Dublin, at the invitation of the Dublin Medieval Society, to present her view that Laudabiliter is a falsification of a genuine letter, now lost, in which the emphasis of the pope’s meaning was against such an invasion. Born in Navan, Professor Duggan moved to the UK at the age of seven. Her main areas of research are twelfth-century ecclesiastical, legal and intellectual history. She is an authority on the life and cult of Thomas Becket and is the editor of the correspondence of Thomas Becket. Her interest in the authenticity of Laudabiliter sprang from her research into the relationship between Pope Adrian IV and the princes of Europe.
Being a textual scholar, Professor Duggan found herself drawn into a manuscript puzzle. Although the letter is very well known and used in disputations from the mid-thirteenth century onwards, it has very little history before that—which is odd, if it is supposed to have existed from 1155. In her presentation she pointed out that it was not used by Henry II to justify his claim to Ireland after his landing here in 1172 to take control of the conquest. It does not appear in the English Exchequer archives, which is where the kings of England kept all their charters. It does not exist in the ‘Black Book’ of the Exchequer that was drawn up around 1207 in the reign of King John and is an assembly of precedents for the English crown. In that collection are three letters from Pope Alexander III, written in 1172, after the fact of the invasion of Ireland, and these do not refer to a previous grant of the country to Henry II. Had such an important papal grant as Laudabiliter purports to be actually existed, it should have been referred to in all subsequent papal letters on the subject.
The failure of Laudabiliter to appear in these collections was a puzzle to Professor Duggan, which led her to look more closely at its origins. The earliest version of the letter appears in a chronicle written considerably later than 1155, by Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis). Gerald’s relatives were the Geraldines, the ancestors of the Fitzgeralds, who had come to Ireland in 1169 to establish lordships. In 1188 Gerald came to see his relatives in Ireland and this prompted him to write his history of the conquest, Expugnatio Hibernica and its companion piece Topographia Hiberniae. Gerald presents Laudabiliter as one of five justifications for the invasion of Ireland. At the time of the first draft of his Expugnatio Hibernica Gerald was seeking promotion by Henry II within the English church. His history was therefore written to create a certain effect—of supporting Henry II’s claims to Ireland.
Professor Duggan argues that there seems to be something wrong with the order of the paragraphs of Laudabiliter as it appears in Gerald’s chronicle. In the second paragraph is a legalistic assertion of papal rights over all islands, and in the third a reference to a request of Henry II for sanction to invade Ireland. These appear to be the wrong way around: a papal letter would normally make reference to the petition before its exposition of the grounds on which the judgement is made.
It is known that Gerald of Wales was not averse to forgery. In his same account of the conquest of Ireland there is a letter, allegedly from Alexander III, which nobody seriously believes to be authentic as it breaks several rules of protocol and does not match the diction of the papal curia. Yet Professor Duggan does not go so far as to argue that Laudabiliter is a similar out and out concoction since there is independent evidence that Pope Adrian IV did send some missive to the king of England on the subject of Ireland. John of Salisbury wrote that in 1155 he secured the grant of Ireland to the English king and got an emerald ring from the pope for the investiture of Ireland. The reference to the ring is so specific, and it has been established that John was in the company of the pope at the time, even eating from the same table, that it is clear that he returned with something. But, argues Professor Duggan, this document was not the letter as it appears in Gerald’s account, and nor was it so suitable to the purposes of the king of England that it should be preserved in the royal records.
By rearranging the order of the paragraphs of the letter in a more conventional manner, Professor Duggan showed that the effect of the letter is no longer a positive endorsement of the invasion of Ireland. The illusion that the pope is strongly in favour of the invasion disappears, and it now reads as a more cautious statement that fits very closely with a known letter of Adrian IV, advising the kings of France and England not to go forward with a planned crusade to Spain unless they consulted the ‘princes, churches and people of the region’. Professor Duggan summarised thus the position of Pope Adrian IV in the proposed establishment of a lordship in Ireland:

‘I think he had extremely cold feet. He could not simply say “no” to Henry II, the most powerful prince in Europe, and alienate him unnecessarily. But he undermined the idea by insisting on the consent of the Irish.’

Conor Kostick is a scholar of the Irish Research Council of the Humanities and Social Sciences, Trinity College, Dublin.


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