Upward Mobility in Later Medieval Meath

Published in Features, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Medieval History (pre-1500), Medieval Social Perspectives, Volume 5

In May 1488 Henry VII pardoned thirty-three Irish magnates for having allegedly provided support for the ill-fated Lambert Simnel conspiracy which had threatened the throne in favour of the Yorkists in the previous year. Drawn from the church, peerage, administration and urban communities, this group of magnates not only indicates the degree of influence the Earl of Kildare was wielding at the time, but also provides a vivid cross-section of the composition of the political elite of late fifteenth-century Ireland. Most significantly, the inclusion among these magnates of six peers—Lords Preston of Gormanston, Nugent of Delvin, Fleming of Slane, Plunket of Killeen, Barnewall of Trimleston and Plunket of Dunsany—who held their patrimonial lands in Meath at once focuses our attention on the undoubted importance of that county and its landholders in the politics and government of late medieval Ireland. It invites us to consider the emergence and social background of such families within local communities and in the wider political community of medieval Ireland as a whole.
In the fourteenth century west Meath experienced a revival of native Irish power and the ‘gaelicisation’ of some of the Anglo-Norman lords in the area like the Daltons, Dillons and Delamares. East Meath, on the other hand, became one of the ‘four obedient shires’ (the Pale) closest to Dublin where central government was most effective. Many Meath landholders were closely involved in local government, supplying the personnel for the shrievalty, seneschalry of the liberty of Trim, commissions of the peace and various other local offices. A few, particularly in the fifteenth century, looked towards central government for opportunities for public service, staffing the judiciary and occupying some of the more influential posts in the chancery and exchequer.

Baronial families

Although the available evidence is of an exiguous and eclectic nature, it suggests general stability in landed society in Meath, particularly among the baronial families of Anglo-Norman descent. As well as continuing to hold the estates (or ‘baronies’) which they received from Hugh de Lacy in the twelfth century, a number of these families succeeded in enhancing their landed wealth while maintaining and developing their activities in local and central government.
Their well-established position in Meath society enabled the baronial families to avail themselves of the potentially profitable opportunities offered by the late medieval land and marriage market. Both Sir Baldwin Fleming, baron of Slane and John Hussey, baron of Galtrim, acquired a share in the estates of Sir Simon de Geneville centred on Culmullin by marriage to two of his five heiresses in the early 1300s. In the mid-fourteenth century, Sir Simon Fleming purchased the estates of his absentee lord, Sir Simon de Burghersh, the son of the second co-heiress of Sir Theobald de Verdon. About the same time he acquired part of the manor of Nobber from the Archbishop of Armagh in exchange for the advowsons of parish churches in the barony of Slane. The Flemings continued to consolidate their already extensive estates in north Meath in the fifteenth century: shortly after 1470 James Fleming married the co-heiress of Sir William Welles bringing additional land in the barony of Nobber (or Morgallion) including Stephenstown to the family.
The Nugents of Delvin in west Meath were also expanding, but in a slightly different and more obscure manner. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries witnessed the Nugents establishing various cadet branches in the barony of Delvin. Further expansion into other areas of west Meath was facilitated after 1496 when Richard Nugent received additional lands and revenues in the area as a result of his significant involvement in central government. By 1510 cadet branches of the Nugents had spread into the baronies of Corkaree and Moyashel.
A similar degree of consolidation and dilation is reflected in the participation of baronial families in local and central government. All baronial families occupied various local offices to some extent in the fourteenth century and appeared, if a little more occasionally, on the surviving writs of parliamentary summons. However, even though the Husseys of Galtrim and the Nangles of Navan maintained their influence in local government, only the Flemings and Nugents were included in the peerage and benefited from aristocratic patronage leading to high office in central government in the fifteenth century. Richard Nugent was appointed by the Duke of York as his deputy lieutenant in Ireland 1448 and became deputy seneschal of the liberty of Trim in 1452. His great-grandson, also named Richard, maintained a similar high profile in Irish affairs: apart from his implication in the Lambert Simnel conspiracy in 1487-8, Richard Nugent found distinction in military service, being appointed commander-in-chief of the forces responsible for the defence of Ireland in 1496. In recognition of his undoubted experience, he replaced the Earl of Kildare as deputy lieutenant in 1527-8 when he was famously kidnapped by the O’Connors for failing to pay Black Rent.
The Flemings evidently came increasingly under the influence of the Earls of Kildare from the mid-fifteenth century onwards. The Earl was probably behind the appointment of James Fleming as sheriff of Meath in 1472 and his subsequent involvement in the Brotherhood of Arms in 1479 and in the Lambert Simnel conspiracy. The promotion of James’ son, Christopher, to the post of Treasurer in 1514 was also a direct result of Kildare’ s patronage.

Knightly families

The Anglo-Norman knightly families were equally tenacious of their influence in later medieval Meath. In common with the baronial families, they were able to use their position to their advantage. For example, Sir John Bellew, like the Flemings of Slane, was able to benefit from the de Verdon sell-out: by 1366 he had purchased the de Furnivalle portion of the de Verdon estates which included his manor of Bellewstown. Other families of knightly rank, such as the Cusacks, had more mixed fortunes.
The Cusacks lost their patrimonial manor at Killeen to Sir Richard Tuyt when he married the heiress of Sir Adam Cusack in 1304. The Tuyts failed in the male line in the mid-fourteenth century when Sir Walter Cusack, a member of a junior branch of the family married Joan Tuyt, the heiress. This marriage returned not only Killeen to the family but the Tuyt estates in north-west Meath as well. Unfortunately, the Killeen Cusacks were not blessed with longevity: Killeen and the former Tuyt estates passed to the Plunkets through the heiress of Sir Luke Cusack before 1399. This misfortune, however, did not signal the end of Cusack influence in Meath. In the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, several collateral branches of the Cusacks had become established, particularly those at Cushinstown and Gerardstown. Individuals from these branches proved to be influential in local and central government at the end of the middle ages.
Although Christopher Cusack of Gerardstown served as sheriff of Meath in 1510, as did Thomas Cusack in 1537, it was as lawyers that several members of the Cusack family carved out careers for themselves in central government. Thomas Cusack of Gerardstown became Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1470 and as a result, was involved in the events surrounding the Lambert Simnel conspiracy in 1487-8. In 1520 James Cusack became Chief Clerk of the King’s Bench and in 1533, Sir Thomas Cusack of Cushinstown was appointed Lord Chancellor.

Upward mobility

One feature of landed society in later medieval Meath, although composed of a coherent group of dominant families keen to maintain and expand their influence, was its capacity to accommodate and assimilate new or ‘upwardly mobile’ families. Individuals from such families usually held office in central government and gained their initial foothold in local society by exploiting the contacts and influence such positions afforded them. Individuals in this category include William Darcy, the son of John Darcy, periodically Justiciar of Ireland from 1324 until 1344, whose descendants remained eminent in Meath for the remainder of the middle ages. However, it was the legal profession which proved to be efficacious in establishing at least two notable families in Meath society—the Plunkets and Prestons—and in enhancing the prominence of a third, the Barnewalls. These three examples of ‘upward mobility’ underline land as the essential requisite to establishing position in local society.


The Barnewalls arrived in Meath from County Dublin around 1349 when Sir Wolfram Barnewall received the manor of Crickstown and lands at Kilbrew. However, it was not until the fifteenth century that the Barnewalls began to add to their landed wealth, mainly as a result of the marriages of the sons of Sir Christopher Barnewall. The most advantageous marriage was made by his second son, Robert, who married the heiress of Sir John Brune sometime before 1442. This brought Robert a share in the lordship of Athboy including the important manor of Tremblestown (or Trimleston).
Sir Christopher Barnewall’s legal career led him to expend most of his energy in central government. In 1408 he became a serjeant-at-law, was appointed deputy-treasurer in 1430 and served as Chief Justice of the King’s Bench from 1434 until his death in 1437. Sir Christopher’s sons were also successful lawyers but their growing importance in the land holding community in Meath also attracted the patronage of the Duke of York. His eldest son, Nicholas, was treasurer of the liberty of Trim from 1436 until 1443 and was made Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1457. Robert Barnewall served the Duke of York in a military capacity campaigning with him in 1449 when he was knighted. His dubbing was evidently facilitated by his substantial estates; his extensive landed wealth and Yorkist service was certainly part of the reason behind Edward IV creating him Baron Trimlestown in 1461.
The Tremblestown branch of the family continued to be active in central government and politics, not escaping the influence of the Earl of Kildare. Christopher, second Baron Trimlestown was implicated in the Lambert Simnel conspiracy and his son John occupied a number of major offices before becoming Lord Chancellor in 1530. He remained in that post until his death in 1538.


Like the Barnewalls, the Plunkets came from a neighbouring county, in this case Louth. In 1358 Richard Plunket, nephew of John Plunket of Beaulieu in Louth, was appointed as one of the attorneys of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, an appointment which included the power to hold courts in the barony of Ratoath in Meath. This appointment probably provides the context in which Richard acquired the estates of the Blund family at Rathregan. Richard’s son Christopher added considerably to these estates when he married the heiress of Sir Luke Cusack sometime before 1399 which brought him Killeen and the Cusack lands in north-west Meath, elevating him as one of the principal landholders in the county. By 1439, Sir Christopher had divided his estates between the son of his deceased eldest son and his second son, both named Christopher. In the course of the later fifteenth century, a proliferation of cadet branches of the Plunkets managed to establish themselves in the border area north of Kells.
The significance of landed wealth as a preface to prominence in local society is clearly demonstrated by Sir Christopher Plunket’s activities in local government. Knighted after 1391 he began to appear regularly on the commissions of the peace from 1400 onwards and became sheriff of Meath in 1403. He does not appear to have followed in his father’s legal footsteps. Although the process is notoriously unclear, possibly Sir Christopher, and definitely his grandson, appear to have been assimilated into the peerage, the latter by at least 1449. Even more obscure, however, is the ‘creation’ of Sir Christopher’s second son as Baron Dunsany. The patent is not enrolled, but the ‘creation’ seems to have occurred sometime around 1462. Nevertheless, Baron Dunsany was among the peers pardoned for supporting the Lambert Simnel conspiracy in 1488 and was one those absent from the Earl of Kildare’s parliament in 1499.

By far the most dynamically upwardly mobile family in medieval Ireland were the Prestons. Richard and William de Preston had arrived in Drogheda by 1307 in an attempt to cash-in on the increased trade between England and Ireland as a result of the Scottish wars of Edward II. From 1311 onwards they began to acquire property in Drogheda and its hinterland by marriage and purchase from burgesses of the town and also from established landholders. A third brother, Roger, arrived in 1326 and he too, began to accumulate land.
Roger’s son Robert, added to land he inherited from his father in two respects. In 1353 he married the heiress of Sir Walter de Bermyngham bringing him the manor of Carbury in Kildare and the manors of Kells and Shanbogh in Kilkenny. Ten years later in 1363 Robert bought the manor of Gormanston from Amaury St Amaund. The most impressive augmentation to the Preston estates, however, was achieved by Robert’s son Christopher when he married the co-heiress of Sir William de Londres in 1386 providing himself with a share in the lordships of Athboy and Morgallion in Meath and Naas in Kildare. Needless to say, this marriage echoes those of Robert Barnewall to the Brune heiress and Christopher Plunket to the heiress of Sir Luke Cusack which catapulted them into the top league of landholders in Meath.
Roger and Robert Preston occupied some of the principal legal posts in fourteenth-century Ireland. After presumably pursuing a legal career in England, Roger became Second Justice of the King’s Bench in Ireland in 1326 and was transferred to the court of Common Bench in 1331. Robert became Chief Justice of the King’s Bench in 1352, a post he held until 1378. In 1391 he was appointed Lord Chancellor. Roger and Robert were clearly able to exploit the links and contacts these important offices gave them with the administrative elite in Dublin which enabled them to benefit from the land and marriage market in Ireland. Both Sir Walter Bermyngham and Amaury St Amaund from whom Robert Preston received lands were former justiciars.
The possession of Kells and Shanbogh also entitled Robert Preston to a personal summons to parliament but he was usually summoned as a member of the king’s council due to his judicial position. These lands also qualified him for knighthood: he was knighted in the field by Lionel, Duke of Clarence while campaigning against the O’Byrnes in Wicklow in 1361.
Unlike his father and grandfather, Christopher Preston did not embark on a legal career. Probably because of his landed wealth in Meath, he was able to play an important part in local government where he appears frequently on the commissions of the peace between 1404 and 1432. During these years he also became embroiled in a dispute between the Earl of Kildare and Thomas Talbot, the Deputy Lieutenant. This dispute led to the imprisonment of Kildare and Preston in 1418 .
Christopher Preston’s grandson, Robert, led a much more distinguished career in local and central government culminating in him being created Viscount Gormanston in 1475. He began his career in the service of the Duke of York as a justice of the assize in the liberty of Trim in 1455. He was appointed by the Earl of Kildare as one of the commanders of the Brotherhood of Arms in 1472 and was involved in the Lambert Simnel conspiracy. Viscount Gormanston held several important government offices including the deputy lieutenancy which he occupied in 1479 ‘by the advice and commandment of our said sovereign lord’ and again in 1498. His son, William, second Viscount Gormanston replaced the Earl of Kildare in the same office for a short period in 1515.

Architectural patronage

Like all medieval aristocracy, landholders in Meath, especially newcomers to the territorial elite, needed to articulate materially their status, association and cohesion with other families. In Meath many upwardly mobile families chose to build architecturally ambitious tower-houses, with more emphasis on display than defence, and parish churches both to express lordship and their place in society, and to commemorate their achievements. The nineteenth-century castle at Dunsany (p.15) seems to be based on a substantial late medieval structure while a large tower-house lies at the core of Killeen Castle. Both were probably constructed by the Plunkets. An impressive tower-house was also erected by the Darcys at Dunmoe (p.18) and John Corneswalshe, Second Baron of the Exchequer, had built a tower-house at Dardistown by 1467-8 (p.19). Fairly ambitious parish churches, sometimes displaying influences from the new perpendicular style, were also built by the Plunkets in the first half of the fifteenth century at Dunsany, Killeen and Rathmore. The established families, on the other hand, felt little need to express their position in similar fashion. They appear only to have built tower-houses on their outlying estates and to have added fifteenth or sixteenth century features to their churches without launching grandiose rebuilding programmes. The exception were the Flemings: by 1512 Sir Christopher Fleming had founded a Franciscan friary and college on the Hill of Slane.

These very brief sketches of the land holding families in Meath have not only provided us with some idea of the background of the six peers from Meath who were implicated in the Lambert Simnel conspiracy, but have given us significant insight into the nature and development of landed society. Although cohesion and corporativeness may be its defining characteristics, it was not so impervious as to impede upward mobility by those in a position to access the opportunities offered by the behaviour of that society. Ironically, it was some of those attributes of late medieval Irish society—ineffectiveness of central government in border areas, warfare, break-up of aristocratic estates and decentralisation of lordship—which some historians have interpreted as being detrimental to the health of the colony in Ireland, coupled with opportunities tendered by aristocratic and government service that led to the creation of new wealth and upward mobility. It is ironic too, that within such an environment the tower-house, so beloved by historians as allegorical of insecurity and decline, becomes a potent symbol of new lordship, a lordship confident in its execution and aspirations.

Kennedy Abraham is a free-lance historian based in Belfast.

Further reading:

C. Casey & A. Rowan, North Leinster; the counties of Longford, Louth, Meath and Westmeath (London 1993).

S.G. Ellis, Reform and Revival: Government in Ireland, 1470-1534 (London 1986).

R. Frame, English Lordship in Ireland, 1318-1361 (Oxford 1982).

D. Hogan & W.N. Osborough (eds.), Brehons, Serjeants and Attorneys: Studies in the History of the Irish Legal Profession (Dublin 1990).


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