Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland

By K. J. Stringer | Go to book overview

10
EXTINCTION OF DIRECT MALE LINES AMONG
SCOTTISH NOBLE FAMILIES IN THE FOURTEENTH
AND FIFTEENTH CENTURIES

Alexander Grant

The starting-point for this essay comes from two lectures, on the French and English nobilities respectively, by Édouard Perroy and K.B. McFarlane. Perroy's, on 'Social mobility among the French noblesse in the later Middle Ages', was delivered to an Anglo-French conference of historians in 1961 and published in Past and Present the following year.1 It was based on his detailed researches into noble families, or lignages, within the medieval county of Forez, in south-central France. Among other things, Perroy found that he could identify 215 noble lignages in the thirteenth century taking 'noble' in its widest, continental, sense, and thus including those which in an English context would count as gentry. Of these, 66, or 30 per cent of the total, had already become extinct in the male line by the end of the thirteenth century; between 1300 and 1400, 80 of the surviving 149, or 54 per cent, became extinct; and, between 1400 and 1500, 38 of the surviving 69, or 55 per cent, died out in their turn. Perroy therefore concluded that, roughly speaking, the Forez noblesse was losing about half its members in each century, and that the average duration of each noble lignage was hardly more than three or four generations. Admittedly Perroy only examined Forez; but, as his title implies, he considered his conclusions could probably be applied to the country as a whole. Certainly the four generations of the greatest French noble house, the Valois dukes of Burgundy (1363–1477), fit the pattern exactly; and although 'as a subject the French nobility in the later middle ages is hardly an overworked field'2other studies tend to support the general contention.1

McFarlane's lecture is 'Extinction and recruitment', part of his Oxford course of 1965 on the English nobility, and included in the published version of his 1953 Ford Lectures, The Nobility of Later Medieval England4 He looked at the whole of England, but limited himself to the parliamentary peerage, the important men who received individual summonses to attend parliaments, and who eventually, as 'the House of Lords', arrogated the English concept of nobility to themselves. This produced a total of 357 leading families whose genealogical histories are traceable: 136 whose heads had already received individual summonses by 1300, and 221 who did so between then and 1500. McFarlane calculated that by 1500 only 16 of the original 136, or less than 12 per cent, were still surviving in unbroken male descent; and in each 25-year generation but one no fewer than a quarter of the families under examination died out in the male line, with the extinction rate being as high as 35 per cent between 1400 and 1424.5 This is an even greater turnover than that found by Perroy in Forez. But it must be stressed that McFarlane, unlike Perroy, defined extinction in the male line according to the strict rules of primogeniture. Extinction was reckoned to have taken place when the head of a family died leaving no heirs, or

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