Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
In European history, marches are border regions between centres of power. In English history, the Welsh Marches refers to the borderlands between England and Wales, and the Scottish Marches to the borderlands between England and Scotland. The term Marcher is used to refer to the Marcher Lords who ruled these areas. Marcher is carried by two Earls of March, one in the Peerage of England, the other in the Peerage of Scotland.
The Welsh Marches are the area that lies between the mountains of Wales itself and the river valleys of England. The Romans established forts at Chester (castra), Gloucester and Caerleon. A string of garrisoned market-towns defined the borderlands as much as Offa's Dyke, the official boundary erected by order of King Offa of Mercia at the end of the 8th century. The Welsh Marches contain Britain's densest concentration of motte-and-bailey castles.
After the Norman Conquest, William set out to subdue the Welsh, a process that took a century and was never permanently effective. The Anglo-Norman lordships in this area were distinct in several ways: they were geographically compact and jurisdictionally separate one from another, and they had special privileges which separated them from the usual English lordships. Royal writ did not obtain in the Marches: Marcher lords ruled their lands by their own law, unlike their counterparts in England who were directly accountable to the king. Marcher lords could build castles, a jealously guarded and easily-revoked Royal privilege in England. Marcher lords administered laws, waged war, established markets in towns.
Feudal social structures, which were never fully established in England, took root in the Marches. The traditional view has been that the Norman monarchy granted these outright. A revisionist view is that such rights were more common in the 11th century throughout the Conquest, but were largely suppressed in England, and survived in the Marches. Settlement was encouraged, as if the lands were desert: Knights were granted their own lands, which they held in feudal service to the Norman lords. Settlement was also encouraged in towns that were given market privileges, under the protection of a Norman keep. Peasants came to Wales in large numbers: Henry I encouraged Bretons, Flemings, Normans, and English settlers to move into the south of Wales.
The Marcher lords were tied to the English kings by the grants of lands and lordships in England, where control was stricter, and where many marcher lords spent most of their time, and through the English kings' dynastic alliances with the great magnates. It was less easy to work in the opposite way, and establish a position among the herditary marcher families, as Hugh Le Despenser discovered. He began by exchanging estates he held in England and by obtaining grants in the Welsh Marches from the king. He even obtained the Isle of Lundy. When the last male heir of the Braose family died, Despenser was able to obtain the Braose lands around Swansea. In 1321 the Marcher Lords threatened to start a civil war and it was agreed that a Parliament should be called to settle the matter.
The term "marches" is not properly applied within Wales, where tribal affiliations traditionally gave freer range of action to local leaders.
- Richard Williams, "The Welsh Marches": a brief introduction
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