Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (Sixth Series)

Review Article

FIFTEENTH-CENTURY DURHAM AND THE PROBLEM OF PROVINCIAL LIBERTIES IN ENGLAND AND THE WIDER TERRITORIES OF THE ENGLISH CROWN

Tim Thornton

Proxime Accessit, Alexander Prize 1999

Abstract

IT is remarkable when an historical interpretation has stood almost unchallenged for one hundred years. Yet this is the case with the approach to the history of the county palatine of Durham outlined by G. T. Lapsley in 1900; it is a story of the steady decline of this once highly autonomous jurisdiction which has been retold by virtually all those who have written on the subject since. It is even more remarkable when that interpretation has acted as a vital support for two much more far-reaching paradigms. In the case of Lapsley’s interpretation of Durham, these extend not just elsewhere in the British Isles but also to North America. On the one hand is the approach to the territories of the English crown as a precociously centralised polity, characterised by the effective authority of the crown’s institutions and the rapid decline of what little provincial particularism had once been present. With Lapsley’s Durham a pale shadow of its former self by the fifteenth century, historians have been able to propose that even the strongest of the ancient palatinates was effectively defunct and the power of the centre unopposed. On the other hand, there is the paradigm which sees English North America as the scene of a conflict between the direct authority of an ambitious crown and a burgeoning desire for local self-government which was eventually successful.

(Received May 19 2000)