Notable absences and their importance

Most people are aware of what is meant by the phrase “fashionably late”. For those unaware, the Oxford Dictionary defines the phrase as “Deliberately arriving after an event has started, especially in order to prove one’s social status”.[1] Thus if I were late to my friends birthday, and explained that my tardiness was due to some other social function, this would convey the impression that I had so many social commitments that my time needed to be rationed. This would imply I was of a high social status. Medieval Lords seem to have had a similar system, except rather than simply being “fashionably late”, a superior Lord would often be “fashionably absent”, and this shall be explored below.

In 1189 Lord Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth, travelled to Oxford to treat with Richard I, King of England.[2] However, rather than appear himself, Richard sent his brother, John, to negotiate with the Welsh prince. This was deemed so insulting by Lord Rhys that, rather than make do with the King’s brother, he stormed off.[3] Clearly this was seen as quite insulting by Lord Rhys, most likely due to what Richard’s absence implied. An absent regent seems to reveal two things. The first revelation seems to be that the absentee was a very busy individual, and that their time was a precious commodity. The second, and arguably more insulting, revelation, is that meeting with an inferior ruler was not worth their precious time. This further reinforced that the inferior ruler was just that, an inferior. Just as being fashionably late may enhance one’s social status, being fashionably absent seems to highlight a regent’s superiority over an inferior. This somewhat explains Rhys’ reaction, in that Rhys had been a surprisingly aggressive neighbour, and had considerable success in raiding English held territory.[4] For this success to be simply dismissed, by Richard not appearing at all, must have been quite a blow to his ego. Regardless, this certainly implies that the absence of a regent showed the relationship dynamic between two powers.

Some might say this is not a typical occasion, but whilst Rhys’ reaction is certainly quite exceptional, there are many documented instances of inferior powers meeting a superior power, with the superior regent being absent. Another, earlier, example is that of William the Lion meeting the Bishop of Durham in 1174 at Reddunburn river to secure peace. A later example would include Llewellyn the Great’s meeting with representatives of King John in 1201.[5] Few would dispute that the realms of Scotland or Gwynedd were inferior to that of England, in either economic prowess or in terms of raw military might. In fact, William the Lion would become vassal to Henry II just two years after the aforementioned meeting, and Llewelyn was arranging to become the vassal of King John in this particular meeting.[6] The principality of Deheubarth was also a minor power when compared to the English juggernaut and these examples show the meeting at Oxford in 1189 was not an exceptional occurrence.

This certainly seems to indicate that the absence of a superior regent was used to highlight their superiority at the expense of the inferiors’ dignity. However, it might be argued that this was simply a practical arrangement. After all, the Kings of England during this period had many territories overseas, and it can’t be expected of them to appear in more than one place at a time. This is certainly a valid point, but again it is reflective of the superior/inferior relationship that these polities had, and this is further showcased in the following example. In 1192 Richard I treated with Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn. However, Richard had fallen ill, so negotiations between these two powerful Lords occurred via a series of messengers from one regent to the other.[7] This clearly shows that if two equal powers were to treat together, but complications arose, then both would send messengers. This is certainly not the case with the Scottish King and Welsh princes mentioned above, and that seems to be primarily due to the aforementioned powers being treated as inferiors. Whilst it is clear that impractical circumstances could force a regent to be absent from negotiations, it is also clear that this could be overcome without implying either power was an inferior.

The absence of a regent was clearly an important factor in medieval diplomacy. It both highlighted and solidified the superior/inferior relationship of the powers involved, and clearly had very real complications, as seen in Lord Rhys’ case. It seems to have been a fairly common tool of showing the dynamic of an inter-polity relationship, as evidenced by the meetings in 1174 and 1201, and something which could be avoided if involving two equal powers, as shown by Richard I negotiations with Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn. The impression conveyed by a regent being absent was not only that the regent was busy with the affairs of their domain, but that these affairs were more important than meeting the Lord of an inferior foreign power, and thus further cemented the status quo.

[1]‘Fashionably late’, Oxford Dictionary, accessed 24/09/2016,

[2]Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi Benedicti Abbatis, 2 vols, ed. W. Stubbs, Rolls Series, 49 (London, 1867), ii, p87-88

[3]Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi Benedicti Abbatis, ii, p97; Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Hovedene, 4vols, ed. W. Stubbs, Rolls Series, 51 (London 1868-71), iii, p23

[4] Kari Maund, The Welsh Kings: Warriors, Warlords and Princes, (Stroud, 2006), p177-178

[5] Chronica Magistri Rogeri de Hovedene, ii, p56-57; Rotuli Litterarum Patentium in Turri Londiniensi Asservati, ed. T. Duffus Hardy, (London, 1835), 8b-9a

[6] Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi Benedicti Abbatis, I, p95-97, p111; Rotuli Litterarum Patentium in Turri Londiniensi Asservati, 8b-9a

[7] Itinerarium Peregrinorum et Gesta Regis Ricardi, 6, tr. H, Nicholson, (Aldarshot, 1997), p27-28, p371-372.