Thane (Scotland)

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Thane was the title given to a local royal official in medieval eastern Scotland, equivalent in rank to the son of an earl,[1] who was at the head of an administrative and socio-economic unit known as a thanedom.

The thane was introduced in the reign of David I, an Anglophile, to replace the gaelic tòiseach ( meaning leader, and with which the term Taoiseach shares an origin). In Scotland at that time toshach designated a deputy to a mormaer, controlling a particular portion of a mormaerdom on the mormaer's behalf. The English thegn was a more general term, simply referring to a powerful noble below the rank of Ealdorman (a term which had now evolved into Earl); having introduced Earl to describe mormaers, David used thane to describe toshachs.

Functionally, the Thane was a territorial administrator, acting under a territorial Earl (the latter resembling a Saxon Ealdorman rather than the more superficial Norman Earl), or royal steward. Though thanes often held land within the region they administered, this was coincidental; providing land tenure was simply the way of paying for their services, the location of their lands not being intrinsically linked to the authority they wielded in any particular region.

However, after the death of Alexander III, thanes differed from their tosach forbears by holding their position as a feudal grant from the crown, rather than the almost independent status held by a tosach. Thanes consequently resembled English barons, but with greater judicial and administrative authority which extended beyond the lands they directly held. In later centuries, the term thanes dropped out of use in favour of baron, but described as having regality, a term used to describe both the thanes' powers, and the greater powers of the territorial earl

In William Shakespeare's Macbeth, Macbeth holds the title "Thane of Glamis", and later, "Thane of Cawdor".

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Further reading[edit]

  • Grant, Alexander (1993). "Thanes and Thanages, from the Eleventh to the Fourteenth Centuries". In Alexander Grant and Keith J. Stringer. Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community. Essays Presented to G.W.S. Barrow. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. pp. 39–81.