Highest Kings: The Normans In Ireland

With Kenilworth now done, show season is now properly underway- but the Banner does not rest (for that long, anyway) from its duty to provide you with dubiously interesting historical content! With shows at Caerphilly and Kidwelly underway this weekend, our thoughts have been distinctly Celtic of late, but the Welsh and Scots weren’t the only Celts to feel the heavy hand of Anglo-Norman rule during the 12th century. Today, our view turns across the Irish Sea, as we tell the story of Norman adventures in Ireland.

As anyone who’s ever played Crusader Kings will tell you, medieval Ireland was a deeply divided place. In theory, Ireland was ruled by the High King of Ireland, an office older than the kingdom of England, who was drawn from and ruled over the various minor Irish kingdoms. So far, so feudal*- but unlike in Britain, the High King held very little authority over his subjects. Few records survive, but there doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of a clean succession process, amidst constant political feuding as various kingdoms and dynasties attempted to get a leg over one another. The fortunes of various houses might rise and fall, as kings swore fealty to one another, but allegiances soon fell apart, few lasting gains of land or similar ever changed hands, and there was no long-term centralisation process as there was in England or (later) Scotland. Not since the rule of the legendary High King Brian Boru in the 11th century had one man held real authority over the emerald isle.

*describing the Irish political system as feudal is something of a loaded statement that gets into some thorny questions about the exact nature and origin of feudalism, but it’ll do for now

A map of Ireland in Brian Boru’s day. By the 12th century, the Vikings had been long expelled from their enclaves (dark pink), but the patchwork of feuding kingdoms remained

This situation had persisted for several hundred years by the 12th century, and generations of English kings were aware of it, but until the 1150s nobody in mainland Britain really cared. Whilst the Norse rulers in England had paid close attention to their cousins in Ireland, the Normans were more interested in continental affairs. To them, Ireland was pretty worthless territory: its land poor and unkempt, its people barbarous, worth trading with but little more. The chroniclers were the first to start what would become a long tradition of racist stereotyping across the Irish Sea. Ireland’s soil might bear great fruit, wrote William of Newburgh, “but it has a population that is uncivilised and barbarous, almost entirely ignorant of law and discipline and lazy in agriculture”. Gervase of Tilbury was even more bombastic, denouncing the “foul Irish race” and how their land “from ancient times had sustained itself from the milk of animals, neglected the Lenten fast, given itself up to foulness and despised religion”. Gerald of Wales and William of Malmesbury both wrote extensively about Ireland, but even these relative sympathisers considered the Irish to be backwards and rural, who lived a “pastoral life” and “despise[d] agriculture”, a far cry from civilised English townsfolk. The dialogue was off to quite a bad start.

Indeed, it was through the church that the first outside political interest in Ireland began to take shape. Pope Adrian IV (the only pope to be born in Britain) gave Henry II authority to invade Ireland as part of a papal bull 1156, to “expand the boundaries of the Church”*. Henry, having only been king for two years at this point, presumably added it to his to-do list and then promptly forgot about the whole business whilst he got on with the reforming the legal and financial systems of the largest realm in Western Europe. Given that Adrian died in 1159, it wasn’t like anyone was pressuring him too aggressively.

*Ireland had been Christian since the days of St Patrick in the 9th century, but their isolation and lack of transport or trade infrastructure meant that the Irish church had only weak ties to Rome. The stereotype of the Irish as backwards savage heathens didn’t help either.

Seven years later, however, something happened that would force Henry’s hand. In 1166, King Diarmait Mac Murchada of Leinster was driven out of his realm by a coalition of enemy kings, and fled to England. After trekking up and down the realm in search of Henry’s court, he finally caught up with him in Aquitaine and asked permission to recruit men from among his vassals to help retake his lands. Henry, always happy for young knights to be off trashing someone else’s lands, agreed, and Diarmait returned to Ireland in 1169 with a healthy band of noblemen and their soldiers, predominantly from the Welsh marches.

The military campaign of 1169-71 was highly successful, spearheaded by the forces of noted cider salesman Richard ‘Strongbow’ de Clare (future father-in-law to William Marshall). Waterford, Dublin and Wexford fell to the king of Leinster and his knights- but then, in 1171, Diarmait died. Some English sources say that as part of his recruitment deal, Diarmait had offered Strongbow the inheritance of his kingdom- but whatever the circumstances, de Clare and his fellow Normans chose to remain in Ireland, setting up their own lordship around Dublin. This was a bold move, and one that King Henry took a very dim view of. The Irish kings were harmless enough, but Henry was not about to tolerate a new, expansionist Norman rival on his doorstep, particularly from among his own vassals. He sent a missive to his erstwhile subjects saying something along the lines of “you’d best come back home RIGHT now or you’re grounded FOREVER”, and crossed the sea himself in 1171.

Richard de Clare "Strongbow" (seal).png
The seal of Richard ‘Strongbow’ de Clare

Strongbow, realising that he was not in a position to challenge the king, ceded to royal authority before Henry even landed, and gave Dublin over to the royal demesne. Henry, perhaps pleasantly surprised, forgave Strongbow and let him retain the rest of his new earldom (though, given he’d already stripped de Clare of his lands in the Marches, this may have just been to keep him out of the way)- and seems to have decided that whilst he was in the area, he might as well go about taking control of the rest of the country as well. You know, to stop anyone else getting any ideas about who was boss.

Adding another thirty thousand square miles to the Angevin Empire sounds like a tall order, but the process ended up being almost laughably straightforward. Henry’s plan was to rule in Ireland like he did in Wales: he appointed a number of marcher-style Anglo-Norman vassals in the conquered territories of Leinster and Meath, whilst retaining most of the pre-existing kingdoms under Irish rule, who were to swear fealty to him. And, lo and behold, they did. Whether thanks to Henry’s power and reputation, a desire to curb Leinster’s aggressive expansion, or maybe just misunderstanding what they were agreeing to, the Irish rulers happily bent the knee and paid tribute to their new ruler. All that was left was for Henry to appoint a royal justiciar to keep an eye on his new holding, and that was that. Almost by accident, the king could now add “Lord of Ireland” to his many titles.

However, the peace was not to last. Now that there were Normans in Ireland, they were not going to just lie down and start farming cabbages. Border disputes between settlers and natives began almost immediately. In 1174, Henry tried to strengthen his control in Ireland by appointing King Ruaidri of Connaught, the former High King, to rule over all the lands under native Irish control, in the same way that Rhys ap Gruffydd ruled in Wales, whilst issuing a treaty restricting the Norman colonists to their original granted territories. But it did no good. Strongbow’s death a year later created a power vacuum, and the Irish kingdoms were just as unwilling to submit to the High King as they had been before. Before long, the Norman settlers were carving out their own territories from the lands of the disorganised and feuding Irish kings.

To try and kerb this… enthusiasm, Henry gave the title of Lord of Ireland to his favourite son in 1185, who promptly planned a voyage there to assert his newfound authority. Unfortunately, his favourite son happened to be The Artist Latterly Known As John Softsword. Aged 17 and freshly knighted, John decided to begin his trip by showcasing all the tact, diplomacy and intelligence that would characterise his later rule- specifically, by laughing at and tugging the beards of the first Irishmen who came to swear fealty to him. The expedition went downhill from there, and the Irish lords went back to feuding soon afterwards. It wasn’t until 1210, with an army at his back, that John was able to subdue his Normanno-Irish vassals and restore royal control over Ireland.

The new Norman administration didn’t lack for ambition, and rapidly began expanding into the territory of the native Irish rulers. However, Irish rule was far from doused, the conquests would soon slow, and, the distinction between foreign and native rulers would become increasingly blurry.

But then, the lords and people of Ireland did one of the most surprising and important things in British history: coexisted, largely peacefully, for the next three centuries. Feudalism and other features of Anglo-Norman rule were imposed, not without dissent, and the minor border skirmishes would continue, but there was none of the proto-nationalism or anti-crown fervour that would grip Britain in the years to come. There would never be another claimant to the title of High King, no Irish Glyndwr, de Montfort or de Bruce. Instead, Ireland ticked along quietly, weathering the storms of the 13th and (especially) 14th century without uprising or major dissent, to the point where the English crown essentially stopped paying any attention to it. And, as their attention slipped, so did control. As the 14th century rolled along, the Anglo-Norman aristocracy began to become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”, adopting local customs and identity (just as the Norman ruling class became more integrated with an English identity throughout the late medieval period). Where Wales at the same time was being forcibly bent to English dominance, in punishment for its rebelliousness, Irish politics began to slip back into its old ways: local rulers vying for control, jockeying for political position beneath the absent gaze of their overlord, as English control ebbed away from all the lands beyond the Pale*. Only one English king travelled to Ireland between 1210 and 1500 (Richard II, to put down a Scottish incursion and briefly reinstate royal authority), by which time most of Ireland had returned to effective independence: but this time with a renewed sense of local identity, of chafing beneath even nominal English rule. The stage was set for the clashes to come, of the invasions of Henry VIII and the chaotic impact of the Reformation on Ireland- but that is a story for another day.

*the Pale was the area of Ireland that remained a part of the royal demesne, gradually shrinking up until, by the 16th century, it was only a small belt of land surrounding Dublin

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