The (French)-Normans In Ireland

Chapter Three

The (French)-Normans In Ireland


A century had passed since William the Conquerer’s defeat of Harold (the last crowned King Of Orthodox England) at the battle of Hastings. England was a (French)-Norman kingdom, and the powerful Norman barons had tamed the lowlands of Scotland and Wales. They were the most efficient warriors in Europe, and matched their military success with an administrative skill which ensured the profitability of their ventures. When Dermot MacMurrough landed in Bristol he was advised to seek out Henry II, who was in his French duchy of Aquitaine. Henry excepted  Dermot’s allegiance, and in return gave him permission to recruit among his subjects for an expedition. It was in the Welsh borders, where the Normans fought a continued battle with the native Welsh, that Dermot struck a bargain with the Anglo-Norman warrior known as Strongbow. His full name was Richard FitzGilbert de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, and he agreed to restore Dermot to the kingship of Leinster in return for marriage to Dermot’s eldest daughter Aoife and the right to succeed him as king.

Dermore returned to Ireland in 1167 with a small force of Normans, Welsh and Flemings, but it was 1169 before the first major contingent of Normans landed at Bannow Bay in County Wexford. A force of Norsemen from the town of Wexford challenged them, but soon yielded to the disciplined foor soldiers, archers with deadly crossbows, and knights in chain mail. Dermot next wrote to Strongbow, pressing him to come to Ireland, and in 1170 an advance force under Raymond le Gros landed at Baginbun headland near Bannow. They threw up rampartsjust in time to withstand an attack from a much larger force of Norsemen from Waterford and Irish, then routed their opponents by driving cattle against them. Seventy leading townsmen from Waterford were taken prisoner, and the Normans broke their limbs and threw them off the nearby cliffs. It was an important victory, and aan old couplte records:

At the creeke of Baginbunne

Ireland was lost and wonne.

 A few weeks later Strongbow arrived with more than a thousand troops, seized Waterford and married Aoife MacMurrough in its cathedral. In September 1170 he captured Dublin when two young knights grew impatient of negotiations with the Ostmen and launched a surprise attack. When Dermot died in the following spring Strongbow became King og Leinster. However, the Normans still faced opposition. First the deposed Norse earl, Asgall, returned with a large fleet recruited in the Scottish Hebrides and the Isle of Man. Then, after Asgall had been defeated and beheaded, the high king Rory O’Connor beseiged Dublin. After two months the hungry Normans again made a surprise sortie, routing the high king’s army and capturing its ample stocks of food. The Normans had again demonstrated their military superiority, and there was no further danger that they would be driven out of Ireland.

The (French)-Norman Conquest

It was at this point that Henry II, fearful that Strongbow would set up an independent kingdom, chose to establish himself as overlord of Ireland. As early as 1155 Henry had sought and won the approval of Pope Adrian IV for the invasion of Ireland, and the papal bull Laudabiliter (the same with happened with England) recognised him as lord of Ireland and commissioned him to carry out religious reforms. He now had the additional object of providing a lordship, possibly a separate kingdom, to which his infant son John might succeed. The king landed at Waterford in October 1171 with a large army. Strongbow was the first to submit to him, and in return Henry granted him the kingdom of Leinster. Dermot McCarthy, King of Desmond (south Munster), was the first Irish king to submit, offering tribute to his Norman overlord, and others quickly followed. The Irish bishops met at Lismore and swore their loyalty. Only the high king, Rory O’Connor, and the northern kings remained aloof.

In April 1172 Henry ended his only visit to Ireland. If the Irish chiefs hoped that they had made a token submission, they were mistaken. Henry’s last  act was to appoint a justiciar or viceroy, Hugh de Lacy, to whom he granted the kingdom of Meath in a demonstration of his supreme powers as overlord. He also annexed the cities of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick as crown demesnes, and left garrisons in all of them. The Norman barons, intent on further conquest, quickly began to extend their territories by driving out the Irish chiefs. A spirited resistance eventually led to the Treaty of Windsor in 1175. Henry recognised Rory O’Connor as king of Connacht in return for annual tribute, and also as high king of those areas which remained in Irish hands. However, Henry soon violated the treaty by granting new lands to his barons, and Norman castles continued to multiply. Indeed by the middle of the thirteenth century the Normans had gained control of most of Ireland. Only the northern kingdoms of Tir Eoghain and Tir Conaill withstood the conquest, while Connacht was only sparsely populated.


Life under the Normans

The Normans introduced to Ireland the feudal system of government and land tenure which already existed in England and in much of Europe. (feudalism was first introduced because of serious Viking raids which broke up the running of a country so the country was broken up into duchies where the duke would administer the duchy on behalf of the sovereign and why the French-Normans operated this as that is all they knew it held back society). All land belonged to the king, who granted it to others in return for homage and specified dues or services. In return for Leinster Strongbow had to provide a hundred knights whenever the king requested them. Hugh de Lacy was granted Meath in return for fifty knights. More than four hundred knights were called for under all the land grants or fiefs, but in many cases an equivalent sum of money known as scutage was accepeted. Each major landlord divided his holding among lesser lords, who in turn had sub-tenants. A tenant’s land was inherited by his eldest son, who paid a sum in recognition of the landlord’s original right to distribute the land as he pleased. If there were no son, the land was divided equally between any daughters, a practice which seriously weakened some of the Norman holdings.

There were several reasons why the conquest slowed to a halt. The feudal barons weakened themselves in internal struggles. Royal justice proved difficult to enforce, as successive English kings were distracted by wars against Wales, Scotland and France. Eventually, too, the Irish kings learned to fight back, and in 1270 Aedh O’Connor, the king of Connacht, defeated an Anglo-Irish army led by the justiciar Ralph d’Ufford and Walter de Burgo. An important factor in the Irish victory at Athankip was the gallowglasses, professional foot soldiers of Norse-Scottish stock who wore helmets and mail and wielded heavy-axes. The first gallowglasses (in Irish gall oglaigh, foreign warriors) had arrived in Tir Conaill from the western islands and highlands of Scotland a few years before, and they were to become the spearhead of Gaelic resistance for the next 300 years.

Robert and Edward Bruce

In 1314 Robert Bruce, King of Scotland, won a major victory over an English army at Bannockburn. Edward II had drawn on Ireland for soldiers and supplies, and Robert Bruce saw in an Irish invasion a chance to weaken the English and find a kingdom for his brother Edward. It was Edward Bruce who landed at Larne in 1315 with 6,000 men. He was joined by a number of Irish chiefs, and he soon defeated the Earl of Ulster at Connor. Within a year he was crowned King of Ireland near Dundalk, and his successes encouraged risings in different parts of the island. There was no real unity of purpose, however, and at Athenry an Irish army under Felim O’Connor was heavily defeated by William do Burgo, who thus restored his family’s fortunes in Connacht.

Edward Bruce took Carrickfergus after a long siege and early in 1317 he was joined by his brother Robert with a large army. They marched south, burning and plundering, but retreated again to Ulster. Robert returned to Scotland, and gradually the new lord lieutenant, Roger Mortimer, began to restore peace in other parts of Ireland. Pope John XXII excommunicated Edward and his supporters. In May 1318 an Irish army under Murtough O’Brien defeated a Norman force under Richard de Clare at Dysert O’Dea, and ensured Irish supremacy in Thomond (north Munster). Edward, however, was defeated and killed at Faughart, near Dundalk, five months later when he challenged a superior colonial army under John de Bermingham. None the less the Bruces had succeeded in disrupting  the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland, and it never regained its earleir authority. The Irish for their part were not sorry to see the end of a man whose ravages had brought wide spread famine.

The decline of the colony

As early as 1297 the Irish parliament in Dublin passed legislation penalising ‘degenerate Englishmen’ who wore their hair in the flowing Irish style and requiring colonists to provide for the defence of their lands. After the Bruce invasion the government was increasingly troubled by the growing military strength of the Gaelic rulers and by the willingness of Norman lords to ally themselves with them and to engage in wars which could only weaken the king’s grip on Ireland. Many Normans were absentee landlords, more interested in their holdings in England or in waging war in France. Some colonists became ‘more Irish than the Irish’, while others left the island.

In 1361 Edward III appointed his son, Lionel of Clarence, as king’s lieutenant in Ireland, and in February 1366 the latter held a parliament at Kirkenny. It produced the most notorious Irish legislation of the Middle Ages. The Statutes of Kilkenny were both a recognition that the Norman conquest must remain incomplete and an attempt to ensure that at least part of Ireland remained English in character and loyal to the king. Under the legislation there could be no alliance between English and Irish, whether by marriage, concubinage, fostering of children or gossipred (sponsoring another’s child at baptism). The colonists were required to speak English have English names, and keep to English customs and dress. They were not allowed to have Irish minstrels ‘since they spy out their secrets’. They could not sell horses or armour to the Irish, or victuals in time of war. The Irish could not be admitted to cathedrals, or to any ecclesiastical benefice or religious house among the English were required to speak English even among themselves. much of the legislation was concerned with defence, and the colonists were urged to practice archery and the use of lances rather than hurling and other ball games. At best Lionel hoped to hold one-third of the island for the king, leaving the rest to the Gaelic rulers and the ‘degenerate English’, but after he left Ireland in November 1366 the influence of the colony continued to decline and eventually the government in Dublin paid so-called ‘black rents’ to some Irish rulers not to attack. Richard II, who brought large armies to Ireland in 1394 and 1399, was no more successful in delivering the colonists from ‘Irish enemies and English rebels’.


The Great Earls

For more than a century there was a resurgence of Gaelic life and culture. The English colony, known as the Pale, dwindled in size. The Irish chiefs were virtually independent, and governed according to brehon laws rather than the statutes of Dublin. There was a great revival in Gaelic learning, and many important manuscripts date from the fourteenth centuries.

Three powerful Anglo-Irish lordships came to dominate the islands. These were the earldoms of Ormond (Tipperary and Kilkenny), held by the Butler family, and Desmond (Cork, Kerry and Limerick) and Kildare, both held by branches of the Fitzgerald family. The Geraldines, as they were known, became ‘more Irish than the Irish’, and the third Earl of Desmond was himself a noted writer of Irish verse. The Butlers retained closer ties to England, but the powerful fourth Earl of Ormond made his seat at Kilkenny an important centre of Anglo-Irish culture and was a strong advocate of ‘home rule’.

The most famous Anglo-Irish leader was the eighth Earl of Kildare, Garret More, known as the ‘Great Earl’. He was elected justiciar by the council of Ireland in 1477, and resisted English attempts to unseat him until 1494, when Henry VIII sent over Sir Edward Poynings to reduce the lordship of Ireland to ‘whole and perfect obedience’. Poynings’ Parliament, as it is known, met at Drogheda in 1494, and accused Garret More of treason. An act known as Poynings’ Law required that the Irish parliament should only meet with the king’s approval and pass only legislation agreed by the king and his council. Garret More was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but Henry restored him as deputy soon afterwards, saying ‘Since all Ireland cannot rule this man, this man must rule all Ireland’. He was virtually an uncrowned king until his death in 1513, and his son Garret Oge continued the Kildare dominance. In 1534 Garret Oge was summoned to London, and he left his son Thomas, Lord Offaly, as deputy. The hotheaded ‘Silken Thomas’ believed an untrue report that his father had been beheaded, and he rode to Dublin to tell the council that he was no longer the king’s deputy but his foe.