Ireland’s absorption into the Angevin Empire reminds us to be careful about taking at face value Ireland’s shorthanded origin myth of eight hundred years of oppression. Our story is richer and more nuanced than that. It involves more complicated motivations than simple imperial oppression. We had more agency as well as more complicity in our fate. And our story as part of the Angevin Empire played out within the arena of European affairs whose influence on our fate has often been marginalised by the focus on our relationship with England.
The fact that Ireland’s status within the Angevin Empire is not widely recognised is certainly a reflection of the passing nature of that strange entity. This also demonstrates our fixation on the Anglo-Irish relationship and how that perspective influences our hindsight. Yet the arrival of the Normans in Ireland was very much rooted in the politics of the Angevin Empire, not of England. Angevin intrigues defined the Norman presence in Ireland, defined Angevin-Irish relations as it were. Angevin-Irish relations set and defined the nature of the Norman presence in Ireland and its relationship with the English crown for the following four hundred years. What then was this Angevin Empire?
The Angevin Empire stretched from the Scottish borders to the Pyrenees, embracing England, Wales and a seizable chunk of what would become France. It was centred on Normandy and run by a powerful Norman lineage that ran from William the Conqueror to Richard the Lionheart and King John.
During the late 11th and throughout the 12th centuries Western Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages in the lee of the Viking raids. 1066 had been a pivotal year for England when the fortunes of war determined whether it would be consolidated as part of a Nordic entity centred on the North Sea or be taken over the Normans. William the Conqueror settled the matter at Hastings and imposed Norman rule on England and most of Wales. The Franks were emerging as a dominant political force that would eventually forge France. Surnames were coalescing into their modern forms. The Christian Church had preserved reading, writing and learning and its educated officers served as the seedbed for the bureaucracy of the emerging secular governments. Papal authority in Rome sought to centralise and bring order to Church affairs through the Gregorian reforms, pushing monasticism to the sidelines. The Church understood that its future depended on strong centralised secular government and took great pains to encourage this while preserving its own power and influence. Indeed much of European history up to the modern age would be shaped by the dynamic between the papacy and the emerging nation states. In short, this is the ur-period of modern Europe.
The Angevin Empire was a fleeting but highly consequential construct built around one of the most remarkable figures of early medieval European history, namely Henry II. His titles included Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, and king of England. He was also a vassal of the king of the Franks, Louis VII of the House of Capet. Henry’s father was Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, hence the ‘Angevin’ appellation. His mother was Matilda, daughter of Henry I, King of England and son of William the Conqueror.
Henry II was then a great grandson of William, the first Norman king of England. Had his mother claimed the throne as Henry I intended, Henry himself might simply have succeeded to the English throne. However, Matilda was not a popular woman in England and women in general were not strong claimants. That left an opening for Henry I’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, to claim the kingship.
The succession dispute split the English nobles into two warring camps. Stephen had neither the support nor the acumen to impose his will on the entire country. The ensuing period of civil conflict was destructive enough to be dubbed the ‘Anarchy’ by later historians. In his mid-teens, Henry led two excursions to England in support of his mother’s claim (his father Geoffrey of Anjou remained aloof from the conflict). On his return to France, he secured his title as Duke of Normandy by paying homage to Louis VII.
Henry’s next move was a bold one. In May 1152 he married Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the richest, most beautiful and most charismatic women in Europe. And bold indeed it was; Eleanor had been Louis’ wife and Queen of the Franks. When she married Henry it was only two months since the annulment of her fifteen-year marriage. She was also eleven years older than Henry, with two daughters by Louis. That she had failed to produce a son convinced Louis reluctantly to agree to the annulment from a woman about whom it was said he was passionate (though she did not reciprocate by all accounts). On annulment, in secrecy and high drama, Eleanor made it to Poitiers (evading a kidnap attempt by Henry’s younger brother), for a simple marriage ceremony to Henry.
Henry had not sought Louis’ permission for the marriage as he ought to have done and while relations between the two men were patched up it was unlikely that the sting of this humiliation was ever fully drawn. Eleanor went on to produce a bevy of sons for Henry. In fact Louis and later his son Philip would play on the tensions between Henry’s sons to incite open rebellion by and among them against their father.
Entrancing as Eleanor was, Henry’s marriage made strategic sense for in gaining control of Aquitaine he not only secured about half of France but got control of the castles that could have threatened his other lands had Eleanor married someone else. The marriage made sense for Eleanor too: Henry was not only young and passionate but also one of the leading lords of Europe with a claim to the throne of the England. Unlike her colourless marriage to the increasingly ascetic Louis, her union with Henry would produce eight pregnancies and some of the most famous sons in western European history in Richard the Lion Hearted, King John and Henry the Young King.
Having established such a powerful base on the continent, Henry turned his attention to claiming the throne of England. That he did so with relative ease was due to a number of factors. The ‘anarchy’ was rapidly burning itself out with local peace deals increasingly evident on the part of financially drained and tired nobles. There was simply little appetite among the barons for a major conflict and much of the Henry’s maneuvers between the winter and summer of 1153 were skirmishes.
Secondly, the Church was keen to broker a deal and settle matter, the better to bring order to its own affairs there in consort with a stable monarch. Thirdly, Stephen’s first son died so succession from him was under doubt. Without a major battle being fought, a deal was struck to pass the throne to Henry on Stephen’s death. Stephen obliged sooner than expected, dying in October 1154. In December, accordingly, Henry and Eleanor were crowned at Westminster.
Thus was born the Angevin Empire under Henry II, a cross-channel conglomeration of domains held in the person of Henry through inheritance, marriage and artful opportunism. Henry was twenty-one years of age.
To solidify his hold on the throne, Henry invoked not only his descent from Henry I and William the Conqueror but in particular recalled Henry I’s commitment to the rule of law. This became a consistent theme of his reign. It also reflected Henry’s own “tidy mind”, as his biographer, W.L. Warren, described it. For though Henry was a man of restless physical energy he was also well read and devoted to imposing law and arbitration. He did much to lay the foundation for English common law, both through the system of travelling royal justices and new structures at the court. He struck a careful political balance between the rights of the crown and of the barons.
Henry held his empire together through constant and astonishingly speedy travel; much listening and politicking; a knack for quickly seizing castles; and a commitment to imposing his authority through the rule of law. His court followed him and were forced to do so often at short notice and chaotically; Henry’s travels, like his intentions, were hard to predict and done at short notice. Henry kept his own counsel.
Occasionally Henry would convene a great Council to resolve matters of state. He convened one soon after his coronation at Winchester in 1155. It was there that an invasion of Ireland was discussed, the same year that the English pope Adrian IV issued Laudabiliter, the famous or infamous papal edict authorising an invasion of Ireland, its governance under Henry II, and the imposition of Gregorian reform on an Irish church stubbornly clinging to its old ways in regard to marriage, celibacy and land holding. No copy of this document exists but it is clear that it was in Rome’s interest to extend its reforms to the Irish Church: That could only really be done on the foot of conquest by Henry.
It is difficult to say how serious were the discussions about Ireland at Winchester. Henry’s mother reportedly counselled against it, arguing that the Irish were barbarous and immune to governance, a headache not worth the effort. Whether such a fateful decision would have rested on her view alone is doubtful. Conscious of the difficulties faced by the marcher lords in Wales against a nascent native rising, Henry may well have concluded that an attempt to subdue Ireland would prove both difficult and expensive.
Yet the issue of the Papal bull Laudabiliter suggests more serious intent. Had Henry solicited this one might indeed conclude he was looking for cover for an invasion of Ireland. Certainly Irish nationalists have long taken a dim view of England’s only Pope issuing such a license. To them, naturally enough, it smacked of a conspiracy by the rapacious English. Goddard Henry Orpen in his venerable Ireland under the Normans (1911), suggests that Henry’s eventual return to Ireland with a large invasion force some sixteen years later suggested the fulfilment of a long held ambition. While Irish nationalists rejected Orpen’s characterisation of Ireland as endemically anarchic and bloody before the arrival of the Normans, they embraced the idea that possession of Ireland was a prize long nursed by Henry.
This interpretation is challenged forensically and I think convincingly by Henry’s biographer W.L. Warren (Henry II, Yale English Monarchs: 1973/200). According to Warren, it seems more likely that Laudabiliter was procured by the English Church to encourage Henry to invade Ireland. For they understood that only military force could set the context for the imposition of Gregorian reforms on what they regarded as the disgrace of the Irish Church. The See of Canterbury regarded Ireland as falling within its remit and it had therefore an obligation under God to bring reform and renewal to Ireland.
Warren writes: “That Pope Adrian was ready to support such a move by Canterbury is not surprising: besides being an Englishman, he was the pope who revived the high-Gregorian programme for the reform of church government after half a century of doubt and muddle at Rome. The revolutionary effect of this programme was to dethrone monasticism as the pace-setter of Christendom and to give the bishop of Rome real powers for the direction and control of the Church’s life-powers which were to be exercised, in the first instance, through the local bishops” (pp 196-7).
Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury met with a polite rejection of this bid at Winchester, attributed by chroniclers to Matilda’s objection but in reality most likely reflecting Henry’s lack of interest. Had he been seriously interested, his mother’s objection would hardly have dissuaded him alone, much as he valued her advice. Henry’s continental domain was far more in need of his attentions and he would in fact spend more of his life there than in England. In the following years England was left for long periods to the ministrations of Eleanor as effective regent.
Ireland next comes to Henry’s attention in 1167 when Dermot MacMurrough arrived at his peripatetic court, probably in Aquitaine. Dermot had had to search and high and low to find the busy and fleet king. In soliciting Henry’s help Dermot had nothing to lose. His enemies in Ireland had invaded this stronghold in south Leinster and forced him to flee. Sailing from Youghal, he had found shelter and support in Bristol from Robert FitzHarding, an eminent man who had sided with Matilda during the Anarchy and was a trusted mentor and friend of Henry II. At Aquitaine, Dermot made his pitch; with an Angevin army at his back he could conquer Ireland and hold it as king offering loyalty to Henry.
What Dermot got from Henry were many gifts and a letter offering permission to Norman lords to support him in his efforts in Ireland. While not exactly what he wanted, Dermot converted this eventually into Strongbow’s successful expedition to Ireland in 1170. With remarkably few men and resources, the Normans confounded the Irish with tactical speed and martial prowess, seized Leinster, captured Dublin, and put the High King’s besieging army to flight. Married to Dermot’s daughter, Strongbow was poised to become a local king in Ireland.
Quite why such few men could wreck such havoc and secure such speedy success is knotty story. Suffice to say that without centralised authority and the kind of resources that go with it (from fortified cities to bureaucracies and revenues) the Irish were uniquely vulnerable to the precise and organised application of force that was a specialty of the Normans. With their relatively primitive methods of warfare, the Irish were little match for the most formidable warriors in Europe, warriors who were moreover familiar with the tactics of Celtic societies thanks to their experiences fighting the Welsh.
The stunning and rapid success of Strongbow no doubt came as much of a surprise to Henry as to the Irish. It was undoubtedly a distraction from his main concern to hold his nascent Angevin Empire together. But he had a more immediate need to avoid being in continental Europe. He was being held accountable for the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket.
To understand how Henry had been so instrumental in this act, one must put it in the context of Henry’s efforts to forge the Angevin Empire. Had it endured as a true empire might, Henry himself might rank more prominently in the pantheon of great European leaders. Eventually however it would be occluded by the rise of France under Louis VII and then Philip, Henry’s rivals from the House of Capet. Henry was in fact a vassal of these kings and there is no real sign that he seriously contemplated a direct challenge. In fact he backed down from such when he retreated from the siege of Toulouse in 1160. Had he forced the issue and seized Toulouse, Henry’s domain would have stretched from the Scottish borders to the Mediterranean, through the most fertile and rich lands in Europe, a wedge through England and France that linked up with the ports and trade on the Mediterranean coast. It would have represented one of the greatest trade routes with all of the taxes and impositions flooding Henry’s treasury. With this wealth, he would have been able to mount a formidable challenge to the Capetians and their stronghold in Paris. Europe’s future had turned on Henry’s decision to respect his feudal obligations and withdraw the siege.
An unexpected consequence of Henry’s withdrawal was a breach with his Chancellor and bosom friend, Thomas Becket. Becket, who had raised and led a large force of knights in the campaign, had urged Henry to press home his attack on Toulouse, even with Louis inside the citadel. Louis had come to the aid of the Count of Toulouse, daring his vassal Henry to break faith with his solemn feudal oath of loyalty. With his advice so publicly rejected, it was only a matter of time before Becket would have to quit as Henry’s chief advisor. Yet in easing Becket out by granting him the Archbishopric of Canterbury in April 1161, Henry fashioned a rod for his own back. Becket turned from glamorous and powerful member of the court to an ascetic religious devotee who put himself forward as a champion of the Church against the State’s incursions on their traditional rights.
Over the better part of a decade, Becket’s pointed obduracy did neither the Church nor the State any favours and Becket managed by his unrelenting defiance of Henry to upset both sides. Evidently Beckett may have changed in appearance and commitments but one aspect of his character did not change, however much the outward form did – his pride.
It is not a recorded fact of history that Henry actually uttered the famous imprecation “who will rid me of this turbulent priest!” But whatever he said that December 1170, a group of knights took it literally as an invitation to assassination and travelled post haste to England. Henry realised their fatal mission too late to stop them. There were some comic-tragic scenes as the four knights waited in the Cathedral with other petitioners looking for the Archbishop’s advice and support. Words were exchanged between the haughty Becket and the apparently hapless assassins. Becket could have disappeared into the stony labyrinth of corridors and chambers but he did not hide. With a defiant and dramatic gesture he knelt to pray. A sword swung, slicing off his cranium. Another sword pinioned his brain and threw its delicate pulp to the floor.
Henry would never really escape the shadow of this murder, though the Church was not long in absolving him. There is no doubting his remorse at the death of this friend, at the awful personal alchemy that had turned their friendship to animosity. A papal interdict was on its way to impose a punishment on Henry. Against the backdrop of condemnation across Europe, Henry prepared to travel to Ireland and deal with Strongbow.
Henry assembled a formidable force at Pembroke. If Strongbow’s success in Ireland was a distraction, it seems in the circumstances to have been a welcome one. The outcry in Europe needed to settle down. Moreover, in going to Ireland Henry appeared to offer the kind of intervention that was essential to reforming the Irish Church. Indeed Pope Alexander III warmly welcomed Henry’s intervention there. Warren: “He wrote to the Irish bishops, to the Irish ‘kings and princes’ and to Henry himself hailing it as the will of God.” Henry’s Irish adventure was currying favour just when and from where he needed it.
By including siege equipment, Henry’s preparations signalled his real intentions. He meant to take Dublin, the castles and the ports if the Normans holding them were unwilling to hand them over to royal control. Strongbow arrived in Pembroke from Ireland and told him what he wanted to hear. He would surrender everything in return for being allowed to hold Leinster as a fief (Warren, p 200). Henry travelled to Ireland determined to ensure this outcome. He met with no opposition from either Normans or Gaels. Save for Rory O’Connor, the High King, and the kings of the north, the Irish kings, Irish clergy and Normans alike offered submission and recognition to Henry as their lord. Henry focused on imposing order on the Normans. He brought over Hugh de Lacy to control Meath and Dublin, making him effectively viceroy. Along with Dublin, Waterford and Wexford were brought under royal garrison. Strongbow was to hold Leinster as a lord. Henry was intent on ensuring that on one Norman would emerge as a dominant force in Ireland.
Henry’s arrangements in Ireland were consistent with his policies throughout the Angevin Empire in ensuring royal control over cities, ports and castles. He had greatly reduced the number of castles held by barons in England as part of his pacification for castles represented resistance to central control. Any lord could hold land but only trusted lords could hold power. Strongbow’s old allegiance in the Anarchy still haunted and poisoned his relationship with Henry.
In terms of the Irish, Henry proceeded with very considerable delicacy. He did not demand homage but rather loyalty and tribute, an obligation that was personal and without feudal significance in terms of land tenure. Warren interprets this as a lesson from his attempt to exert control over the Welsh with as little force as possible (pp 201-202).
Thus it was that when Henry made terms with the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, in the Treaty of Windsor in 1175, Rory offered his loyalty not his homage and recognised Henry as Lord of Ireland. In not becoming a vassal of Henry, Rory was free to be High King. Henry hoped that this model would be as successful in Ireland as it had been in Wales where the native kings, having offered loyalty to the English crown, had been able to exert their dominance as local rulers over their kin.
Alas not so in Ireland; Rory was High King in name only and his lack of dominance in Munster threatened a return to the kind of free-for-all land grab that offered rich pickings for adventurous Norman lords. Henry wished to avoid this but he was caught on the horns of a dilemma. To exert full control of the situation, he would need to launch a full-scale invasion. He was not willing to undertake that expense. On the other, he was not prepared to let the Normans loose and potentially create a rival kingdom. Between these options Ireland was effectively partitioned between the lands held by the Normans and the rest of the country under the Irish kings. The Irish kings were so intent on their internal regnal wars that they were happy to engage the support of Normans in their conflicts. And the Normans were happy to do so because it provided them with opportunities to seize land, which they did frequently, albeit in a piecemeal fashion. Though distrusted by Henry, Lords like Hugh de Lacy and Strongbow, attuned to native ways, were able to balance Norman and Irish interests when discharging their duties as Henry’s viceroy but the situation was inherently unstable.
Henry’s last attempt to resolve the situation in Ireland was to end the partition by establishing an Irish kingdom under his son John. Ireland was an opportunity to help sort out Henry’s succession as between his rival sons. John arrived in 1185 and was so effective at alienating both the Normans and the Irish that he had to withdraw within nine months, just before papal approval for his reign had arrived from Rome. This failure was highly consequential for it left Ireland balanced between its Gaelic sphere and swathes of Norman domain that demanded the protection of the crown if and when threatened by the native Irish. It also left Rome unhappy for Henry had made little serious effort to reform the Irish Church. John though kept the title of Lord of Ireland so when he became king of England in 1199, the title passed to the crown, passed down to his successors.
Warren judges that if Henry’s policy in Ireland was a failure, he is at least absolved of the charge of “acquisitive ambition”. Yet he cannot be absolved of the consequences of his intervention both in granting Dermot the original license to recruit Norman mercenaries and in his subsequent hapless attempts to manage their presence.
For the Normans in Ireland, as they famously and ruefully understood, they were English to the Irish but Irish to the English. Crown control in Ireland would be exercised as economically as possible through the kind of skilful diplomacy pioneered by Hugh de Lacy. The family that would most successfully balance the partition between Norman and Irish were the FitzGeralds, exploiting the uneasy existence of both Norman and Gaelic laws to expand their own territorial holdings. They had landed as one of the core family groups in the original invasion in 1169 and 1170. The success of the FitzGeralds over the next four hundred years would make them the most influential family in Ireland and absolve the English crown of much expense or concern about Irish matters while they held sway.
However, the limitations on the Norman presence in Ireland meant that as a group they were in turn vulnerable to absorption by the wider Gaelic society in which they operated and into which they married; becoming as was famously described ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. By the time Tudors emerged, the Normans in Ireland had become the Old English and their commitment to their Catholicism damned them in New English Protestant eyes as disloyal and treacherous as the native Irish. When the Tudors launched a major effort to conquer and colonise Ireland, the Norman Irish would suffer much as the native Gaelic did in the wars and dispossessions that ensued.
The arrival and enduring presence of the Normans in Ireland was shaped then by the politics of the Angevin Empire. Certainly they seized vast tracks of land but given the prevalence of wars among the petty Irish kings it can hardly be said that they disturbed any kind of prevailing peace. Where Norman influence was strongest, greater peace and stability tended to prevail. Moreover, the Normans brought much to Ireland that could not be found in a Gaelic polity that was tribal, rural, and pastoral in its makeup. They brought cities, towns, castles, harbours, villages, cottages, manors, markets and new farming. They vastly boosted Irish overseas trade. They endowed Abbeys and increased exposure to European culture at a time when Europe was undergoing something of a renaissance in learning.
Did the Normans then interrupt and effectively thwart a nascent Irish state as nationalists argued? Can the Normans be held accountable for something that did not happen?
I am not sure that they can. There is really little evidence in Ireland of the centralising forces shaping their European neighbours.The incessant regnal wars in Ireland continued with little evolution toward a nation state that could ultimately resist the invasion of the Normans or the predations of the Tudors centuries later. This was in no small measure due to land tenure: in feudal Europe land tenure was contingent on loyalty and this acted as a serious incentive to fulfil obligations and duties and a disincentive to rebellion. Irish kings, whether at the local, provincial or national level, had little or no such leverage relying instead on Brehon laws and customs, enforced by hostage taking and raids. The higher up the chain of kingship one went, the weaker the obligations became. Another key weakness was inheritance: the failure of primogenitor to emerge as an accepted method for succession as it had done in Western Europe during the 12th century. Absent primogenitor, succession in Ireland was determined by force, a combination of personal and military power in virtual ceaseless competition within and between extended families. And so too consequently did the practice of sibling blindings and other mutilations to reduce the competition within families, not to mention the killing of hostages.
Instructively, Brian Ború may have defeated the Danes in 1014 but Dublin stayed a Viking settlement rather than become capital of a Gaelic Irish society. The Irish seemed as indifferent and diffident about cities in 1014 as they were in 1170 when Strongbow tenuously held Dublin. Again this points to a critical distinction between Ireland and her neighbours: the Romans never came to Ireland. Unlike her nearest neighbours England and France, for example, Ireland had no palimpsest of urbanity and Roman laws and organisation to force the pace of centralisation and state building.
Ború’s family had quickly disintegrated as a political force after his death at the scene of battle. In the one hundred and fifty five years between Clontarf and the arrival of the Normans, no subsequent contender for the High Kingship really came close to making that title meaningful. Had one done so he might have quickly repulsed the small band of Normans and eliminated the need for Henry to assert Angevin control over his Norman lords in Ireland.
Even here there is room for doubt: the High King Rory O’Connor mustered a large force outside Dublin which even if not the reputed 30,000, it would have vastly outnumbered the Normans. Yet it was put to flight by well timed sallies from three small companies of Normans and Rory slinked home westward to his Connaught fastness. As we have seen, when Henry II arrived in 1171, he was met with something like relief by the Irish who sensed an opportunity to put order on the ferocious and successful Norman adventurers that Dermot had invited into their midst.
It is still fascinating to conjecture what Ireland might have been like without the Normans and inclusion within the Angevin Empire. Orpen offered this as a neat summary of this counter-factual fancy, the better to dispose of it: “Had Ireland been allowed to go her way unheeded by Europe, she might in time, and after much suffering, have evolved a better ordered system with some hope of progress in it, and the world might have seen a Celtic civilisation where Celtic imagination and Celtic genius, free and unfettered, would assuredly have contributed something towards the solution of human problems, which, as it is, mankind has missed forever. But it was not to be.”